So it arrives, 23 years after its originally scheduled release date; one of the great “lost treasures” of comics, ‘The New Teen Titans: Games’ original graphic novel!
In 1980, writer Marv Wolfman and illustrator George Perez (who later became co-writer) relaunched the ‘Teen Titans’ comics as ‘The New Teen Titans’ starting with a fresh issue #1 and a new darker, more mature tone. This new roster boasted older, more conflicted versions of existing heroes, such a Robin– no longer the “Laughing Boy Daredevil” of the past, Dick Grayson now found himself in a constant struggle to become his own man, not just Batman’s kid partner. And Wally West, Kid Flash, was torn by his complete lack of desire to continue his heroic career, yearning instead to lead the normal life of a college student. Added to the mix were volatile new additions like Cyborg, who actually considered his robotic body parts a curse that prevented him from ever fitting into society and Raven, the daughter of a human woman and demon lord father, who had to struggle to keep her demonic side in check. Fans were hooked and the book vastly outsold anything else DC published. Its sales figures even approached those of Marvel Comics’ blockbuster ‘The Uncanny X-Men!’ In this topsy turvy time, Robin actually outsold Batman!
The book was announced and samples of interior art appeared in fan magazines. The above promotional piece was released to publicize the book. However, things did not fall into place. Wolfman, at the time, was struggling with writer’s block and was only barely able to provide Perez with the most basic plot. Perez took those basics and managed to crank out 70+ pages of gorgeous artwork, but then his commitment to ‘Wonder Woman’ and other titles drew him away from the project, which was then shelved. The creators and DC insisted the book would still come out, but by 1992, the monthly comic book’s continuity had moved beyond that of the graphic novel and the creators still didn’t show any signs of moving forward, so it was shelved permanently.
Fan’s wouldn’t let it go, though. Well into the 2000’s, in nearly every interview Wolfman or Perez gave, they found themselves asked about ‘Games.’ The fact that 70+ pages of finished artwork were just sitting around, locked away from fans’ eyes was just too tantalizing! It gained a fascination along the lines of the original aborted Justice League/Avengers crossover that had originally been planned for the early 1980s (also drawn by Perez). Finally in 2004, it was announced that the long dormant project would finally see the light of day! And then it didn’t. In 2006, Perez was too busy with other projects to work on it.
But it’s finally here! Set sometime after ‘The New Titans’ #50 and before the ‘Titans Hunt’ storyline, ‘Games’ finds the New Titans caught up in a game of wits with a mastermind known as the Gamesmaster. The team’s leader is Nightwing and the roster consists of Changeling (now more commonly known as Beast Boy), Danny Chase, Cyborg, Jericho, Raven, Starfire and Troia (Donna Troy). The book opens on a military installation in an undisclosed snowy area in ruins, still on fire with bodies strewn everywhere. The only clue as to the culprit: a message scrawled in blood reading, “Your move, Faraday.” Faraday is King Faraday, a spy character introduced in 1950, the dawn of the Cold War. Most modern readers will recognize him from his role in Darwyn Cooke’s ‘The New Frontier.’ Faraday had previously popped up in the ‘Titans’ book and he did not have the best relationship with them.
Faraday attempts to draft the Titans into assassinating the Gamesmaster, but the heroes don’t kill, so they refuse. Faraday then attempts to force them into his servitude by going after them and their loved ones via legal means. He threatens to have Raven and Starfire deported. He has the I.R.S. audit Changeling’s adopted father, Steve Dayton and cancels his lucrative government contracts. The only one whose loved ones are safe is Dick Grayson, as Faraday isn’t stupid enough to go after Batman! (In a sign of the times, Tim Drake makes a cameo, dressed in Dick’s original Robin costume with short shorts. He hadn’t yet adopted his famous Neal Adams-deigned suit.) Things get even more personal, when Faraday gives the Titans a set of game cards created by the Gamesmaster which lists their secret identities as well as the names of all their family members and loved ones, even Batman’s secret identity of Bruce Wayne and Starfire’s sister Blackfire who has never set foot on Earth. The heroes scramble to get their loved ones to safety (in one humorous panel, Nightwing must call all of mute Lothario, Jericho’s numerous girlfriends), but it’s too late for one, as someone close to the Titans is killed attempting to save a busload of children.
