Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: A couple of very violent Teen Titans trades

The new library I’ve been going to doesn’t have much in the way of a graphic novel collection. There are none among the adult shelves of the library; everything is shelved in the teen portion of the youth section, along with all the YA novels.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the graphic novel space is comprised of popular manga series, and what little superhero franchises are represented at all generally only have a few books a piece. I was somewhat surprised to find a pair of recent Teen Titans collections there…at least until I stopped to think about it.

It is, after all, the only superhero comic with the word “teen” right there in the title…if you didn’t know all that much about comics but were in charge of spending the graphic novel budget picking out books for teens, wouldn’t you naturally gravitate toward that? Especially if you saw Robin and Blue Beetle, star of those YALSA honored books, on the cover?

I hope whoever ordered Teen Titans: On the Clock and Teen Titans: Changing of the Guard read them both before putting them on the shelves though, because hoo boy are these some nasty, violent, icky, decadent super-comics, even by the standards of post-Dr. Light-raping-Sue Dibny DC Comics.

Among the things featured in these two books are…

—A full-page splash detailing the horrific wounds Kid Devil suffered while being gang-beaten by the Terror Titans:
—Ravager beating Copperhead II’s face into a bloody pulp

—Miss Martian about to be raped in a bathroom stall by two men

—Adult supervillain Clock King in bed with his teenage girlfriend

—A gory spread in which a supervillain version of Miss Martian shows the superhero version images of her killing the Teen Titans, including choking Wonder Girl with her own lasso, tearing out Blue Beetle’s spine, putting a sword through Ravagers head and ripping Kid Devil’s head in half by his horns:

—Kid Devil being tortured on-panel

—Robin being stabbed and his face beaten into a bloody pulp

—“Wonder Dog” killing Marvin before stalking a terrified Wendy through the halls of Titans Tower and mauling her

—Bombshell unconscious in a morgue, her throat slashed and bloody…three panels before an image of Wendy, scarred and bandaged, unconscious in a hospital bed

—Wonder Dog exploding, showering the team with gore

—Kid Devil’s desiccated corpse

—Brother Blood ripping someone’s arms off

—Short-lived character The Face being impaled

Not only is it a lot of violence for about a year’s worth of a comics series, it’s all presented as blatantly as possible, and with as much blood as possible, and the fact that it is almost all violence for violence’s sake gives it an exploitive, snuffy vibe.

It’s not like the violence ever leads to anything like, say, character development, or some sort of message—Teen Titans is almost entirely devoid of plot or characterization.

The first book opens with Supergirl quitting the team, flying away from Titans Tower while another Titan stands on the rooftop. It’s a scene that will be repeated over and over during the course of these two books—comprising 15 issues of the monthly series—with Miss Martian, Ravager and Robin similarly leaving the team one-by-one.

If I had to take a stab at what Teen Titans was about, I would guess it was about how hard it is to produce the comic Teen Titans. The cast is constantly in flux—only three characters from the first issue of the trades are still on the team in the last issue—and the team’s biggest conflict seems to be maintaining a roster of more than four heroes, as fretting over how few members they have and how hard it is to keep people on the team seems to be all the characters ever talk about.

It would be unfair to blame writer Sean McKeever, who wrote all of these issues save the final one, Teen Titans #61, which originally shipped without a writer credited, as there were clearly problems producing the book. These fifteen issues have seven different pencil artists and eight different inkers, and the narrative is quite regularly interrupted by things occurring in other books, adding to the chaotic, almost arbitrary feel of the book.

Halfway through the second trade, for example, Robin quits the team, because of whatever was going on in the Batman line of books at the time these issues were produced.

Similarly, the Clock King/Terror Titans arc is a Final Crisis tie-in, and despite the fact that those characters torture a couple of Titans and almost kill some of the others, the team moves on to other things, because if you want to find out what happens, you’ll presumably have read Final Crisis and the Terror Titans miniseries.

