‘Teen Titans’ #1 Is A Classic First Issue With New 52 Art, And That’s The Problem [Review]
Months before it even came out, this week's Teen Titans #1 was off to a pretty rough start. Not only did it have the stigma of being one of the few "New 52" comics to be canceled and relaunched in the three years since DC's line-wide superhero reboot, alongside last week's New Suicide Squad, but criticism over Kenneth Rocafort's cover sparked a controversy that would've drowned out the actual content no matter what the content of the issue was. And really, that's kind of a shame.
Teen Titans #1 isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a solid story of teenage superheroics, and like so many of the recent launches from DC, it feels like the type of thing that the New 52 should've been doing all along. If it just didn't look like it does, it'd be great.
Before we get into the content of the issue, I really want to talk about that cover, because it's as much a barrier for getting into the story as anything that went on behind the scenes -- and I don't even mean the actual image that sparked that initial controversy. There's certainly enough to criticize there, but for me, the big problem here is how it's been dressed up in like a Twitter page, presumably by a designer who has never seen Twitter but once had it described to them. Over the phone. With a bad connection.
Trying to capture the design vibe of Twitter and Tumblr makes a lot of sense when you're dealing with teen superheroes, and it's something that worked really well in Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton's Young Avengers. The thing is, it worked in Young Avengers because it felt authentic, and this Titans cover feels anything but. It's that same initial image run through Strong Bad's squish it, skew it, turn it all around logo redesign treatment, with some hilariously awkward Poochie style hashtags thrown in for good measure. Is there anything that seems more like it came from your grandpa who doesn't understand Twitter trying to be "cool" with "the kids" than fake hashtags reading "#more_attitude #in_your_face!"?
Seriously, dude: Nobody puts underscores in hashtags. That's a wasted character. You've only got 140!
Even with that staring me in the face, though, I was actually still pretty excited to read this comic, for one reason: Will Pfeifer. Or, judging by that genuinely atrocious cover, @pfeifer. Which, for the record, is not even Will Pfeifer's Twitter handle... (you can tweet him here)
I don't think it's an inaccurate at all to call Pfeifer one of the most underrated writers in superhero comics. His run on Catwoman with David and Alvarro Lopez during DC's "One Year Later" era nearly ten years ago was a genuinely phenomenal comic, full of incredible action, soap operatic drama and exciting new characters. I'm particularly a fan of his take on the Film Freak as a gothy, obsessive late-night cable host who turned to murder because that's just what you do when you're living in Gotham City. More than that, though, Pfeifer excelled at character work, following up on one of the most compelling runs DC ever published with a distinct voice that felt genuine.
Also, if you don't think Batman saying "Bees. My God." during Amazons Attack was amazing, then you can just take a walk, buster. You can take a long walk.
Either way, Pfeifer was exactly the kind of writer that I'd want to see tackling the Teen Titans. These are well-known, beloved heroes who have been floundering in the three years since the New 52 reboot, desperately in need of a clear voice and a solid foundation of superheroic action and charismatic character moments. Which, no surprise, is exactly what Pfeifer does in this new first issue.
It's the perfect story for a relaunched first issue, an action-heavy plot with a problem that can be resolved in a single issue with a lot of dynamic action, but one that hints at a larger conflict that'll be faced down the line. In that regard, Teen Titans #1 feels very much like an artifact of that wave of quirky DC books that launched in in the mid '90s, and in case it's not clear from everything else I've written for ComicsAlliance, that's a good thing.
Sure, it's a definite test of disbelief to imagine a runaway school bus speeding through Times Square without immediately colliding with four-hundred cars, eight-hundred pedestrians and at least two guys in grimy Elmo costumes, but it's a great, simple setup. It allows for the team to stop the bad guys, rescue the good guys, and show off their powers in a way that doesn't feel forced.
Issue #1's plot does come with a couple of rough bits that could've used some smoothing over -- there's a moment at the end that seems awkward and ham-handed, and I while I'm more than willing to accept it as part of the villain's machinations, I would've preferred to not have a couple of the disposable henchmen end up dying in the course of the rescue. But overall, this story works in a very entertaining way. It's everything I wanted it to be.
The problem is the artwork.
I'm admittedly not much of a fan of Kenneth Rocafort's to begin with, and he's saddled here with some of the worst character designs in the entirety of the New 52. Red Robin's costume is about twenty years out of date, Wonder Girl's costume is manifestly terrible and has been justifiably picked apart, and Raven's new look is like something Rocafort's former home studio, Top Cow, would've rejected for being "a little too Witchblade even for us."
Teen Titans is a bad look right from the start, but the worst sin that Rocafort commits -- well, maybe second-worst after that Raven costume -- is that for the most part, his images are just so static. Being fully versed in the nature of comics as a sequence of static images, I can understand why some of you might balk at that criticism. Let me explain.
Even when Rocafort throws in a couple of speed lines for good measure, nothing feels like it's in motion, and that's a pretty big problem for any action comic, let alone one that's based on the idea of bus full of explosives speeding through a city while the heroes race frantically against the clock to rescue the innocents. Rocafort may be a proficient technician, but there's a palpable dissonance between the actual pictures -- even the prettier ones -- and what they're supposed to be showing you dramatically. It's almost impossible to ignore, and becomes more distracting as the story plays out.
Really, that's the full experience of Teen Titans #1 in a nutshell. Pfeifer's script is exactly the sort of thing I want to see from these characters, something that feels like a classic superhero launch, but it's processed in a storytelling style that could not be more emblematic of the most nagging aesthetic elements of the New 52 -- visually striking, perhaps, but devoted to outdated visual ideas and displaying little regard for narrative cohesion. Indeed, when it comes to the artwork, there's very little tonal difference between this Teen Titans #1 and the last one we saw three years ago.
At the end of the day, this may be a bad "casting" of creators, because I just can't help wishing that this was a reunion of the team from Catwoman, with Pfeifer and David Lopez working together again. If that was the case, this relaunch feels like it would be right up there with those other recent DC books that have felt like they were moving forward in a very positive way, but as it stands, it never rises above "good," and that's a shame for a comic that deserved a second chance.