Sunday, March 29, 2009

A family of heroes without everyone having a tragic flaw... what a concept.

Lately I've been picking up some collections of the Marv Wolfman/George Perez The New Teen Titans stories. I recently described them to someone as being the best that mainstream superhero stories could do. In the past I've heard it said that George Perez is more of an illustrator than a storyteller, but between "The Judas Contract," "Who is Donna Troy?" and "A Lonely Place of Dying" I'd have to say that I disagree. He uses multiple page layouts to maximum effect and his detail-oriented style really makes the most of all the emoting these characters have to do.

But that leads me back to the title. The Teen Titans started out the same way that a number of things at DC comics did, as a form of brand expansion. The teen sidekicks who comprised the group were all brought in as a way for children to more closely relate to the stories, and team books were a natural extension once a company had enough characters that putting in the same book would be a good way to enjoy the windfall of the character's combined audiences. The Teen Titans, under Wolfman and Perez, represented one of the first examples of trying to do something great with characters and situations that were created for primarily financial reasons. The attitude the pair took was to give these characters real depth for the first time.

These characters all had different and strange relationships with their mentors that only others in their situation would understand. Roy Harper was left alone to turn to drugs while his mentor took a road trip with his buddy. Dick Grayson's father figure didn't really know how to be a father himself since he was an orphan as well. Donna's mentor was more of a big sister than a mother so she didn't have someone around to really show her the ropes. Beyond that you might notice that I'm not saying Speedy, or Wondergirl or Nightwing/Robin. That's because they took the attitude that these characters were so close they all shared their identities with each other, and, when by themselves or facing some menacing but extraworldly threat, they felt no need for masks or codenames.

They were all like a family. Granted all the boys had a crush on Donna when they first met her, and Dick Grayson would later go on to fall in love with Koriand'r. But you still had brotherly rivalries like Beast Boy/Changling/Gar Logan aggravating the hell out of Cyborg/Vic Stone.

For a long time I've thought the "flawed heroes" approach taken by Marvel is a simple way to add the impression of depth without actually doing it; Wolfman/Perez's Teen Titans proved that. Bickering and character flaws give you the surface of a family, but you'll never see the immature Human Torch put all that aside for one day just to make sure that Reed and Sue's wedding goes perfectly like Gar Logan did for Donna Troy. That wedding even got bonus points because I think it's the only superhero wedding that wasn't interrupted by a villain. It was little touches like that, or having Dick Grayson using all his detection skill that he learned from Batman to help his fellow orphan "sister" find her real parents, or a whole team coming together when one of their own develops a drug problem while his mentor was MIA. These people cared so strongly for each other that they'd go to the end of the universe if one of them needed it, no questions asked, and when someone actually did betray that circle of trust the heartbreak was palpable.

To put it quite simply, they were a family of real people and they were heroes and this didn't need to be a contradiction.