Cheshire mourns her daughter. Titans, vol. 2 #26 (Oct. 2010).
Open a mainstream comic these days, and chances are you'll find one main theme: death, death, death, death, death! After that, you can choose from gore, hyper-violence and the occasional resurrection. This is what the Modern Age of comics has boiled down to, driven by company-wide crossover events. Since the 1980s, events at DC and Marvel have pushed fans to buy more comics by tying their titles into events, thus ensuring annual best-selling series. These events are characterized by their 'Where's Waldo?' group shots of heroes battling cosmic menaces. But despite the fact that some planet-sized villain is coming to eat the planet, drama has declined. Perhaps because the end of the world is happening so often, it's hard to take any of it seriously anymore. This has prompted creative teams to use character deaths to add drama to big events as well as regular series.
But there's something more going on here. The grim and gritty Modern Age, now winding down, became characterized by what's described in comics circles as the revolving door of death, where characters were and are regularly killed off, then brought back on a cyclical basis. Marvel is ushering in the seemingly less dark Heroic Age - yet in its Second Coming storyline just killed off Nightcrawler, one of the most beloved members of the classic X-men. Their old DC rivals, the Titans, have suffered a parade of death and violence over the past twenty years that is notable even by Modern Age standards - but in the past decade the Titans' deaths have been unremitting. Despite the recent resurrections of Donna Troy and Young Justice favourites, Superboy and Kid Flash, the revolving door of death has not revolved that much for this beleagured team.
Death of Duela Dent. Teen Titans, vol. 3 #47 (Jul. 2007).
After DC's huge crossover event Blackest Night, where the drama revolved around the return of zombified dead characters (of which there is no shortage), as well as a few more deaths, and a few resurrections, the current event, Brightest Day, follows the resurrected and the reason for their troubling trip back from the dead. Just like Marvel's Heroic Age, the Brightest Day title belies its purpose. This series is not about things getting better in the DC Universe, but death is supposed to regain its meaning: the revolving door is closing. DC's leading lights have declared that "dead means dead," in other words, if your favourite character is dead, forget it - no more resurrections. But that doesn't mean the deaths are stopping, as another hero, the Atom, was just killed off in Titans Villains for Hire.
Deathstroke takes over the Titans title: Death of the Atom. Titans VFH Special #1 (Jul. 2010).
Over at Legion World, a board devoted to discussion of DC's futuristic team, the Legion of Superheroes, fans are compiling a list of characters killed in the DC Universe in the past seven years, here. These fans calculate that in the past seven years, DC has killed off over 600 characters in the name of 'rough and gritty drama.' Of these, about 50 characters long or recently dead have been resurrected within the same time period. Maybe DC is clearing out a backlog of unused characters, but there's something odd about the sheer volume of numbers in this macabre death march.
Some fans have set up a Facebook page asking DC to revive Lian Harper, deceased daughter of hero now-turned anti-hero/villain Titan Roy Harper and the assassin Cheshire.
Death of Lian Harper. Rise of Arsenal #1 (May 2010).
The death of Lian Harper in Justice League: Cry for Justice #7, according to Newsarama, was an attempt to tell a "silver-age style story with modern sensibilities, [and] comes across far better than some of the recent efforts ... to do the same. ... The results of ... [the] experiment are, however, abominable. The marriage of styles is so jarring that it serves only to make the violence that much more shocking. The death of Lian Harper, in particular, feels hollow and spiteful." There are reviews here, here and here. The story continues in The Rise of Arsenal miniseries, which just ended June 23rd - with more death.
Death of Lian Harper. JL: Cry for Justice #7 (Apr. 2010).
A maimed Roy Harper mourns his daughter. Rise of Arsenal #1 (May 2010).
