The Thrill of the Hunt
The Teen Titans began in the mid-1960s as a group of sidekicks who occasionally hung out and had adventures. As many DC characters did, the team went in some shaggy and weird directions in the 1970s. But in 1980, Marv Wolfman and George Perez revamped the team completely, adding new members (Cyborg, Changeling a.k.a. Beast Boy, Raven, Starfire) and glowing up originals Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl. The New Teen Titans was a massive hit, and at its height rivaled the popularity of The Uncanny X-Men. In fact, that’s the book it was most compared to, as both concerned a diverse group of characters who operated as a makeshift family.
Stan Lee coined the term “the illusion of change” in superhero comics, which basically means that writers can only enact temporary changes in status quo. In most cases this tenet held fast, but sometimes actual change did happen, which is what made things like the All-New, All-Different X-Men, Spider-Man’s wedding, and the New Mutants’ transformation into X-Force that much more thrilling.
DC in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t trade much in the illusion of change, but instead proffered the real thing. Post-Crisis in Infinite Earths they seemed to view their characters as living, breathing people whose lives evolve and move forward. The New Teen Titans title was a big part of that, with Robin becoming Nightwing, and Wonder Girl growing old enough that the name didn’t suit her anymore.
This is all to say that when I first encountered New Titans #82 it was genuinely shocking. I didn’t have much idea what was going on or who the characters were, but I could tell the stakes were high and the consequences were real. I quickly sought out the previous 11 issues and consumed them greedily. What I found was a story unlike anything I’d read in comics to that point, full of clever revelations and twists – layers of betrayals and identity revelations and surprising character moments.
In broad strokes, “Titans Hunt” concerns the members of the Titans – both present and past – being systematically hunted down and captured (or in the case of Aqualad and Golden Eagle, brutally attacked). A combination of Nightwing, Arella (Raven’s mother), Steve Dayton (Beast Boy’s father), Deathstroke (the team’s sworn enemy), Phantasm, and Pantha (two new characters) team up to try to unravel exactly what happened, and to rescue the Titans. By the end of the story, the New Titans team had been remade, and not a single member of the cast was left unaffected.
And the art! Tom Grummett didn’t have a long resume in comics at that time. In fact, his work on New Titans was his first work for DC. Unlike many artists whose first professional work shows signs of growing pains, Grummett seemed to spring forth fully formed, with impeccable storytelling, solid fundamentals in anatomy and facial expressions, and a style simpatico with Perez’s but unique unto itself.
“Titans Hunt” was an exceedingly well-crafted story, and it demonstrated for me just how tight and well-plotted and exciting month-to-month comics storytelling could be. In fact, I’d say it spoiled me. Remember I was still mired in Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld comics that looked amazing but were often a slog to actually read.
In fact, it’s difficult not to relate this to the New Mutants and their transformation into X-Force, but besides the general concept of dramatically overhauling a teen team, there aren’t a lot of commonalities between the two. Whereas the dismantling of the New Mutants felt abrupt, the rehauling of the Titans felt natural. Because Wolfman had been writing the book for so long he was able to pick up on subplots he’d left dangling to make this epic story seem like it was planned, even though it wasn’t – at least not consciously. And though turning a family of teen friends into a militaristic strike force – as happened with New Mutants – had an adolescent thrill at the time, the story of the Titans becoming closer through tragedy is deeper and rings truer.
That said, there are clear places were Wolfman and DC were – in their own quaint way – trying to chase the success of X-Force.
See “Titans Hunt” had set up another epic, “Total Chaos,” in which a team of Titans from the future arrive in present day to try to prevent their dystopian timeline from existing. The team – called the Team Titans - was a strike-force and had some morally ambiguous characters. There was even a drill sergeant type who toted a big gun, AND the book launched with five different covers (granted, they also had five different opening stories). Wolfman has admitted these Team Titans had been created as a one-shot idea, but were retrofitted to echo X-Force (he even flirted briefly with creating a Titans team with Liefeld himself, but the deal fell through; Shaft from Youngblood was Liefeld’s redesign for Titan Roy Harper).
“Total Chaos” was as awful as “Titans Hunt” was great. In a 2005 interview, Wolfman would astutely comment of “Total Chaos” that “the title kind of describes it.” The story ran through three months of the three Titans titles, though the Deathstroke chapters concern themselves with an utterly unconnected plotline, and both Titans teams spend most of the story gathered in various living rooms whilst bickering with one another. Worse, the main thrust of the story had no internal or external logic.
In that same 2005 interview, Wolfman expressed little fondness for his work on Titans in the 1990s. He’d claim that – like so many other established writers during this era – he essentially fell into a position of simply writing what he was told to write by editorial.
So it’s no surprise that “Total Chaos” represented not a fluke but a new sort of status quo. The Titans book became a disjointed mess. Following several issues of on-again-off again work on the book, Grummett left to work on the Superman books (watch a future essay for more on that). The 1994 Zero Hour event prompted another overhaul of the team, leaving only a couple of original members along with a mismatched group of characters established elsewhere (Supergirl, Green Lantern, Damage). This era was further hampered by a lack of a consistently good artist, and thus failed to connect with fans.
Wolfman left the Titans for good in 1996. He’d written the team for an astonishing 16 years. Fittingly, this feat equaled Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men.
Cadigan, Glen. Titans Companion. TwoMorrows. Raleigh, NC. 2005.