Or – “The Book That Saved DC Comics…”

In 1980, the comic industry was an entirely different beast than it is today.  Charlton Comics was on the edge of going under, the black and white boom hadn’t quite begun yet, Marvel was flourishing and poor DC Comics stood, if the stories are to be believed, on the edge of disaster.  When Marv Wolfman and George Perez came to DC to revamp the many-times-cancelled Teen Titans, they brought with them a dose of Marvel storytelling, an artistic flair, and a character-driven plan to make the Teen Titans relevant again.  According to some who were present, the book brought DC back from the edge of disaster (some claim that Warner was ready to shut the entire comic division down), but it clearly served as a bellwether of the comic boom that brought me into the industry for the first time…

New Teen Titans #38
Script: Marv Wolfman (co-plot & script); George Perez (co-plot)
Pencils: George Perez
Inks: Romeo Tanghal (finishes)
Colors: Adrienne Roy
Letters: Ben Oda
Publisher: DC Comics Inc.

Previously, on New Teen Titans:  They say it’s all Bob Haney’s fault.  It was he, as the writer of Teen Titans in ’64, who appropriated the Wonder Girl character from Robert Kanigher’s run on Wonder Woman, where she had appeared with Hippolyta, Wondy herself, and the wonderfully inspired Wonder Tot (who is my fave-rave character in the Wonder Woman mythos, right after I Ching.)  The only problem with Bob’s story is that Wonder Girl during Kanigher’s run was actually a child version of Diana herself, brought forward in time to adventure alongside the hero for funsies.  A story was finally assembled a few years later, explaining that Donna Troy was a human orphan that Wonder Woman saved from a fire, who was later given powers by exposure to the Amazon Purple Ray.  Growing up with the Titans, Donna became the team’s anchor, and eventually met Terry Long, who asked her to marry him.  Terry’s proposal finally convinced Donna that if she was truly going to have a normal life, she had to find out who she really was.  It’s Terry who ends up contacting Dick Grayson, the protege of the world’s greatest detective (and one of Donna’s closest friends) for assistance…

Some people complain about how ornate and complex George Perez is in his drawing, but the simple sight of Dick Grayson’s collar blowing in the wind makes Robin more real than any of the 40 years of stories he had been in at the time for me…   Robin quickly inventories the knowledge that they have, querying his friend about what she remembers of the time before she was a Titan.  Horribly, she recalls lying in flames next to the incinerated bodies of her parents, but she also recalls what comes next, as the door bursts open and a hero enters to save her…

It’s easy to see why this quickly became the best-selling book on the stands in the early 80’s, as Wolfman’s effortless dialogue is the beginning of a trend away from endless exposition and into character work that actually made the characters realistic in their emotions.  Combine that with George’s breath-taking art, and even the everyman character of Terry Long is given new depth.  He offers to pay Robin for his detective skills, but Dick won’t hear of it, setting off with Donna to see what they can find in the burned-out building where she was found.  They discover nothing but a tattered doll, but Donna’s reaction to it makes it clear that they’re on the right track.  Analyzing shreds of fabric found with the doll, Dick uses chemistry and sophisticated computer programs to suss out a message: “Hello, my name is Donna.”

The inscription leads him to “Uncle Max,” a man who used to repair toys for a local orphanage, which then leads him to the revelation of it’s closure due to a child slavery scandal, which leads him to a name:  Elmira Cassiday.  With Donna in tow, he follows this lead to find the woman herself…

It’s wonderful how Dick and Donna bond during this story, with Robin realizing that he loves her, even though they’ve never been a couple, and Donna coming to the realization of what her pal is capable of.  Elmira reveals that Donna’s birth mother gave her away due to her own illness, and that baby Wonder Girl was adopted by a nice couple called the Staceys.  Donna is thrilled to know the names of her deceased parents, and gushes her joy to Robin, but the not-much-longer-a-boy wonder has his doubts.  The room she was in wasn’t rented, setting off an alarm in his orderly mind.  Robin takes Wonder Girl back to Virginia, hoping that something will trigger her memory.  He gets even more than he bargained for…

It’s amazing that Perez can take Wonder Girl from super-powered dynamo to scared nineteen-year old girl so quickly, and this scene still has me misting up a little bit, even thirty years down the line.  Her adoptive mother reveals the last missing pieces of information:  Her husband died, she was penniless, and she, too, gave up Donna for a better life.  While she catches up with her adoptive mom, Robin visits the local penitentiary and clearing up the last loose end, in the form of Elmira’s lawyer.  Using a little coercion (“The Batman and I have many enemies in this prison.  If it should leak out that you are my stoolie…”) he gets the final bit of information:  The people in the room with Donna weren’t prospective parents at all, but the people who were waiting to sell her for 20 grand.