In March of this year, a fan at the Emerald City ComiCon asked DC creators if Lian Harper's death was a case of 'fridging.' To which they responded:
James Robinson: "That decision [was] a controversial and one that I know has been greeted with some displeasure by some people... I'm sorry if it upset people. In all honesty, they wanted to kill Speedy too, and I said no, so give me some credit for that."The blog Atop the Fourth Wall responded with an open letter to James Robinson. Comic Critics reacted to Cry for Justice with a satire about the writer, called Cry for Quality, in which the site held a moment of silence to mourn the death of James Robinson's talent. IGN reviews of the current Titans title, which has been usurped by the old Titans villain Deathstroke, slam the "loud, stupid, adolescent hyper-violence." But with the Titans, this has been going on for awhile:
Ian Sattler: "I'm happy it upset people because it means that the story had some weight and emotion."
Donna Troy dies. Titans/Young Justice Graduation Day #3 (August 2003).
Death of Pantha. Infinite Crisis #4 (Mar. 2006).
Death of Baby Wildebeest. Infinite Crisis #4 (Mar. 2006).
Death of Bushido. Infinite Crisis #4 (Mar. 2006).
Black Adam and Young Frankenstein. World War III: Hell is for Heroes. From the 52 crossover. (June 2007).
Young Frankenstein dies as Martian Manhunter in human guise tries to help him. World War III: Hell is for Heroes. From the 52 crossover. (June 2007).
Memorials to Kid Flash and Superboy. Teen Titans # 50 (Oct. 2007).
Teen Titan Kid Devil (aka Red Devil) tortured in the Terror Titans arc. Teen Titans, vol. 3 #57 (May 2008).
On the blog Every Day is Like Wednesday, a review of two recent Teen Titans trade paperbacks found that the most recent Teen Titans team has been particularly targeted for ultra-violent scenes, death, and extreme injuries sustained by main characters. CBR discussed a preview of Teen Titans #72, claiming that teasing readers with a coffin was pointless because the shock of death was long gone.
Then the blog Jimmy in the Garden said the same thing about issue #74, which finally revealed which Titan had died. Here's another review of #74 at The Continuity Blog.
Death of Eddie Bloomberg (Red Devil). Teen Titans vol. 3 #74 (Oct. 2009).
Death of Garth (aka Tempest) (bottom panel). Blackest Night #2 (Oct. 2009).
Garth's memorial statue arrives at Titans Tower; the older Titans are shown to be trapped between the younger heroes behind them, legacies and death. Titans #23 (May 2010).
Death of Hawk 3. Blackest Night: Titans #1 (Oct. 2009).
Garth's and Hawk's statues erected in the Memorial Hall. Titans #23 (May 2010).
The writers even feel compelled to make the characters comment on how bizarre this all is and have given the characters a memorial hall to their dead.
Memorial Hall of the Dead in Titans Tower. Starfire assures her Gen Y counterparts, just as we fell, so will you. Teen Titans #3 (Nov. 2003).
The death of the Atom, Ryan Choi, has prompted some fans and industry sites to claim that DC is clearing the decks to bring back Silver Age characters in Brightest Day by doing away with its lineups introduced during the 1990s and 2000s, many of which featured new characters from visible minorities; they further claim that that move is actually inspired by a racist agenda on the part of the company. But with a body count of over 600 characters since 2003, this is unlikely. Another obvious response is to decry the death and violence for exposing young readers to, well, death and violence as cheap substitutes for real plot develoments. Certainly, that's true. But with the sheer volume of death it seems that even that is moot.
So what's going on here? Some of this death involves something seemingly far removed from comics, namely generation wars.
Part of DC's reason for creating mass death in its superheroic world over the past decade involves legacies. Its premier team, the JLA, forms the prototype for all others in DC's universe. The core of the JLA is what is known among fans as the 'Trinity' namely, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. All characters are now informally ranked by creative teams and editors according to their powers and importance. The Trinity characters are A-list. The JLA also harbours a core of other A-list characters - top heroes who have their own titles and have long histories - these include Hawkman, Green Arrow, Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern. Many others come and go from this main roster. Each of these A-listers spawns a familial legacy, wherein junior versions of the hero appear. Hence Batman has Robin and Batgirl, Wonder Woman sponsors Wondergirl, Superman mentors Superboy and Supergirl, Green Arrow has a protégé in Speedy and so on.
