13 February, 2013

Review: The New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

The New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract 
(Reprinting: The New Teen Titans (volume 1) #39 and #40, and Tales of the Teen Titans #41-44 and Annual #3. 1983.) 
By Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, et al. 
Published by DC Comics.  

I read this trade paperback in preparation for the visit to Supanova once of the Wolfman/Pérez superhero comic book dream team and wrote this review at the time. The book is quite an interesting read.

I say that it's an interesting read for a number of reasons, and not the least of which is the over-arcing plot of a spy in the Titans' midst, which begins as a subplot and eventually takes centre stage. Wolfman goes to some lengths in the introduction to this reprint of DC Comic' The New Teen Titans from 1983 and '84 to make sure that the difference between "spy" and "traitor" is clear. The character in question is Terra – she's a recent recruit to the team but is actually embedded as a spy from the very beginning. She is not someone who at some point turns bad and betrays her friends; no, she was never a good guy, her plan was always, in league with a longtime Titans villain Deathstroke the Terminator, to kill the Titans. Interestingly, the reader is never in doubt of that — it's never kept as a secret from us, as we are witness to all the behind the scenes machinations of this plot. That being said, there were numerous times throughout where I wondered if Terra would betray her partner Deathstroke. She's very nicely and subtly written in that regard, but it also plays on this reader's assumption/hope that everything might turn out OK in the end and that she'd see the error of her ways.

The other point of note regarding the character of Terra is that she's only 15 years old. That's not such a big surprise for a book called The New Teen Titans, except for the fact that she's very much portrayed as overtly sexual — an upping of the ante for her character that was always played as somewhat streetwise and canny. In one scene she wears a mostly open nightgown with nothing underneath, with the inference being that she has just had sex with Deathstroke (who must be in his 40s or 50s, maybe older). The inference is later confirmed as she refers to the two of them as lovers. Statutory rape anyone? Perhaps this is a tad blasé in 2013, but in 1983 this was pretty hardcore. As far as Deathstroke is concerned, there are times when it seems that he is being presented in a somewhat sympathetic light, a villain with a sense of honour, but his relationship with Terra blows that away completely. Additionally, Terra smokes and drinks openly on page. Also not such a big deal now I suppose, but pretty surprising in the mid 80s I would assume, especially in what I think was a Comics Code Authority approved book. She's a surprising character and I don't think Wolfman and Pérez at any point try to make her sympathetic. They went hard with her and it really pays off dramatically in this story.

This arc was originally published during the period when the title The New Teen Titans was transitioning to a higher quality publishing format and beginning with a new #1. The original series was retitled Tales of The Teen Titans and for a year there were two monthly books starring the same characters in separate stories. The reason I bring this up is because I wonder if that's the reason for the unusual pacing, chapter to chapter, that I found throughout. It really seems like Wolfman and Pérez took the opportunity to let their story-telling breathe much more than usual through the middle section. There are two chapters (originally individual monthly issues) with very little in the way of superhero action and slugfests, or even characters in costume for that matter. Instead we're treated to civilian Dick Grayson tracking down missing Titans, and then an extended account of the origin of Deathstroke, which takes up nearly an entire chapter on its own. None of which I complain about as most Wolfman/Pérez Teen Titans stories have a fair share of action and mayhem, so over the course of the whole volume there's certainly enough of that to satisfy. This slower section of the story also culminates with one of the major outcomes of the book: Dick Grayson, who has retired from the role of Robin (as Batman's first kid sidekick) in the first chapter of the book, takes on the new name and costume of Nightwing by the end of this chapter.

It's funny though, by the end of the story, there are so many people who know The Teen Titans' secret identities, from major villains and supporting cast to hoards of lackeys and goons, that Bruce Wayne's life would surely be a nightmare! Conveniently ignored I guess. The Teen Titans' world is treated like a closed system/universe a lot of the time I think – ignoring the rest of the DCU – and it's for the best. It not only makes things easier to write and to tell the story, it also removes one of the superhero genre's sillier tropes while making the story so much more interesting and engaging because of it.