Our story ends on a high note, as Robin finally manages to shake off the ennui that has been plaguing him for several issues now, and calls up Starfire to try and repair their damaged relationship.  This issue is a stand-alone story, but with continuing themes for the Titans and their adventures.  In the next few issues, Robin retires his identity, Terra’s treachery comes to the forefront, and not long after, Donna and Terry marry in a beautiful wedding ceremony that doesn’t break out in superhuman violence.  The success of New Teen Titans came as a pleasant surprise, and it was pretty much my gateway drug into DC continuity.  A couple of years later, this creative team was given the monumental task of completely revamping 50 years of stories into a coherent whole.  (It almost worked…)  New Teen Titans #38 is a wonderfully human story, taking Bob Haney’s boo-boo and turning it into a touching tale of love and sacrifice, and it earns 5 out of 5 stars overall.  In a perfect world, this is how EVERY retcon would go…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful  Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  What other retcons would you like to see revisited with this level of care and skill?  (Spider-Man fans, you know you want to jump in, here…)

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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15 Comments

  1. December 12, 2010 at 11:11 pm — Reply

    I don’t know. Maybe we could get someone to retcon Hawkman…again.

    Seriously, though, I’d like someone to (surprise) make sense of Firestorm. Even more, I’d like someone to write a Firestorm that would SELL.

  2. Ian
    December 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm — Reply

    There are actually people that complain about Perez’s art? Seriously? We’d be lucky if today’s artists were more Perez and less McGuiness

  3. December 13, 2010 at 4:43 am — Reply

    This is one of my all-time favorite comic stories. There’s no fighting, and the scope is small, but it’s just so… beautiful. Wolfman hits all the right emotional notes without feeling completely over the top, and Perez’s art (you featured two of my favorites – Donna meeting her adoptive mother again and the visit with Elmira) makes the whole story feel more real. It works as a retcon because it focuses entirely on the characters, not tortured plot logic or audience expectations.

    I can’t answer your question (Greyman’s suggestions sound good, and I’m sure there’s a Legion one that would fit that’s escaping me), but thank you for spotlighting one of the best single issues of a comic EVER.

  4. Brainlock
    December 13, 2010 at 5:03 am — Reply

    One of the few comics I managed to hold onto over the years. Still a masterpiece.

    Too bad it’s been twisted inside out so many times, since, but that first time is still magical.

  5. Slappy
    December 13, 2010 at 5:45 am — Reply

    Swell story.
    I love that version of the Titans. The story of Who is Wonder Girl” a few years later also helps makes sense of the retcon debacle that ensued after Crisis.

    Regarding the question, I would also like to see Hawkman. I like the character, unfortunately Hawkworld f\/( |< ed it all up and made it incredibly difficult to make sense of anything.

  6. Navarre
    December 13, 2010 at 7:10 am — Reply

    Hands down one of the best issues of any comic I own. It is one of the reasons New Teen Titans vies for the top position of my favorite comic book series of all time.

    When I started dating my current girlfriend I wanted her to start reading comics with me. This was one of the issues I gave her. She was hooked and loved the characters as much as I do.

    Then this last series of Titans came out and we both had a good cry.

    And Perez is one of the best artists ever.

  7. Luis Dantas
    December 13, 2010 at 7:37 am — Reply

    Perez is a good artist, sure. But this is far from his best art. To be fair, Romeo Tanghal simply wasn’t the best of inkers for Perez pencils; I find this art rushed and lackluster, but it is only slightly subpar by the standards of that art team.

    Perez is in fact over-rated. He is a fairly good choice for crowd scenes and a fine storyteller. He also makes good use of panels and delivers a lot of content by printed page – in fact, he excels on that. But as far as line art goes he is mediocre and relies pretty much entirely on his inkers. Terry Austin, being Terry Austing, made him shine in the early X-Men Annual with Arkon. Romeo Tanghal and Jack Abel, among others… did not.