The 1960s Teen Titans are the original, first generation legacy team, comprising Robin, Wondergirl, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Speedy. They were shortly joined in the 1970s by the ancillary team, Teen Titans West, which had first generation legacy characters like Beast Boy, a protégé of the Doom Patrol - DC's answer to Marvel's Fantastic Four and early X-Men. The problem is that while the A-list characters may die, they are invariably sooner or later returned to their preeminent spots in the DC universe. The current event, Brightest Day, involves an effort to return to life classic Silver Age heroes who had died to make room for new generations. This is as close to a fictitious demonstration of Baby Boomer domination of public life, and their tensions with Generation X and Generation Y, as you can get. It is a terrible, unfolding problem in DC's universe: as the first generation legacy characters - embodied in the now-adult Titans characters - grow up and bump against the glass ceiling of superheroism, there is nowhere for them to go - because their mentors are basically immortal. And as the Titans bump up against that ceiling, they get picked off.
For DC, the company's B-list, C-list, D-list characters face the policy of 'dead is dead,' which means DC will keep killing younger characters off wantonly, and won't bring them back, seemingly under the banner of 'making death more meaningful.' So for the less favoured, death is now one way. But for the A-listers and a few cherry-picked favourites (read: Golden or Silver Age (Boomer era) characters) death is still, and will remain, whatever you want it to be - a philosophical time out, a journey to another time period, a little rest while DC gets a new creative team together. This is what is happening with Batman right now, ostensibly dead, in fact on an extended time-travelling vacation.
Meanwhile, the middle-tier adult Titan (Gen X) heroes are being pressured from behind by a throng of second, third, and fourth generation legacy characters who are all eager to become fully-fledged heroes in their own rights. Can you say - Generations Y and Z? But because the top tier won't truly move, they too will face ill treatment, although at times (as currently) they are better favoured. Caught between the two groups, our Gen X heroes are getting killed off right and left, or maimed, or sent packing, or depowered, or forgotten.
On top of this, there is no idea that the Titans and Teen Titans could become anything different from being simply a 'junior JLA.' The legacy idea says that to 'grow up' or 'graduate to the highest level' the character has to become the legacy rather than become something utterly different. In the mid-1980s, the original, first Robin, Dick Grayson, became Nightwing - a different, independent character. But recently in Batman's absence he has become Batman, graduated from an adult Titans team to the JLA, and ditched his longtime Titan girlfriend to date the former Batgirl, who was originally more like an older sister figure to him. He has been absorbed into Bruce Wayne's world, rather than becoming a separate adult character, with a non-Bat-related existence. In Gen X terms, Dick Grayson has become the ultimate sell out. But in a way, he was duty-bound to grow up, take on a difficult mantle and lose his identity in the cowl of his mentor in the event of Batman's absence or death. This is admirable, except that Dick will probably not get much reward for his sacrifices.