Wolfman's dialogue and characterisation are very enjoyable to read, as he gives each of them unique traits and speech patterns, so that most of them are recognisable from dialogue alone. As far as superhero stories go he really made this feel like these were real people's personalities, real people who have amazing lives to lead. At no point are you lost or confused due to the high number of characters, and with 12 prominent characters in the course of this story, plus numerous supporting cast, it's no mean feat that Wolfman has pulled off.

Lastly, and again in a very unobtrusive manner, Wolfman easily avoids constant re-tellings of previous chapters' (or issues') events, which is often a problem with trade paperbacks that reprint stories originally presented as monthly issues. Exposition is deftly mixed into the telling of the tale here or smartly kept to a discreet minimum.

George Pérez is one of my all-time favourite comics artists, so I'll say that up front. As always, I enjoyed his art greatly; no one is as dynamic in page design, layout in-panel, figure posing, over the top action and general superhero shenanigans. His time on The New Teen Titans was where Pérez began to truly finesse his style though, particularly in his efforts to portray the individual look and personality of each character, and it's evident here in spades. There's subtle differences in every aspect of each hero: facial features, bone structure, body language, body shape, etc. — no cookie-cutter stock superhero drawings here. Sometimes he may seem to cram too much detail, too many panels, onto a page, but in almost all cases he is able to not only keep it readable but also appealing and exciting. Amazing how he's able to lay so many panels onto a page and still not make it look crowded.  

That being said, beyond the finessing of his character work, there's not much that's groundbreaking in Pérez's work here. The closest thing is the opening chapter, which he inks himself, and due to that self-inking it's very finely rendered. I'm sure most of the detail must have been a smudgy mess when originally printed on newsprint, but here it looks marvellous.

I couldn't write about this collection without bringing up Pérez's "distinct" sense of costume design. Here we are presented with quite a number of characters whose looks were designed by Pérez, the Brother Blood and Deathstroke villains among them, but the introduction of Jericho's (a new character) and Nightwing's new costumes in one page is one heck of a page! Nightwing's original costume as presented here can really only be drawn with a straight face by Pérez himself, and it's been toned down and simplified through a number of iterations since it's debut and probably rightly so. Jericho's costume though turns that up to 11, with puffy sleeves, scale mail vest, blonde-fro hair and muttonchops! Jericho's an interesting character, introduced here as part of the Deathstroke origin. He's an attempt to put a quiet personality and less overtly physical superpower into the superhero melée, so I can see the thinking behind some of the design decisions. They're both incredibly Pérez though, no doubt about it.

Another thing I found interesting in this collection is that there's four different inkers, including Pérez himself. As a process junkie, the assembly line method of most mainstream superhero comics holds quite a fascination for me, so to see various inkers over Pérez' pencils in a single volume interests me a great deal. Romeo Tanghal does a couple of chapters, which is no big deal since he had been the regular inker on the title since the first issue, and to be honest, I think quite a miss-match to Pérez's style. Mike DeCarlo also did a chapter, and I've never really been a fan of his kind of scratchy style, but I think he did quite well here, being able to handle Pérez's detailed pencils pretty well. The most enjoyable though was to see veteran Dick Giordano work over Pérez. Giordano has a mostly brushy, quite polished style of inking and he's an accomplished penciller in his own right as well, so he really knows what he's doing. He meshed very well with Pérez's pencils, softening them in an appealing way while not losing the distinctive Pérez style, acting or detail. In my opinion I would say that Giordano was probably working from layouts rather than finishes pencils for a lot of the Deathstroke origin chapter. I think it's the only time I've seen this combination of people and I very much appreciated it.

One of the most memorable things about the Wolfman/Pérez era of The New Teen Titans, and a long illustrious era it is, is that it's filled with human personalities and relationships, real heart and great emotional content. The Judas Contract may be the highest point of that and it's a brilliant read because of it. As slightly old-school superhero action, this is greatly enjoyable too. High on emotion, solid in storytelling, this collection is well worth reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment