One of the things I have always loved about Marv Wolfman as a comic writer, especially his Titans work, is that he had a knack for bringing the book back to the “street level” after a huge “event” storyline. After the team’s first visit to Starfire’s homeworld (a “Titans in space” story that even after all these years I’m lukewarm to and probably should reread), they were involved in one of my favorite two-issue stories, “Runaways” where they dealt with the mafia, drug runners, and runaway teenagers. After the Trigon storyline they had an opportunity to go camping. After the Titans Hunt, they were in disarray but spent time (too much time, to be honest) licking their wounds before Total Chaos ramped up.
After Total Chaos, they sold out.
You see, having defeated Lord Chaos at New Olympus and then summarily dumped back on what used to be known as “Titans Island” in the East River, the Titans still had to contend with the reality of their situation. The people of New York City wanted them gone, they were being sued left and right, Baby Wildebeest seemed to want to do nothing but destroy walls in Steve Dayton’s mansion, Deathstroke was dead (more on him later), and the Teamers were now on our Earth in our time with no purpose.
[Aside #1: I realize this would have just completely erased the whole Team Titans series, but wouldn’t it be cool if one day, someone did a time travel storyline wherein the person goes back in time, kills whomever they’re trying to kill, and then disappears like Marty McFly almost did at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance?]
The Team decides to take off for Hollywood in order to forget their troubles, and we get a double-sized book called “The Titans Sell-Out Special,” a non-action, all comedy book wherein the heroes wind up selling their likeness rights to a toy company and a cartoon producer and the “Tiny Titans” cartoon is created. Yeah, I might have to break this down for you if you were like, uh, “WTF?” because this story probably qualifies for an entry on someone’s “comic book oddities” blog or one of those books that would get skewered on “Back to the Bins” (if it didn’t you kicked off just for bringing it).
Anyway, after trying to clean up the mess that is Titans Island, getting served with papers, and finding Deathstroke’s body–which is
taken by the weird guy with a scar and a skull ring that’s been hanging around in that book since issue 5 or so–they go to California. We get some pretty sweet Adam Hughes-drawn artwork via Changeling “narrating” a photo album that includes Baby Wildebeest destroying a sidewalk, Redwing making funny faces in a photo booth, and Starfire in a bikini and then the team meets with a fast-talking producer named B.J. (yeah, I know) and he gets them to agree to sign off on a cartoon, which becomes “The Teeny Titans,” kind of a cross between Muppet Babies and A Pup Named Scooby Doo.
[Aside #2: A Pup Named Scooby Doo is one of the most underrated Saturday morning cartoons. It was a great sendup of the old Scooby cartoon and I always laughed at the “Red Herring” bit.]
They watch the pilot episode and Pantha freaks because she’s been turned into a cute character named “Kitty Litter” and she attacks the producers who swear that they won’t air the cartoon. Of course, he’s lying and as the Titans return to New York the cartoon goes to air and in New Titans #93, it’s not only a show but a comic book (which Baby Wildebeest absolutely loves). That particular issue features little more than the Titans adjusting to their lives, the Team Titans leaving to figure out where other teams from the future may be (and into their own book–which I’ll get to in a moment), and more drama involving the team’s PR issues. Wolfman sets up a couple of stories here as well, because Red Star gets a letter from Russia concerning Cyborg, which will play out starting next issue, and a mysterious figure attacks Phantasm in Azareth … and we’ll get to that soon, trust me.
But the most notable thing about this issue is that there is major fallout from Mirage’s time posing as Starfire. You see, she didn’t just set out to infiltrate the Titans and seduce Nightwing; she wanted to ruin Kory and to do that, she posed, as Kory, for EXXXpose, an apparently very hardcore porno mag (it is, according to its cover, “Entertainment for leering adolescents and middle-aged men”). And in the middle of the issue we have the cover shot of “Kory” in the shower and a two-page spread of Kory naked on a weight bench. Both are drawn by Adam Hughes, whose style lends itself well to the classic “pinup girl” type of illustration.
I remember distinctly when I picked up this issue at Amazing Comics. The bottom of the cover had part of the EXXXpose cover and I was a little embarrassed to say anything as I got it out of my bag. Bob cut through any awkwardness with the crack, “My girlfriend sure doesn’t look like that,” and I took it home. Now, I didn’t own any pornography at the time (the closest thing I had were three years’ worth of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues) and I really didn’t (and still don’t) drool over “sexy” superhero drawings (in fact, lately I find myself wondering how some female superheroes fight crime in skimpy outfits without chafing or getting wedgies) but considering my mom showed consternation over a Jim Balent-drawn Catwoman on the cover of Wizard, I was a little embarrassed to have it in the house and I remember dumping it in my comic collection so that it wouldn’t be easily found.
