This post was originally supposed to be simply an introductory piece for a series of posts on the character Raven, similar to the series I did for Terra (here) - the second in a blog series on the Titans' heroines' continuities. But last week's releases made me expand the introductory post on the Raven continuity series, to make a general comment on DC's treatment of the main Titans women. To see my whole review of Raven's continuity as a study of how a horror character works, please continue reading here.
On 28 September, DC ended the first month of its reboot. Last week's Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 marked a new low in the company's two-decade devaluation and dismemberment of one of its flagship franchises, the Titans. From one end of comics-related corners of the Internet to the other, fans are debating Starfire's transformation into a low grade, soft porn, amnesiac sex doll for the sexually and cerebrally challenged (for reviews, go here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here; and discussions here and here). But like I say, this is just the latest in dozens of outrages inflicted on these characters. The bad treatment of the Titans stems from DC's enforcement of hierarchy associated with superhero generations, or legacies, which I've blogged about here.
As far as the Titans are concerned, the record over the past decade especially proves it won't get better until the editors at DC change. The classic Titans are a special barometer for this because they are the original legacy characters, the second tier, who against all odds in the 1980s made it and became something different and better than their elders. If anything is going right or wrong in the DC universe, you'll see it in the Titans first, because DC is about legacies even more than it is about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. DC is having trouble handling its legacies concept, and it really shows.
Sidekicks were originally introduced to humanize DC's stalwart A-list heroes; Robin debuted as a joke-cracking young doppelgänger of Bruce Wayne, who could lighten Batman up. Over time, the Titans became the echo-A-listers who could do edgy, even Marvelesque, stories the A-listers couldn't. That included being flawed, as with Speedy's drug addiction. But it wasn't always a weakness: Gar Logan was the Doom Patroller who didn't go insane - or whose sanity, at least, was a given - despite his never-ending confrontation with death, typical of all DP characters. The phenomenal success of the New Teen Titans proved that there was a huge area around the A-listers of potential story-telling that could never be done with the A-listers because the latter were too powerful or too perfect. But the NTT was successful because it did not follow the Marvel formula all the way. The Titans always reasserted a DC ethic of pure, true-blue heroism in the eleventh hour. They made you want to stand up and cheer for them, because they were troubled, but they stood by each other and always found a way through the nightmare. In a way, that was a greater heroic journey than anything Superman faced when he battled Luthor, or when Batman struggled against the Joker; those threats were externalized. With the Titans, threats were always external and internal. They struggled as much with the dark parts of A-list legacies as they did with external villains.
Tossing the classic Titans under the bus is problematic not just for their fans, but in the long run, for DC. I have to quote Dan from It's a Dan's World: "I'd put to the jury the Perez/Wolfman era of that franchise is as key to the compan[y's] success as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns." He's right. Why? Because that era of the NTT solved the legacy problem, and removed glass ceilings that the powers that be are now so keen to maintain. The NTT established that characters could move laterally in interesting ways that allowed them to flourish beneath their absent mentors' shadows.
In the NTT, these characters could be flawed, over-burdened by impossibly huge legacies, and still triumph in different ways, based on their personalities and their individual characterizations. It wasn't just 'about family' which has become the cloying cliché that DC's editors (even Wolfman, now) never tire of harping on about. The Titans did and should demonstrate how DC's legacies could be a viable concept. During the 90s, the Titans lost a lot of their drive, given that the writer Wolfman, who still had a fine ear for the characters, was exhausted and facing editorial mandates. He also lost control of Dick Grayson to the Bat editors. This is a critical problem for the Titans, because the Titans are Dick Grayson's gift to the rest of the DC Universe, separate from anything he ever did with Batman. He is the first and best Titan. In return, the Titans made Grayson, the first Robin, their ultimate leader, an individual and a respected hero.
The Titans, who overcame their derivative origins and became heroes that made it were broken down during the 1990s. They had finally torturously been reset by Devin Grayson into something recognizable by 1998-1999 in the Technis Imperative. Under the recent editorial régime of Dan Didio at DC, that picture changed. Didio's entrance coincided with Geoff Johns's handling of the Titans in the 2003, which is considered a good run. But in retrospect, Johns planted the seeds for the current mess.