Suddenly, it’s Game On for the Titans. Clues indicate that the Gamesmaster has targeted all of Manhattan, including its bridges, subways, airports, even its art museums! The heroes split up to investigate each area and come face to face with The Gamesmasters ‘playing pieces,’ super powered operatives each specifically chosen to combat a certain Titan.
In the subways, Donna is confronted by Dungeon (as in “and Dragons”) who can bring her opponents’ fears to life. (In a continuity snafu, Dungeon attacks Donna with a skeleton army meant to represent the dead Amazons who are supposedly angered at Donna for forsaking their lifestyle for the outside world, when at this point Donna was not a former Amazon, but a human child raised by the Titans of Myth.) Jericho’s opponenet is particularly inventive and Raven has the closest connection to her selected foe. Nightwing confronts the puppet master himself. Two heroes are gravely wounded, but the rest slowly but surely defeat their opponents and join forces. There is a ‘Usual Suspect’ level twist at the end, but ultimately the heroes come together and triumph, but at devastating losses.
The book itself was never scripted in its original concept. Wolfman and Perez had simply come up with a rough plot. In the beginning some of the dialogue seems dated and rough, but Wolfman hits his stride as it goes on. I take for granted how used to modern comic book pacing I am and the fact that most ‘graphic novels’ are really six-issue runs on monthly books. I kept expecting the same pacing with big intro, some quieter development, fight scene, cliff hanger, repeat six times. That didn’t happen here. It’s actually structured like one giant issue of a comic, so at first it feels really drawn out. I was waiting for fisticuffs that never came as most of this battle was psychological, up until the final third of the book. It felt a little like watching a season of ‘Mad Men,’ a slow burn that you have to be patient with and trust that it’s all leading to something BIG! And it did.
Modern readers who never read this series may be lost. Some of the characters like Jericho and Danny Chase are all but forgotten today. Chase, who as Wolfman admits, was loathed by fans, was originally brought in to stir the pot, the way Terra had before. Despite her surly attitude, fans embraced her and when she betrayed the team (as she was always intended to do), and died in the process, many couldn’t believe it and still expected her to return as a good guy! But with Danny things backfired and he came across as TOO abrasive and the book’s monthly letters page was constantly filled with “Please kill Danny Chase!” requests. (He’s almost like the prototype for Damien Wayne.) Wolfman and Perez do their damnedest here to redeem the character. I guess they were kiiiind of successful.
What really comes across in this book, that so strongly harkens back to why this run on The Titans was so successful is that these characters are truly a family above all else. They love one another, support one another and have been to hell and back for one another. They went through their growing pains, Changeling’s laugh-to-keep-from-crying class clown role, Cyborg’s struggle to accept himself, Raven’s battle with her father’s influence, Dick’s desire to become his own man, etc. And it wasn’t just limited to the teammates themselves. Their extended families, Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth, Donna’s husband Terry and her adopted family The Evanses, Raven’s mother Arella, former teammates like Aqualad, Wally West (now The Flash), Speedy and Lilith (all of whom make a cameo appearance)… they all played a significant role in the series and their appearances here invoke strong emotions. The most poignant of course, is the one character who dies in this book, who’d played a HUGE role in the NTT series, especially in Cyborg’s growth and development. (It should be noted that since this book wasn’t published when it should have been, that character actually survived and as of the recent New 52 reboot, was still alive!)
While every fan of the ‘New Teen Titans’ remembers that family tone, for whatever reason, other writers haven’t been able to properly replicate it. After Perez left the book, Wolfman remained, but his writer’s block caused him to crank out sub-par story lines, with horrible character turns seemingly wrought for the sake of shock value. And after he left, other creators struggled to find their footing and the ‘Titans’ was cancelled and relaunched repeatedly. The book finally found success when Geoff Johns took over, incorporating new generation teen heroes, Tim Drake/Robin, Kon-El/Conner Kent/Superboy, Bart Allen/Kid Flash and Cassie Sandsmark/Wonder Girl, these new heroes, under the guidance of senior mentors, forged their own family bond that resonated with fans.
For lifelong fans, receiving ‘The New Teen Titans: Games’ graphic novel is akin to DC and Marvel finally putting out a Justice League/Avengers crossover in the early 2000’s. It’s something that has been teased for so long, that fans had resigned themselves to never seeing it. To have it now is a bittersweet time capsule, a new addition to an old mythology and a flashback to one of the most beloved runs on any comic book in modern times.
The New Teen Titans: Games
Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
Art and Cover by George Perez