The nude pinups aren’t anything surprising for the Titans or for that era of comics. Back then, Marvel used to put out magazine sized swimsuit specials (aka, “How many times can we show She-Hulk in pasties and a thong? Let’s see …”) and Jim Lee’s Homage Studios would do the same for Image Comics. It was the height of the big guns/big tits comic boom and I am sure that the fact that Starfire–a character whose alien people were known for their outward display of sexuality, by the way–was posing nude for something made sense.
But honestly, I blew through the issue and skipped over the Teeny Titans stuff because it was forgettable. I guess that the whole storyline was supposed to be a bit satirical and considering how out of control merchandising and “making a buck off of an image” gets in our culture and if you really look at it, it kind of works, but honestly I would have done with even a Dr. Light attack or something and the only thing that I find notable about the entire thing (aside from Kory’s boobs) is that the Teeny Titans stuff was drawn by John Costanza who is one of the most well-known letterers in the comic biz.
[Aside #3: Man, is that a dead profession. I’m sure that most comics are lettered by computers now but John Costanza DEFINED DC’s typeface for my entire collecting youth. It was kind of cool to see him draw something too … and he’s not a bad cartoonist. I just didn’t like the story very much.]
But I was getting enough action in Deathstroke. When the mystery man took Slade’s body away at the beginning of the Sell-Out Special, he took him to a secret Arctic lair that was headed by Cheshire, who is one of the world’s deadliest assassins and a longtime Titans villain. She was behind just about everything that he had been framed for since the beginning of his series, as an effort to gain political and monetary power using Deathstroke and the nation of Quarac as her pawn. She brings him back to life and then makes him work for her. We’re unsure of what she wants at first, only that she is working with Mammoth and Shimmer, two Titans villains and appears to be working with Roy Harper, aka Speedy (he’s also the father of her daughter, Lian). But Speedy is working deep undercover for an agency known as Checkmate and there is a lot of double-crossing that will go on during the four issues I’m talking about here.
Basically, she spends the first issue reviving Slade, the second issue telling him about the conspiracy that she’d put together so she can convince him to work for her, and in the third they steal a nuclear missile from Russia and she uses it to blow up Quarac. Wilson and Harper finally get even in the last issue, dismantling Cheshire’s organization and possibly killing her (the classic: the plane may have gone down but we never saw the plane go down thing). The storyline ends with Deathstroke telling the U.S. government to fuck off and walking away.
Meanwhile, this entire time, Major Wintergreen has been arrested and placed in jail and we see the old British soldier survive pretty well in a prison movie. He wins the respect of his fellow prisoners and you know that the next storyline will eventually result in his either being freed from prison and reunited with Deathstroke or being broken out of prison by Deathstroke (I’m not going to give it away because I’m trying to keep you in suspense … and I honestly can’t remember what happened).
As I’ve said before, I can tell that Wolfman had a lot of fun writing Deathstroke and if he was burning out on the Titans at least he had this book. These first twenty issues–only four of which were ever collected in trade–were very tightly written (in fact, I’d say that the Total Chaos crossover issues were the weakest) and had the kind of straightforward action-oriented artwork that was growing increasingly rare in a time when everyone was imitating Todd McFarlane. I was getting the book via subscription so I got these issues a few weeks behind the time they hit the stands and kind of passively read them, so I’m really glad I’ve taken the opportunity to go back through them for this blog.
[Aside #4: At some point, I should mention both New Titans Annual #8 and Deathstroke: The Terminator Annual #1. These were crossovers in the Eclipso: The Darkness Within event, a story where Eclipso, the god of darkness, possessed the heroes of the DCU by getting them angry. It’s actually a really good story with pretty bad art. The Titans/Deathstroke annuals were rather forgettable and pretty confusing. Everyone seemed to be possessed by the story’s end, Nightwing’s costume switched from old to new depending on who the artist was, and Phil Jimenez pencilled some of it, whch was cool. Annuals are rarely worth reading except for a select few.]