I don't know where and when Johns lost his grasp of the Titans, but I think we have to go back to this period to find it. He supplanted the original Titans with weakened, watered-down, nth-level legacy characters (Young Justice). Johns's vision dove-tailed well with Winick's kill off of the Titans' strongest members in Graduation Day (2003); these were characters who caused greatest static with the A-listers (Donna Troy) or who gave the Titans their claim to being a separate original and independent franchise in the DCU (Lilith) . The Titans then showcased some really ugly concepts (Terror Titans, 2008). They became totally disposable (see: the long list of Titans' deaths from the 2000s). They could commit murder and do Fountain-of-Youth drugs derived from the remains dead children (Roy Harper). They could lose all dignity and previous characterizations that once showed why their superficial natures were never their internal realities (Gar Logan and Starfire). They could lose their identities completely in their legacies (Dick Grayson). Or they could be wordlessly and relentlessly sidelined until there was nothing left of them (Wally West). This treatment of the classic Titans, but also the Young Justice characters (who are incredibly, getting preferential treatment from DC, although looking at them, you'd never know it) reveals that DC's top editors do not understand legacies or how they should function in this fictional universe. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the idiotic DCnU attempt to de-age the A-listers and force Titans' tropes onto them, but without the promise of final victory rooted in characterization, heart and camaraderie. DC is trying to wipe the Titans off the map, and turn the A-listers into Titans. DCnU is the Titansverse writ large, but without the soul that made Titans stories work. Ironic?
Speaking of loss of soul, Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 continued DC's treatment of heroes as non-heroes. It's a post 9/11, ramped up Marvel feet-of-clay idea. As far as I can tell from Co-Publisher Dan Didio's work on the Outsiders, this is his ideal approach: lots of action and sex - low on words and minimal characterization - with heroes so flawed that they're practically villains. The moral vacuum is the new seat of virtue. None of this works well with DC characters, who, once upon a time, offset their godlike status with complex characterization, stories - and yes, complicated legacies. Once upon a time, DC was not the house of simplistic, wordless, internalized failure. The degradation of Starfire took DC one step closer to that end.
This is mass entertainment that clearly states what kind of audience it thinks is out there: the lowest common denominator. The book and its editors are insulting the readership with this expectation. They are especially insulting fans who like the book. Even the bait and switch typical of Didio-era story-telling is unlikely for DCnU's 52. This is not a set-up for a better story. Don't believe the lie: it's not going to be all right after all. As Shirley MacLaine said: "Sometimes deep down, there is no deep down."
Todd explains that Kory can't remember her history with the Titans and can't distinguish between men she has sex with. Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 (Nov. 2011).
The problem with Red Hood and the Outlaws is that it is the title associated with any reassembly of the classic Titans in the DCnU. And there is plenty wrong here - obviously deliberately introduced to build expectations about this new universe: the issue completely destroyed Starfire's character. It also subtly transplanted Dick Grayson's dark, crazy doppelgänger, Jason Todd, as the new leader of Grayson's Titanic legacy. I have some sympathy for Todd, but he's being used here as an instrument to turn the tables - to turn Nightwing's separate, non-Bat adventures upside down - to finally and completely undermine Grayson's accomplishment with a separate legacy franchise that at its best was stronger and better than the Justice League of America. Before we even get to Kory's new airhead interest in mechanical anonymous sex, the first issue featured three former Titans cavalierly murdering people. They are 'outlaws,' with standards to match.
Kory and her nU personality. Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 (Nov. 2011).
It's ironic that Red Hood and the Outlaws came out last week. On the same day, New Teen Titans: Games finally hit shops. The worst thing about the uproar over Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 is that it has drowned out appreciation of Games, a graphic novel from the creators (Wolfman and Perez) who made the Titans world-famous; Games was over twenty years in the making, of the highest quality, and worth the wait. This is typical of the malaise at DC. The quality product goes to the bottom of the pile, while the intentionally worst reimagining possible of the same characters gets pushed to the fore by viral Internet marketing, propelled by bottom-of-the-barrel scandal-hype and cheap sensationalism. Maybe this is supposed to be the nU reality dystopia that would have existed in a world where Jason Todd stepped into Dick Grayson's shoes. DC has also stated that the DCnU is an opportunity to do stories they could never normally have done had regular continuity stayed intact.
Whatever the rationale, the problems started long before the DCnU reboot. DC's treatment of the Titans heroines has been one red flag after another on has gone wrong and why.
What went wrong with the Titans began with the Judas Contract. The treatment of the character Terra, while the crux of great story, established the precedent that a female character could be willfully turned inside out and destroyed, in a way far worse than anything ever done with Jean Grey. Moreover, that destruction could serve - as Wolfman has said many, many times - as an end in itself. It needed no further explanation. The dominant male villain, Deathstroke, became an anti-hero, a troubled father figure with a dubious code of honour.