Given the speed at which characters arrive, depart or radically change, the fact that McKeever and his team of artists manage any thing resembling a throughline to the book is in itself rather remarkable.

And, for Teen Titans’ many, many, many faults, it’s not as if it’s a creative black hole or anything—there are enough glimmers of quality here and there to make the book’s poor quality seem almost tragic. Every now and then there’s a clue that maybe, given different circumstance, Sean McKeever and a single art team might have made a decent, fun comic book about teenage superheroes.

As two of the three Titans to stay on the roster throughout these fifteen issues, Blue Beetle and Kid Devil get the most attention, and are the most consistent. McKeever gives them distinct voices and relationships to one another and their various teammates and, unlike Wonder Girl and Robin, they are a bit more mutable, particularly Kid Devil, whose only appearances were in this book (and thus McKeever as the only writer writing him).

The book’s lightest, brightest moments seem to revolve around these characters, perhaps my favorite being a scene in which Robin dresses Kid Devil down over a communications device, looking all angry and bad-ass in Kid Devil’s computer screen, but the next panel cuts away so that we see Robin in his bedroom in his socks and boxers, wearing his mask and clutching his cape around him…he’s only Robin from the neck up, and a silly kid play-acting from the neck down.

Such moments are, of course, overshadowed by the book veering into torture porn or horror territory in the Clock King arc or the Wonder Dog-eats-Marvin-and-Wendy issue, and the artwork is always there to make this ugly content all the uglier.

And the artwork is, of course, horrible, but that’s to be expected with the artists changing so frequently…characters morph from page to page, and if it weren’t for dialogue clues, it would be difficult to keep them straight.

I think Eddy Barrows is supposed to be the “regular” pencil artist, and he seems to be doing most of the drawing here. I’m not a big fan of his style, although it’s well-suited for the material. His women all share the same body, so that computer geek Wendy has the same big-breasted, pinched-waist, well muscled limbs as the chemically-enhanced super-ninja Ravager, and he dresses them in the ugliest street clothes imaginable, but he draws decent enough gore, and he’s fairly gifted with facial expressions.

He’s not given much opportunity to draw anything other than ugly sneers and grimaces—which he draws well—but I like what he does with Kid Devil and Blue Beetle’s faces in their lighter moments, and he draws a neat one eye narrowed, one eye wide open confused look on Robin sometimes.

Looking at this mess after the fact, and taken in all at once instead of in the monthly drip-drip of serial comics plotting, it’s hard to imagine why DC even collected these issues—they read incredibly poorly, and, in fact, almost refuse to be read like this at all. I had to continually stop and remember what else was going on in other DC books during the time of publication just to make sense of why Character A had Secret Identity B for six pages in the middle of one of these things, or why Granny Goodness was a black woman with a sideways ball cap, or how the hell Kid Eternity and Static Shock got into the DCU.

If this were going to be a good comic, it would have had to been given a lot more leeway, like a cast stable enough to last, say, an entire year perhaps, rather than being tied so closely into DCU continuity that Teen Titans can hardly even stand on it’s own. But much like Justice League of America during the same time, Teen Titans seems to have sacrificed everything simply to line up better with whatever events were going on in the wider line at the time, which perhaps made sense to folks reading all of DC’s comics as they were released each Wednesday, but, revisited later in trade (you know, the way the stories will live on with a longer than 30-day shelf-life) make for some awful, awful comics.

Basically, Teen Titans could have used some space from the DCU line. And a real, regular art team. And a lot less torture, violence, gore and adults doing it with teenagers. Then DC might have really had something here.

27 comments:

LurkerWithout said...

McKeever has written good teen-ager supers. Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man is a favorite of mine. But yeah the various Titans books for the last several years have really stunk...

Michael Hoskin said...

Pedantic again, Hdefined?

Nick Ahlhelm said...

These issues were a total mess. I read them all in one sitting and I still had to reference back and forth to figure some of them out.