In the introduction to the Judas Contract trade paperback, the artist for the famous 1980s incarnation of the New Teen Titans, George Perez, stated that he and writer Marv Wolfman deliberately cast their NTT as far from JLA legacy as possible. From 1980 to 2000, the Titans were never presented like a junior JLA. Dick was largely kept away from stories in Gotham. Wally West's and Roy Harper's connections to Flash and Arrow legacies were barely explored. The only DC superhero legacies Wolfman and Perez seriously explored were Donna Troy's links to Wonder Woman's Amazon world and Gar Logan's haunting family legacy that emerged from the ill-fated Doom Patrol - which was itself the premier non-JLA team in the DC universe. But now, DC execs and creators have stated that the adult NTT characters should 'naturally graduate' into JLA, even though all their earlier development makes that decision forced and alien. DC has engineered temporary absences for the A-listers to let a favoured few among its Gen X heroes rise to the heady heights of the JLA. But it's a thankless task. Wally West was the first sidekick character to take on the mantle of the Flash. He served in that role well, until his (Boomer era) mentor, Barry Allen returned from the dead. Now Wally has been sidelined and is inactive. Roy Harper, once a slacker druggie, overcame addiction, became a hero, grew up and was a responsible and loving single Gen X dad. This week, he became a villain. His daughter is dead; he's lost his arm; he's a murderer; and he's about to join forces with two of the Titans' oldest enemies, Deathstroke and Cheshire (the mother of his dead child). The whole NTT became famous for going against the JLA legacy, for building up a Titans legacy on their own terms. That's why they were fantastically popular among, and interesting to, young Gen X fans in the 1980s and that's where the magic of the team came from. That was what drove the NTT to the top of the comics industry at the time - the title captured the quandaries and aspirations of a whole comic-book-reading generation. The Titans were derivative characters who became originals in a Generation X sense. Now their famous team has been completely dismantled, its members dead, broken or scattered, just in time for the group's 30th anniversary this fall. The Titans series where it all happened started with this classic 1980 comic book:
By contrast, in the current Young Justice version of the Teen Titans, you now have a Gen Y superhero team that is as JLA-centric and geared toward JLA legacies as you could get. The characters as individuals may have a lot of potential, but DC is obviously committed to making them a pale, younger shadow of the JLA. Whether they are first, second, third or fourth legacy rank, only Tim Drake, the third Robin, ever showed signs of understanding that they should try not to just be a junior JLA. The other team members may have problems that make it difficult for them to follow the legacy, but they never question that they are following the legacy. The drama of their personal growth as individuals sees them potentially not conforming to the legacy when they feel they should.
To top the generational dynamic off, character-driven stories (rather than gore-driven and sprawling events-driven stories) with strong, logical development over long periods are languishing. Character-driven stories would get around this legacy glass ceiling. You can have Robin 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, if their characters are so well-developed over time that everyone knows who they are. But instead of developing their characters, DC keeps adding more Robins, Kid Flashes, Superboys and Wondergirls to appeal to younger and younger incoming fans, with only superficial stabs at characterization. The older characters (like Tempest) have to be gotten rid of to make room for the new characters - but that happens just at the point where the older character in the legacy has finally (after four or five decades!) developed the chops to be really complex, powerful, experienced and mature. Who knew that rising Gen X comics creators would take part in the debasement of the very heroes who were the superheroic idols of their youths? Let's hope that in a few years, when these creative teams are really running things, they will turn around the fortunes of this generation's famous pulp icons, even if only temporarily.
In fact, there is no better place in the pulp fiction world for currently-familiar Boomer-Gen X/Y/Z generation wars to play out than DC's Titans titles. Wolfman and Perez directly connected their Titans to the Titans of Greek mythology. All of Greek mythology (as well as Roman legends derived from it) was based on one giant intergenerational war called the Titanomachy. This was a conflict between the Titans, the primordial parents of the Greek gods, and those gods, the Titans' children, known as the Olympians. Wolfman initially tied his superheroic Titans to this mythic tradition at the end of the first year and in the fifth year of the NTT, thus greatly expanding the Titans' raison d’être, way beyond them just being a group of sidekicks or a junior JLA. The superheroic Titans were direct mortal heirs to ancient deities who were doomed to fight with the generation coming up behind them, while also struggling with higher powers that were the source of their original birthright and heritage. The first links came through the two original female Teen Titans, Donna Troy and Lilith, who were linked to the Titan sun gods. Donna was seduced by Hyperion, the Titan god of the sun and Lilith was revealed to be the daughter of Theia, the female Titan associated with the sun and the brightness of creation.
Hyperion the Titans' sun god breaks free of his prison in Tartarus, where he's been held for thirty thousand years. NTT # 11 (Sept. 1981).
