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Why TEEN TITANS Is DC Comics’ Most Important (But Undervalued) Franchise

If you ask most people, they’d say the most important characters in the DC Universe pantheon are, of course, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and an argument is currently being made for Harley Quinn being the “fourth pillar of the DC Universe.” But I’m here to make another argument: the Teen Titans are actually the fourth most important brand the DC Universe has and, in fact, there might not even be a DC Comics today as we know it without them. Forget the Justice League — the Teen Titans were the team that saved the company at their darkest hour.

A Brief History Lesson

DC Comics was the undisputed king of comic book publishing from 1935, when the company was formed, well into the late 1960s. When the comic book witch hunts of the 1950s happened and shut down almost every other comics publisher, DC was able to barely survive thanks to being the home of more “safe” household names like the aforementioned Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The popular thinking today is that once the 1960s rolled around, and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko created the Marvel Universe as we currently know it, DC instantly became yesterday’s news.

It wasn’t quite that simple, though. Throughout much of the ’60s, Marvel was the cool upstart, the hipper option for teens and college kids to DC Comics’ more kiddified offerings. That being said, DC was still the king in terms of actual sales. Marvel was beginning to put a dent into them, but DC was still untouchable in terms of their reach and name brand. They were the trusted brand that both kids and parents knew. Among those “trusted brands” was a comic called Teen Titans, which debuted in February of 1966, right as Batmania was sweeping the nation. Featuring a team of kid sidekicks led by newly minted TV star, Robin, the Boy Wonder, the original Teen Titans was as safe, wholesome, and silly as the ’60s Batman TV show.

But like all things edgy and hip from the ’60s, by the time the ’70s rolled around, Marvel became the mainstream option of choice. Even as early as 1969, Marvel books like The Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four had elbowed the likes of Detective Comics and The Flash out of the top twenty. Even one of Marvel’s lowest selling book of the time, Uncanny X-Men (believe it or not), was outselling the Justice League of America. Throughout the ’70s, Marvel totally trounced DC in sales, and the once “alternative”option officially became the mainstream choice. By the end of that decade, it seemed that DC had become obsolete and out of date, despite certain attempts to fix their image.

The New Teen Titans Bring Marvel Style to the DCU

As the ’70s turned into the ’80s, things were at their worst at DC. It was at this time that new DC President, a woman named Jenette Kahn, came in and shook things up, and took the initiative to snatch some of Marvel’s hipper younger talent to do a comic book for them. She recruited Marvel stalwarts like writer Marv Wolfman (Tomb of Dracula), artist George Perez (Avengers), and editor Len Wein (creator of Wolverine) and gave them their pick of a book. Their choice was Teen Titans, that old comic about DC’s kid sidekicks that was never the biggest seller, and seemed like kind of a joke. It was a book that had been canceled not once, but twice. Kahn admired their enthusiasm, and let them have the Titans. After all, it’s not like they had anything to lose.

The New Teen Titans #1 come out in the fall of 1980, and despite being about DC characters, everything about the book screamed “Marvel style,” from the way it was written to the way it looked. The new team consisted of original era Titans like Robin, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash, but were now joined by three all new creations: Starfire, an alien warrior princess; Raven, the spooky daughter of a demon; and Cyborg, a young half man/half machine African-American hero. There was also Changeling, who was a radical reinvention of nearly forgotten ’60s hero Beast Boy. From the get-go, New Teen Titans sold four times what every other comic book from DC sold at the time, and helped keep DC afloat in dire financial straits. It was an instant sensation, and good news for the company who was bleeding money on the publishing side.

New Teen Titans took characters that were more or less castoffs, and made them the most important heroes in the DCU. Robin as a character wasn’t even wanted in the Batman titles anymore, as he was too much a reminder of the 1960s TV show. So Marv Wolfman made Dick Grayson more than a campy joke, and turned him from a boy into a man. Robin was now a more emotionally well-balanced version of Batman, and suddenly Dick Grayson was anything but a punchline. It was in the pages of New Teen Titans that Dick Grayson transitioned from Batman’s sidekick into Nightwing, today one of DC’s most popular heroes. Kid Flash/Wally West was another castoff character who was made popular by his role in the Titans. It’s doubtful that without his exposure and character growth in that title he ever would have become the third hero to be called the Flash.

