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The Teen Titans published by DC Comics

The New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract 1988 (SC TPB) 190 pages.

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract - cover by George PerezWritten by Marv Wolfman (co-plotter George Perez). Art by George Perez. Inks by Romeo Tanghal, Mike DeCarlo, Dick Giordano, George Perez.
Colours: Adrienne Roy. Letters: various. Editors: Wolfman and Perez.

Reprinting: The New Teen Titans (1st series) #39-40, Tales of the Teen Titans (2nd series) #41-44, Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This collects two storylines, as well as chronicles Dick Grayson's relinquishing of the mantle of Robin to adopt the new costumed identity of Nightwing. It also introduced Jericho to the team. The first story (#39-41) has the Titans going up against villainous religious messiah, Brother Blood, unaware that one of their number, Terra, is conspiring with villains Deathstroke the Terminator and the H.I.V.E. The last four issues comprise the "Judas Contract" saga as the villainy of Terra and Deathstroke is manifested.

For a long time this was the only New Teen Titans TPB collection available (other than an expensive hardcover "archive" collection), and is probably a decent representation of the team that was a major hit for DC in the 1980s. Recently, they've released another, The Terror of Trigon.

I say that with mixed sentiments. I was never quite as big on the New T.T.s as everyone else was...or as I wanted to be. I liked aspects of the series, but more often than not, the individual issues never quite grabbed me (with one or two notable exceptions). One weakness was that the original Teen Titans sprang from the whole generation gap of the '60s, but these Titans often only seemed teens in that they didn't have lines on their faces.

The sex aspect was a little odd, too. There's the long held idea that comics are into depicting big-breasted, scantily clad ladies (and I ain't got nothing against that) -- but at the time, that was more myth than reality. Yet Starfire unabashedly epitomized that concept (even given such nicknames as Balloon Bod) yet she was only supposed to be seventeen or so. In other words, the most sexually exploited of comic heroines, was also one of the youngest! While in this storyline we have the 16 year old Terra having an affair with the middle-aged Deathstroke. Throw in 19 year old Wonder Girl engaged to the 29 year old Terry Long and the Changeling's never ending barrage of (unwanted) sexual come-ons (which seem less funny -- if they ever did -- in this age of awarreness over sexual harassment) combined with the realization that Wolfman and Perez weren't exactly writing about their generational peers, and you have a series that can be a bit...uncomfortable at times. Conversely, the claim was (whether true or not, I don't know) that the New Teen Titans were popular with female readers, so maybe I'm analysing it too seriously.

2003 re-issue cover - by Perez (from TTT Annual #3)Anyway, I went into these issues with high expectations. After all, they came on the heels of "Who is Donna Troy?" (The New Teen Titans #38), a critically acclaimed issue that even I regard as one of the greatest comic stories ever produced.

But the saga, over all, is uneven.

This was at a tumultuous time, behind-the-scenes. Wolfman and Perez had taken over the editing chores, supposedly heralding a greater collaboration between the two, at the same time preparing a second Titans comic, The New Teen Titans (2nd series) -- which is why this magazine's title changes in mid-story from The New Teen Titans to Tales of the Teen Titans. Tales would eventually be turned over to reprinting stories from the new, The New Teen Titans comic. The idea of publishing one expensive Titans title, then reprinting the story a year later in the standard, cheaper format, wasn't such an especially odd idea -- fans who liked the expensive paper and crisper colour could lay out the extra moola, fans who didn't could wait (nowadays, comic fans have no choice but to buy the expensive formats). Except...the editorials heralding the new title didn't explain the end intention. One wonders how many Titans fans were suckered into subscribing to both titles, desperate not to miss an adventure of their heroes, only to find the comic arriving at their door was just a reprint of a story they already had? Anyhoo...

The point is, Wolfman and Perez may have been stretching themselves pretty thin.

There are aspects of the Brother Blood story that don't make sense, as if Wolfman and Perez got confused between issues, or changed their minds. One issue ends promising next issue will reveal the origin of the enigmatic Brother Blood...and then the next issue has nary a hint of that promised revelation! As well, the story is awfully derivative of Blood's first appearance (and this was only, I believe, his second appearance) and ends inconclusively.

But Blood's just an opening act, after all, for "The Judas Contract". Billed originally as a "novel in four parts", the Judas Contract (great title, by the way) is a decent thriller. But it too promises a lot...while delivering only some of that. For one thing, it's a little like a climax without a beginning, not a "novel" at all. Even before the Brother Blood story the reader was acquainted with Terra's duplicity, meaning there are no shocking revelations, no "who is the traitor?" mystery sub-plots in these pages. The story unfolds rather predictably...and simplistically. The main intriguing plot element is the mysterious woman and her son who are shadowing Deathstroke. But most of the saga lacks twists or plot complications.

Which leaves characterization as the chief dramatic focus. But Terra is just a lunatic. Wolfman & Perez may've thought that a clever twist, as characters continually ask "why betray the Titans?" and the answer being "why not?", but it's dramatically weak. And Changeling's relationship with her is sketchily developed (at least in the issues reprinted here) given his reaction when he learns she betrayed them.

