BY THE LATE 1970s, IT WAS CLEAR THAT
MARVEL'S The Uncanny
X-Men was the top comic among fans and critics
alike. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that DC,
eager to keep one step ahead of Marvel, would borrow a
page from Marvel's textbook... namely, the one that
described how to create a new and improved title using a
second-string team of young heroes as a template.
To start at the beginning: The original Teen Titans
were four teenaged superhero sidekicks who banded
together to fight evil. First appearing as a team in The
Brave and the Bold #54 (June 1964), Robin, Kid
Flash, and Aqualad would generate enough fan interest to
get their own series in 1966 (Wonder Girl and Speedy,
Green Arrow's youthful partner, would later join in the
fun). Perhaps because of their age, the Teen Titans of
the 1960s and '70s rarely confronted menaces as serious
as those of their adult counterparts, and the truly
memorable part of their stories was the laughably dated
"jivin'" dialogue that sounded as if it was
written by middle-aged men trying to write the way they
thought teenagers spoke (which, of course, is what it
was). Despite numerous additions to the cast, an attempt
to revive the series in 1976 lasted just ten issues.
So it's fair to say there weren't many great
expectations for The New Teen Titans when it
debuted in 1980. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George
Perez, however, defied even the most optimistic
forecasts and created the book that would become the
first true superstar of the 1980s, a book that at its
height of popularity would set sales records and win
numerous industry and fan awards for its storytelling
and artwork. Just as the starbursted "new" on
the first cover of "The New Teen Titans"
warned us, there was nothing "old" about this
team at all.
There were several reasons why this book struck a
chord with readers. First, its writers had the sense to
depict the characters as more than just watered-down
versions of their mentors. As the stars of their own
book, Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl developed their
own separate personalities, and rarely had to to rely on
their adult crime fighting partners for help.
Second, the book wasn't afraid to depict real-life
issues or to give the Titans real challenges to face. In
other words, no second-rate villains need apply here. In
one issue, they were spanning dimensions fighting the
ultimate embodiment of evil; in the next, they were
helping teen runaways on the streets of New York. The
mix of science-fiction fantasy and concern for
down-to-earth problems like racism and poverty -- a
trademark of the new X-Men series -- was made
even more obvious here.
Third, the writers came up with a trio of new
characters who were so deftly depicted that they seemed
to have been a part of the DC Universe for years.
Together, Starfire (a flying, energy bolt-blasting alien
princess), Raven (the damned daughter of a demon), and
Cyborg (a young athlete whose ravaged body is made whole
by cybernetic attachments) formed the emotional heart of
the team, with each issue of the series interspersing
team stories with stories of them as individuals facing
their own problems. Even the Changeling, a green-skinned
shape-shifter brought in for comic relief, developed a
whole new personality, feeling the "survivors'
guilt" that came with outliving his former team,
the Doom Patrol.
Then, of course, there was the artwork, which was
simply stunning from day one, thanks to Perez's pencils.
He was clearly at the top of his form here, showing his
love of lavishly detailed group shots that would make
his work on DC's Crisis on
Inifinite Earths so memorable. I hate to keep
doing this comparing thing, but just as John Byrne's art
on The X-Men set the stage for greater things to
come, Perez's work on The New Teen Titans set a
new standard at DC.
But alas, it couldn't last forever. Following Perez's
departure and the book's move to a higher quality of
newsprint (and limited distribution in comic shops), The
New Teen Titans (eventually renamed The New
Titans to de-emphasize the characters' youth) would
founder in its own excess, introducing new team members
and super-villains that just didn't have the same
panache. The title finally ran out of steam in 1995,
only to be replaced with a new Teen Titans book
that shared only its name with its predecessor.
Still, its later troubles can't overshadow its early
successes, and the book's first few years did something
no one previously thought possible; they made DC's
gimmicky teen sidekicks anything but, and set the stage
for even greater things to come from Marvel's