Titans was ahead of the curve in every aspect compared to what other comics DC was publishing at the time. It broke new ground by subverting superhero genre expectations, and pushed the envelope where it could. Cyborg was involved in an interracial relationship, something that was fairly taboo during that time in a mainstream comic. The 19-year-old Wonder Girl married a much older, divorced college professor, and in what seems quaint now, Starfire and Nightwing were shown to be in bed together, post-coital, having just had teenage pre-marital sex. A lot of the more conservative readers were shocked, and wrote in to express their disgust at DC. But sales just kept going up.

Even more scandalous than was Titans‘ magnum opus, a two-year-long story that culminated in “The Judas Contract,” the most well-known Titans story of all. In this storyline, the group is introduced to Terra, an earth-controlling 15-year-old who is snarky yet lovable, kind of an answer to X-Men’s Kitty Pryde. But a year into her being on the team, we learn that Terra is actually a spy placed within the Titans by their #1 enemy, the mercenary Deathstroke, sent in order to take the team down from within. More than that, we find out that Terra is sleeping with the much, much older Deathstroke, in a scene that just wouldn’t take place in a modern comic book. Despite the wishes of millions of fans, Terra is never revealed to be triple agent, or just “confused” — she’s an irredeemable psychopath whose own hatred ultimately consumes her. At its peak, Titans was doing what no other mainstream superhero publisher at the time was daring to do.

Although it has never been admitted publicly by any of the creators or anyone at DC, it’s also fair to say that Jenette Kahn was hoping to mimic some of Marvel’s amazing success with the Uncanny X-Men. Much like Teen Titans, the X-Men was a second tier title in the ’60s that was cancelled due to low sales. X-Men was revived in 1975 with all-new characters, while retaining a couple of old leads (Cyclops, Jean Grey) and upgrading the art and storytelling. The book eventually became Marvel’s best-selling title. Titans had a similar journey — take an old previously cancelled title, retain a few key characters, inject newer, hipper heroes, become their respective publisher’s most popular title.

Teen Titans Magic is Applied to the Whole DC Universe

Despite the huge success of The New Teen Titans though, DC’s other comic books didn’t get a sales bump, and try as they might, one franchise can’t carry an entire line. By 1984, Warner Brothers, DC Comics’ parent company, was starting to get upset. They made lots of money off of the DC characters through selling licensed goods like toys and bed sheets and peanut butter, but the publishing side was losing money. They even briefly considered licensing the DC heroes to Marvel, who apparently knew how to sell comics. In 1984, Marvel comics featuring second-tier characters like Alpha Flight, Hercules and even Dazzler were outselling Batman, Superman and Justice League. For the folks at DC, that had to sting.

Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, Jim Shooter, caught wind of this potential licensing offer from WB/DC and quickly wrote up a proposal for Marvel to acquire the DC characters and create a separate line of comics for them, but with Marvel creators in charge (presumably books like Titans would have kept their creative teams). It’s not entirely known what stopped this plan dead in its tracks — possibly anti-trust laws were the reason, although Warners might have just changed their minds. But the news of this attempt must have reached the ears of DC’s editorial offices. Someone at the top must have gotten scared, and suggested they apply the New Teen Titans magic to the entire DC Universe.

In late 1984, DC announced plans for Crisis on Infinite Earths, a massive 12-part maxi series that would reshape the DCU forever. There would be no sacred cows here, not the Trinity, not the Flash, no one. And the creative team chosen to give the DCU a massive makeover was none other than New Teen Titans‘ Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Over the course of 1985, “Worlds lived, worlds died, and nothing was ever the same” as the men who revamped Titans now revamped an entire universe. Crisis bumped up sales across the board for DC, as titles that had been running for more than 50 years came to an end. In 1986, a new Post-Crisis DCU was launched, and replacing a lot of the creative teams were people once very closely associated with Marvel.

