Long years ago, when I was active – some would have said hyperactive – in comics fandom, I proposed and was accepted to write an article on DC’s teenage superheroes, The Teen Titans, for Fantasy Advertiser, one of the two leading fanzines of the decade, one of the only two with a circulation in four figures.
The New Teen Titans under Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Romeo Tanghal, was at its peak then, four to five years into the run that, almost single-handedly, dragged DC Comics back from the abyss of the infamous Implosion. I’d been collecting the series from the outset and had plenty of theories about the reasons for its success, and Marv Wolfman’s ongoing manipulation of the central weakness that he had transformed into a strength. Ambitiously, or rather over-ambitiously, I set out to compare The New Teen Titans with the ‘Old’ Teen Titans.
I’ll let you into a secret: I had read maybe as much as fifty percent of the old Teen Titans but not for a few years, and I no longer owned any of the issues I used to have, which made the first half of the article into a gigantic case of bluff. But no-one seemed to notice, or if they did no-one called me out on it.
It’s time to put the record straight, and time to read a complete run of The Teen Titans in all its glory, providing you allow for a sufficiently elastic definition of the word ‘glory’. Just don’t go off checking your dictionary, please.
When the Teen Titans, consisting of Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl, first appeared in their own bi-monthly title, cover-dated January 1966, written by Bob Haney and drawn by Nick Cardy, they had had three spaced-out trials over the previous eighteen months, two in The Brave and The Bold and one in Showcase. They made their debut with a modest adventure story, showcasing their various powers, supporting the Peace Corps in an un-named South American town, where a projected dam would drown a pyramid that was being defended by a thirty foot robotic Conquistador and a Beast-God that appeared as Half Man, Half (no, not Biscuit) Animal.
It was pretty much your standard mid-Sixties adventure, a mild starter. Haney (aged 40) threw in only a few hip, teen comments. Cardy (aged 45) drew in an undistinguished, flat style that nevertheless contained hints at the linework of which he was capable. Both had been working for DC since the late Forties. Yet the proto-lettercol page, in answer to the unasked question, Why the Teen Titans, made it plain that the idea was to feature stories that had, or needed that ‘teen touch’. The teen audience was invited to make itself heard. There was the making of a potential disaster in there, and as we shall see, that was, in many ways, just what was going to follow.
Indeed, Haney didn’t need to even get in his stride. Issue 2 had the TT responding to the plight of a teenage girl whose boyfriend turned out to be a million year old caveman whilst issue 3 had the gang solving the nation’s number 1 teenage problem – High School drop-outs – by taking down dragster crook Ding Dong Daddy Dowd. Yes, you really don’t need more than the guy’s name, do you? And Haney’s hip teenspeak is gathering speed…
Right from the start, the readers had been clamouring for Speedy to get a berth with the Teen Titans, so much so that he was featured in issue 4, back-dated to 1964 and the Tokyo Olympics, you know, before the Titans even formed.
Beast Boy guested in issue 6, but couldn’t join the Teen Titans without permission from his evil Guardian, Galtry. The story was pretty silly, and the letters page was full of teenagers smarter than the writer and artist, pointing out goofs and booboos in earlier issues. But the biggest booboo of them all was about to happen the next issue as quality took a nose dive off a cliff and didn’t stop at the ground: enter the Mad Mod.
In Fantasy Advertiser I pretended, but this is the first time I have actually read the Mad Mod. He was a hip talking, cool-slang spouting English clothes designer and smuggler, using US teenage rock sensation and dreamboat Holley Hip to inadvertently carry things over borders for him. It was, predictably awful, and as authentic as a nine bob note. This meant that the next issue couldn’t be anything like as bad, though Haney’s dialogue certainly tried to be. We just got a couple of dull stories in fact.
The dialogue was getting breezier, and not in a good way, but so too was the story. Speedy’s second guest-staring role was in a fast paced story about criminals out to get a new chemical weapon, paired up with aquatic monsters. It was fast, inventive and altogether good, bright comics. But the next effort, about aliens trying to steal Earth monuments whilst threatening a space DJ called Dee Jay, was a real, serious clunker. Haney’s dialogue broke down completely, failing to make sense, the implausibility of superheroics went OTT and he couldn’t even get ordinary phrases right as Wonder Girl escaped being coerced into being the fourth wife of a racist stereotype Arab dealer, using the phrase, “Always the bride, never the bridesmaid”, which made no sense even if it was meant to be a deliberate reversal.
