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How DC Comics Can Restore Luster to the Teen Titans Franchise

by on October 14, 2013

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Next year is Batman’s 75th Anniversary, and DC Comics are already announcing many of their big plans to celebrate the big guy’s birthday. But, as it so happens, 2014 is also the anniversary year of another big DC franchise, one that once saved DC’s bacon at a critical time in the company’s history, and was once their most popular title: the Teen Titans, who celebrate fifty years. While it may not seem the case at the moment, the Teen Titans is easily one of DC Comics’ most important and valuable franchises.

And yet right now, the book is one of the least talked about of DC’s New 52 initiative, except usually when that talk is in the negative. The current Teen Titans comic seems to be rudderless, and four of the classic original members seemingly don’t even exist in this new universe. Here’s why 2014 shouldn’t be just Batman’s big year, but how the anniversary should used to save the Titans franchise and do justice (no pun intended) to those beloved characters.

The History of the Teen Titans, and Why They’re Important

The Teen Titans debuted, unofficially, in a 1964 issue of The Brave and the Bold, when three kid sidekicks of the Justice League members – Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad — teamed up to save a small town. The issue was so well received that a year later, the boys were joined by Wonder Girl and officially dubbed “The Teen Titans.” The book was very sixties, and very much aimed at pre-teens (unlike Marvel’s output at the time, which was aimed at older teenagers, and therefore hipper than anything DC was putting out.) The book was cancelled in 1973, and revived in 1976, only to be cancelled again two years later. But with the Titans, the third time was indeed the charm it turned out.

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In 1980, DC Comics as a publisher was in trouble. Marvel was owning them in terms of comic book sales by a significant margin, with only licensing and toys keeping the company afloat. It was during this time that three long term Marvel creators, writer Marv Wolfman (Tomb of Dracula), artist George Perez (Avengers, Fantastic Four), and editor Len Wein (writer of Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, creator of Wolverine) defected to DC Comics. DC publisher Jenette Kahn wanted to see if they could work some of that Marvel magic at DC, and getting all three of these guys to defect was quite a win for her. One of the very first things they pitched to Kahn was a re-launch of The Teen Titans. It was Wein who said he approached her with the idea, and Kahn said she thought they were crazy to suggest the Teen Titans again after the last failed revival, but Wein, Wolfman, and Perez sold her on the idea, and the book turned DC’s fortunes around.

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The first issue of The New Teen Titans, which debuted in 1980, sold five times what all the other DC books were selling. It was neck and neck with Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men as the #1 comic book in the country. The success of Titans helped evolve the character of Robin/Dick Grayson from a guy that the Batman titles were half ashamed to use into his own hero, Nightwing; it turned Kid Flash from just another side-kick into the character who would inherit the Flash mantle for a whole generation of fans, and, maybe most importantly, it gave readers a prominent male African American hero who wasn’t just another “black power” stereotype with Cyborg. The success of the title helped keep the company afloat and helped stop parent company Warner Brothers from licensing their characters to Marvel. Yes, fanboys and fangirls, believe it or not, that almost happened.

By the end of the ’80s, Titans mania had peaked, especially after artist George Perez left the book for good, circa 1990. The book limped along, overshadowed by their own rival book X-Men and the Image boom. In the later part of the ’90s, DC gave the second generation of teen sidekicks their own team, Young Justice, and the ’80′s era Titans re-united as simply The Titans. Young Justice ran for five years and eighty issues, and Titans ran for fifty issues. Neither could be considered a failure, but neither set the world on fire. Both books were cancelled rather unceremoniously, but that wasn’t the end.

Titans Mania, Take 2

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In 2003, two things happened that launched the Teen Titans into maybe their biggest wave of popularity, at least with the mainstream. First off, writer Geoff Johns, then an up-and-coming guy at DC, combined the core members of the former Young Justice team (Superboy, Robin III, Wonder Girl II and Kid Flash II) with the “elder” former New Teen Titans Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy and Cyborg as their mentors into a new incarnation of the Teen Titans. This version was an instant success, and put the Titans back on the top of the sales charts again for the first time since Reagan was in office.

But the thing that really put the Titans over the top was the debut of their anime-influenced animated series on Cartoon Network. The show was an instant hit, making household names of the Titans with kids worldwide. Titans was riding a second wave of popularity that arguably dwarfed the first one. But a few years later, the show ended, Geoff Johns moved on to bigger things at DC, and Titans Mania: The Sequel ended.

It’s two years into the New 52 relaunch at DC, and it is fair to say the initiative has been a sales (and sometimes creative) success for the company, but the New 52 version of the Titans seems like a relic of the early ’90s. Utilizing the main cast of the Geoff Johns Titans, this time Superboy, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash and Red Robin are meeting up for the first time, and a lot of the charm is gone. Add to that, much like most of the New 52 universe, the entirety of the old Titans history is gone. And three of the four original Teen Titans, characters with long standing DC histories, simply don’t exist anymore, outraging a lot of older fans, who, whether the powers-that-be like it or not, still make up the majority of DC’s readership.

Solution: Introduce the Justice Titans

DC has a decent amount of success with the book Earth-2, which showcases a revised take on the old Justice Society of America heroes as brand new, much younger characters. With Grant Morrison’s upcoming Multiversity series, DC seems to be embracing the notion of a multiverse wholeheartedly, and that’s a good thing. My suggestion for DC, as a fan of both the Post-Crisis DC Universe and the original Teen Titans, is to throw the older fans like me a bone, and give us a book — just ONE measly book — set on an Earth that resembles the history of the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe.