Creator John Byrne’s name was synonymous with Marvel, becoming a star with books like Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Avengers. He was given the keys to redo Superman in a radical new makeover called Man of Steel, which set the tone for most of the modern Superman mythology. Daredevil’s Frank Miller, of course, became one of the most important Batman creators of all time. And the list kept going. Marvel might not have bought DC’s characters, but they infected the DCU anyway. And the start of all this began five years earlier, when DC brought over Marv Wolfman and George Perez in to bring some Marvel-style magic to DC. By 1986, sales of DC books were way up. The transformation was complete.

DC Lets Titans Tower Fall into disrepair, then rebuilds

Although the reason for DC’s new success was the Titans, once the Titans magic was applied to the rest of DC, they were kind of neglected by the publisher once again. The Titans would slowly lose their popularity over the course of the 90s, as the other DC characters rose in popularity. DC icons like Batman and Superman were popular with readers again, so Titans, it seemed, could go back to being a second tier book, or even canceled. After several attempts to revive Teen Titans as a concept throughout the ’90s, DC’s later junior heroes book, which was launched in 1998, was called Young Justice instead. The reason? DC editorial believed the name Teen Titans — once their most popular comic by far, and only a decade prior — was now considered “toxic.”

In 2003, someone at WB animation realized that Teen Titans was a sleeping giant. The original comic had ruled the ’80s, and yet was now a weird footnote in superhero history. Teen Titans was revived as an anime-inspired cartoon series, with the New Teen Titans stories as their basis, albeit retold for a much younger demographic. At the same time, superstar DC writer (and current head of DC Films) Geoff Johns revived the title as a combination of the best from The New Teen Titans era and the Young Justice characters. The result was a hit series for DC comics. Thanks to the animated show in particular, characters like Raven, Starfire, Cyborg, and Beast Boy were now household names to legions of kids.

Today, DC acknowledges the importance of the Titans as a brand, at least more than they did before. Cyborg, a character created for The New Teen Titans by Wolfman and Perez, has become a founding member of the Justice League in the New 52 continuity, and will be a founding JL member when the team hits the big screen. Deathstroke is now one of DC’s most prominent anti-heroes, and has a title of his own in DC’s Rebirth, just as he did in the New 52. The Teen Titans animated series is one that simply won’t die, and continues now as Teen Titans Go. There isn’t a millennial that doesn’t know these characters and the Teen Titans theme song. And as part of DC’s Rebirth publishing line, there are two Titans books — Teen Titans, featuring a team resembling the ones from the cartoon, and Titans, featuring the original Titans (who are now adults), including Wally West and Dick Grayson.

When Will Warner Brothers Take Advantage of the Titans Goldmine?

Although DC has recently restored the Titans franchise to a respected status in the comics world once again, the same can’t be said for parent company WB. A Titans TV series was planned for the TNT network, but never got to pilot stage. Somehow, the DC-centric CW hasn’t jumped on the Titans concept yet, despite it being the most ready-made idea for a CW show of almost any DC property, as it’s essentially a soap opera about hot super-powered young people.

On the movie side of things, aside from Cyborg, no Titans members are currently scheduled for any live-action films. Although Deathstroke, the Titans’ arch-nemesis, will reportedly make his big screen debut in the new solo Batman movie. Not a bad choice really, but it’s a little like if Marvel had Magneto debut in an Avengers movie, rather than in an X-Men one. One could argue that Nightwing is DC’s most popular character that has never had a live-action incarnation in the modern era, despite being beloved by fans (especially female ones). A Nightwing-led Titans movie or TV show is a no-brainer, and yet it still hasn’t happened. Suicide Squad comics never sold half of what most runs of Teen Titans did, but they got their shot at the big screen to great (financial) success.

Warner Brothers keeps milking Titans concepts and characters for their other DC properties, but they don’t seem to want to pull the trigger on anything with Nightwing and the Titans themselves. WB is sitting on a goldmine, one they’ve chosen to ignore. Hopefully wiser heads prevail soon, and either someone on the TV or movie side of things realizes just what a lucrative property the Titans really are, giving them their shot at true mainstream fame at last.

What are your feelings on the Teen Titans? Do you think their time has finally come? Let us know what you think down below in the comments.

Images: DC Comics / Warner Brothers Animation

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