Previously, we were treated to Titans Special #1, and in that issue we received a solid idea of the tone, look, and direction the new run would take. I praised the book for setting up a purpose for the team to exist – something DC has failed to do with many of their team books in recent years – but more importantly, for putting the characters at the forefront. I was hoping Teen Titans Special #1 would follow suit, and while it doesn’t follow through in setting up the team’s purpose, I’m still very happy with the final product, especially the book’s focus on its core characters.
Let’s be honest… This isn’t a Teen Titans story. Instead, this issue contains three separate stories for three individual characters: Robin, Red Arrow, and Kid Flash. Each of these stories serves as more of a character study than an actual plot-filled adventure, and none of them are light-hearted. But if you take a moment to look at the three characters we’re focusing on, there’s no reason it should be light-hearted.
The narrative starts with Robin. He’s eating at a Mediterranean restaurant that’s apparently a frequent haunt of his. The family that owns the restaurant are immigrants, and because of their appearance and culture, they’re not exactly at the top of the city’s priorities when protection is concerned. Unfortunately, someone has moved into the neighborhood and enacted a mob mentality of protection, requiring businesses to pay dues for this protection. The problem is that this particular restaurant, and the family that owns it, are behind on their payments.
It’s a story that we’ve seen hundreds of times, but this feels new because of how Damian handles it. This story serves as a breaking point for him. His life has been muddled. He had an assassin mother that trained him to be a killer at an early age, instilling in him the idea that murder is a means to an end… Only for Damian to meet his father and “brother,” and learn an opposite, more merciful and moral response. He’s been shaped to be a better person because of Batman and Nightwing, and has grown a heart that we probably thought we would never see back when Damian was introduced in Grant Morrison’s Batman run. But his past is still part of his identity no matter how hard he tries to move beyond it.
Yes, there is an inherently good side to Damian, but there’s also a relentlessly ruthless aspect to him as well. It’s who he is. He isn’t his mother, but he’s also not his father. Damian, especially his idea of justice, lies somewhere in middle. I’d wager his stance falls further on his father’s side, but he reaches a certain level of rage when he views something as an attack on innocence. Perhaps it stems from the fact that he never had innocence, and because of how his mother reared him, he never will. I imagine it’s why he cherishes his friendship with Superboy. That relationship is the closest thing to innocence Damian will ever experience. So, when he sees innocence abused or stolen from someone, he snaps… And we get to witness this side of him in this story. The outcome is brutal, and utterly heartbreaking at the same time.
There will most likely be a number of people who are unhappy with how Damian’s story ends. First off, we have this panel:
At first glance, you assume that he just beat the snot out of these guys… But then you notice the amount of blood, and it becomes unclear if he killed them or just hurt them so badly that they won’t be able to make an immediate return to the underworld. Based on the line, “I gave them the day off.” – key word, “day” – I’m going to assume these henchmen are alive. Glass seems to have chosen his words carefully, and were the intention to kill these guys, I’d expect a line like, “I relieved them of their duties.” Then you have Damian’s encounter with Black Mask. Once again, Glass teases the idea that Damian has shifted his mentality to view murder as a viable option, but doesn’t actually show it.
Many of you will probably say this is out of character, but I disagree. Going back to Tomasi and Gleason’s first Batman & Robin arc for the New 52, we see Robin kill Nobody to prevent him from killing other people. He views it as a justifiable action when needed – a mindset that reminds me of Katana. Robin stepped away from that mindset, not because he believed in it, but because Batman believed it. So, personally, I can accept that Damian will make this choice from time to time, but I hope he’s not becoming an outright murderer… That’s what Jason Todd is for.
Emiko’s story isn’t much different. As far as the plot is concerned, she’s trying to stop her mother from killing her targets. But much like Damian’s story, Emiko’s efforts to stop her mother is just there to drive the plot. The real story is in the relationship between her and Shado. Emiko’s history is also very similar to Damian’s. She’s the product of an assassin, who was trained to be a murderer at an early age, only to be reformed by a vigilante – in this case, her brother, Green Arrow – and embark on a different life. But again, it’s the character work here that really excels, and Adam Glass deserves endless praise for what he manages to accomplish!
The themes represented in these two stories are excellent – especially those concerning parents and children. Both of these kids have endured terrible upbringings, and each has managed to find some type of balance from a positive role model. Their relationships with their mothers are also mirrors of one another. Both Damian and Emiko despise their mother, while also loving them regardless. They’ve known almost nothing but emotional coldness, but embrace the moments their mothers granted them love. For Damian, it’s in the form of soup, and the act and gift of having a meal prepared for you. For Emiko, it’s her mother’s words and promises. These moments are powerful, and a reality for many people – not just parents and children, but also couples, siblings, and friends. It’s our nature, as humans, to expect and want the best from the people we love. At some point though, we will inevitably endure the selfishness of a loved one – oftentimes at our own expense.
