Review: Titans: Villains for Hire trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Arsenal Roy Harper appears next in Eric Wallace's Titans: Villains for Hire after Justice League: Rise and Fall; in short, if you didn't like the earlier volume, you're not going to like this one either. But moreover, I actually thought Rise and Fall had some redeeming moments, and I still didn't much care for this Titans relaunch. I think I know what DC Comics attempted here, but it didn't succeed.

[Contains spoilers]

There's nothing new about teams of antiheroes; just after Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC had success with John Ostrander's Suicide Squad, and more recently there's Marvel's Thunderbolts and Gail Simone's villain-focused Secret Six. I'd even venture that Judd Winick's Outsiders, though heroes, were the groundwork of a team just a little bit over what the law allows (not to mention that the book itself offered some overly edgy material), that lead the way for the ongoing Secret Six series.

I can't quite see Titans as more than DC trying another series to capitalize on the popularity of Secret Six. It's another villain team; there's a mild undercurrent of morality among them; they do lots of bad things, but yet we're supposed to be sympathetic to them. Unfortunately, it's a lot harder than that to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

For me, Villains for Hire went wrong immediately with the villains' murder of Atom Ryan Choi. Letting alone the poor political implications (I'm not in favor of DC killing nor creating a character based on ethnicity alone, but they had to know this wasn't going to play well with the fans), this early murder of an essentially defenseless hero makes the new Titans seem mean-spirited, and this never goes away. Early on the Secret Six proves their "toughness" fighting a bunch of other villains; the Titans swoop in and murder a hero. This worked for Max Lord in Countdown to Infinite Crisis because we were supposed to dislike Max; here, we're supposed to want to follow Deathstroke, but I never found myself wanting to.

Second, the conflicts the Titans face in this book are wholly unremarkable. We believe they're trying to assassinate Lex Luthor (too similar, again, to the first Winick Outsiders trade), but really they're trying to protect him; their enemy is a generic shapeshifter named Facade. Later, they battle an equally generic drug kingpin Elijah and his super-team The Dominators, made up of villains with names like Spike, Brute, and DJ Molecule (no kidding). These are throwaway characters, there just for the purpose of the Titans' conflict, but pages upon pages of the Titans fighting someone the reader doesn't care about, by my estimation, ends up with the reader just not caring at all.

I believe what's actually supposed to draw the reader further into the book is not the characters themselves, but the puzzle of Deathstroke's mysterious final goal. I don't discount this -- it may be, ultimately, what gets me to flip through the next trade -- but neither do I think the mystery serves as quite enough. Deathstroke collects various artifacts, but his purpose is too vague, and the book fails to offer even a mildly satisfying conclusion; it just ends. We get, for instance, a cut scene where a child the Titans just rescued is ignored by his father -- and that's it; no tie to the greater story. Is this something that will factor in later? Is Wallace simply making a statement on parents and children? Possibly the book needed to be a few issues longer; here again, it's just not clear to the reader what's important, or for whom we're supposed to feel emotion, and so it just leaves Titans seeming flat.

All of this is even more a shame because I can see where Titans might otherwise have potential. I should mention again that I enjoyed Eric Wallace's Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink, specifically how it examined race through the lens of superheroics and villainy; unfortunately Titans lacks any such nuance so far. The characters included in Titans are both more recognizable than those in Secret Six, and delightfully weird -- Cheshire teamed with Tattooed Man teamed with Osiris? -- and the book has the potential to go in a hundred different directions (spy thriller, urban mystery, supernatural -- it even ties in to Brightest Day) but remains in the end just a shoot 'em up. More's the pity; "just a shoot 'em up" is the last thing DC Comics needs right now.

It's easy for us to look back and comment on the excesses of 1990s superhero comics from today's vantage -- there was an overemphasis on rebellion, perhaps, and on legacy heroes like Green Arrow Connor Hawke and Manhunter Chase Lawler that were "cool" without much substance. What, I wonder, will we say about the 2000s? There's a return to purity and traditionalism, of course, as in the resurrections of Green Arrow Oliver Queen, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and Flash Barry Allen, but then in contrast an almost cartoonish amount of violence. Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, in my opinion, put excessive violence to good use, but to me Titans: Villains for Hire seems to follow the trend without getting the point. Bloody murder of a superhero? Check. Villains acting as antiheroes? Check. Leader has a secret plan that the writer keeps from the reader? Check.

All of these elements have worked to great effect in various recent titles -- but that doesn't mean they'll always work, and that doesn't mean you can just drop these elements into a book and expect success. Ultimately, that's how I see Villains for Hire; it attempts to take its place in the DC Universe next to Secret Six and others, but wanting such unfortunately doesn't make it so.

[Contains full and variant covers]

I honestly feel bad when a book lands with such a thud; I could find some aspects to like in the controversial Justice League: Rise and Fall, but not really here. Coming up, however, we follow some of these Brightest Day threads in to Justice League of America -- I hope that fares better.
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13 comments:

  1. I couldn't justify buying anything to do with this after the one-shot. No less a figure than Gail Simone (who has written the Ryan Choi Atom) commented on this issue by posing the following question: How do you kill a superhero who has complete control over his mass and density, with a sword?

