The Teen Titans was one of the best concepts in the long, intricate history of DC Comics. It made sense that a team of sidekicks and superhero surrogate children — led by Batman's partner Robin — would hang out together to get away from their annoying super-parents. But then DC changed their whole universe up in 2011 and the best iteration of the Teen Titans never existed. DC Comics now seems to realise what a massive mistake that is.
One of the changes wrought by DC's New 52 reboot four years ago was an across-the-board de-ageing of all of their most popular superheroes. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were much younger than they used to be — seemingly in their mid-to-late twenties — with public superhero careers that were only about five years long. Part of the thinking behind that decision was that we'd watch these more fallible, relatable versions of Clark, Bruce and the others grow into the World's Greatest Superheroes. But that premise pretty much killed the idea that they ever would have had younger sidekicks during such short crimefighting tenures. It didn't really make sense that they'd be mentoring anyone if they hadn't established themselves yet.
Yet DC did publish a Teen Titans comic as part of its New 52 offering. With the exception of founder/leader Red Robin — a.ka. Tim Drake, the third protege mentored by Batman — none of these young superheroes were connected to members of the Justice League. Raven, Beast Boy and other characters from the popular iterations of previous Titans teams became part of the roster but without their familiar backstories and relationships. These re-invented versions were presented as inexperienced metahumans on the run from a secret organisation rounding up super-powered teenagers. Many fans called it the worst execution of the Teen Titans concept ever and the title has been relaunched twice with new directions that have failed to capture the energy of its pre-New 52 predecessors.
The best Teen Titan series homed in on the absurdity and romanticism of the very idea of teenage sidekicks in superhero comics. The kid sidekick concept is one of those weird legacy ideas that started back in the genre's infancy and kept on mutating as time went. Back when the action in costumed crime-fighting adventures was cartoonish and relatively harmless, it didn't seem like a big deal for Batman to adopt and train a young orphan as a junior partner. Dick Grayson and the laughing young daredevils that followed in his wake served as touchstones for a pre-teen readership. But as comics writing matured, various volumes of Teen Titans comics became increasingly focused on coming-of-age drama and generation-gap conflicts. In the first Teen Titans comics of the 1960s — made up of Robin, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, Speedy and Kid Flash — you got earnest, near-camp hep talk along with the fisticuffs. Time passed and a groovier vibe settled in, which saw the team expand to include characters who weren't tethered to older heroes like hippie-chick empath Lilith and Mal Duncan, who sometimes wielded sound-based sonic powers.
After a 1980 debut, The New Teen Titans run by Marv Wolfman and George Perez mixed new young heroes with established sidekicks and became one of the most popular series of the day, rivaling Marvel's dominant X-Men in sales and adoration. Raven had a demon for a dad and Kid Flash's speed was fading as he got older. Wonder Girl had no memory of her real parents and Beast Boy/Changeling squabbled with Cyborg incessantly, both characters afraid that they were unlovable freaks.
It was in this series that Dick Grayson shed his Robin identity and became his own man as Nightwing. The maturation of the kid who was the Boy Wonder and popular storylines like The Judas Contract encapsulate the conceit made the old Teen Titans comics work: if normal kids hated their parents, fumbled through hormonally driven romance and couldn't figure out how to make friends, then super-teens raised by Batman, Green Arrow and their peers would do the same thing on a grander, more volatile scale.
And even as the series developed its own independent melodramas, connections to the older parent heroes were still there to be tapped into to instill a sense of history and import. In the comics, the best versions of Teen Titans weren't just a squad of teenagers on their own; they were the surrogate super-sons and daughters of DC's powerhouses, figuring out how to simultaneously carry on their inherited legacies and be who they wanted to be at the same time. Teen Titans gets its mojo from being connected to history, the odd families that cropped up around the publisher's superhero A-list. And when DC disowned that history in the New 52 reboot, they essentially orphaned the Teen Titans. A new comic out today seems like an attempt at trying to inject a sense of history back into the Teen Titans.
Taking its name from a classic Titans storyline, Titans Hunt #1 teases the idea that there was another team of young heroes before the one that Tim Drake assembled in 2011's Teen Titans. (It should be noted that references to an older version of the Teen Titans were made in some early New 52 books but were wiped out when some of them were reprinted.) The debut issue — written by Dan Abnett with art by Paulo Siqueria, Geraldo Borges and Carlos Mangual — catches up with Dick Grayson, Roy Harper and other characters from pre-reboot Titans teams. Each of them are nagged by uneasy feelings, seemingly driven by faint memories that have either been removed or repressed by forces unknown.
While stopping a smuggling operation that traffics in superhuman body parts, Dick has a run-in with an Atlantean seeking vengeance. It's an more vicious version of Garth, the kid who was called Aqualad decades ago.
The issue goes on to introduce a new version of Lilith, mentally reaching out to Dick to start him down a trail that will presumably lead to the revelation of a forgotten incarnation of the Teen Titans. Based on the cover art and group shot in the interiors of Titan Hunt #1, this will be a team cobbled together from the reinvented members of old Titans teams. The hulking store clerk Roy meets in the opening pages is named Gnarrk, just like the prehistoric teen who ran with the old-school Titans and an adult Mal Duncan is an award-winning film composer.
While it's good that DC is trying to breathe some depth into a once-great franchise, the messy continuity of the New 52 makes any attempt to recapture the special chemistry of the best Teen Titans teams much more complicated. The compressed, reconfigured timeline and sensibilities means that the relationships between this new 'old' Teen Titans team will likely just feel kludged together in a heavy-handed way. Maybe it's connected to that in-development Titans tv show? Regardless, DC's editorial powers-that-be screwed over their own legacy when they rebooted their fictional histories. This new 'old' Titans team may wind up looking like the old ones, but it probably won't wind up feeling like they did.