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.