Now, in Team Titans, which goes concurrent with the Sell-Out Special and then spins out of New Titans #93, the post-Total Chaos stories begin in issue #4 with the introduction of two completely new Titans teams. The first is Judge and Jury, a brutal group that is set up to be traitorous and a “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” type of group. The other is Metallik, five girls who play in a grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl rock group and can each get into metal suits and then combine to form a giant Voltron-like robot. Judge and Jury had decided that they were going to hunt down and kill all of the other teams and they went after both Metallik and Batallion, who had been separated from the main Teamers.
When the Teamers showed up again in issue #5, they were moving onto a farm in New Jersey with Donna Troy, Terry Long, and their newborn, Robert. Donna had declared the farm to be a “powers-free zone” and of course the farm got attacked by Judge and Jury about an hour later and then find themselves forced to rebuild (thankfully, she’s more or less independently wealthy from all of that Amazon money). We also get some background on Batallion and see that he used to be a concert pianist with special powers (what those powers are, I don’t understand) whose family was once killed by Lord Chaos because he dared play a piano concert when he wasn’t supposed to. It’s very “Days of Future Past” in a way.
This helped me warm to Batallion a little bit, although I still don’t really like the character very much. Metallik came off, to me, as if Dazzler had cloned herself and joined the Power Rangers with a 1990s teen attitude (or whatever people thought “teen attitude” was in the 1990s, which basically was multi-colored hair and bad hair metal clothes). Judge and Jury, however, I thought were pretty decent and I would have liked to see them as an adversary for the team. And the issues provided plenty of action while establishing character, something I appreciated while the main Titans title was going all drama/comedy/porn.
Ironically, however, it’s a non-action issue of Team Titans that I love the most from this set of comics. The cover, where Terra II is standing at the grave of Terra I as drawn by Phil Jimenez, is one of my all-time favorite covers and while the story is a little trite it works pretty well.
[Final Aside: I won’t go into the whole Judas Contract storyline, but basically, Terra was a character back in 1983 who joined the team only to prove to be a spy for Deathstroke. Terra II spent quite a bit of time trying to both live this down and figure out who she was.]
The story is called “It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life.” It’s a typical “Well, we’ve finally gotten the chance to settle down after seeing all of this action” story and it features each member of the Team Titans seeking out themselves in 1992 around the Christmas holiday. The idea here, of course, is that since there is no way for them to get back to their future, they might as well visit their pasts. Of course, not is all it seems to be and the Teamers discover that they really aren’t from an alternate future but probably from an alternate earth altogether.
Now, this kinda makes no sense because: a) we first met them in Armageddon 2001 and we knew that they were a possible future from our earth, so they should know who they are and their supposed younger selves should be the same people; and b) the writer of this comic destroyed all of the alternate earths in Crisis. I’d be more critical, but there’s actually a good explanation for all of it. Unfortunately that explanation can’t come until issue #20 because that’s when a lot of things come together. So let’s just say that there is someone manipulating this entire team from behind the scenes and we’ll get back to the characters.
During this book’s run (and afterwards), the most interesting characters were Terra and Mirage. They tried pretty hard with both Battalion and Kilowatt but I didn’t really care about them. Why Terra was so interesting was obvious but this issue makes Mirage more than a horny teenage girl who seduced the past version of her lover. It seems that in the past, she killed her own father after he did something pretty horrible, which is what she tells Phantasm, who is playing the “guardian angel” role here. He even disguises himself as a groundskeeper at Terra’s grave when the new Terra comes to visit in the scene depicted on the cover. She wonders aloud about who she is and says that she even hates the original Terra because she was originally someone else who was “transformed” into a duplicate of the other.
The story kind of has a pat ending. Everyone gets together for a Christmas party at Donna Troy’s and there’s some talk about how they’re all their own family now because they don’t have families of their own. They’re an orphan superhero group! Or something, anyway.
I figure I liked that issue so much at the time because the cover was awesome, even if the interior was not the best, and it didn’t compare to what else was out that month: the “Funeral for a Friend” story that followed the Death of Superman (whose TPB, btw, came out this month — that has to be the shortest turnaround for a trade ever), a really sweet Cyborg story in New Titans (which I’ll cover next month), the prelude to Knightfall in Batman and Detective Comics, and Robin III: Cry of the Huntress. So I can see why this was being outsold all over the place and why the title would have problems gaining traction, even if the first couple of issues sold pretty well.
But I still feel that this is worth it, especially as the next few stories set up Team Titans as the book to follow while the New Titans went in a very weird direction and Deathstroke simply went around the world.
Next Up: Trying to solve the Cyborg problem.