BY THE LATE 1970s, IT WAS CLEAR THAT MARVEL’S The Uncanny X-Men was the top comic among fans and critics alike. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that DC, eager to keep one step ahead of Marvel, would borrow a page from Marvel’s textbook… namely, the one that described how to create a new and improved title using a second-string team of young heroes as a template.
To start at the beginning: The original Teen Titans were four teenage superhero sidekicks who banded together to fight evil. First appearing as a team in The Brave and the Bold #54 (June 1964), Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad would generate enough fan interest to get their own series in 1966 (Wonder Girl and Speedy, Green Arrow’s youthful partner, would later join in the fun). Perhaps because of their age, the Teen Titans of the 1960s and ’70s rarely confronted menaces as serious as those of their adult counterparts, and the truly memorable part of their stories was the laughably dated “jivin'” dialogue that sounded as if it was written by middle-aged men trying to write the way they thought teenagers spoke (which, of course, is what it was). Despite numerous additions to the cast, an attempt to revive the series in 1976 lasted just ten issues.
So it’s fair to say there weren’t many great expectations for The New Teen Titans when it debuted in 1980. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, however, defied even the most optimistic forecasts and created the book that would become the first true superstar of the 1980s, a book that at its height of popularity would set sales records and win numerous industry and fan awards for its storytelling and artwork. Just as the starbursted “new” on the first cover of “The New Teen Titans” warned us, there was nothing “old” about this team at all.
There were several reasons why this book struck a chord with readers. First, its writers had the sense to depict the characters as more than just watered-down versions of their mentors. As the stars of their own book, Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl developed their own separate personalities and rarely had to rely on their adult crime-fighting partners for help.
Second, the book wasn’t afraid to depict real-life issues or to give the Titans real challenges to face. In other words, no second-rate villains need to apply here. In one issue, they were spanning dimensions fighting the ultimate embodiment of evil; in the next, they were helping teen runaways on the streets of New York. The mix of science-fiction fantasy and concern for down-to-earth problems like racism and poverty — a trademark of the new X-Men series — was made even more obvious here.
Third, the writers came up with a trio of new characters who were so deftly depicted that they seemed to have been a part of the DC Universe for years. Together, Starfire (a flying, energy bolt-blasting alien princess), Raven (the damned daughter of a demon), and Cyborg (a young athlete whose ravaged body is made whole by cybernetic attachments) formed the emotional heart of the team, with each issue of the series interspersing team stories with stories of them as individuals facing their own problems. Even the Changeling, a green-skinned shape-shifter brought in for comic relief, developed a whole new personality, feeling the “survivors’ guilt” that came with outliving his former team, the Doom Patrol.
Then, of course, there was the artwork, which was simply stunning from day one, thanks to Perez’s pencils. He was clearly at the top of his form here, showing his love of lavishly detailed group shots that would make his work on DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths so memorable. I hate to keep doing this comparing thing, but just as John Byrne’s art on The X-Men set the stage for greater things to come, Perez’s work on The New Teen Titans set a new standard at DC.
But alas, it couldn’t last forever. Following Perez’s departure and the book’s move to a higher quality of newsprint (and limited distribution in comic shops), The New Teen Titans (eventually renamed The New Titans to de-emphasize the characters’ youth) would founder in its own excess, introducing new team members and super-villains that just didn’t have the same panache. The title finally ran out of steam in 1995, only to be replaced with a new Teen Titans book that shared only its name with its predecessor.
Still, its later troubles can’t overshadow its early successes, and the book’s first few years did something no one previously thought possible; they made DC’s gimmicky teen sidekicks anything but, and set the stage for even greater things to come from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
The Teen Titans weren’t the first teen sidekick super-team; Timely’s Young Allies began its five-year run in 1941. Captain America’s Bucky and the Human Torch’s Toro teamed up with four regular boys named Knuckles, Jeff, Tubby, and Whitewash to battle Nazi spies.
As if to emphasize the characters’ growing independence from their mentors, Robin shed his trademark red-and-yellow costume during one Teen Titans story to become the dark-clad Nightwing.
The Titans were based in a T-shaped building on Titan Island in the middle of New York Harbor; it was later revealed that the Changeling’s foster parent, a millionaire who once was a super-hero himself, was bankrolling their activities.