Review: Titans: Old Friends hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm in the vocal minority, I know, when I say there's a lot of Judd Winick's work that I've really liked. And I firmly believe Judd Winick can write the Titans; after all, he did it for almost five years on what I'd suggest was essentially a Titans title that I liked quite a bit: Outsiders. But there's no question that the first book of Winick's Titans-proper relaunch, Titans: Old Friends, has some problems. So, if Winick can do it, and we've seen him do it before, where does this volume not work?

Earlier this week, I took issue with Andrew Kreisberg's writing on Green Arrow/Black Canary, following a run by Winick himself; in that case, Kreisberg's plot didn't move me, but I had no problem with Mike Norton's realistic art. Titans: Old Friends suffers from the opposite: I'd venture the writing in the first five of Winick's seven chapters of Old Friends might stand a lot better if not for the ridiculously sexualized art of Ian Churchill and Joe Benitez.

Maybe, one could argue, Winick called in his script for nearly every Titan to be nude in the first chapter, but Winick's Outsiders was sexual too, without seeming childish. Churchill draws in a perhaps-excusable overly-muscled style a la Rob Liefield, but Benitez positions the characters like models in a photo shoot even when they're just standing around talking. In addition, Benitez's figures are so stylized as to look gruesome (consider Nightwing's scrawny chicken legs while having sex with Starfire) such that they come off neither attractive nor pornographic -- just kind of juvenile.

I'm sure Benitez's art has its place somewhere, but frankly I'm surprised at this choice by long-time DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza; it seemed to me entirely the wrong foot for Titans to start on. Winick is not totally without fault; his Kevin Smith/Edward Norton/Aaron Sorkin-inspired dialogue choices here -- lots of short sentences, lots of characters repeating one another -- very quickly becomes annoying, but again, I have to turn to Churchill and Benitez; the choppy dialogue is much more obvious with only two fairly-static panels a page, and less so toward the end of the book when artist Julian Lopez takes over.

Now, some might take issue with my laying the silliness and choppiness of Titans' first few issues at the feet of the artists, but consider that the rather lovely final two issues, drawn by Lopez, still have Winick as their writer. Here, after the Titans fight off the first wave of an attack related to Raven's past, Winick puts quiet focus on the burgeoning relationship between Raven and Beast Boy, and the long history between Nightwing and Starfire. In a couple of pages, Winick offers a mature, cogent take on the latter two characters and their recent on-again-off-again relationship; it demonstrated to me that Winick is a writer wise enough to take love and sex more seriously than the initial art on this book would suggest.

As well, I'm quite convinced that Winick gets the voices of these characters as handed down from New Teen Titans writer Marv Wolfman and beyond. Winick's Beast Boy Gar Logan has a joke a minute on every page, but it's with the understanding that Beast Boy's jokes hide his insecurity over his depth of feeling (the scene where Red Arrow, cracking wise, notes he's taking over the funny-but-cares role from Beast Boy is a self-referential classic). At the same time, in perhaps the fruition of Wolfman's original vision for Beast Boy, Logan is in essence the leading man in the story, as his Titans cartoon-inspired love for Raven is the most interesting and moving part of the story. Winick gets Logan and Cyborg's friendship, too -- frankly, if Tom Grummett had drawn this book in total, I think it might've received a far different reaction.

Old Friends believably takes the Titans from their disparate lives to rejoining as a team mostly, as one Titan notes, to spend more time with their "family." It's a ridiculous, but at the same time perfectly fitting, reason for these characters to come together -- if the Titans just hang out together, then inevitably because of who they are, they'll find crime to fight. This is something with which other comics team writers have struggled -- just as difficult as the "proactive team" seems to write, the "team that is not a formal team" is right up there. If any group of characters could fit that bill, it's these Titans, and by the end, I think Winick's taking the title in the right direction. I'll be curious to see if that keeps up in the next volume, before a different creative team ultimately takes over.

(See some contrary opinions, which I respect, from FanBoy Wonder and IGN.)