And I really don't think it was McKeever's fault. He seemed terribly uncomfortable with what he was doing and I would assume it directly connects with him leaving the main story.

Hopefully, he will be able to get some work outside of backup stories in the near future.

Sandy said...

It probably would be a good idea to suggest to the librarians that they shelve these books with the adult books. Children really shouldn't be encouraged to read them.

John Hyperion said...

I didn't read anything in this post that suggests this would be inappropriate for a teenager. Teenagers can handle violence, and American teens are pretty used to it. We send teenagers off to kill other teenagers on a regular basis, and celebrate. I'm not worried about them seeing cartoonish violence in a comic book.

Jay said...

Teens can certainly handle such gratuitous violence. But that doesn't mean they want it. Most people don't regardless of age-group, teens included.

The real point is, this isn't for teens. Its for a niche market emotionally stunted fanboys who get off on torture porn.

This isn't bad because it's violent. It's bad because there's nothing teen readers can relate to.

Sandy said...

John, I'm not sure that your reasoning holds up here. You said "Teenagers can handle violence, and American teens are pretty used to it. We send teenagers off to kill other teenagers on a regular basis, and celebrate." Are you saying that is a good thing? I can't imagine that you are. But if you agree that American teens being used to violence and sending "teenagers off to kill other teenagers on a regular basis, and celebrate" is a bad thing, why should we encourage teenagers to read violent books? Why put a book filled with violent images in the "youth" section of a library? Even if teens can "handle" these images, that does not mean that we should promote them as teen-appropriate. Moreover, I would guess that teenagers are not the only ones who will browse through these books -- younger kids will look there too. I'm not saying remove these books from the library altogether, just don't put them in the youth section. We should make it easier for parents to decide whether they want to let their kids see these images.

Caleb said...

Anonymous Troll Calling Himself "Hdefined" Whose Comments I Had To Delete AGAIN This Week,

I'm not going through this with you again. Yes, I sometimes make assumptions about the creative process when writing about a comics work. I don't much care if that offends your sensibilities, as I don't much care about you and whether you read me or like me or not (That's not true; I guess I care enough to wish you'd just go away once and for all).

I'm surprised you're old enough to be using the Internet unsupervised, but have yet to realize it's a valid aspect of criticism to do so--no one interviews creators about their process before criticizing it, because we criticize the work, not the process.

If I don't say "it seems" or "it appears" before every assumption, then it is implied, and if you can read, you know that, so you're basically just being an argumentative ass. Which you can do on your own blog (they're free!), but I wish you'd quit using my comments section as your blog.

Caleb said...

Re: The violence appropriate-ness

I haven't mentioned this in a while, but what I find kind of galling about it in DC comics is that all DCU comics look/are assumed to be all-ages. There's no indication that they're meant for a certain age group...based on the covers, Johnny DC and DCU books are for the same audience, while Vertigo says "For Mature Readers."

I don't necessarily thing Marvel's labeling is the best way to go either (it's pretty arbitrary, really), but I wish DC would either stamp "For Mature Readers" on their books that contain content that would necessitate an R, NC-17 or lack of rating (to avoid an NC-17) in a film, or just not include that content.

The publisher seems to want it both ways, and while there's apparently little danger of teenagers reading a lot of their product, they seem to be in a perpetual state of daring someone to object.

It's not really the teenagers I think would mind all the torture and threat of sexual violence though, it's their parents or the sorts of adult busybodies who go through library shelves looking for inappropriate material, you know?

(At my time in the library business, I've never heard a kid complain about anything, but I have heard parents, grandparents and random adults complain about the content in comics...usually homosexual content or nudity).

John Hyperion said...

"Teens can certainly handle such gratuitous violence. But that doesn't mean they want it. Most people don't regardless of age-group, teens included.

The real point is, this isn't for teens. Its for a niche market emotionally stunted fanboys who get off on torture porn"

This is a really poor comment. You're assigning your personal dislike of violence to "most people" then insulting anyone who disagrees.

It comes off even more as you projecting your personal issues when you call a relatively tame comic like Teen Titans "torture porn." I think you've lost touch with "most people" there.

"Are you saying that is a good thing?"

I think it's a good thing that teens can understand and handle violence. I think it's a bad thing to pretend otherwise. I think it's a bad thing when you start shuffling books around for content, especially from teens who can certainly handle the content.

I think it's absurd to have this discussion about teens in a country that will sentence teens to death.

collectededitions said...

All of this well said. Now, Geoff Johns' first issues on Titans were "icky," too, from Kid Flash getting shot in the knee (graphic depiction of the wound) to Ravager stabbing herself in the eye.

But what I noticed was that Johns' Teen Titans issues were just more fun; the team liked and cared for one another, got along, and made the reader like them, too. I don't mind a slow build where a team gets to know one another, but McKeever's Titans don't much seem to like one another, and bicker so much that I don't much like them, either (I've all but dropped the book). Eddy Barrows' art has appealed to me with certain inkers, but here it's just too dark, lending itself to that sense of dreariness overall.

Again, I think you summed it all up well.

John Hyperion said...

"I don't necessarily thing Marvel's labeling is the best way to go either (it's pretty arbitrary, really), but I wish DC would either stamp "For Mature Readers" on their books that contain content that would necessitate an R, NC-17 or lack of rating (to avoid an NC-17) in a film, or just not include that content."

Comic books aren't movies, and the less labels the better. Labels inevitably lead to editorial and corporate censorship.

"It's not really the teenagers I think would mind all the torture and threat of sexual violence though, it's their parents or the sorts of adult busybodies who go through library shelves looking for inappropriate material, you know? "

SPOILER ALERT: Parents will never stop complaining no matter how carefully something is rated see: Movies, Video Games, TV Shows.

Sandy said...

I agree, Caleb -- and look at the cover image to the book! It looks like it's meant for 10-year-olds and younger kids. One goal of putting this stuff in the adult section of the library is to avoid dealing with "adult busybodies," as you put it. Those are the idiots who would burn the books if they could, and prevent anyone from seeing them.

Another goal should be to make it clear to parents that these books are not meant for children.

Lastly, another goal really should be to decrease the chances that young kids will see this stuff -- it simply is not good for kids to be exposed to violent images. I hate to sound like a Wertham-supporter, but psychologists have shown that exposure to violence at a young age leads kids to engage in violent behavior when they are older. Don't censor the books or burn them, just put them in the area of the library where little kids are less likely to see them.

Sandy said...

John, I disagree that "it's absurd to have this discussion about teens in a country that will sentence teens to death."

You are basically saying that we should allow kids to harm themselves and other people, just because there are worse things that could happen to them.

It's a terrible thing that this country sentences teenagers to death. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't discuss and try to deal with smaller problems.

You also wrote "I think it's a good thing that teens can understand and handle violence. I think it's a bad thing to pretend otherwise."

Sure, violence is a part of life, and maybe we shouldn't try to hide that fact from teenagers and children. But we also shouldn't promote violence to children or needlessly encourage them to view violent images.

Kid Kyoto said...

For me I have a serious issue with DC using the same characters in kids-teens and adult's products. A normal person might assume the smiling friendly Batman of the Brave and Bold cartoon is the same character as the brooding violent on in say the Joker OGN. And they're not.

Disney keeps their characters for kids, there's no Mickey X-treme! where he pulls out spines.

I understand that comics, the medium, has grown up but DC should create new character to populate mature stories, or drop the kid-friendly stuff if they're going to put torture and rape in Batman books.

Jay said...

John, try showing that second pic (the one where someone's spine is being ripped out?!) to a casual acquaintance in your office or school or wherever and see if they consider it tame.

Would you even be comfortable showing it to a casual acquaintance? Honestly?

John Hyperion said...

"You are basically saying that we should allow kids to harm themselves and other people, just because there are worse things that could happen to them."

No, I'm saying we should allow teens to read comics that teens can handle and not try to hide it from them just because we personally don't like it.

"But we also shouldn't promote violence to children or needlessly encourage them to view violent images."

Who is talking about promoting violence to children or encouraging them to view violent images? I was talking about teenagers and not trying to block them from seeing images they can handle.

"A normal person might assume the smiling friendly Batman of the Brave and Bold cartoon is the same character as the brooding violent on in say the Joker OGN."

These hypothetical normal people should learn how to look at books before they buy them.

Although the normal person had no problem with the violence in the Batman films, especially The Dark Knight.

"John, try showing that second pic (the one where someone's spine is being ripped out?!) to a casual acquaintance in your office or school or wherever and see if they consider it tame."

You mean the same people who watch CSI and Criminal Minds and Saw and don't take comics seriously? I doubt the words "torture porn" would come out of their mouth if they read the comic. You really need to take a step back and realize not everyone is as passionate about this as you are.

david_b said...

Nothing that's been done in the name of the 'Titans' has been worth anything since the early 80s. Whether they should go 'retro' or stay contemporary to improve story quality or issue sales has been bantered around to death. Basically, no one has a clue what to do with them. Gratuitous violence isn't likely to be the best step forward.

Frankly, I'll just collect the Wolfman/Perez or Nick Cardy memories, everyone.

David B.

Vanja said...

This was a very, very good review

LiamKav said...

"Although the normal person had no problem with the violence in the Batman films, especially The Dark Knight."

You mean the films packaged as grown-up pieces of work, right? Compare the DVD cover of The Dark Knight with the cover of these issues, and tell me that they are aimed at the same people.

Also, your posts contain lots of sentences that just don't make sense. "We send teenagers off to kill other teenagers on a regular basis, and celebrate."

1/ A large portion of the country doesn't celebrate that.
2/ America sends out SOLDIERS to fight other SOLDIERS. Or terrorists. Or, well, that's a whole different argument. I'm fairly certain though that their advertising policy isn't "join up and kill teenagers".
3/ I'm not buying your use of the word "regular" there. And out of all the teenagers in the US, how many are in the armed forces? (Likewise for your later comment, how many teenagers are actually given the death sentence every year?)

"I think it's a good thing that teens can understand and handle violence."

I'd like to know a sitatuion where "handling" the Sentry ripping a guy in half is at all relevent to what the average teenager will encounter during his day.

Thomas said...

First off, J. Caleb, thank you so much for this article. You managed to give voice to everything that makes me feel uncomfortable about hanging out in the present DCU Under DiDio.

And collectededitions, the thing I actually appreciated about the Johns run (I may not like Johns much as a writer, but he has written such good things as Titans and JSA) is that even though things like Kid Flash getting knee-capped happened, they happened for a purpose. The stuff that goes on in McKeever's run are there just for the shock value. The DiDio DCU has become a junior high schooler's concept of 'adult, sophisticated fare'--an over-the-top riot of blood, cursing and inapproriate sexual content that is, at its core, the same stories you read before you entered junior high school.

THat's why The New DCU is The Silver Age with more anal rape, swearing and forcible dismemberment....

Nightwing said...

Thomas, I've always said Didio's DCU is like THE SUPERFRIENDS as directed by Quentin Tarentino minus the quality.

Caleb said...

Wow, there are a lot of comments here, and some good discussion...and I've only had to delete one person's comments so far! Awesome.

Comic books aren't movies, and the less labels the better. Labels inevitably lead to editorial and corporate censorship.

Well, like I said, I don't think levels of ratings like Marvel uses (or the movies use) are the best way to go, but there's no reason they can't put a tiny "For Mature Readers" stamp on the more violent DCU books like they do Vertigo books.