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  2. I agree with you about Ryan Choi, Robert, though Simone's argument doesn't quite work for me. "How do you kill a superhero who has complete control over his mass and density, with a sword?" Easy -- Deathstroke treated his blade with special mass-and-density killing formula, and we just didn't hear about it. That we're willing to posit a person can control his own mass and density, and shrink down to microscopic size, but not also that someone in this same world can kill them with a sword, seems like too much picking and choosing of the comics laws of physics for me. Any book could be torn to shreds that way.

    Still, quite too bad about Ryan Choi.

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  3. And by that same logic you can kill Galactus with a coat hanger and some duct tape.

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  4. Yeah, OK, there's gradations, I grant. I take Simone's point, only I think there's bigger issues at stake than the physics of how a scientifically-enhanced assassin kills a man who shrinks with help of a special belt. But yes, gradations.

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  5. Back when DiDio announced the Titans ongoing series would feature a team led by Deathstroke, I was pretty intrigued. I expected something interesting like the time Magneto led the New Mutants, or heroes and villains begrudgingly working together to achieve some common goal.

    What we got instead was a unpleasant, tone-deaf, one-dimensional villain-centric book, with the added offense of gratuitously killing a great character like Ryan Choi, ruining Arsenal even further and turning Osiris into a joke. DC can't cancel this soon enough.

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  6. No doubt, and you're right, it's not the biggest issue here by any means. I was just pointing out what I (and Gail) considered a flaw, but not the biggest flaw. And if you've not found many reasons to follow this story, I certainly won't find any. And that's a shame, because Wallace did good work with the Tattooed Man following Final Crisis as well as Osiris during Blackest Night (remember that Osiris was one of the few Black Lanterns that resisted the urges of a black ring).

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  7. I think I just hate Deathstroke. He reminds me of the worst excesses of Batman. He's a villain that isn't allowed to lose, even when going up against superior foes. And he never really answers for any of his dastardly deeds. I think what made Deathstroke originally pretty interesting was that he was a very human character who just ended up a villain because of some bad choices and a twisted sense of honor. He doesn't really have that anymore. People can criticize the 'Batgod', but at least at the end of the day Batman is an admirable figure and you can root for him when he overcomes all the odds. Deathstroke is just a thug, and I hate how they've built him up into this unstoppable force.

    I don't know if that's how they portray him in this book, because I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole, but I can't imagine things being much different from how the character's been portrayed the last few years.

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  8. I was thrilled at Deathstroke's resurgence in Identity Crisis, but since then he's been over-used, often without nuance. I increasingly miss the days of the morally-gray Deathstroke comic -- especially when you compare the dynamic Deathstroke/Arsenal/Cheshire story from those days versus the same characters falling flat in Villains for Hire.

    I second that Wallace did a great job on Final Crisis Aftermath especially, and that's one reason I thought maybe Titans: Villains for Hire wouldn't have as many problems as I'd heard; maybe it was just misunderstood. Not the case, unfortunately.

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  9. I was looking forward to this one the same way as I was to SUICIDE SQUAD, but I don't think that's going to be the case. I have yet to meet one person who tells me this is good. Same for DiDio & Tan's Outsiders, which finally did have something to like, the original Outsiders getting back together.

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  10. I was really disappointed with this book when I had thought maybe it would be worth reading. I'm a fan of Deathstroke, the scheming super assassin with grey morality. Putting him in charge of a team would make for some great spy thriller commando fun. Instead the end their one shot off with Killing one of my other favourite characters. And Ryan Choi was just told by Ray Palmer in Cry for Justice that there wouldn't be an issue of them both co-existing. I digress though...

    I thought the book was going to be about characters we wouldn't like evolving INTO characters we would. Arsenal is at his lowest, Tattoo man is finding his place and starting off on an awkward foot, Osiris is misguided and naive, and Deathstroke... strokes death? But instead the book feels like you said: Flat, which I felt was a good way of describing it. Nothing really gets done and I really don't care about who they fight besides the Atom.

    Maybe the book will show more evolution of the characters later, but this trade felt very blah.

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  11. I don't discount the possibility that Wallace intends a conversion for the Titans characters -- am rather sure of it, actually -- but for me this book didn't make me want to follow them up to that point, vs. Secret Six.

    It is amazing, on one hand, that there is a Shazam-focused book currently ongoing in the DC Universe (a good thing), and on the other hand, this is it (not such a good thing).

    Probably I'll follow Outsiders through to its cancellation. When it's bad -- the introduction of Freight Train -- it's bad, but when it's good -- the tension between Owlman, Katana, and Geo-Force, for instance -- it's good. Knowing it's ending, I can stand one more volume.

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  12. The entire reason I was interested to pick this up was the continuation of the Dark Marvels' story. I'll follow it for at least another volume, I suppose. My curiousity is also piqued by the promise of Ray Palmer's investigation of Ryan's death. Justice!!!!!!

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  13. Next volume has that Osiris solo issue, I think.

    I keep waiting for DC to "get serious" about their Captain Marvel franchise. I don't know if the Marvels can support their own series, but I don't think anyone loves Billy Batson as the Wizard, Freddie as Shazam, and Mary Marvel off wherever. Time to return them to the status quo, I think, even if the next step is sending them off to limbo.

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