  8. December 13, 2010 at 8:46 am — Reply

    Didn’t they retcon this again in the ’90? I seem to remember a comic arc with the same name.

    Q: I’d like for OMD and OMIT to be erased from this universe. If we had to go back to Peter being single then I would have prefered it had been done tastefully and without crapping on Mary Jane. Just shows what you can get away with when you put a fan favorite artist and/or writer on the book after you drop your piece of dung story.

  9. eric
    December 13, 2010 at 11:00 am — Reply

    Now we can all take Luis out to the wood shed, tie him to a pole, and set the wood on fire. Herasy. You will have to recant those statements about Perez or risk being banned from the comic book store.

  10. Luis Dantas
    December 13, 2010 at 1:35 pm — Reply

    It almost makes sense… I never warmed up to Kevin Maguire’s pencils either, and Perez does sort of remind me of his work here.

  11. K-Mad
    December 13, 2010 at 1:39 pm — Reply

    The timing of your review is perfect. I just finished re-reading this last week and I wholly agree with your sentiments. I have loved Perez’s art since CoIE and agree with you, Matthew, that the little touches he adds to his panels (like Robin’s cape) are what makes his pages such a joy to look at. Also, I’m sure it’s been said before of this issue, but it’s great to see Dick using his detective skills in a story. Overall, this issue is a great example of how a “done in one” issue should be.

    As for your question, I wish someone would take a stab at revamping the Flash.

    I kid, I kid.

    Seriously, I wish that we could see Warren Ellis take a stab at retconning Youngblood. I’m a sucker for anything Ellis does, but after seeing his approach to the G.I. Joe cartoon, I would love to see his take on a Youngblood team that was a U.S. Strike Team (as Youngblood was in the first few issues, back in the 90s). I thought Alan Moore’s take on the team was fantastic (and way, way too short), but it was Moore’s (and Steve Scroce’s) talent that made that book something other than just a private superteam funded by the richest member. I think Ellis’ techno-conspiracy storytelling on a book about a U.S. covert ops super-team would be phenomenal (can you imagine what Ellis’ brain would come up with to explain two aliens on the team?), especially if it was paired with someone like a Sal Larocca who could draw both the “fighty fighty” and the “sneaky sneaky” bits.

    Anyhoo, that’s my 2 cents. Great review!

  12. RC
    December 13, 2010 at 5:30 pm — Reply

    When people ask why I don’t collect comics like I used to – First I say, “the cost” and then I point at this issue and say “The first Crisis invalidated that story and the ret-cons that came later were a joke. I was – in a way – pushed out.

  13. Stefanie
    December 13, 2010 at 9:04 pm — Reply

    “Some people complain about how ornate and complex George Perez is in his drawing”

    WHAT!?!? I never heard of such a thing! That’s like complaining that water is too wet, or that Buster Keaton is too funny.

  14. Adam
    December 16, 2010 at 11:26 am — Reply

    Of all comics, this is the only one that I have bought more than one copy.
    Because I wanted to!

    My personal favorite of ALL time.

    This is one of those rare examples when a creation so outshines the rest of it’s medium that it reaches a new level.

    Well, as soon as Matthew reviews Legion of Superheroes #300, he will finish off my top 3 :)

  15. Damascus
    March 15, 2011 at 1:11 am — Reply

    I’ve never read any of the old New Teen Titans, I think I’d like to after seeing this as an example though. I’ve liked the idea of the Teen Titans, just never picked any up before. This kind of storytelling speaks to me; character driven plot without simply being a fight scene with a bit of plot wrapped around it that’s dragged out over 3 issues before getting some resolution. Also, I don’t know what exactly this says about me, but I thought Perez drew a beautiful Donna Troy in this issue. The pink and white dress looked really cute, the high waisted jeans not so much, but there was something about the way he just subtly accentuated the breasts with slight lines underneath and around to show size and outline her assets. I find that to be million times more attractive than when everything’s just laid out there like with Scarlet Witch/Emma Frost/Power Girl’s boob window/insert anyone draw without tact. It’s the subtly with Perez’s art, like the collar in the wind that Matthew liked, that really does it for me.

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