Sunday, May 12, 2013

Comic Review: Teen Titans (Vol. 3) Vol. 1: A Kid's Game (2004)

A Kid's Game collects the first seven issues of the third volume of Teen Titans comics published by DC. Less than preferable for a collection, and all too common for comic compilations, the title pretends that it isn't a copy/paste of existing material and removes the covers from between issues. This causes the individual comics to melt together into one long story, and it can be difficult to determine where one issue has ended and the next has begun. Because of this, I'm not sure if I'll be reviewing each issue individually like I intend to do for other comic compilations and like I have been doing for game compilations.

Contradictory to the "single story" aesthetic, the title includes the covers in the back of the book as a bonus feature of sorts. Also included is an introduction by Geoff Johns, the writer for this particular series of stories, which basically mentions wanting to cash in on the at-the-time popular Teen Titans animated series which was running on Cartoon Network and inspiring troubled tweens to write fan fiction about Phoenix the Robin-Clone and discover a lifelong passion which would eventually have them reviewing an almost decade's old graphic novel.

Fans of the animated series may, unfortunately, feel a little at odds with their favorite characters' mainstream counterparts. The Starfire portrayed here is anything but a gentle and naive girl who reasons firsts, fights last, and sees the good in everyone, and the Beast Boy seen here is less of a depressed kid hiding his gloom behind corny jokes and more of a dirty hornball trying to climb in all the beds. Cyborg is the most like his animated self, although we don't get to see a whole lot of him. Which is kind of disappointing, because Cyborg is a really cool character.

But I'm not going to fault the source material for barely resembling the spin off, that would be wrong. I just want readers to be aware that if you're from my generation, this isn't the Titans with which you are familiar.

As presented here, the three elder Titans (Cyborg, Starfire, and Beast Boy) have reestablished the Titans as a crime-fighting force for good after the tragic death of Donna Troy, the previous Wonder Girl. Instead of reaching out to other former members of the Titans, many of whom are deceased, Cyborg extends invitations to what looks like the inspiration for the cast of the recent Young Justice series. Superboy, the feisty Superman clone who appeared during the Death of Superman story arc in the 80s, the third Robin, Tim Drake, a kid genius who managed to discover the identity of Batman with no outside assistance, Impulse, the future grandson of Barry Allen and reckless super speedster, and Cassie Sandsmark, present wearer of the title "Wonder Girl" and troubled teen seemingly cursed with the duty to take arms against evil. These are all characters that I like, and they are all have a heap of growing up to do.

Each hero is frequently put at odds with not only their adult counterparts in the Justice League, but also with the three elder Titans who see it as their job to not only serve as mentors for the superyouths of America, but also as their responsible guardians. Naturally, their rebellious wards don't take too kindly to being bossed around by a group of spandex-clad twenty-somethings, and strike out on their own, landing themselves in the deep end of the boiling pot of trouble brewing around them.

To coincide with the lengthy and stories past of the Teen Titans team, and also with the major antagonist of the popular animate series, the new Titans are immediately pitted against Deathstroke the Terminator. Yet something seems odd about this Deathstroke... could it be the fact that his telepathic son has been living in his brain and slowly gaining control of the merc's body? Yeah, that might be it.

On the outside this story seems convoluted, and the in-book analysis of the situation does it no justice. The dialogue is very clumsy and ham-handed, often reading more like a text book to a remedial English class than an exchange of words. The plot relies so heavily on the reader's understanding of events which happened twenty years prior (in real life time) that it spends a lot of panels catching you up on these events and explaining why something is possible instead of maybe introducing us to these characters within the context of the story. This is partially because of the nature of the medium. When you've got forty years of story to relate to, things can get kind of hairy. Still, that isn't really an excuse for being tactless. It almost make me grateful for the New 52.

Unfortunately, the dialogue isn't only stilted when explaining the origins of Jericho and what, exactly, he is capable of. Every other word bubble ends with the name of the character being addressed. Most of the comic reads something like this:

Superboy: Good thing we're friends. Right, Robin?
Robin: You got that right, Superboy.
Superboy: So you aren't going to tell anybody about the dark secret you just learned about me, right Robin?
Robin: No way. I'd never tell anyone, Superboy.
Superboy: Thanks. You're a good friend, Robin.
Robin: You too, Superboy.

We get the picture, Geoff. Even if we've never picked up a comic before, most of us are going to recognize Robin, and everyone is also going to recognize the iconic "S" drawn across Superboy's chest. We don't need a reminder of each character's name every two seconds. This really slows down the pacing and gives everything a cheesy 60s feel, despite attempting to tell a dark coming-of-age story about emotional conflict and how to handle death when it's shoved at you constantly. One character has his kneecap blown out, and the characters are still chatting like a Nick Jr. Dora the Explorer special. It's not good.

The book presents a lot of moments that make you smile, mainly when it isn't failing at being serious. Little touches like Superman keeping a watchful eye on the truant Superboy and Batman telling Robin to play with his friends are both silly, but also very important. The older heroes are breathing down the fledgling's necks constantly, just like parents with their teenagers. It helps to frame the kind of struggle for privacy which is all too prevalent in our society, and which will of course become a recurring theme in the series.

Unfortunately it doesn't do a good job of getting anyone really excited or creating any sense of danger or drama. The action is pretty bland, the build up is lame, and the climax is castrated by a Deus Ex Machina designed to introduce another former Titan. There is no payoff, and you know none of the main characters are going to be crippled or killed. It's just not a very exciting read, and I found myself itching for Marvel's Runaways instead.

The art was pretty good, though, and the book has great potential. It has an excellent cast, a good art team, and awesome ideas. If only the execution were better...

While I typically care only to review the material itself, I feel it's fair to point out that my copy of the book seems to have been printed on extremely cheap paper. It feels rough and scratchy beneath the fingers, and there isn't any gloss to it whatsoever. It's thin, cheap, not unlike newsprint. It makes me worry about how the book will stand the test of time. I don't think that it will.

Ultimately I'm not rushing back to read this again. The Teen Titans and Young Justice animated series are far superior in all regards, and if that isn't enough DC child-heroing for you, the Static Shock and Batman Beyond cartoons are amazing as well. Watch those instead. A Kid's Game sits comfortably on the good side of mediocre with a six out of ten.

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