It doesn't matter, as fans who parrot Wolfman's line are so fond of claiming, that 'Terra was created to be a villainess.' By taking a female character and making her a slut, psychopath, spy, traitor and murderess, Wolfman established that: (a) the writer had carte blanche with the female Titans; (b) male responsibility in a heroic story could be wiped and a female made a scapegoat; (c) the female characters in the Titans were the ultimate source of serious upheaval and failure in what was an otherwise tight ship. Accept the ruination in such a critical story in Titans' continuity of one major female character, then be prepared for further character assassinations and kill-offs. It's a slippery slope. Fans may have accepted Terra as a whore without proper in-narrative justification from the writer. But then they should not have been surprised when Donna Troy was turned into a thong-snapping badass and Starfire became an amnesiac slut. Since 1984, there's been no moment at DC where a single creator has seen the light as far as Tara Markov is concerned. Sadly, the only creators who even came close - Geoff Johns and Ben Raab in Titans Secret Files and Origins #2 (Oct. 2000) and Brad Meltzer in Last Will and Testament (2008) - flubbed it. Almost immediately, Krul in Blackest Night: Titans (2009-2010) and Didio in final issues of the latest run of the Outsiders (2010-2011) reasserted the inflexible, blank, flat explanation that Terra was 'just evil.'
That's a shame. Because if there was ever a female character who was a flawed, conflicted and powerful candidate for an ambiguous resurrection that could take on everything that was wrong with the Judas Contract and DC's twisting of legacies, it would be Terra herself. She was used to lay the foundations for the gross Sue-ing of Slade Wilson. She was the original anti-Robin, playing to Deathstroke's mirroring of Batman. But the whole plot rested on the fact that she was an inverted, female reflection of Dick Grayson's experience (likely including sex with the mentor). One glance at Jason Todd's history tells us that that inversion of Grayson's history would not have worked so well if Terra had been male. This was a female Titan (again, Wolfman denies she ever was one) who was an experiment for what would fly as far as misogynistic story-telling goes. Terra set the bar. The Judas Contract's sexist twist was a poison seed that would (and did) compromise any chance legacy characters ever had of surpassing their A-list mentors.
The Judas Contract was full of gaping plot holes that can only be ignored if the reader blindly accepts the story's inherent misogyny. How much blame and evil can you hang on the shoulders of one woman - scratch that, one sixteen-year-old girl - and have the readership (male and female) unquestioningly buy it? Quite a lot, it seems. As a reader, it provoked the opposite response in me. I did not find Wolfman's blaming Terra for her own miserable destruction believable. There were too many Fourth Wall declarations in the close of the story and the many tedious interviews that followed. The treatment of Terra 2 as a doppelgänger was shallow, rigid, unimaginative and ham-fisted. Treating her as a separate character is absurd. The only reason to create a doppelgänger to this extent was to come to terms with the characterization of the original. Terra 2 was never permitted to do this, because Wolfman closed down any connection between the two. This character was forced into a dark box to serve the goals of the writer, which likely included Wolfman's prejudices and vanities as a creator. All creators have those; they help make the stories and characters real. But here, they became a problem. Tara Markov was too real, too believable. She was, and remains, bigger than Wolfman's prescriptions, prejudices and vanities that created her.
Please stop: Didio's dreary and badly-written reinforcement of JC characterization. Outsiders #36 (Mar. 2011).
I still believe that a proper treatment of Tara Markov, flaws and all, is the key to resolving the terrible damage that was done to the Titans franchise in the Judas Contract's pyrrhic victory. It was one of the best comics stories ever told, and it set the stage for the Titans becoming a bloody test ground for DC's worst ideas. A resolution would take a real 'Eyes of Tara Markov' story - a story told from her perspective, with her back story, a plot that would not involve her viewpoint being totally compromised and questionable. A woman labeled 'drugged' and 'insane' loses her voice and becomes an object of simplistic, unthinking judgement. The character was easily revived in the Flashpoint continuity that somehow links to the DCnU. But there was little sign that Terra would be even vaguely reworked. Her Flashpoint appearances are critically important, but the writers give minimal explanation of her motivations; she ends with her mind 'blasted,' in other words: back to square one.
Flashpoint: Wonder Woman and the Furies #3 (Oct. 2011).
