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The Controversy of Teen Titans #20

[An Article from Comic Book Artist Magazine #1, 2000]

Unpublished Nick Cardy Pages from TEEN TITANS #20:


The Battle Over Jericho

While the entire nation was undergoing a transformation of conscience, debating the vast issues of race, poverty, war, consumer consumption, gender equality, pollution, and the Vietnam War, DC Comics was undergoing its own tumultuous changes, foremost the effects of a loss of readership to Marvel Comics. To survive the competition of TV, comics had to speak to kids in their own language and DC couldn’t seem to find a sincere voice. In an effort to win back the fleeing readers, DC sought to establish a niche with readers as the relevant comic company-but sometimes the very issues they exploited would come back to bite the company.

Filling the void left by the writers’ purge, the new generation of creators contributing to DC was part of the same activist, protesting generation that questioned the pushbutton issues of the day. Sometimes these (usually) liberal beliefs were contrary to DC Management’s and an inevitable generation gap developed. No incident better expresses the tense division of ideology between the new wave and the old guard than the events surrounding Teen Titans #20-but the issue may not be, if you’ll pardon the expression in an article centered on race relations, so black-&-white.

Marv Wolfman and Len Wein were looking to do stories with impact that went beyond “funny books” and they decided to deal with a perennial American crisis-the shame of bigotry and racism-in the pages of Teen Titans. “Len and I, being young liberals,” Wolfman explained, “didn’t understand why there were no Black super-heroes-though neither of us were Black-but we lived in the real world and there were certainly Blacks all around New York. So we proposed a story featuring a Black super-hero. Dick Giordano, the editor, loved it. At that time, the company was still being run by the original owners and Dick gave this story to Irwin Donenfeld, Vice President of the company, who also loved it.”

Donenfeld has no recollection of the incident and Giordano recalls little about the pitch, though he did give the go-ahead on the script. Wolfman and Wein delivered a story that Giordano remembers “was a little preachy, if memory serves.” Wolfman described the tale: “The story was about the Mob taking advantage of Black anger by using and manipulating a teen gang. Somebody goes against the gang and tries to stop them. He preaches the Martin Luther King line that people can’t resort to guns and violence. At the end it turned out the masked super-hero is the brother of one of the gang kids.”

Neal Adams remembers the story had a heavy-handed agenda. “It was full of racist remarks, reverse racism, with a tremendous amount of lashing out by young, White liberals- ‘I’ll fix those three hundred years of racism, you White honkies!’ type stuff. It was simply too much!” Wolfman sees the tale differently. “At the time it was a very controversial story, though when I read it now I can only think, ‘Gee, our writing wasn’t very good.”‘

But, according to Wolfman, Donenfeld saw potential and said, “‘Make this a two-parter and make it even more hard-hitting. Go all the way.’ He understood that the market and the world was changing.” And production went ahead:

Nick Cardy penciled 23 pages and began to spot ink the story entitled “The Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Carmine Infantino describes the work as “Gorgeous!” and Wein concurs, saying, “It was one of the best art jobs that Nick Cardy had ever done.” Wolfman says Cardy “really worked hard on it because he thought that it was an important story.” Cardy said, “After all these years I really don’t remember [events surrounding the incidents].” But a problem arose not because of the art, but the choice of controversial subject matter.

“The problem was that after we did the script,” Wolfman said, “after it was accepted, after it was penciled, inked, lettered and colored, Donenfeld left and there was a new publisher.” “I remember looking at it and I rejected it totally,” Infantino explains. “Giordano had okayed the job, I believe, but after it was done, I thought it was so terrible that I wouldn’t print it. It was simple as that. I don’t remember any specifics about it now, but I know that I just didn’t like it so I had to use my best judgement.”

Giordano also forgets some aspects: “I really don’t remember what irritated Carmine, but Neal was right across the hall from me and, with the offices not that big, Carmine would come to the doorway-without coming in-and say something like, ‘Richie, I looked at that book, I don’t like it and we’re not going to publish it. Get a new story.’ And he walked away.

Wein recalls, “At the last minute Carmine got gun-shy and was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to sell the book in the South and that all these terrible things would happen. So he just pulled the issue and said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do it.’ This was less than a week before the book was supposed to ship to the printer.” And, Giordano said, “The cover was already done and printed so it had to have ‘Jericho’ in the title and something to do with the action on the cover.”