Some of the stuff with Deathstroke works better, but also suffers from frustrating vagueness. An entire chapter is devoted to detailing the origin of this, one of the oldest of the Titans' adversaries, but much of it is hardly earth-shatteringly significant, while the significant bits, like how he got his powers or why did an, ostensibly, law-abiding (albeit, career) soldier choose to become a hitman, is vague.

That's kind of a problem with Wolfman and Perez. On one hand, I love the density of the material -- lots of little panels, crammed with dialogue. But in these issues, at least, they don't really offer more for all the detail.

Wolfman is a veteran writer, so you know there's going to be a baseline of capability at work here -- though, as noted, there are weaknesses in plot and character development. Perez is, of course, an artist long appreciated for his detailed, realist style, and I hardly need add any praise here. Except to note that Perez is one of the few artists to make a real effort to individualize his characters, giving each face its own look -- Starfire isn't just Wonder Girl with golden skin, Changeling isn't just a green Dick Grayson. The opening chapter to the Judas Contract story is particularly well-laid out, with Perez milking a lot of mood from his panels as we follow the Titans in their day-to-day lives, the heroes unaware they're being filmed by Terra for Deathstroke.

One of the strengths to the saga is the emphasis on Dick Grayson. Though he was the least flashy of the group, lacking powers, he was often the most interesting, the one the reader could empathize with the most. Grayson takes centre stage for much of the Judas Contract part of the story (since the rest of the team is captured early)...though even here the character/plotting stuff is a bit abrupt. He doffs his Robin costume in #39, wanders about for the next few issues without a secret I.d., then abruptly throws on his Nightwing regalia. I don't know what I expected, but I thought there'd be more build up, more of a laying of the groundwork.

The New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is a decent read, with a especially strong climax (Tales of The Teen Titans Annual #3 is worth picking up, even if you can't collect the whole saga) and some semi-pivotal events (like Robin becoming Nightwing), but it falls short of greatness.

This is a review of the story serialized in Teen Titans comics

Original cover price: $19.95 CDN./$14.95 USA.
2003 reissue price: $__ CDN./ $19.95 USA.

The New Teen Titans: The Terror of Trigon  2003 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover apparently by Phil Jimenez - meant to evoke the cover of the very first New Teen Titans comicWritten by Marv Wolfmam (plot Wolfman and Perez). Pencils George Perez. Inks by George Perez, Romeo Tanghal.
Colours: Adrienne Roy. Letters: various.

Reprinting: The New Teen Titans (2nd series) #1-5 (1984) -- which were also reprinted in Tales of the Teen Titans #60-64

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Additional notes: character profiles.

I've often remarked that pondering why certain comics were re-released in a collected edition can be as interesting as the comics themselves. In the case of The Terror of Trigon, DC has released a collection of a storyline of the New Teen Titans years after that series has been cancelled (though the Titans in various forms and under various titles still crop up, though never having reclaimed the marketplace supremacy they enjoyed in the early-to-mid 1980s). Granted, at the time this TPB was released, I believe an animated cartoon was in the works, so DC was maybe looking for anything Titan related to put on the shelves. But as such it's a story that, though perhaps significant to the characters at the time, has little resonance for a modern reader and, to my knowledge, wasn't especially well remembered anyway.

As I've mentioned before, I wasn't a big fan of the New Teen Titans, despite their being a huge success for DC Comics in the 1980s. So why do I continue to pick up the odd issue in back issue bins? 'Cause I want to like them. I like Perez's art and the cool costumes and powers, I liked the idea of the soap opera-y character stuff. And I did like some of the stories...but a lot left me underwhelmed.

This storyline has Raven, the enigmatic, magical one of the team, whose father is the evil otherworldly demon, Trigon, finally succumbing to her father's sinister influence. Together she and her pop destroy Azareth -- the holy city where Raven was raised and instilled with goodness -- and transform earth into a barren wasteland like something out of a surrealist painting. It falls to the Teen Titans, along with irregular members Kid Flash and the telepath Lilith, to try and stop them.

This story kicked off a second on going New Teen Titans comics that was part of a sold-only-to-comics-shop experiment by the same creative team that made the first series such a hit (the original New Teen Titans magazine had a name change to Tales of the Teen Titans). The new series was published on crisper, more expensive paper, with bolder colours and better able to show of Perez' intricate pencils -- though the contents would subsequently be reprinted in Tales of the Teen Titans. Another point of the direct-sales market was maybe to flirt with slightly more mature subject matter -- the story here having a panel showing the unmarried Nightwing and Starfire in bed together. It's not explicit, and even at the time pre-marital sex was alluded to in mainstream comics -- but it was usually a little more coy.

Interestingly, the early issues of the first New Teen Titans series also featured a story arc (primarily running from #3 to #6, I believe) involving Trigon, which will no doubt lead some readers to assume this is a collection of the original story. It isn't.

The early part of the saga works well involving ominously apocalyptic storm clouds covering the entire earth, and Raven disappearing, leading to the other Titans attempting a kind of seance to contact her. It's a fairly moody, portentous sequence. It does, however, feel a bit like we're coming in in the middle, as the characters remark how Raven has been acting odder lately -- hence my point about the awkwardness of releasing this, out of context, almost twenty years since the comics were first published.

