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Teen Titans: A Kids' Game

Last week, I did a review of a Marvel book about a team of teenage superheroes, so in an effort to be fair and balanced, I’m reviewing a DC book about a team of teenage superheroes. I’m such an evenhanded reviewer.

Teen Titans has had a long history of running and then stopping and I believe this is the fourth incarnation of the series (fourth team, sixth series -- Derek) that began as sidekicks of the major heroes teaming up, to a bona fide hit when Marv Wolfman and George Perez started The New Teen Titans, the title that introduced the most famous Titans cast that included Nightwing, Starfire, Cyborg, Raven, Changeling, etc. It ran for sixteen years and made Teen Titans a title that became a steadfastly supported fan favorite.

The recent incarnation, written by Geoff Johns with Mike McKone on art duties, comes from the recent crossover event Graduation Day that included the former Titans and Young Justice coming together and fighting…robots or something. All I know is that a Superman robot killed Donna Troy (Troia, the original Wonder Girl, former Darkstar, take your pick). It was written by Judd Winick and was mostly a set-up to launch both this title and Winick’s Outsiders, which also includes some Titan alum in the form of Nightwing and Arsenal (a.k.a. Speedy). I’ve never followed Young Justice or Teen Titans, and I skipped the crossover, so I went into this rather blind.

What I found is a very good teenage superhero book. Basically, after the events of Graduation Day, Young Justice has disbanded and the kids are not alright. Superboy (clone of Superman) is living in Smallville, trying to get through the humdrum existence that is high school while living with Ma and Pa Kent (think really old people, and not Annette O’Toole and John Schneider). Cassie “Wonder Girl” Sandsmark can’t find a school that will take her since her identity as a superhero became public knowledge, thanks to supervillain attacks and pesky insurance costs. Impulse, super speedster from the future and heir to the Flash legacy, is just plain bored. And Robin the Boy Wonder seems fine, but his pointy-eared mentor thinks he needs some friendly social interaction once in a while.

All of them get the invite to sunny California, to Titans Tower, at the behest of Vic “Cyborg” Stone. The kids are invited to spend weekends in the company of their similarly aged superhero peers, along with Starfire and Changeling, basically to be free from the responsibility of keeping secret identities and train themselves to someday take the reins of world-saving from their adult counterparts. And lucky for them, their first “weekend retreat” features a run in with Deathstroke the Terminator.

If it seems like I’ve been DCU name-dropping, you’re not wrong. The book is steeped with continuity, not only from books like Titans and Young Justice, but also from the Superman titles, Batman titles, Flash, Wonder Woman and even a touch of JLA.

This type of continuity-laden book can be a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, the fact that so many comic book mythos are involved can get readers of those other mythos to pick up the book, following characters they like to this title. The negative side is that it makes the book incredibly hard for a novice, with no background in the DC Universe, to pick up and enjoy. I have terabytes of innocuous comic book trivia stored away in the recesses of my cranium, but even I had a little trouble following some of the finer plot threads.

Luckily, Johns takes massive leaps toward making the title as accessible as he can. The first chapter reintroduces the kids from Young Justice, giving their origins without using the tried and true (and boring) method of caption boxes. Johns actually manages to work the information into conversation, which he has a knack for, making the required data flow naturally to the reader instead of forcing it down his or her respective throats. He also manages to convey Titan history to the reader, while introducing the kids to the team. Johns recognizes the many pitfalls continuity can create, and deftly steers the reader around as many literary hazards as possible.

The characterization is good: Johns manages to keep the personalities that have been established over the years for most of these characters, while still making them his own. Starfire is a volatile mix of the temperamental warrior and (faintly) naïve alien outsider that she always was, but is now possessed of a certain level of maturity. Vic Stone has transformed from the angry, brooding man he once was into a teacher and older-brother-type figure to the Titans, but still maintains a bit of the real world cynicism that has always been a part of his character. Changeling is still the loveable, childish, annoyance he always was, but with a hint of Fool’s Wisdom; a been-there-done-that kind of mentality that shows through best when he’s talking with Vic or Starfire.

The “kids” also get a good dose of characterization, and it’s refreshing to see that Johns understands that these characters, while young, are not children. Robin, Superboy, Wonder Girl, and Impulse have all been around the superhero block, and probably helped to save the world on more than one occasion. They aren’t “kids” in the general sense; they’re not unsure of their abilities, for the most part, and are confident in their ability to be heroes, because they’ve been doing it for years. This isn’t a coming-of-age story, but rather a story that deals with youth when it has volunteered to bear the weight of responsibility and the continuing process that entails. You can call it splitting hairs, but there is a difference between the two.

There’s also a level of comedy to this piece. Johns knows how to pull a laugh out of most situations, and he sprinkles them throughout the usually straightforward and serious book. When the Superboy, Wonder Girl, and Robin are ordered by Sunfire to stay in Titan Tower, Robin agrees and the three wait until she departs, to leave themselves. When Wonder Girl points out “…wait a second…you just lied to Starfire?!” Robin replies, “I lie to Batman.” Small instances like this help to keep the book from seeming too adult, making sure that the “Teen” aspect is never lost in favor of “Titan.”

The artwork is fantastic. I’ve loved Mike McKone’s work since I saw him on Exiles and his leaving was the first of many signs that the book was declining. His work here is just as good: his character designs for the various Titans ring true to their various personalities. Some of the costumes have not changed much (Robin, Starfire, Cyborg) but the changes McKone has made to Superboy are a vast improvement, simplifying his costume to nothing more than a t-shirt with the Superman emblem. Wonder Girl also looks more comfortable than in her Young Justice days, and Impulse changes his costume to match his predecessor’s when The Flash was a Titan. All good moves on McKone’s part.

McKone also has great facial expression techniques. I’ve never seen someone draw “veiled hostility” and “sarcastic wit” in the same panel, but McKone makes it work. He has excellent pacing and draws good action, and uses panel placement to his advantage, often pushing the boundaries out to the end of the page. It’s all-around good work and McKone is an artist in the respect Alan Davis is: throw something in front of him and he draw it, and draw it well. Marlo Alquiza and Nelson do a good job of defining McKone with their inks, and uber-colorist Jeremy Cox just makes it better.

It’s a great comic, and you get a lot of comic for the measly price of $9.95: a cover by Michael Turner, introduction by Johns himself that outlines the Titans’ publishing history, a sketch and cover gallery by McKone, a Secret Files rundown of all the characters in Titans, not to mention issues 1-7 of the series. Normally, the heavy continuity elements would make me disinclined to recommend it, but John does enough work to inform the reader of the comic’s history, plus the addition of the Secret Files section can get the reader up to speed. Not to mention, it’s just so damn cheap.

Go. Buy. Read.


Robert Sparling

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