Teen Titans 18

What would you say if I told you that this issue contained a look at the relationship between Tim and Damian Wayne, a continuation of the War of Light and Dark storyline, crossovers with two other books, a spree killer on the loose, and a last page that’s bound to pique the interest of any Titan fan?

I don’t know about you, but I’d say that sounds like a rather beefy book. But despite the sheer number of ideas being balanced here, this book is a scant twenty pages long. If it had been executed perfectly I would have to use this book to explain pacing and story-structure at every opportunity, but, unsurprisingly, it’s just too much for one issue to handle.

Lobdell completely reinvigorated my interest in this title last month. What had been a slow tired book with just enough character moments to play on my nostalgia for books like Wolfman’s New Teen Titans, Claremont’s New Mutants, and even Lobdell’s own Generation X, has capitalized on all its strengths and returned the Teen Titans to the glory that should come naturally to them. While he couldn’t quite match that excellent performance, he does do a lot of things right.

I was actually talking to my father today and he implied that there was something immature about people who work at comic shops. I naturally disagreed, though we had just seen some compelling evidence in his favor. He argued that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just that there was a certain connection to the inner child in each of the employees he had seen. On that point I conceded that, from a certain point of view, he was correct. I told him that I had recently been researching professional wrestling for a comic I was working on and had seen it described less as a sport and more as ‘soap operas for men’. Ignoring any and all assumptions about gender, I took that one step further and argued that superhero comics were often a kind of Downton Abbey for those of a slightly different taste. They’re a kind of classier soap opera. They hide their dramatics and overwrought tragedy behind adventure or meditations on justice, but many of the best comics share quite a bit with soap opera.

Consider the revolution that was Spiderman or the X-Men. To see our hero struggle, often with death and romance, was a huge deal and Stan Lee was hardly the last to see that. It’s well acknowledged that Chris Claremont’s X-Men was as much a soap opera as it was a superhero story, but his talent was such that we didn’t have to be ashamed of that.

That’s, in part, what revitalized Teen Titans for me. The tension of wondering what’s wrong with Tim Drake and what consequences it will bring was more than enough to propel me through last issue and into this one.

Unfortunately, the plot from last issue is not followed up on to the degree that I had hoped. Tim is once again our focus, but we learn little about his motivations for serial make-outs last issue. Despite this disappointment, Lobdell proves that he can tell a story while still infusing it with character. Red Robin’s motivations are deftly explored in this issue and we also get great moments from Solstice and Bunker. In fact, the whole team is written better than any of the early issues might suggest.

While it’s more flavor than anything else this month, in conjunction with Lobdell’s other work, it shows that character has become an important feature to him and that makes me feel confident that there will be a consistent quality in this title for as long as this change lasts.

This reminds us that Lobdell is kind of a throwback in the current DC lineup. His writing instantly reminds one of the 90s, notably when he did most of his best work. The 90s, it seems, were a transitional time, where the internet and the rise of the wide-screen comic and superstar creators were changing the industry, and, as such, they were the last hurrah for some old superhero conventions. While the change had started long before, I feel like the 1990s saw the end of superheroes whose were powers and personalities were equally defined and knowable

The need to remind the reader what powers and personalities they were dealing with has dropped off in recent years, for better or for worse. On one hand, some writers have failed to define their characters on the scale of individual interactions, opting to count of reader knowledge of earlier scenes or issues to fill in the blanks. In this Lobdell excels, giving clear hints to personalities throughout the book.

But, his traditional style has its dark side, too. For every ‘best there is at what I do’ there’s a ‘focused totality of my psychic powers’ and Lobdell is certainly guilty of writing some oversimplified and expository characters.

Worst of all, perhaps, is how much this issue is merely a cog in a greater machine. I’ve called a lot of issues breather issues or something similar of late, but this isn’t one of those. Instead, this issue is merely incomplete by itself. Though we get a couple of complete points in some of the stories advanced, most of the things that you would describe about this issue are superfluous or build-up to something more. There’s nothing wrong with building a story, but one can’t help but notice that only the main story really advances and that it does so in a somewhat unsatisfying fashion.

The writing goes up and down and the plot, while it will probably keep you engaged, feels insubstantial in the aftermath, like an empty snack.