And they bounced back with the best issue to date. This was Haney’s hip take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, translating the characters into the world of Xmas 1967, the Titans answering a plea from wheelchair-bound Tiny Tom Ratchet, whose father is beholden to Mr Scrounge. You get the idea. But not only did Haney make a good, action-oriented story out of it, Nick Cardy suddenly cut loose.
It was the advent of the ‘big art’ era, but unlike Bob Brown on Challengers of the Unknown, Cardy had the chops to exploit it. Odd-angled panels, a looser style, a gift for caricature in the case of Scrounge, this was fun stuff, fluid and the style I remembered from those issues I used to read.
And the next one was another 14 carat clunker, almost as if it was deliberate.
Arriving from Charlton Comics, Dick Giordano took over as editor with issue 15 though there was no evidence of any change in the story. Things picked up considerably for ‘The Dimensional Caper’ next issue, a story I remember with considerable affection. It still has Haney’s ridiculous hip-speak, but it also had fast, flawless plotting, another Cardy special and when the story starts flipping the Titans and an entire High School back and forth between dimensions with hyperactive speed, the reader never gets confused as to where they are at any one moment.
Then there is no surprise to see that issue 17 was another one for the pits. Not only does it bring back the Mad Mod, but it’s set in Britain, recipes for disaster both. The only aspect of note is that the story features a Titans trio, with Robin locked in the Tower of London overnight, because of course nobody ever checks that all visitors are out of the place where they keep the Crown Jewels, leaving the other three to lead themselves on a historical tour.
Giordano’s first real editorial move was a complete change of creative staff. Fans turned writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman (whatever happened to them?) wrote a decent, serious script free from any hip-speak, about the Titans in Stockholm keeping a very skilful and well-ordered international jewel thief from stealing the Swedish Crown. The issue introduced the first Russian superhero, Starfire, complete with ideological differences to be shaken up by co-operation, and a very serious rant from Robin at the end that was full of teenage idealism of a kind Haney could never have conceived, let alone written. Art was from Bill Draut, normally a stalwart of the ‘mystery’ books but here doing a good, clean job.
On the other hand, issue 19 was by Mike Friedrich, Gil Kane and Wally Wood and featured Speedy once more. The art was good but the story a bit too lightweight, which could not be said for the next story, ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’.
This is a well-known, or perhaps rather notorious story. Originally the story was written by Wein and Wolfman again, and was intended to feature DC’s first black superhero. This was nixed by Infantino to avoid offending Southern distributors. Neal Adams intervened, redrawing a substantial part of the story over a weekend. The new hero, Joshua, became a white electrical engineer, fighting to save good kids from being exploited by a criminal gang, but to the best of my knowledge Adams kept as much of the original as he could, so it might be unfair to charge him with responsibility for the incongruous monster that erupts in the final pages, though he did get the Story and Art credits.
The final page set up some kind of ongoing storyline, with the revelation that the other-dimensional creeps of issue 16 were still out to invade Earth, and co-opting a couple of past one-off issues as early steps thwarted by our gang, which included Speedy at the expense of Aqualad this time, without any official notice or statement.
Adams saved the day, but Wein and Wolfman very quickly found themselves unwanted, and going over to Marvel. Neither would return until after Infantino was sacked as Publisher.
Some superb art decorated the next issue, which guest-starred Hawk and Dove, making a mini-crossover with their own series, developing the aliens theme further. Speedy was acknowledged as a Titans member, replacing Aqualad at least temporarily. The art was uncredited but my best guest is Cardy, inked by Adams. It continued into the next issue, but only took up just over half the pages. The rest were devoted to providing an origin for Wonder Girl, a very nice piece of work drawn elegantly by Gil Kane, with Cardy inks, written by Marv Wolfman on his way out.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Wonder Girl was a non-existent character who accidentally became real. Among Robert Kanigher’s less loopy ideas in Wonder Woman was the occasional story featuring WW herself plus Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. These were the Amazon Princess herself at younger points in her life. Then, forgetting she wasn’t actually a separate character, Kanigher used WG alongside WW plus Wonder Queen (i.e., Hyppolita). So the younger Amazon never had an origin.
