Showcase Presents: Teen Titans, Vol. 1

My Life as a Teen Titan starts with New Titans #71 because that’s the first issue I ever bought. My favorite Titans era starts with DC Comics Presents #26 because that’s when the Wolfman-Perez era begins. But I own Titans books way beyond that in both directions and since I finally filled the last gap in original issues last year (completeness is not achieved–I still have a few of the Tales of the Teen Titans reprint issues left to find), I can finally start on what’s got to be my most ambitious comics-related reading project ever: read the entirety of the Teen Titans from The Brave and the Bold #54 to Teen Titans #100 (I don’t own anything after that because I gave it up with the New 52) and decide if I am going to keep anything after New Titans #130 (because the two New Teen Titans series are in my “permanent” collections). And that means starting with this black and white reprint that I got on a discount.

Now, I own a couple of issues of this series, most of which are in next-to-terrible condition but were worth the very cheap price (my copy of issue #14 has a whipped-to-shit cover, for example), but this is the only place I have been able to possess all of the Silver Age series. Unfortunately, they’re in black and white, which is something that I don’t think helps the book very much. I mean, it doesn’t hurt it, but whereas Neal Adams’ Batman looks great in b&w, Nick Cardy’s Titans really pop even more with color. That being said, I know that I can get the entire Silver Age in color trades, so my look at these two Showcase volumes is going to help me decide if I should.

This first volume collects the Brave and the Bold and Showcase issues that preceded the ongoing series as well as the first 18 issues of Teen Titans that were mostly written by Bob Haney with artwork by the aforementioned Nick Cardy as well as Bruno Premiani and a few other artists. It is … well, I’m glad I didn’t have any actual pretense of these being groundbreaking or “important” comics in the way that we think of “important” comics these days, because aside from establishing the “sidekick team” idea, they’re really not. But that’s not to say they aren’t fun to read.

The original team is comprised of Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad, with Wonder Girl joining the team within a few stories and Speedy showing up at times as a guest star (but at this point not being a permanent member). Aside from those members, there is little connective tissue from story to story, which makes them best read one at a time instead of in storylines. That helps, too, because much like other comics of the era, the stories tend to be dense with dialogue and art even if they are the comic book equivalent of bubblegum pop.

Bob Haney has a reputation of being “zany” in terms of his stories, and that reputation not only preceded him going into this trade but he lived up to it a number of times over. The villains, such as Mister Twister, The Mad Mod, and Ding Dong Daddy, are over-the-top crazy, and he seems to repeatedly shoehorn the characters into whatever serves the plot. And yet, it’s as entertaining as any episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and if I ate sugary cereal in my pajamas on a Saturday morning anymore, these comics would be a part of that balanced breakfast.

Granted, it’s Nick Cardy’s art on most of the issues that does it. Don’t get me wrong, the other artists do a decent job, but when Cardy hits his stride a few issues into his time on the book, they’re really some fun comics because he knows how to draw action just as well as the best Silver Age artists and I am sure that his female characters would have made me take notice when I was a little kid. The covers alone can be worth the price of admission to any of those issues, as they were some of the most striking ones that DC was putting out at the time and were on par with any of Marvel’s covers. Of course, the stories inside those books don’t hold a candle to what you were seeing in The Amazing Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four, and that’s because the stories tended to be very on the “straight and narrow teens” tip.

I don’t want to come right out by saying that DC was editorially conservative and that’s why Bob Haney wrote the way he did. Yes, the company’s books tended to be more staid than the upstart (at the time) Marvel’s, with Superman still in the same sort of adventures he’d been having for years. But Batman was a couple of years into his “new look” and by the end of the issues in this collection, DC was experimenting with stuff like Brother Power The Geek, so it’s not like they weren’t up for it. It’s just that the output from Marvel during this era was just that good. Plus, Haney … well, it’s clear that Haney was writing whatever he wanted and could do that as long as it all sold well enough. But the Teen Titans were all upstanding citizens and even when they rubbed their JLA “parents” the wrong way, they still recognized adult authority and even seemed determined to show the world that not all teenagers were punks.

I mean, of course, not all teenagers were punks in the 1960s, but the way they conflict with and then ultimately get along with the adults in each story ranges from amusing to head shaking. The JLA-ers seem to view the Teen Titans as Scouts or a church youth group, so they have no issue with the teen heroes going off on their own, and there are so many times when the kids show the adults in a town that the “kids are all right” and really are “with it” when it comes to authority, even if they all speak a language that only Bob Haney seems to think exists.

While that makes most of the stories blend together, there are a few that stand out. The best among them is issue #14, which is the famous “Quit Robin, Quit” storyline. This is one that introduces a villain called The Gargoyle and is one that will actually have repercussions down the line, as future series will pick up on threads that Haney wove within it. In this story, Robin gets trapped in a nightmare where everyone has turned against him and his confidence is rocked. He obviously gets out of it, but not before there’s a hint that The Gargoyle is someone they’ve fought before (and honestly, the whole Titans vs The Gargoyle thread over the course of decades might be worth exploring as a podcast episode). It’s an outstanding story with some of Cardy’s best artwork and an iconic cover.

Coming out right before that is the classic riff on “A Christmas Carol” in issue #13, which is groan-worth in places (Haney’s insistence on slightly renaming Dickens’ characters getting the biggest groans), but Cardy clearly had fun drawing it and it makes for an enduring holiday comic. My other two favorites are issues 16 and 18. Issue #16 gives us the cover to the collection and is a weird story involving a parallel dimension invading a high school. I mean, it’s not exactly Stranger Things, but if that were a kooky 1960s cartoon, it would be. And the Cold War comes to the title with issue #18’s appearance of Starfire–who would later be called Red Star–courtesy of Marv Wolfman, who writes his first-ever Titans story.

I think going in with the expectations I had was probably the best strategy, because I didn’t think it was going to be Wolfman-Perez, Claremont-Byrne, or Lee-Kirby, so I just wanted to be entertained. And I was. These hold up in the way that anything kitschy from the era does, and that’s actually high praise in my opinion.

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