When DC Comics launched a revival of Teen Titans in the 1980s, it became one of the most popular books of the era. And one of its best issues showcased two of the company's best sidekicks in a quiet story about the holes years of comic stories had left in their personal histories.
Three decades ago, New Teen Titans rocketed to rabid popularity on the strength of a few different factors, chief amongst them George Perez's amazingly detailed artwork and Marv Wolfman's hyper-dramatic plotlines.
The series took stalwart junior characters like Robin, Beast Boy, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl and introduced new heroes in the form of Cyborg and Raven. The theme of growing up was a pillar of New Teen Titans; readers saw some of these characters expressing romantic desire, loneliness, and frustration, some of them for the first time.
Like the X-Men comics of the time, missions to stop supervillains' plots jostled and intertwined with melodramatic elements of the casts' personal lives. But sometimes the superhero stuff took a backseat and New Teen Titans was all the better for it.
Published in 1984, New Teen Titans #38 was one of those times. The very beginning of the story titled "Who Is Donna Troy?" lets you know that it's going to be a marked departure from the series' usual installments.
Perez - along with inker Romeo Tanghal, colorist Adrienne Roy, and letterer Ben Oda - opens the book with a moody, film noir-inflected double page spread. If it weren't for the familiar red tunic peeking out under from his trenchcoat, you wouldn't even be able to tell that this was Robin/Dick Grayson. Those visual cues set the tone for the story, which isn't about world-saving fisticuffs in the slightest.
"Who is Donna Troy?" is about one friend helping another and two young adults considering how their parents - or rather, the lack thereof - have shaped who they became. The plot gets kicked off when Terry Long, fiancée of Wonder Girl/Donna Troy, asks Robin to look into her past to try and find out who her parents were.
Perez and Wolfman's story gently alludes to the characters' crime fighting pasts but does so in ways that don't make readers feel like they're missing out on vital information. Robin occasionally reminisces about growing up in the circus and his tutelage under Batman, and Wonder Girl's first reliable memory is Wonder Woman saving her from a fire as a baby.
The superhero elements that do show up here serve to underscore the thematic underpinnings of the story. When Donna talks about growing up on Paradise Island, it's to foreground her sense of not fitting in anywhere. Later, Robin visits a convicted felon in prison, leaning on his reputation - but not actual violence - to get information about the case.
The bulk of "Who Is Donna Troy?" is about making connections. Wolfman, Perez, and company do a wonderful job of showing the painstaking nature of Dick Grayson's detective work and then tethering its findings to more resonant emotional payoffs for Donna.
One of the net benefits of doing a small, character-driven story like this in a big-deal superhero comic is that it drives reader investment in these characters. So, when a villain makes a threat against Wonder Girl's life, the response won't be, say, an eye-roll; it might be genuine empathy for the fate of a character who just figured out where she came from.
Corporate realities have had DC Comics re-pave its fictional history over and over again, and attempts to explain how those changes affected Donna Troy - like 1988's "Who Is Wonder Girl?" - have tried to re-capture the uniqueness of "Who Is Donna Troy?" The attempts have ended up a mixed bag, though, mostly it's because they have prioritised mythological melodrama and continuity-smoothing explanations over human relatability.
When I was in college and re-reading New Teen Titans, I joked with friends that I've never seen the word "love" show up so much in a comic book series. New Teen Titans #38 delivers a palpable sense of love on multiple levels: love for characters, love for craft, romantic and familial love. That's why it's a classic.