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Comics Feature #19: “There Were Titans In Those Days…”

Comics Feature #19: “There Were Titans In Those Days…”
Teen Titans. An article by David Kirk.
[from Comics Feature #19, 1982]


Fans of DC’s mega-favorite, THE NEW TEEN TITANS, are likely to be interested in accumulating back issues of the initial run of the series, as well as following the monthly adventures of the team. However, knowing what to look for in the back-issue bins could prove confusing to would-be Titans historians, because like its opposite number at Marvel, THE (NEW) X-MEN, THE NEW TEEN TITANS is very different from the series that spawned it.

The original TEEN TITANS, too, went through a lot of changes, so it would be very difficult to describe the character of the series as a whole. So, for those fans who would like to know more of what went before, I offer this overview of the series, to familiarize you with the high points, low points, and whatever else might be of interest in the original TEEN TITANS.

The Teen Titans is often referred to as a ‘Junior Justice League,” and with good reason, since that’s precisely what the team started out as. Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad, all sidekicks of Justice League members, teamed up for the first time in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #54, and they adopted the name Teen Titans (and added fourth charter member Wonder Girl) in their second appearance in B&B#60.

Thus, they were essentially a team composed of midget versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash, which is all but one of the teenaged, JLA-doppelgangers available, and the last, Green. Arrow’s protege Speedy, guest-starred early on in the series (#4), and joined the team (if unofficially) in #19. The only other teen superhero to show up in the first twenty issues of TEEN TITANS was Beast Boy (now known as the Changeling), kid sidekick of the Doom Patrol,so he certainly fit the mold.

The Teen Titans did not duplicate the atmosphere of The Justice League on a smaller scale, however. Superman, Green Lantern, and Hawkman do not have any kid side-kicks, and without them, the Teen Titans not only did not have the cosmic emphasis afforded by these outer space heroes, but they did not have the power and popularity of a caped Kryptonian in their ranks. Thus, the team was considerably more down-to-Earth than the JLA. Not only that, but the teen aspect of the book was played up by dint of having the stories center around teen problems and teen concerns.

This emphasis was established in the very first story, in which the Hatton Corners Teen Club asks Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad to help them in their dispute with the town’s adults over a new clubhouse. Before they arrive, however, all the teenagers are kidnapped by the villainous Mr. Twister, as hostages in a plan for vengeance against the town’s adults. During the course of the story, not only do Robin & Friends prove that teenagers can be as capable as adults (by defeating Twister when the adults couldn’t), but the enforced separation of the teens and adults made each group realize good’ points about the other, and so their reunion is harmonious and their differences get solved.

To be sure, this is a very simplistic treatment of a fairly complex problem, but at least it gave the “sidekick team -up” a distinctive identity If they were going to be a teen team, they were going to get involved in teen stories – and that they certainly did. By the time the Teen Titans received their own magazine, they had not only helped the Hatton Corners Teen Club, but also aided the teens of Midville, when their town’s annual Teen Government Day ran into super-villain trouble (and, of course, the dreaded Generation Gap), and saved a famous teeny-bopper rock group who were being framed for a series of robberies.

In their own magazine, they ran up against teenage peer rejection, high school dropouts, parental pressure, and youthful runaways, among others. When they were not directly addressing teen problems, the Titans still found themselves in youth-oriented stories. Rock and roll, fashion fads, teenage athletics, school, and other elements that would be familiar to the magazine’s teenaged and pre-teen audience continually found their way into the stories.

With all this “real-life teen concerns” stuff in the series, one might suspect that it was stultifyingly “relevant,” like the Denny ONeil/Neal Adams GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROWs. But rather than the teenage connection being the heart and soul of the book, it was grist for the writer’s mill, raw material from which entertaining stories could he crafted.

The approach was a light-hearted one, with the accent as much or more on the adventure than on the social issues brought up. More often than not, the seriousness of the themes would be completely undercut by the fact that the villains of the piece were humorous, if not downright ridiculous. In addition to Mr. Twister (who was a scruffy old coot in colonial dress, with a cape of feathers and a mystic Indian staff), The Titans’ Rogues Gallery featured such eminent members as The Mad Mod, criminal haberdasher to the stars, and Big Daddy Ding Dong, an overweight beatnik in the business of supplying super-charged dragsters to criminal groups.

Nevertheless, for all Big Daddy Ding Dong’s silliness, it was the fact that he was encouraging local high school students to drop out and work at his garage that brought the Titans onto the case. So while the stories would not knock the reader over the head with their relevance, neither would they lose their teenaged emphasis in an effort to be funny.

The scripts for these stories were provided by Bob Haney, a very professional, versatile writer. Whether he is writing THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, AQUAMAN TEEN TITANS, of THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, haney always works within the requirements of the particular series, and produces well-crafted stories. In TEEN TITANS especially, Haney demonstrated his command over his craft while dealing with peculiar elements.