And editorial or publish-itorial censorship is self-censorship, and not the bad thing that, say, government censorship is. These comics could have benefited from an editor suggesting that the images be a little more evocative than exploitive, or suggesting that maybe having Wonder Dog devour two kids just to motivate Wonder Girl to switch from her sixth to her seventh costume isn't the best constructed narrative arc.

For me I have a serious issue with DC using the same characters in kids-teens and adult's products. A normal person might assume the smiling friendly Batman of the Brave and Bold cartoon is the same character as the brooding violent on in say the Joker OGN. And they're not.

I remember reading a post by someone—Noah Berlatsky, maybe?—about his son being frightened and having a bad dream after encountering Vampire Batman in a comics store, and saying there's no vampire version of Thomas The Tank Engine.

I think the flexibility of some of DC's characters—like, the fact that Batman can be the center of The Dark Knight, which I liked, and The Brave and the Bold cartoon, which I love—is a great thing about some of those characters, and the company would be foolish not to embrace that aspect.

On the other hand, it seems bizarre to me that Batman can't team up with Swamp Think or John Constantine, but Teen Titans can have scenes of spines being yanked out or Sue Dibny could get raped on the JLA meeting table.

There's a pretty big difference between a dark, violent, psychologialy disturbing version of Batman for the big screen that makes gazillions of dollars, and a very violent issue of Teen Titans that like 30,000 people read. The violence doesn't sell any more, and it rarely adds anything to the stories, so why bother?


You mean the same people who watch CSI and Criminal Minds and Saw and don't take comics seriously?

I've never seen CSI or heard of Criminal Minds—Law & Order and Castle are my only police procedural shows—but I'd be awfully surprised to find out that an episode of CSI showed two people getting ripped in half in the space of a few seconds.

Saw is a more fair comparison, but then, the Saw movies are rated R and you're supposed to be at least 17 to be able to see 'em, whereas Teen Titans is all-ages. Saw is also a horror/gore movie franchise, whereas Teen Titans is a superhero series about teenage superheroes...in other words, one is supposed to be horrifying and gory, the fact that the other one is should come as a surprise, shouldn't it?

Lionel Braithwaite said...

I agree with John. Caleb, your boo-boo bitching is just tiresome, and besides, DC has a kid's line, so I think that you should just chill out.

And John is right again; this whiny complaining about 'OMG! Kids are looking at this!' is a load of hypocrisy coming from a nation (and a populace) that send young kids off to war and also executes them-not to mention also sends them to jail for life, with adults (a story point of a DC comics title whose name escapes me, for the moment.)

Caleb said...

Lionel,

DC also has a mature reader's line, and this title isn't part of it...it's in it's all-ages DC line.

Not sure what to make of the rest of your post. I don't send kids off to war, imprison them or execute them. (And not that this has anything to do with a Teen Titans comic, but if it were up to me we wouldn't be fighting one of our current wars at all or executing any criminals).

LiamKav said...

I'm still confused by the "sending kids off to war" bit. I'd missed the part where children were taken out of their homes, given a helmet and sent off to Afghanistan.

Of course, saying "this is ridiculous coming from a nation that allows people who are old enough to have sex the opportunity to get a job working for the army in the full knowledge that they might get sent of to a war zone" isn't quite as catchy.

Farseer said...

I like the Teen Titans and I really wanted to like this book, but finally I had to drop it. It's just too awful to put up with. At its best times it was just readable, but most of the time it was painful. I read it with sadness and a sense of fascinated horror at how low the franchise has fallen... No coherent plot... No character development... A stream of characters leaving through one door of titan tower while another stream enters through another one... Filled with characters I neither know nor care about... Boring and pointless tie-ins and crossovers...

It's a real mess, unreadable even for devoted fans.

Really, someone at DC should read twenty issues in a row and feel ashamed at what they are doing. It's just not working at all. They need to separate this one a bit from day to day DCU continuity and allow a stable character rooster, preferably with some likable characters.