The story Wolfman came up with was neatly simple. A young, completely undocumented baby was rescued by WW from a burning building in which everyone else was dead. The baby was taken to Paradise Island and raised by the Amazons, eventually having powers equal to Wonder Woman diverted to her by Paula von Gunther’s Purple Ray. But Donna Troy was an American woman, albeit one without a home, a background, an identity, especially as Paradise Island had left Earth at this point (Wonder Woman plot-point, associated with the loss of her powers under Mike Sekowsky, let’s hustle along here, people).
So Donna finally admits all this to the boys, in return for which she is set up with a civilian identity, a new wardrobe and a roomie who immediately has Speedy hitting on her. Which spurs Donna into making herself a brand new costume, the one we all know now, which is much more a woman’s costume than her tight shorts and flat girl’s top which was looking more than silly as Cardy kept increasing the size of this teenager’s breasts. And she brushed out her pony-tail.
A decade and a half later, in the New Teen Titans, Wolfman himself would fill out this story and add that missing background, to tremendous emotional effect, in what I personally regard as the best story he ever wrote. How much of it was in his head when he introduced the subject and how much was simply being an older, more experienced and subtle writer I would love to know.
Unfortunately, what followed wasn’t up to it. Kane and Cardy stayed another issue, with Haney back in the scripter’s chair but though he’d been mercifully restrained from (most of) the hip dialogue, his plots were once again nonsense: nicely rendered nonsense but still silly.
But Giordano had had enough and with issue 25 he radically changed the series, dropping the silly stories, and more than that. Cardy returned to full art duties and Kanigher wrote an inside out script that, in the cold hard light of 2021, is full of overblown portentousness and pretentious notions. It starts with the Titans watching an unsuccessful operation in a hospital and gloomily going on with guilt and their responsibility.
It then unreels to the fab foursome out for a groovy night out, meeting Lilith, who has paranormal powers that haven’t kept her from being a long-legged, micro-skirted, red-headed go-go dancer in a cage (mind you, Donna is never going to get prosecuted for overuse of skirt material so that’s alright). Lilith warns them in appropriately non-specific terms that the Titans are going to ‘open the doors of death’ that night.
With a sense of inevitability, the gang drop in on a Peace Rally featuring ‘modern Saint’ Dr Arthur Swenson. Also in attendance, but on opposite sides, are Hank and Don Hall. A riot starts. Robin nips off whilst everyone else piles in. The whole bang shoot of them grab the hand of a guy waving a gun, but it goes off and shoots Swenson in the head.
Once he dies in hospital, the Titans are understandably distraught at their responsibility for this, especially as first Swenson with his dying breath, then half the Justice League accuse them of irresponsibility and indiscipline. Off they wander through the foggy city, self-pitying like mad, until they reach the waterfront where Lilith rows up, trailing Mr Jupiter. He’s one more of those freestanding philanthropic millionaires, who’s into training teenagers to face the problems of the world to come.
And, with the exception of Robin, who’s going off to college in Batman, the Titans submit themselves to Mr J’s authority, go to live and train at his secret skyscraper facility, and give up their uniforms in favour of… unisex grey jumpsuits. Who said comics is a visual medium?
Quite apart from the way in which time has not treated this notion at all kindly, the whole set-up stinks of, well, set-up. The way in which the Titans blindly put themselves in the hands of this mystery character, giving up their identities (except Robin) and their powers, and locking themselves away in his citadel… You can only expect one outcome, can’t you?
But this was 1970, and all of this was genuine, an attempt by Dick Giordano to take a radical new approach, emphasising Donna, Roy, Wally, Hank and Don’s status as teenagers, trying to make sense out of America as it came out of the Sixties. You can and have to respect the impulse, though it’s something that was exactly of its time and if you weren’t there… As I wasn’t at this exact crucial time.
And at the same time you have to ask, if you are editing a superhero comic, and you take away the costumes and the superpowers, what exactly have you got left? For a start you’ve got well-meaning, and the Titans taking on a street gang. Six issues after Infantino nixed an entire Teen Titans story because it featured a black superhero, Kanigher could introduce Mal Duncan (guess writing seniority doesn’t hurt). Mal was black and, this being 1970, he was angry. He also sneaked off in the night to man a robotic space flight to Venus, practically committing suicide, but not until he’d been embraced by Lilith (white girl in arms of black man: this was really going to play with the distributors down South).
The flaw in the new direction was baldly exposed in issue 27 with a cover that had to bolster sales by placing four Teen Titans, including the now-absent Robin, in costume and prominent. Naturally it was about chasing Mal in the spare rocket which only happened to be big enough to seat six and split into enough parts for three separate missions: gee, I wonder why they didn’t use this clearly superior rocket for the first mission?