The teen aspects of the series, as well as the humor aspects had to be balanced within a complete story, something Haney did quite well. There was always a lot of plot in a Haney TEEN TITANS adventure, and while some comics readers don’t care for the sort of silliness Haney put the Titans through, they’d find it hard to fault his story construction. Whether he was dealing with treason at the Olympics, unthawed cave-boys, or rock ‘n’ roll deejays in orbit, Haney delivered an interesting story.

As the Titans’ series reached the teens itself, Haney began to get somewhat carried away with the silliness. “Teentalk,” a sort of post-pubescent version of the Mort Weisinger “baby-talk” that shows up in all Superbaby stories, began to take over the magazine. Earlier, this “hep-cat lingo” had shown up every now and then, to establish the youth of the protagonists, and to make them seem a little more human (DC sidekicks, with the exception of Snapper Carr, were almost as blandly “straight” in the 1960s as their adult counterparts, and if Haney had stuck with their established speech patterns, his modern teen team would have seemed like they walked straight out of FATHER KNOWS BEST).

Still, the preponderance of the “teentalk” in TEEN TITANS did make it seem like these characters were speaking another language. In case you ve never encountered this dialect, here are a few examples: “Check,Twinkletoes… he’s really got the cold and clammies!” “Yikes! I’m like running on a treadmill to nowhere!” “Excuses, excuses! That’s all a girl gets these days! This is the love-in generation and I’m being left out!” “Wow! Cavernsville. . . Large style!” Still, for all that The Titans were showing less and less connection with the real world, the stories were terrific, provided you could accept their goofiness.

Some of the absolute best Titans stories showed up during this period. #24’s “Skis of Death” features a three-way conflict between a young Indian entrepreneur trying to run a ski resort, a more tradition-minded Indian who wants to drive off business and keep the mountain slopes pure for the sacred rituals, and an unscrupulous type who wants to gain title to the land by fraud, so he can sell it to the government as a missile site. The Titans stumble smack into the middle of it, and in the process, liven up the story with some of the best “teentalk” ever to come off the typewriter of Bob Haney.

The issue’s two best examples both come from Wonder Girl: “Umm – he’s dreamy! He can wax my slats anytime!!” and “Merciful Minerva!’ That wagon wheel – it’ll freak out those shing-a-ling lovers – like forever – unless I can do my own thing – like fast!” There are those who find this sort of dialogue abhorrent, but if you approach it with the right frame of mind, its very perversity gives it a strange sort of appeal. It’s impossible to take seriously, but nobody could ever mean it to be.

To my mind, the very best TEEN TITANS story appeared in this period, and demonstrates an off-the-wall ludicrousness that should earn it some sort of place in a comics hall of fame. “The Dimensional Caper,” in #16, centers around a high school that exists simultaneously in two dimensions.

In our Dimension, it’s a normal high school, but in the other, it’s overrun by an army of nasty green aliens intent on conquering Earth through the dimensional warp afforded by the school. One student, Chet Walters, unknowingly finds the dimensional warp and discovers the alien army. When he returns, he tries to warn our world of the coming invasion, but everyone just thinks he’s a kook. His parents try to get him to see a psychiatrist, and his friends reject him. The only ones who will even check his story out are (naturally) the Teen Titans, and they manage to destroy the warp forever, in a bizarre battle during which the school, the army, the students, teachers, and Titans keep popping back and forth across the warp uncontrollably. It’s a story that really has to be seen to be believed.

Aside from Bob Haney and his oddball inventiveness, one of the major factors responsible for the quality of these Titans issues is the art of Nick Cardy. Cardy, one of the most versatile and innovative comics artists of the late 1960s, is virtually unknown today, perhaps due to the fact that when he left comics he did not produce any limited edition prints, portfolios, or any other comics-related items, like so many of the “past greats” that we hear so much about today. Cardy’s dramatic work is much in evidence in the first thrity-nine AQUAMANs, and his distinctive humor work made BAT LASH a series to remember.

His early work on the Titans (he began drawing the series before #1) is marked by a very simple layout style, excellent figure work, and a rough brush rendering with which he seemed to be able to draw anything the story might require (and the stories required plenty) with ease. As the series wore on, he began experimenting with his art, trying different methods of expressive cartooning, dramatic lighting, and all manner of story-telling approaches. This resulted in some very varied, but always excellent artwork on the series. That Cardy no longer does any comics work is a great loss to the industry, though not to Cardy – reports are that he’s making big money in advertising art, and doesn’t even like to hear comic books mentioned.

Other than Cardy,TEEN TITANS also featured some excellent artwork by Neal Adams and Gil Kane, in issues #19-24. Cardy inked all but one of these, which kept a feeling of continuity in the art (much like some of the early issues, which Cardy inked over lrv Novick’s pencils), and the odd collaboration between Adams and Cardy in #20-22 makes those issues items of interest for Adams collectors. If you are an art fan, almost any issue between #10 and #30 will prove quite satisfying.

With issue #25, TEEN TITANS went through a major change that altered the flavor of the series completely. With Robert Kanigher taking over the writer’s job, TEEN TITANS retained its youth orientation, but became a very serious book. The Titans attended a peace rally, during which a riot broke out. As the Titans struggled with one of the militants, his gun went off, and fatally shot Dr. Arthur Swenson, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and crusader for world harmony.

The Titans, feeling responsible, vowed never to use their powers again, and joined a top secret project run by a Mr. Jupiter, the world’s richest philanthropist The team was no longer a junior Justice League, either. The Hawk and the Dove, who had guest-starred in #21, joined the team with the “big change” story, as did a young psychic name Lilith. Aqualad had been on leave since #19, and Robin had not been with the team at the peace rally, and so was not part of the vow or Mr. Jupiter’s project. Those in the project threw out their costumes in favor of light purple jumpsuits, to further demonstrate the break with their old ways.

Whether these changes were advisable is questionable. Considering that one of the appeals of the series was the chance to see the kid sidekicks on their own, away from their adult mentors, the introduction of Mr. Jupiter as a father figure was unwise. For those who had adult mentors already, he was redundant, and for those who didn’t, he robbed them of their initiative.

One of the characteristics central to the Hawk and the Dove’s concept was their efforts to find out what to do, how to act, with their natures in opposition. But with Mr. Jupiter calling the shots, they became little more than a surly boy arid a wimpy boy arguing about whether or not to hit people. The uniforms were pretty boring, too, and made it difficult to tell the team members apart.

The new direction collapsed into mush almost immediately, as the returning Aqualad convinced them to put their costumes back on for one mission, at the end of which they decided that they might overlook the vow every now and then, in extreme situations. The uniforms and costumes switched back and forth thereafter, with little rhyme or reason, and their solemn vow faded quickly from sight. They never decided they were wrong, that their powers were in fact better used for good, they just sort of shuffled the vow under the rug. The characters lost whatever impact they might have had as moral paragons or super-heroes, and their indecisiveness made the series seem directionless.

The new scripting didn’t help the book any, either. Steve Skeates had assumed the scripting chores after Kanigher’s three issues, but neither’s stories were nearly as tightly plotted as Haney’s. They chose to center around social issues at the cost of plot, and rather than making a dramatic case for some sort of social reform, his stories seemed to limply plead that bad things are wrong. One notable story pointed out another of the major problems with Skeates’ stories – they were silly.

It #31’s ‘To Order Is To Destroy” presented us with a college campus full of zombies. It seems the university psychologist had been advising brain operations as a cure for stress and social consciousness, and slowly but surely had taken over the minds of the entire campus. Haney’s ludicrous plot elements were a strength to the series when he was writing it, because his stories were supposed to be funny. But Skeates’ were an attempt at serious storytelling, and ridiculous plots like that one made it impossible to take the (usually overtly stated) morals seriously.

The series was still worth watching because of the Cardy art, which continued to be excellent up until #32, at which point George Tuska took over. Most issues thereafter were still inked by Cardy, but Tuska’s penciling just couldn’t equal Cardy’s.

The Skeates approach did not last long. In the middle of a two part story (#32-33), there was an editorial changeover, (with Murray Boltinoff replacing Dick Giordano), and Bob Haney came back to the series as writer. With Haney back, there was a return to tightly-plotted stories, and some unusual ideas, but the series never recovered what it had lost. The decision had been made to steer away from the teenybopper humor approach, and try for more serious stories.

However, the stories that appeared dealt with such elements as possession, an eerie reenactment of Romeo and Juliet, hidden Indian tribes, the Loch Ness monster, and the fugitive slave railway. It was quite a change from the earlier teen-oriented stories. The only real common denominator that can be found in the series at that point is a recurring emphasis on mysticism, which is not the right sort of material for a team like the Teen Titans. They were a very snappy, modern, American super-team that would have been far more at home with street crime or super-villains than with forbidden crypts and voodoo dolls. The buying audience must have found the material inappropriate, as well, because the series was shortly cancelled, and the first life of the Teen Titans came to an end.

It was quite a varied life while it lasted – few comics series present such diverse approaches over a period of fewer than fifty issues. The Nick Cardy art alone is worth amassing a collection of TITANS, and the early issues feature some terrific writing as well. Whether it’s history you’re after – to back up the new TITANS series – or you just want to read some good comics, the original run of the TEEN TITANS has plenty to offer.


End of titanstower.com transmission. About this author:  Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind titanstower.com. He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since. Read more from this author