Overall, I found The Terror of Trigon just didn't quite grip me. Part of the problem with that is that it's an apocalyptic tale with Trigon enslaving the world...but most of the action takes place within a few blocks. It's a BIG concept, that feels kind of small. I mentioned in my review of the classic Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus that that managed to be a story of cosmic grandeur while barely leaving a New York city block. So it certainly can be done...but I just didn't think it worked here. Although I suspect Wolfman and Perez were thinking of that earlier story, in that both begin with ominous signs in the sky, and involve a gigantic figure atop a skyscraper threatening to destroy earth. Indeed, one can wonder about the influences on the story -- and later stories it might've influenced. Certainly one can see in it an echo of the X-Men's classic Dark Phoenix Saga (the New Teen Titans having been DC's answer to Marvel's mega-successful mutants) with its tale of a team member succumbing to evil -- it's just not anywhere on the same level as the Dark Phoenix Saga! But we can also see in it a dry run for Wolfman and Perez's Crisis on Infinite Earths epic that they were no doubt already prepping (with an otherworldly being bringing about an apocalypse, and with Trigon's pterodactyl-like demons in the sky evoking the Anti-Monitor's shadow demons) as well as perhaps having influenced the later X-Men saga, Inferno.

The problem I've sometimes found with Wolfman and Perez's work on group stories (whether it be the Teen Titans, or their epic collaboration of Crisis on Infinite Earths) is that they have trouble crafting a story that exploits a group of characters. That is, a story with sufficient plot threads that each character can have a reason for being in the story. Instead, we get a lot of mass scenes, where everyone's crammed into it, jostling for a line, or a close up. But the story itself lacks complexity. Trigon attacks the Titans psychologically, confronting each with a dream sequence where they are taunted with their various insecurities and neuroses by evil dopplegangers of themselves. But, by virtue of it being about a group of characters, the sequence gets repetitive very quickly, as we cut from Nightwing, to Starfire, to Wonder Girl, etc. -- then back again, over a couple of issues. And since these characters have been around for some 50 issues, it's not like we can be surprised by an unexpected character revelation. And the scenarios are so obviously contrived (they are, after all, battling surreal versions of themselves) it seems hard to credit they'd be taking in by it (surely it would've been better to have put them in scenarios we could believe they would believe were really happening). Stories where a hero is forced to confront his inner fears can be effective and even powerful (a few Batman vs. Scarecrow stories come to mind) but they work best if we really feel we're gaining some new insight, if we really believe the character would respond the way the writer has them responding...and, above all, if it's kept tight.

Anyway, the Titans prove fairly ineffectual, standing on the sidelines as events transpire without their input. Which relates to my complaint about lack of plot threads. The story doesn't require Nightwing (the former Robin, in case you didn't know) to plan some clever strategy, or conceive some daring course of action...because the Titans are more sideplayers in the end -- which also anticipates the Crisis on Infinite Earths, where the nominal heroes were simply pawns manipulated by others. The story here also relies on a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo by the end that can smack a bit of being a Deus ex machina.

The art by George Perez is, of course, good, though when it comes to his storytelling sense, and not just his eye for anatomy and architecture, he can fluctuate. Some of the scenes, particularly in the second chapter, are exceptionally well told, as Perez uses a cinematographer's eye for creating mood and blocking out a scene. But later sequences can be more workmanlike, where the action is conveyed with clarity...but you don't necessarily find the scenes being enhanced by the panels.

Interestingly, although this was the start of a whole new series (sort of) and in editorials in the original comics Wolfman writes about the plans he and Perez have for future storylines...Perez actually left the series at the end of this storyline. Go figure.

I realize Wolfman and Perez no doubt saw this as a defining saga in the Titans' lives -- the team having first fought Trigon back in the early days of the first New Teen Titans series. It brings to a head long simmering threads involving Raven, even concluding definitively, saying Trigon is now well and truly dead (though I suspect he came back). Basically it was a grand way to kick off a new Titans comic. But it does feel as though they put their idea, their theme, ahead of a plot. And maybe that's at the heart of my ambivalence -- whether true or not, it feels a bit like Wolfman and Perez are just going through the motions. It's big, it's apocalyptic, it's full of angst and teeth gnashing and ponderous self-important dialogue that's supposed to seem profound...and it feels all a little hollow. As mentioned, it's just kind of bland, frankly, with a thin story in terms of what actually happens. Feeling woefully stretched at five issues, I frequently found myself a bit bored.

I believe there are only a couple of TPBs collecting stories from Wolfman-Perez' Teen Titans (other than expensive Archive volumes) and, I'll admit, neither of them quite strike me as the series at its best (recognizing, as I've mentioned, that I'm not necessarily a true fan). Frankly, I can't help thinking maybe the first half dozen issues of the original series (which also climaxed with a battle with Trigon...but had a lot else going on, too) would make a better collection, or maybe the original conflict between Starfire and her sister (which climaxed in the first annual) -- but, hey, what do I know?

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in The New Teen Titans comics.

Cover price: $__ USA.

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