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3 comments:

  1. This seems dumb to some others, but I was rooting for Judd to get the Titans right at the outset. I'm not a Winick hater and I've enjoyed some of his work. The roster was one I had been hoping to get again for a long while. I really wanted it to succeed. It's a damn shame it didn't.

    I think Winick made a major miscalculation by having his first story arc focus on the Titans acting weird. We hadn't had much of an inkling of how he might write them normally, so we had nothing to contrast their behavior there with, meaning it came off completely out of character. Had he decided to have the plot be of his second arc, focusing on something else for the first, it may have worked; it would have lost the "Raven and her heritage brings together the Titans again" parallel he was obviously looking for but the story itself might have worked a bit better for it. But that opening story was indeed pretty flawed.

    The last two chapters focusing on Beast Boy and Raven were fantastic; and yet in a way they stung so very bad. Those character focused issues were of the sort of quality I had hoped to get right from the start of the series and it truly left me believing Judd COULD have written the Titans; Gar came off as the more grown up person he had become and Raven felt like herself there as well. Why couldn't the rest of the series have been as good? I wish there was a real answer to that question. It was a nice two issue character arc that focused on the only plotline that keeps me anchored to the Titans these days in Beast Boy and Ravens relationship and bond. The two issues had a lot of standout moments and moments that truly felt like the characters should, which made the odd nature of the rest of volume a bit tough to take.

    Perhaps it's no coincidence that Judd's strongest issues where character focus issues?

    Side note: Believe it or not, the relationship between the two was not actually inspired by the infamous cartoon. Geoff has gone on record a couple of times saying he was planning the slow build of the two towards a relationship from the start, before the cartoon had even gotten going. It's interesting because the general population of Titans readers operate under the understanding that it came from the cartoon.

    The entire volume may well have fared a lot better, however, had Julian Lopez been the artist from the start. But I'm not sure it would have been perfect. One of the major problems is that Judd slaughters a sacred cow - bringing back Trigon - only to not only leave him in the background, but to not even have him be the actual threat.

    Anyways, I'm rambling. I just wish DC would focus on the Titans in general and get them into shape.

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  2. Interesting note that Geoff concieved the Beast Boy/Raven relationship separate from the cartoon; you can see how people would think they were connected.

    I actually liked the image of the weakened Trigon, which I thought did something interesting with a character that's mostly been a McGuffin most of his existence, just the impetus for other action by the Titans with no personality of his own. Unfortunate that this resulted in the children of Trigon, however, which failed to move me.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, and for mentioning the post on a message board -- who knew there was a whole site dedicated to Beasten (or is that Ravoy)? Stay tuned; more Titans reviews coming up next week!

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  3. It is pretty easy to see how the two might have been connected. The series and Geoff's run on Teen Titans ran mostly at the same time and many fans of the pairing sprang from it. It's understandable that they'd get that impression.

    The image of a weakened Trigon isn't what bothered me so much as it seemed a very anti-climactic return for such an important character to the Titans. Trigon has been dead for so long that if he's coming back, you would think it should be a really big deal. The weakened Trigon bit is something I think would have made a fantastic subplot for an extended run, but for something as impactful to the Titans as the return of Trigon it didn't seem to be the right path to take to me.

    Then there's "Da Trigon Boys" - as we at the message boards for the GarxRae pairing call them - whom were like a boy band made evil and completely cardboard cutout.

    We dub the pairing "Raveast". There are actually two active sites dedicated to the pairing. RBSU (Raven and Beast Boy Shippers United) and TBRS (The Beast BoyxRaven Shrine). I'm active at both, but I'm quasi-staff at TBRS. We have a main webpage for TBRS (under renovation at the moment) where we have all sorts of things for the cartoon and the comic. The feature I like the most is the Beast BoyxRaven Roadmap - started by another member and maintained by myself - which tracks all the moments of the comic relationship. It was originally intended - back before the relationship had become real - as a roadmap to show how Geoff seeds his stories and why said member believed it was moving towards a relationship between the two, but it's since become a feature on our main website.

    I mentioned the review on both message boards because I thought it was a balanced, interesting take on a storyline that polarizes many people and I quite enjoyed said review.

    Anyways, look forward to more Titans reviews; and hell, just more reviews in general.

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