Sales figures must have been taking a hammering since the next couple of issues brought back not only Aqualad but also Robin. And Aqualad had plenty to say, and not kindly, about the Titans’ decision to quit, every word of which I had to endorse. He managed to get the other three to suit up, but not actually take any action, that is until the second part when Garth (if he had been named by then) was in serious trouble and vows had to be broken.
Actually, the story bottled out of its own logic by having Robin head off back to university to complete a term paper, and making most of it a Hawk and Dove story, fighting off would-be invading aliens from the Aquaman series. But it made no long-term difference as the other three stuck to their temporarily-forgotten-in-extreme-circumstances vow.
It’s actually fascinating, on a perhaps unworthy level, to watch Giordano trying to keep both the new theme and sales going. After a couple of uncredited scripts, Steve Skeates was unveiled as the writer of the first story in issue 30, featuring the Titans in their jumpsuits, except that now both Lilith and Donna were decked out in ultra-short minis and knee length boots: got to give the kids something to look at. The tightly zipped up one-size-too-small tops didn’t hinder this.
And to keep a couple of costumes out there, the back-up story featured Aqualad and brought in his main squeeze, Tula, aka Aquagirl, with her weird ocean-resistant hairdo.
There’s no doubt about it, the Mr Jupiter thing is falling to pieces. The man himself hasn’t been seen in several issue. The Titans turned up on campus, half in and half out of costume, where a truly insane administrator was brainwashing the kids into being docile rather than let them think for themselves and cause unrest: sheesh, was it really that bad or were some people paranoid? The issue had a dubious exchange between Mal and Speedy, with the black kid asking Whitey if he can’t punch order and the white kid suggesting that in questioning him, Mal didn’t know his place. I’m sure it was intended as a joke, I mean Skeates was a young writer, down with the kids, but it sure didn’t come over as funny.
And that was it for Giordano, unable to see eye to eye with Infantino, chucking it all in and going back to drawing. Everybody’s favourite friend-of-the-reader Murray Boltinoff took over, starting with a time travel two-parter which saw the Titans emulate Metamorpho and bring back a caveboy to join the team and hook up with the bosomy Lilith (she’s got red hair: wouldn’t you?) Skeates was off the book, of course, and who else but Bob Haney was back. As was Robin, yanked back into the middle of the story to educate Gnaark into being a 20th century boy.
The old superhero ideas were back, but I’m missing something here. I have very definite memories of a story beginning with Lilith grooving to a Doors song before Mr Jupiter turns up to chuck the LP into a wastebin and conduct a very angry exchange with her, all of which turned into some muddled affair in which she had suddenly mindread psychological weaknesses in at least two of her team-mates, including at least one death-wish, setting up tests to blunt these. But it had to have been a Giordano-era tale, and now Boltinoff had taken over, the Titans were going to go off in a new direction and deal with ghoulies and ghosties. Not to mention incomprehensible and turgid plots. But I can still see that splash page so vividly.
The spooky stuff was not one of Boltinoff’s better ideas (actually, given how many comics I’ve read by now, I don’t recall any better ones and would be obliged to anyone who can correct me on that point).
This phase overlapped the 48 page era which saw some Superboy repeats filling up the pages. I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning these but for the absolutely shitty editing job done on issue 37, where Superboy meets a young Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, and somehow or other Boltinoff let the colourist give the boy bowman a red and yellow costume, Speedy’s colours, even where the text describes him as green-clad.
That story that started over the Doors record was not an hallucination though I started to wonder when it turned up in issue 38. Written by Haney? Commissioned by Boltinoff? There could be only one outcome: it was dumb shit. By the way, I was wrong about the death-wish, though it would have been a damn-sight more interesting a theme.
I was also wrong about expecting Mr Jupiter to be ditched when Giordano left. Instead, he’s still there, his money at the back of everything, his interests setting up stories. But these stories were getting worse all the time, reaching a nadir with the one in issue 41 that set out to stir up an anti-slavery tale by going back to pre-Civil War times with ghosts.
There had to be an end, and there was. After 43 bi-monthly issues, few of which were good enough, Teen Titans was cancelled for the first time, still tangling with witchcraft and its ilk. And not too soon either, as Haney’s story were spiralling further and further away from any sense, as if he couldn’t be bothered doing a tolerable job any more.
