Ask Chris #161: Clash of the Titans
Q: How much better is the original Teen Titans series than the New Teen Titans? — @boxofmillipedes
A: You know, Millie, it’s funny. New Teen Titans is a book that hits every single checkmark of something I should like. I love teenage superheroes, I’m a sucker for weird team-ups involving goofy combinations like half-demons, half-robots and full-on alien princesses, and Robin and Wally West are two of my all-time favorite characters. Throw those things together in a book by the dude who wrote Tomb of Dracula and the artist who would go on to draw my favorite run of Avengers? That oughtta be a slam dunk, but every single time I read it, it feels like homework.
Folks, it’s been thirty years. Maybe it’s time we all come together and just admit that New Teen Titans was not that great.
Okay, before anybody starts passing out pitchforks and torches, I should probably go ahead and say that I realize this is an unpopular opinion and that it’s purely based on personal taste, but it’s true. For me, New Teen Titans just doesn’t hold up, especially when you compare it to the book it was designed to compete against. There’s no getting around the fact that NTT was DC’s attempt to capture some of the success that Marvel was having with X-Men, to the point where they used the exact same formula to create both books. They each took a team created in the sixties that nobody really cared about anymore, kept a few of the original members (Robin and Kid Flash / Cyclops and Jean), added in a few new characters to freshen things up (Raven, Starfire and Cyborg / Nightcrawler, Colossus and Storm), and threw in a character who had originally appeared in another series who had an interesting hook and was positioned to become a breakout star (Beast Boy / Wolverine).
They’re even structured in similar ways, with the high action of superheroics balanced out by a focus on the relationships between the characters. There’s romance, unrequited love, the feeling of not belonging in the world, angst by the bucketful, and all the other stuff that’s scientifically designed to make a comic that’ll appeal to teenagers. Even the covers are alike — compare NTT #1 to Giant Size X-Men. The only real difference is that they swapped out the logo.
And to their credit, it worked. New Teen Titans was a massive hit for DC, to the point where they ended up handing Marv Wolfman and George Perez the job of destroying and restructuring the entire DC Universe in Crisis — which, incidentally, is also a ridiculous mess, but that’s a subject for another time. It’s the book that hooked a ton of readers, fleshed out characters like Donna Troy and Beast Boy that had been around for decades but had never really had much depth, added interesting new elements and characters to the DC Universe, and gave long-time stalwarts like Wally West and Dick Grayson an entirely new chance to shine. Historically speaking, it’s an incredibly important book for DC, and considering the amount of impact it led to, for superhero comics in general.
Thing is, it’s nowhere near as good as X-Men was.
Say what you will about what they did later in their careers, but there were years when Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Dave Cockrum were knocking out classic after classic on a monthly basis. Sure, the dialogue is occasionally a little clunky — okay, and by “occasionally” I mean “in every single caption,” but those stories hold up amazingly well. That issue where the Hellfire Club beats the living hell out of the X-Men and Wolverine gets dropped through four floors to the sewer, then comes back at the end ready to literally murder everyone he sees? #132? That comic still feels like a product of the Modern Age, and it’s part of a run that set the standard, influencing almost every title that came after — including New Teen Titans.
This isn’t really a knock on Wolfman and Perez — like I said, I’ve loved the work they’ve done in other books — but if you put NTT next to X-Men, I’ll pick the latter every time. As much success as they had by tweaking a similar formula, Titans has always read like it was imitating X-Men and never quite managing to break out of its shadow. Why listen to the cover band when you’ve got the original right there?
Plus, it introduced the world to this dipstick:
F**k you, Terry Long. With the exception of Lucy Lane, you are the worst thing that has ever happened.
So yeah, New Teen Titans isn’t for me, which is a shame since I actually really like the original Teen Titans series. I’m sure that this doesn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone given my reputation as someone who’s obsessed with comics that came out twenty years before I was born, but there’s a lot of fun in those issues, and there’s a good reason why the Teen Titans cartoon took Wolfman and Perez’s characters and often dropped them into a world that seemed built by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy.
Bob Haney is one of the best comic book writers who ever lived. This isn’t even up for debate, it’s just a stone-cold fact. His run on Brave and the Bold with Jim Aparo is almost always incredible, and Metamorpho, co-created with Ramona Fradon, is probably the sharpest, wittiest and weirdest DC book of the Silver Age. So when he and Cardy teamed up to do a book about a bunch of sidekicks hanging out together and dealing with Teen Problems — or, you know, what passed for Teen Problems in DC comics in the ’60s, like adolescent cavemen and sinister hot rod mechanics — the end result is pretty great.
It might not be quite the high point of Haney’s career, but he brought the same thing to Teen Titans that he brought to a lot of his books: this overpowering sense of fun. He and Cardy were well aware that they were making a book about kids designed to appeal to kids, and again I can’t imagine that it wasn’t at least partially a response to the success that Marvel was having with their teen super-hero, Spider-Man. This was, after all, 1966, when John Romita was drawing Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane go-go dancing at the coffee shop and Stan Lee was trying to capture the hip slang that the kids were using. He was an unexpected success right from the start, and while DC certainly wasn’t ready to break their formula on the main books like Superman, Teen Titans was exactly the sort of book where they could play around with the idea of appealing to the kids in a slightly different way. And if you want hip slang, then cousin, nobody does hip slang like Bob Haney.
Even if he occasionally slipped into what Ryan North called “old-man-itis.”
Oh, those crazy “rock-and-roll” records!
Really, though, that’s where the similarities end. Rather than taking a Marvel style approach and filling the book up with operatic drama, Haney just did… well, a Bob Haney book, full of goofy problems that were vaguely tied into what kids would be interested in. There’s an issue where Aqualad is bonked in the head by a weaponized station wagon that shoots surfboards, for instance, and there’s no way you’re going to convince me that this is not an amazing idea. Eventually, Teen Titans did start edging towards more dramatic stories, but to be honest, that’s where my interest in the book fades. I love Amazing Spider-Man and I’ll defend those first 200 issues as maybe the best run of its length in comics history, but, much like my feelings about New Teen Titans, I don’t really need to read a knockoff.
So is Teen Titans better than New Teen Titans? For me it is, but that probably has a lot to do with reading X-Men as a kid and not getting around to The Judas Contract until I was in my 20s. For you, maybe New Teen Titans took the formula from X-Men and refined it into something better, and maybe Teen Titans is just a second-rate Silver Age book that broke continuity by introducing Wonder Girl and eventually led to Wolfman and Perez having to fix it on three separate occasions. Stuff like this is all down to what you like, so there’s no real way to be right or wrong about it.
Unless you’re me, I mean. I’m right. As usual.