Terra is not the only female Titan to be inflexibly, unimaginatively and repeatedly written into a misogynistic dead end. The treatment of Raven was arguably even worse (see my earlier posts on her, here, here and here). Again, the fact that she is female is a central part of Titans creators' attempts to resolve general legacy problems. Conceived by her creators, Wolfman and Perez, as a departure from Doctor Strange and the Phantom Stranger, she formed the second incarnation of the Teen Titans in the famous NTT inaugural comic book from 1980. Along with Cyborg and Starfire, she was a non-legacy character who pushed the Titans well past their derivative sidekick status. Yet Raven's progress, or lack thereof, largely determined the health of the team; her repeated failures became a taint that writers perpetuated and did not resolve. Raven is now a character that has died and been resurrected repeatedly, sometimes so obscurely that it isn't clear how or why. She has undergone six incarnations in 30 years, each of which involved a major romantic plotline, a drastic challenge to the Titans, and reappraisals of several male Titans as legacy characters with her involvement as catalyst in that process (Wally, Jericho, Dick, Gar). Because of her importance in Titans lore and her static lack of development, she stands right at the crossroads of DC's problems with legacies and the Revolving Door of Death. Thus, in her continuity lies the answer to the riddle of DC's many problems.
Raven's first encounter with Wally West after he breaks up with his girlfriend due to his heroic duties. The key to these scenes is that their romantic interaction sparks their mutual resolve to grow beyond their limitations. Legends of the DC Universe #18 (Jul. 1999).
Raven was born out of late 1970s' devil child novels, films and news reports: late 1960s movements had ripened into dangerous secluded, utopian and pre-Millennial cults. She's a character inspired by Jonestown (1978), with a touch of Carrie (novel (1974); film (1976)) and the Exorcist (novel (1971); film (1973)) rolled into one. Yet she began as a majestic, beautiful, repressed young heroine, daughter of a red-skinned demonic entity, Trigon, and a misguided American woman, Arella Roth, who joined a cult and was offered up as a bride to the Satanic character. Trigon created a handsome illusion of himself and seduced Arella, but at the last moment of the seduction revealed his true likeness and raped her. Perez claimed that as a child of rape, Raven would be very guarded about her virginity. But he also saw her as a high-priestess with tremendous potential. The best vignette of Raven's beautiful, troubled character as it should be, bar none, is likely Wolfman's gorgeous flash-in-the-pan story, Legends of the DC Universe #18 (Jul. 1999).
In this issue, Raven's fragile first encounter with Wally West, who was a run-of-the-mill sidekick, electrified both of them. Wolfman showed them as trapped by unimaginable power bequeathed to them by parental figures, dealing with emotional turmoil and struggling to be good in spite of private confusion. Out of their pain, they could forge hope between them, thereby improving, honing their abilities, becoming heroes. It's incredibly unfortunate that Wolfman decided that this was a doomed relationship, and that Raven could never offer Wally what he needed. By closing off her capacity as a successful romantic heroine with her first love, Wolfman prematurely ended a pairing that could easily have been DC's answer to Cyclops and Jean Grey (had that concept been handled properly).
Warning: spoilers follow from Games in the panel reproduced below.
New Teen Titans: Games (2011).
In Games, we look back to see Raven as she should have remained, after her huge victory against her demonic father. She became a redeemed and reborn figure, who had fought the most terrible fears, passed through the shadow of the valley of death and deepest evil, and won. But over time, Raven has become a curiously discounted character, isolated within Titans' continuity from the main DCU and characters like Zatanna and (much more significantly) Constantine, who could have helped her. This shows that what happens in the Titansverse is strictly not allowed to shake up the status quo or A-list hierarchy in the DCU. If a Titan makes significant progress that would allow that character to set a new standard of heroism that by-passes the JLA, the character hits a glass ceiling and they are bumped down to the bottom again.
All downhill between Dick and Raven from here: Raven in Blood's lair. NTT Baxter series #22 (Jul. 1986).
The damage subsequently done to Raven in the 1990s and 2000s was nearly insurmountable, except through DC's editors' propensity for ignoring the permanent wreckage of Raven's status as a heroine. Wolfman's handling of white Raven (who appears in Games) was dubious. He inserted her in three troubling storylines which revealed that in this good form, she was neither redeemed nor all that good. Firstly, he had her reappear and entrance Dick Grayson in the prison chambers of Brother Blood; she healed him repeatedly in preparation for torture and brain-washing sessions, which must be one of the sickest portrayals of twisted heroism in comics. This disturbing trend slowly saw her become romantically entangled with Grayson and his dark doppelgänger in a subterranean plotline that ran over about seven years. Ultimately, she broke up Grayson's and Starfire's relationship at their wedding, in a hellish lesbian seduction of Kory (NT #100 (Aug. 1993)).
