Know Thy History: Teen Titans
It happens every single time. There’s a new interpretation of a superhero out… but it’s totally different from what we’ve seen before! We grumble, whine, and complain about how the new directors are pandering to the terrible sensibilities of kids these days, ignoring the elements that made these heroes so beloved in the first place. But you owe to to yourself to step back a little. Dig up the source material and really look at it. Read the first issue encased in that anthology series, or even that first self-titled comic, and ask yourself: isn’t this always what Bob Haney and Nick Cardy intended?
That’s right, I’m talking about Teen Titans Go! It’s positioned in the enviable task of following up the highly well regarded Young Justice series. The way fans are going after it, it’s like … well, it’s like when the original Teen Titans cartoon debuted in the shadow of the much beloved Justice League series. (Teen Titans eventually became a well loved franchise in its own right, hence this new series which follows the character design of the original but is geared at a much younger age set.)
Yet, while the first episode of Teen Titans Go! follows “the team on a trip across the globe to find legendary sandwich ingredients”, you gotta realize that the original Teen Titans? They were pretty far out, man.
The Teen Titans were created by the Silver Age super team of Bob Haney and Nick Cardy. I talked about Cardy’s work back when I did the Know Thy History of Aquaman. It’s very action packed. So who’s Bob Haney? He’s probably best known for throwing in high concept ideas and never stopping once to explain anything or to let the reader catch a breather. For example, why does a Hellship float around containing full scale replicas of Gotham, Metropolis, and the Wild West in its hull? Never explained. As podcaster Tom Katers once said on his Aquaman podcast: “Bob Haney don’t care! Bob Haney gonna do what he wants!”
The original Teen Titans consisted of the superhero sidekicks of three of DC’s main characters: Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad. It was the early 1960’s, when Baby Boomers were reaching their teens and represented a huge emerging market. Elvis and the Beatles were hitting the airwaves. Hip surfer teen Gidget was conquering the movie screens and soon the TV. And comics with teen protagonists, especially the ones featuring Archie and the Riverside Gang, were taking off. And thus, DC assembled a team of boys in short shorts to stick to those square adults who didn’t just gets the hip new lingo, man.
Of course! No teen-ager ever uses the word “music”! Robin, you magnificent bastard!
You know, I hear the accusations that comics were run by old men who had no idea how to write teenagers and their crazy slang. Comics historian Les Daniels wrote: “The attempt to reach the youth culture then embracing performers like the Beatles and Bob Dylan impressed some observers as strained.” I have an alternate theory. Your parents (or grandparents) totally talked like this, and they DO NOT WANT TO ADMIT IT.
Anyway, it sets up the generational battle lines that would be a common theme in the early Teen Titans comics. The kids (Baby Boomers) are mad because the adults don’t understand them. (“If we don’t get our new teen-age clubhouse, we’ll go on strike!”) The adults (the Greatest Generation) are upset the kids are lazy pieces of crap. (“I propose a curfew to solve our town’s teen-age problem!” says the senile old mayor.) I agree with the grown-ups, by the way. Today, it’s clubhouses. Tomorrow, it’s staying up after 9 and going to ice cream shoppes unchaperoned. In that path lies madness.
Wait a minute. On strike from what?!?! Being a lazy teen-ager?
The bad guy in this story is a guy named Mr. Twister. He is also creepy as sin. What’s he’s been doing? Well, he’s been stealing all the teen-agers. That’s… way skeevy for a Silver Age comic. Comics Code Authority, were you sleeping at the wheel on this one? Seriously, he’s a toothless, unshaven drifter in a dirty Revolutionary War reenactment outfit who goes around kidnapping underaged teenagers. Good innocent fun! (Surprisingly, he’s not the creepiest villain introduced by Team Haney & Cardy.) He’s defeated when Robin discovers he can use a firetruck ladder to get to the level of the flying menace. The teen-agers are saved! (Though psychological scars will be forever.) To show their support, the rescued teens have changed their picket signs to say, “ADULTS — WE LOVE ‘EM!” (Clearly a forgery. If they were real teen-agers, it would read, “ADULTS — WE DIG ‘EM!” Ya feel me?)
Eventually, the team is joined by Wonder Girl — who, incidentally, would create a massive continuity headache. Bob Haney brought her to the team assuming that she was a new character when Wonder Girl, in fact, was an imaginary teenage version of Wonder Woman that was only ever featured in “impossible tales” (like the ones where Superman uses a supercomputer to see the non-existent kid he raised). This was the beginning of decades long retconning with the origins for Donna Troy, a mess for DC that continues to this very day.
Like Katers said, Bob Haney gonna do what he wants!
Together, they fight bodiless giants straight out of a Salvador Dali nightmare (for real, this looks like something out of a crazy indie comic)…
… a giant robot conquistador named El Conquistadore while on an innocent peace corp mission…
… and a creepy neckbeard named Ding Dong Daddy.
That last scene? Seriously creepy. Wonder Girl — who is not of legal age, may I remind you — is seducing the villain by dancing awkwardly and saying things like “Ring-ading-ding!” Which is actually working and totally turning on this greasy as hell older dude. Whose name is Ding Dong Daddy. And who’s wearing a shirt that says “Ding Dong Daddy, The Go Man.” Where is Chris Hansen when you need him?
The Silver Age silliness wouldn’t last long, though. Shoot, it wouldn’t last 25 issues. The teeny-bopper generation would turn into the hippie generation so quickly you wouldn’t have time to catch a breather. Eventually, Bob Haney’s sensibilities would be replaced by DC’s new directive at tackling social issues of the day. Green Lantern was being yelled at by an old guy for not caring about black-skins, Lois Lane was turning black, and Wonder Woman traded in her star-spangled panties for karate gear. And over in Teen Titans, Neal Adams got on board to punch up the art while Marv Wolfman worked behind the scenes to punch up the scripts. Protests over the right to create teen-age clubhouses were superseded by anti-war protests.
See what you did, Teen Titans? You killed a peace activist. The most important man in the world. Coming from The Flash, that means something. Batman’s so disappointed … and Superman is SO mad at you. Look at that accusatory finger. No more crazy teen scenes for you.
The trend toward storytelling from a mature perspective would continue all the way through the 80’s, when Marv Wolfman and George Perez would take over and rebrand the title The New Teen Titans. This is the roster everyone remembers. Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, and Beast Boy joined up and went on adventures where they fought living brains, Deathstroke the Terminator, evil cults, and the devil himself. Incidentally, check out that bikini on Starfire. What do you got to say about that, David Willis?
Some time later, the title would spit into two. The title followed the trend of going dark and gritty in the 90’s, several characters died, there were a few hundred reboots, yadda yadda yadda, we’re pretty much back to square one again with Silver Age weirdness and teenage funtimes being the in-thing again.
So that pretty much covers the origins of the Teen Titans: crazy silliness that we’re somehow looped back to today. Got anything left to say about these Teen Titans, El Conquistadore?
You said it, man. Fantastico.
Posted on June 13, 2013, in comics, Know Thy History, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged Aqualad, DC Comics, Kid Flash, Robin, Teen Titans, Teen Titans Go, Titans, Wonder Girl. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.