Interestingly, though there was no indication in the issue that it was going to be the last, it was a handy coincidence that the asinine, meandering back-up in which mystery-ESPer Lilith rides into town on a motorcycle on which she looks as natural as a performing dog, spots someone vaguely resembling her with some mental powers and immediately fixates on them as her ‘real’ mother was billed as the last episode. Needless to say, it was a big fucking cheat because yet again her fantasy relative turned out to not share a single strand of DNA but just like that the obsession blows up because, hey, she’s got a family and it’s the Titans (where’s that sick-bucket?) The adoptive parents who raised her from a baby don’t even get a mention.
Christ, this stuff can be real crap, sometimes.
The series was gone for nearly four years, being brought back to continue its original numbering in late 1976, for a further run of ten issues, on a not-quite bi-monthly basis (monthly except for five months, sheesh), now written by Bob Rozakis and drawn, initially, by Irv Novick. The ground had been prepared by a couple of reprints, testing the market and the response was favourable enough to bring the series back. An uncredited editor job by Paul Levitz, Bob Rozakis and Pablo Marcos brought back the core four, called back into a trap by Dr Light and transformed Mal into an updated version of The Guardian. It was overwrought, full of quarrels and simplistically moralistic about teamwork: in short, it was a typical mid-to-late Seventies shitty comic book put out by DC. I got back into comics after my brief hiatus at the start of the decade, but the more of these that I re-read, the harder it is to understand how I was still into them at the end of that time.
Though Julius Schwartz took over as editor next issue, with Bob Rozakis and Irv Novick as the creative team, things only got worse. The squabbling team bit is so tiresome and artificial now, whilst the plotting was unnecessarily complex. Story trails were being laid all over. Aqualad was back, Mal was already gearing up to change his powers and monicker and his newly-appearing girlfriend Karen got one panel to foreshadow her plans. Crap stuff.
Would you believe it got worse? Convoluted plots, the introduction of the awkwardly named Joker’s Daughter, the ongoing search for a new Titans headquarters. Novick had enough and was replaced by Bob Brown on issue 47, though that made no practical difference.
As with Freedom Fighters, the obvious sign of a struggling series is artistic musical chairs. Jose Delbo, a particularly bland artist, drew issue 48. Joker’s daughter gets called The Harlequin on the cover and Jokesy throughout, until the last page, Speedy assumes he’s the only one bright enough to tell she’s really a villain putting them on, whilst Mal’s loving and supportive girlfriend Karen shows up as The Bumblebee (oh really, yes, how bloody stupid) to help him deal with his issues about being a Teen Titan by attacking and defeating him and them. It’s hard to believe, after all those Silver Age series with their tight plots and smart stories that Julius Schwartz is editing this.
Some vestige of invention occurred in the three-parter starting in the landfill.. sorry, landmark issue 50, drawn by Don Heck, the fifth penciller in seven issues. This pre-dated Marvel’s West Coast Avengers by several years by introducing Teen Titans West, who could also have been termed The Rejects List, consisting as it did of Hawk and Dove, Lilith, Beast Boy and, for good measure, Bat-Girl (the original one) and Golden Eagle ( the who? One).
But the distance between conception and execution was more than any Olympic long-jumper could bridge, especially with a midway switch round of editors, with Jack C Harris, a notorious blandatron, replacing Julie Schwartz.
Which left only issue 53, with the never-before revealed secret origin of the Teen Titans, and one final penciller, Juan Ortiz, making six artists in the whole run. How anyone expected this turkey to gobble is a real mystery, but the run should stand as some sort of testament to how awful a Seventies comics series could be and still get published. Was this part of the run worse than Freedom Fighters? The two are too close to judge.
Overall, in either of its two existences, or any of the phases of that first run, there’s little to commend Teen Titans for. Marv Wolfman was certainly not overreacting in his dread at being asked to revive the series again, in 1980. He regarded the concept as inherently weak because the characters were sidekicks, automatically inferior. Sometimes that can work well: a hero who’s learning on the job, who’s liable to make mistakes, widens the range of stories available and heightens the tension. But the time when the Old Teen Titans were most likely to exploit such possibilities were dispersed by the calamitous efforts of Bob Haney to be hip, and swinging, and no doubt gear as well, but mostly as limp as a stick of rhubarb in the hands of Geoff Boycott’s Granny.
It’s just as well that I didn’t have this depth of knowledge in the Eighties: my Fantasy Advertiser article would have been far too long to publish if I’d actually known what I was talking about.