The art is also hard to generalize about. It’s actually quite good and appropriately dramatic for Lobdell’s story, but it just doesn’t sit right with me. While Cassie doesn’t look much more ridiculous than her character design demands, the boys all have issues, particularly with their hair. Tim looks like a ventriloquist’s dummy while Bart looks like he’s wearing a toupee in some panels. Faces don’t always seem right. In general, the characters just appear off. And that’s a shame, because Barrows does a very good job in most other respects. While the sense of fluid motion has occasional hiccups, this is a well illustrated issue. Perhaps Barrows’ greatest strength is his willingness to show emotion in his character’s faces. Sometimes he overshoots, but it seriously elevates the quality of the issue, particularly in quick humorous moments and long dramatic scenes, and helps make up for the aforementioned choices.

Though it doesn’t hold up to its predecessor as an issue, Teen Titans 18 reassures me that Lobdell is taking a new direction, and one that I want to follow.

 

 

 

From here on out we’re in spoiler territory, if you don’t have the stomach for it you should turn back now.

 

 

Alright?

 

 

Alright.

 

 

In reviewing this issue, I feel like some things came out harsher than I intended, but that’s largely because I didn’t want to spoil those good moments for my loyal readers. The first and most important of those is the opening scene between Tim and Damian.

There’s no denying that the scene contains a healthy dose of narm, but if you can look past a couple of moments, it’s actually surprisingly touching. Damian’s death has actually been handled quite well and this is no exception. The unique and hostile relationship between Tim and Damian only makes it more meaningful. Tim’s version of Damian is just honest enough to be real and just arrogant enough to be the one-dimensional perception of an outside observer. Nonetheless, Tim’s argument is compelling and the way that he lays his grudge with Damian to rest and focuses on the facts of the matter screams Tim Drake.

Once again, Lobdell gives us a wonderful Alfred, but despite my warning a mere paragraph ago, even I can’t entirely brush off the ridiculousness of Tim hugging the air.

In the wake of Damian’s death, the supposedly life altering events of Death of the Family seem to have been mostly forgotten, however, it is very interesting to see how both of these events have affected Tim. Though last month I speculated that Tim is somehow being manipulated by Trigon or Raven, this issue makes me willing to believe that Tim’s strange behavior is, at least, partially a reaction to the dramatic events he’s just endured.

I actually think that it would make for a much more interesting story to see Tim responding to his ordeals by redoubling his commitment to protect teenaged metahumans and opening up to Cassie and Kieran. There’s something twistedly beautiful about the boy willfully breaking up Kieran and Bart even as he cheats on her with Cassie, all on Alfred’s advice that he open himself up to his teammates. If that sounds like a stretch to you, I’m actually on your side, but Tim is exactly the sort of person who would be the last to admit he’s falling apart under the weight of a tragedy and it would be something new.

Speaking of Tim’s recent behavior, I’m very happy to see Lobdell treating the kiss between Tim and Kieran with the respect it deserves. Kieran refers to it as cheating with an editorial box adding “Just a kiss, last issue. But still…” That’s about how I feel. She did cheat on him in a sense, if not the one we might think of immediately, and despite the numerous mitigating factors that will always arise in situations such as this, the sense that it just isn’t right remains. If Kieran dissolves into self-pity it could get annoying but I’m happy to see this play out and hopeful that it will continue to receive this kind of honest mature treatment.

I’ll take a moment here to say that I thought that the Suicide Squad was nearly a parody of itself, but I don’t care to say much more. A shame, Harley deserves better; they all do.

The best part of this issue is seeing Tim try to actualize his dream of a world safe for metahuman teens. The idea that he’s starting to make full-fledged deals with the woman who’s organizing the JLA under no authorization or oversight shows how powerful and dangerous an extremist Red Robin can be. That said, It feels like Lobdell thought of Waller as the head of Belle Reve rather than a high-ranking figure in the U.S. government.

Overall, the biggest strike against this issue is the fact that we end this issue knowing less about the mission than when we started. Questions abound, but there are no answers. I trust that we’ll get those answers sometime soon but it’s pretty outrageous that Lobdell makes such a big deal of it and then leaves us hanging without even tying up some other story for us. This lack of conclusion is a serious flaw with an issue that seems less good or bad than a mediocre addition to a solid story.