This nightmare was punctuated in the middle when Wolfman placed Raven at the core of the problems in Titans Hunt (1990-1992), which led to near-permanent destruction of another of Raven's love interests, Jericho. Her degradation reached its climax in the 1990s' story, The Darkening, which technically ended at NT #101 but really ran until the end of the series in #130. In that storyline, Raven seduced a double of Dick Grayson (who may or may not have been the actual Dick Grayson). She apparently raped Gar Logan, and likely induced him to commit cannibalism; she planted demonic seeds in Changeling that drove him insane and made him her slave. These seeds will function as a portal for her father's future return; this is a future which she has said Logan will not survive. This storyline is so horrific that it makes it impossible for Raven ever to have been seen as a heroine again, let alone readmitted to Titans ranks, let alone shipped with Gar Logan in the 2000s. Without proper redress of the 90s storylines, these stories in the 2000s should never have happened. But that's what Johns did. And when he revived Raven in that later period with zero explanation and accountability, he radically changed her personality, turning her from a sympathetic, suffering and noble character into a snotty goth teen bitch.
Raven chats with Kory's enemies, the Psions, and helps them destroy Kory's planet. NT #128 (Dec. 1995).
NT #129 (Jan. 1996).
The ultimate failure of the writers and editors to deal with female Titans is Raven's participation in NT #128 (Dec. 1995) from which I take my pen name, Tamaranorbust. This is a moral event horizon which Wolfman should never have forced Raven to cross. The story saw Raven (who had already destroyed Kory's romance with Dick, committed multiple murders, raped Gar, unwittingly helped destroy Jericho, and so on) take up with the aliens who had tortured and enslaved Kory. Remembering that Kory was in some ways Raven's implied romantic rival, Raven's participation in the destruction of Starfire's planet of Tamaran was even more chilling and eerie.
Perhaps we can't blame Wolfman for pressing a simple reset button on Raven in NT #130. But it was up to later writers to deal with the mess he made. They didn't bother. Yet dealing with that kind of mess when a character has been turned evil is precisely what heroic stories should be about. In a later storyline, Johns did not bother to seriously address the fact that Raven had helped murder an entire planet full of people, and obliterate the home planet of her fellow teammate, of one of her closest friends.
This approach by Johns left serious questions around Kory's judgment. She had already been diminished by the destruction of the ship with Dick Grayson. For a decade, DC's creators turned Koriand'r, a battle-hardened space princess, into the pathetic ex-girlfriend who could not let go. On top of this, they never bothered to have her address Raven's crimes regarding Tamaran. That was not just inconsistent. To put these two women back on the same team on friendly terms without any explanation was so inconsistent as to be practically insane.
Continuity is not just a web of previous narrative that 'hampers' creators, as the current powers that be at DC seem to think it is. It sets up precedents for consistent characterization; it's the actual fabric of the old heroic epics. It's the basis for moral consequences. With the Titans and their fleshing out of legacies in the DCU, that issue cannot be lightly tossed aside. Characterization in the Titans franchise gave the DCU its emotional underpinning - its soul.
When that factor is ignored through a sloppy approach by the creators, along with their moral laxity in comprehending what makes a hero and a villain, the whole DCU suffers. The kind of thinking that lets Raven off while Tara Markov remains forever condemned as 'evil' in a double standard; the kind of stories that turned Starfire into a brainless sexbot; the type of stories that removed all stability from Donna Troy's solid personality: these are the plotlines that ruined the Titans franchise. It was on these shifting sands that Johns built up the Titans to a new fanbase. This doesn't even get to the undermining of the male characters, especially the relentlessly repeated trope that turned the main villain, Deathstroke (post Judas Contract!), into a father figure to Dick, Gar and Roy.
In the last two decades, when DC has written itself into a corner, its editors have not bothered to try to understand why and how they got there. Rather than using characterization and narrative to get the characters out of a moral tight spot, they try first to kill an individual character off and reboot them. This has been done to several Titans - especially Terra and Raven, but also Donna Troy.
Failing that, DC destroys its own continuity and reboots its whole system. There's something to this of the little boy who viciously breaks up the LEGO toy he spent months carefully building. This is a short-term, unintelligent and uninspiring answer that does not solve long-term problems. The main long term problem is the mentality that builds up heroic characters temporarily only with intent to destroy them for cheap thrills, hype and short-term sales. That mentality on the part of DC's creators can only go so far: you can only debase the heroic substance of these fictional characters without ever reasserting classic heroism as an antidote so much before you are left, not with evil, but with nothing.
DC takes another female Titan nowhere. Justice League of America #60 (Oct. 2011).
One glance at Donna Troy, who politely excused herself from the DCnU because her personality has been so badly handled (a subject for another post), and the nU Starfire, who is less than a shell of her former self, is just one more sign of where this nihilistic endgame will take DC.
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See all my posts on DC's Titans.
See all posts for Raven: A Horror Character Study.
Read all my posts on the Revolving Door of Death.
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