As similar as these two stories are, they’re still quite different because of where each character is in their relationship with their mother. Emiko is coming to the realization of where she lies in terms of her mother’s priorities. She finally encounters a situation that forces her to see who Shado really is… And let me tell you, the final three pages of Emiko’s story is an absolute gut punch. The pages actually made me emotional, especially Emiko’s final internal monologue.
Meanwhile, Damian has already come to terms and accepted who his mother is, but is now coming to terms that the “other alternative” isn’t always effective. Both of these characters are learning and enduring life lessons that most of us don’t experience until our twenties, and I can’t wait to see the bond they share with one another. I just pray they’re not made into a couple…
Taking a drastic turn from previous runs of Teen Titans, Adam Glass manages to do something that I’ve been begging to happen for a while now. He gives teenagers a respectable amount of maturity, but also infuses immaturity in near perfect ways. I’ve complained about how teens are represented in books, and wished writers would give them more credit. Don’t get me wrong, I often feel teens are very misguided because of inexperience, but that doesn’t mean they’re without their own forms of wisdom and maturity. We get that with Damian and Emiko. They’ve earned that. But we also get the opposite end of the spectrum with Kid Flash. Where Damian and Emiko have endured and experienced tragedies for many years, Wally is just now coming face-to-face with them.
See, where Damian and Emiko were born into evil, Wally was rather sheltered. He had a good upbringing and was encouraged to live his best life because that’s what people should do. He’s been instilled with this hope that there’s an underlying positivity in the world that’s on the cusp of breaking free… But being a hero has forced him to see otherwise. He’s the perfect example of a kid whose parents worked so hard to maintain his innocence, that he’s been viewing the world with rose-colored glasses. Now that he’s moving into adulthood, he’s finding himself let down by everyone around him. His father turned out to be a villainous murderer. His heroes are turning out to be more morally ambiguous than he though. And he’s learning that justice is often a fleeting ideal. Wally’s story is the perfect metaphor for what “it gets better” really means. It’s not necessarily that the world gets better… It’s that we just learn to cope with it in better ways.
Overall, I find Wally’s story to be the weakest because he’s impulsive and brash. I think we all know many teens who can be described this way though, so I’m happy we’re getting to see it. You could easily say that Wally’s thoughts and actions are unjustified – and I’d agree with you – but I also recognize this as a reality for many teens today.
The running theme for Wally’s story is that the old way of thinking is inferior to a new way of thinking. This comes in hand with a certain level of angst and anger that resembles society today. Look at all of these teenagers in recent months who have yelled from mountaintops concerning gun control. They’re admirable and their mission is respectable, but sometimes their means of approach could use some finessing. At the same time, as adults, we make decisions based on experiences. Our experiences force us to see and weigh the complexities of situations that aren’t apparent to us until we face them head-on. Does that mean we’re always right? No. Does that mean teenagers’ impulsive actions are always wrong? Definitely not. There’s a happy medium to be found, and even then, what’s right or best for us personally, isn’t always what’s right or best for everyone else. Wally hasn’t reached this point of understanding yet. He’s angry and has a right to be angry, but his actions and intentions are slightly misguided, even if he is right.
The Art: While Adam Glass delivers an incredibly complex script, Robson Rocha delivers an equally incredible and complex visual presentation! First off, the aesthetic of his art is stunning. Every single panel looks incredible! His ability to infuse story into each panel is masterclass, and his layouts progress the story nicely – effectively balancing action, plot, and character.
It’s the character work that really stands out for me though. The performances he manages to capture with these characters is insanely good! You never have to question what a character is thinking or feeling. You see it in their facial expressions. You see it in their body language. And you feel the impact of it. From Robin’s rage, to Emiko’s heartache, to Wally’s disappointment… Every emotional beat hits you like a fist. In fact, I wish Rocha were sticking around to illustrate the series because this issue is so damn good! That’s not to knock Bernard Chang in any way, but Rocha set the tone for Teen Titans, I’d I’m not certain if Chang will accomplish this same tone and complexity. He’ll exceed in many other ways, but this element feels like the defining trait of this series after this issue, so it seems critical to maintain it.
- Come for the complex characters.
- Stay for the heartwarming and heartbreaking themes of children and their parents.
Overall: I have no doubt that this will be a controversial issue. Adam Glass does not deliver the Teen Titans story we’ve come to expect, but I believe he delivers the Teen Titans story we need. This story is heavy. The tone is dark. And the characters are angry. Honestly, it’s something that teenagers will connect with, and adults will remember feeling. I know this isn’t what some readers want from Teen Titans, but for me, it feels right. The story focuses heavily on parental failures, how those failures stick with you, and how they also develop you. Teen Titans Special #1 is an examination of some of the crossroads we encounter as we age. It’s incredibly real, unfortunately relatable, and executed with great precision. And while I embrace the darker tones of the book because it matches where the characters are at the moment, I hope Glass isn’t going for a strictly dark or angsty book. You can have these elements, and they can be the dominant elements, but you can still imbue the book with heart and humor. We’ll have to wait to see if we get that, but for now, I’m super excited for the direction Teen Titans is headed, and can’t wait for more!