But that Earth should come with a twist, a twist big enough to separate it from the rest of the New 52 books: make this a book set on that world where the iconic DC hero characters like Superman, Batman etc. are finally allowed to age, maybe even die, allowing the original Teen Titans to take over the mantle of their heroes and take center stage for good. Three of the four original Titans have no analogs in the New 52 universe, and fans have been asking of their whereabouts at conventions now for two years solid.

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On this Earth — lets just call it Earth-? for now — the original Justice League has retired, leaving their original kid partners to take up their mantles in the Justice League. Since the leadership of the new League is made up of the four original Teen Titans, they rename the team The Justice Titans. (DC actually used the idea of an alternate Earth with a grown up Titans using that name in an issue of Superman/Batman a few years back, so it’s already copyrighted.) The bulk of the team is made up of remaining members of a combined Justice Society of America and Justice League of America, although many of the old World War II heroes have finally passed on. If I were DC, I’d make the bulk of the team made of DC characters that currently don’t have analogs in the New 52 Earth, like Jade and Obsidian. But the main dramatic emphasis should be on the four original Titans, all grown up and taking their mentor’s places.

Wally West as The Flash

This is the biggest no-brainer of the group, and one that would almost guarantee the book’s success. From 1986-2008, Wally was DC’s main Flash, and even after Barry Allen was brought back, Wally remained as the Flash, even if he didn’t have his own comic. For an entire generation, Wally is their Flash, and to have him simply not exist now is maybe the most insulting thing to many fans. There isn’t a single major comics convention that some fan doesn’t ask, “where’s Wally?,” much to DC’s chagrin. They want to sell us on Barry Allen again, and that’s fine… but if the original Flash, Jay Garrick, can exist on an alternate Earth, why can’t Wally? Needless to say, the inclusion of Wally would probably make this an instant top ten book for many fans.

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Donna Troy as Wonder Woman

Probably the second most asked about character who has been missing since the launch of the New 52 has to be Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl. Poor Donna is a character who has maybe the most convoluted back story in mainstream comics, yet her character remains popular and beloved despite her twisted history. The reasons are simple: she has similar looks and powers to Wonder Woman, but without all the weight of having to be an icon for feminism put on her. In other words, she’s allowed to make mistakes, like marrying an older man at the age of 19.

Whereas Wonder Woman is more of an otherworldly Amazon (arriving in our world as an adult) Donna arrives at the age of 13, and is more the all-American girl next door, and everyone’s best friend. In the New 52, Donna Troy hasn’t shown up, and probably never will. Wonder Woman herself is only said to be 23 now, and with Cassie Sandsmark, the New 52 Earth’s Wonder Girl, there seems to be no room for Donna, or reason for her to be there.

However, as part of the Justice Titans, Donna Troy could have simply eventually graduated to the role of Wonder Woman, something she actually did once before for a brief time. Diana could still be around, maybe as Queen of the Amazons, or as a full time ambassador, but Donna can finally become Wonder Woman for good on this alternate Earth.

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Dick Grayson as Batman

After the events of 2008′s Final Crisis, Bruce Wayne was seemingly killed by Darkseid, leaving his original protege Dick Grayson to take over the cowl and become the second Batman. This led to a year’s worth of stories from Grant Morrison that were among the very best of his seven year Batman run, with the former Robin making for a less-serious Dark Knight and a very serious (and lethal) Robin in the form of Damian Wayne, Bruce’s ten-year-old son. Fans and critics loved this combination, and even when Bruce Wayne returned, Dick Grayson was still allowed to remain as “Batman II” in the Justice League.

When the old DCU ended with Flashpoint, he was still Batman, in fact. New 52 Dick Grayson, while supposedly having been Batman for a time, returned to the role of Nightwing at the age of 21, with years of character growth shaved off. As far as we can tell, this version of Nightwing was never leader of the Titans, never a cop in Bludhaven, and certainly never a Justice Leaguer.

I would simply have Earth-?’s Dick Grayson having remained as Batman, instantly setting him apart from New 52 Earth’s much younger Nightwing. And considering how many fans loved Damian Wayne as Robin, a version of him should still be Batman’s sidekick. Fans can have a version of Damian back without undoing Grant Morrison’s story.

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Garth of Atlantis as Aquaman

Poor Aqualad has always had a tough go of it; think of all the disrespect Aquaman gets, then try being Aquman’s sidekick. one of the original four Teen Titans, he was the first to be replaced in the late sixties when writers got tired of having to figure out ways for him to use his powers (he was replaced with Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick.) When the New Teen Titans was launched, he was the only original member not included in the team, therefore missing out on all their popularity. And in the late eighties and into the nineties, when his fellow classic teen sidekicks graduated to new, adult code-names and costumes… he was still in his little blue trunks. Finally in 1996, he got cooler powers and a better costume, and became Tempest.

I’d say that Earth-?’s Aquaman retired and finally allowed for Garth to assume the role of resident sea hero of the Justice Titans. When Alex Ross gave the adult Garth a beard in his role as Aquaman II in his and Mark Waids’ epic mini-series Kingdom Come, I thought that was cool look, and one that I would keep, with maybe a few more tweaks to it.

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So there you have it, DC… a perfect way to celebrate a franchise that has been very good to you over the last fifty years, and a way to get readers back who miss the old DCU without tossing aside your whole New 52 initiative. Now it is simply up to you to take our advice.

All concept sketches by Conner Che