Hyperion seduces Donna Troy, drags her to Tartarus from Paradise Island, and explains the story of the original Titans. NTT # 11 (Sept. 1981).
Hyperion explains the origins of generational conflict between the Titans and their children, the Olympians. NTT # 11 (Sept. 1981).
Hyperion frees the original Titans from their prison in Tartarus. NTT # 11 (Sept. 1981).
Meanwhile, back on Olympus, Zeus realizes that the generational war is back on. NTT # 12 (Oct. 1981).
Hyperion's mate, the Titan Theia, reveals herself to be Lilith's mother. NTT Baxter series #7 (Apr. 1985).
Titanomachy continues: Theia goes to Olympus with Lilith in tow and kicks Zeus out. NTT Baxter series #8 (May 1985).
The Titan goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, reveals that the classical Titans were not the original gods - there were higher gods before them. NTT Baxter series #9 (June 1985).
After over thirty thousand years, the generational war comes to an end, thanks to our Gen X superheroes. NTT Baxter series #9 (June 1985).
Lilith forms one of the team's tangible connections between the mortal superhero Titans and the ancient Greek Titans and Olympians. Here she takes up her role as a demigoddess. NTT Baxter series #9 (June 1985).
In DC's New Teen Titans back in 1985, Wolfman simply made the classical divine Titans a form of early mutant or superhero, who became gods merely because ancient people observed them using their powers and then began to worship them. It was this acknowledgement of humility on the part of the ancient Titans, that they were just 'ancient superheroes' and not supreme beings, that allowed the mortal Titans to broker a peace with the Olympians. Wolfman ended the Titanomachy happily. The New Titans took on their new destiny as bearers of this semi-divine classical legacy and their hyper-modern role of generational peacemakers. The New Teen Titans were presented by Wolfman and Perez as the first heroes in the history of the world to end the ancient divine and eternal conflict between parents and children. Later, Donna Troy's origin stories significantly expanded her direct connection with the original Greek Titans. In NT #50-54, Who is Wondergirl?, she was approached by Phoebe, Titan goddess of the moon, who began revealing her origins. Donna was one of twelve orphans from across the universe, all named after cities in ancient Greece, who were trained by the classical Titans to take on their powers. Three survived: 'Troy,' 'Athyns,' and 'Sparta.' However, Lilith's origins were retconned away from this connection see here and here.
Generational warfare: the Titans of Myth are revealed to have been attacked by their parents. NT Baxter series #51 (Jan. 1989).
The Titans of Myth try to end the mistakes they made and end the cycle of intergenerational violence through humility and bequeathing their powers to a new mortal generation that will extend beyond the Olympians. NT Baxter series #51 (Jan. 1989).
Thus, as the old gods gave way, Donna Troy became the modern prototype of a transitional divine-mortal hybrid. Intergenerational themes between gods and humans were later revisited in Titans vol. 1 #23-25 Who is Troia? (2001), and The Return of Donna Troy mini (2005), where for a time Donna played Phoebe's role among the Titans of Myth, until the superhero Titans were reunited with her and she returned to her mortal life. These storylines hinted that the New Titans are not just superheroes who have taken on the name of the ancient gods - they are literally 'new Titans' - they are the next generation descended from ancient demigods and have a much larger destiny, albeit a mortal one.
This special legacy of DC's Titans recasts them as more than junior JLA - and provides a good argument for DC to stop killing them off and mistreating them. As for the Titanomachy, we will never know how the original story turned out. The legend of the battle between Titans and Olympians was told in a lost ancient epic poem, written by a poet named Eumelos.
Rippling muscles and lightning bolts - an ancient generational story, told and retold through superhuman conflict (and strategically placed butterflies instead of spandex thongs). Fall of the Titans Cornelis van Haarlem, 1588.
Go to Reflections on the Revolving Door of Death 2: The Death of the Postmodern Hero.
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