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.
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.