Something had to be done. Fast. “Neal across the hall hears all of this and comes in,” Giordano says. “We both had this wonderful relationship at DC in being able to communicate without talking-sometimes you almost had to do that. So after Carmine had thrown the art back in my lap, Neal came in and looked at them. He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m going home and I’ll think about it. Tomorrow, I’ll decide.’ I came in next morning and there were seven pages. He had stayed up all night, penciling them.”

“I was sought out by individuals as the ‘defender of the faith,”‘ Neal explains, “and I was handed the script by an irate Len and Marv with the request to read it and see if there was anything wrong with it because Management was being crazy and they stopped the job. I read it and felt that it was going way overboard in that it offended White people just as People of Color had been offended for hundreds of years-this was not cool; I could defend it, but not in the face of total rejection. This was a comic book medium and this was the Teen Titans!… [the story] was simply too much! First I offered to edit it down to try and save it, but my edit was rejected.”

Wein remembers, “They wouldn’t accept a new version of the script and they ended up doing an entirely new thing that came out in place of what we had done.” Adams “volunteered to rewrite the entire job,” Wolfman recalls. “He did and it was still killed. At that point we all understood that it wasn’t being killed because of bad writing, but because it had a Black super-hero in it.” Adams says he went to Management to plead for the salvage job: “I said, ‘Look, why don’t I do this? I will rewrite the story (use as many pages as I can) and let’s agree that the guys went overboard, but this is not a reason not to ever give them work again.”

“Basically what Editorial was saying,” Adams says, “was not to give them any more work because they could not be trusted. I said, ‘This was simple enthusiasm, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will rewrite this story and I will pencil it. The situation has gone too far so let’s just back off. I’ll patch up the story.”

The issue was now getting the job out, so Giordano says he asked Adams, “Can you finish it in time? Carmine is breathing down my neck.” Whether Adams stayed up all night writing to salvage Cardy’s art or drawing the beginning of an entirely new story is debatable, but one aspect is not in contention: The future of writing team Wein and Wolfman was in serious jeopardy at DC. “I spoke to Len and Marv but they were riled up,” Neal said. “I said, ‘I’m going to redo the story and we’re going to take those references out.’ They went, ‘What do you mean!? Come on, Neal, don’t you think it’s unfair?’ I said, ‘Guys! Yes, you’re right, but they don’t want to give you any more work in the future because of this. This is very serious business! I need you guys to back off for now.’ They said, ‘Oh, that’s not fair! This is just bullshit!’ I was trying to make peace and it didn’t seem to be working.

I wanted those guys to work at DC in the future and I couldn’t let it go on, so I had to make an arbitrary decision and follow through with the offer I made to DC. So I indeed finished it and gave it to Cardy to ink. Carmine finally accepted it and it wasn’t long before Len and Marv began writing again for DC.” But some of Cardy’s original pages did make it into the final version. “They used about five pages including the cover,” Wolfman said, “but they threw a blue tone over the Black characters on the cover so you wouldn’t know necessarily that they were Black- though if you look carefully, you can see that they are.”

There was lasting damage to the writers’ reputations at DC. “From this point, Len and I were both blacklisted at DC for about two years,” Wolfman says, adding, “Later on, I used the name Jericho as a Titan in the New Teen Titans. While it had nothing to do with the original Jericho story, I was determined to use the name.” But occasional jobs made it into their hands from sympathetic editors. “I was able to write the origin of Wonder Girl [and some Mystery tales], for instance,” Wolfman said, “because Dick and Joe Orlando would give us short stories under the table.”

Neal saw a more positive repercussion: “I think this incident later sparked the decision editorially to accept the Black Green Lantern, and maybe we should have dedicated that story to Len, Marv and Joshua.”

A fair assessment of the controversy-even if there was a “right” or “wrong” in this incident-can’t be made until the entire story (either Cardy’s pages and/or Marv’s script) is found and published. Did Marv and Len go “overboard” with virulent racist dialogue, or was management “gun-shy” about dealing with the racial issues (and what would have been DC’s first Black super-hero) in comic books? It is our sincere wish that the owners of the “lost” pages will come forward and share their treasures with the rest of us. CBA hopes to publish the complete story when they see the light of day.

 


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


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