Review: Teen Titans: Earth One Vol. 1 graphic novel (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I have been a fan of DC Comics's Earth One books from the beginning. I like the format (a trade-waiters dream, no waiting!) and I have liked the edgier, riskier takes on DC's Big Two characters that J. Michael Straczynski and Geoff Johns have submitted so far. But I'm not sure I've liked an Earth One quite as much as Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson's Teen Titans: Earth One.

It is not just that Lemire's Teen Titans feels like the first Earth One without something to prove -- telling a good story, not necessarily making a writer's mark on a character -- though this certainly helps. It is also how recognizable and at the same time new that Lemire's Titans characters are, such to make one wistful, for a moment, that this wasn't what DC used as the New 52 iteration of the Titans. And the sheer breadth of Titans references that Lemire brings to the book -- especially Marv Wolfman/George Perez Titans-era references -- will charm any Titans fan, even as the book remains accessible enough for the uninitiated or fans only of the cartoons and not the classic comics series.

[Review contains spoilers]

Lemire's Titans group for most of the book are Cyborg, Beast Boy, Terra, and Jericho, which plants the team firmly in the realm of Wolfman and Perez's The Judas Contract, though the team being subtly gathered on behalf of Starfire and Raven echoes Wolfman and Perez's earliest New Teen Titans issues. In this way Earth One hits some of the Teen Titans mythos's best notes right from the start, orienting nicely a seasoned Titans fan.

And these touchstones continue well throughout. One of Lemire's master strokes is the introduction of a kinder, gentler Deathstroke Slade Wilson. Here, Lemire preserves a spark of the classic character and some of his relationships, but at the same time offers us a new perspective -- emphasizing, perhaps, some of Wilson's nascent paternal iterations, while downplaying the rough assassin. Dodson depicts Wilson as a burly old man trying to squeeze himself into a too-small uniform, and there's a laughable quality that helps reiterate the character's reluctance to "suit up." It is a joy when, after Lemire keeps us waiting for two-thirds of the book, Jericho finally says, "Contact," but the even bigger "should have seen it coming" surprise is when Deathstroke and Jericho finally come to blows, and Lemire riffs on one more legendary Titans moment, from the should-be-collected "Titans Hunt."

Indeed, Lemire sprinkles enough tidbits throughout that seasoned readers ought be able to guess the book's shadowy villain relatively early on. I had to look up, for instance, who the DC Universe equivalent to Earth One Starlabs's Joshua Clay, but once I had that one and then Cyborg's mother Dr. Charles refers to another Starlabs security officer as "Trainor," I was expecting it by the time Lemire dropped Niles Caulder's name. And I appreciated that Lemire plumbs enough Titans "deep tracks" to include Steve Dayton as well, and still as Beast Boy Gar Logan's adoptive father, even if he meets a rather tragic end.

Once Jericho betrays the team, the audience is left essentially with just Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Terra. Despite Cyborg's newfound prominence, the core of this group were it the Wolfman iteration would be Beast Boy -- in a pseudo-relationship with Terra, best friends with Cyborg. But in embracing the world-bending aesthetic of Earth One, Lemire tries a pairing that hasn't been done before, Cyborg and Terra in a relationship, and in that way finds some similarities between the characters maybe we hadn't noticed before -- their feelings of helplessness, their shared angst over their powers. Cyborg and Beast Boy here don't get along, split in the divide between popular and unpopular kids, but it's touching to see the first glimpses of their mutual admiration toward the end of the book.

Most of the Earth One books have left me wanting more -- not dissatisfied, just eager for the next volume. Lemire's was exceptionally so. We get a complete story in which the Titans come together, but they depart with an entire other character -- their Tempest or "Aqualad" (with an appearance more like Lagoon Boy) -- whom we don't know anything about (and want to!). Lemire also ends on a gripping cliffhanger, as Raven and Starfire finally come face to face. As well, earlier in the book Lemire teases eleven Titans, of which we've only been introduced to seven, so there's four still to be revealed -- seemingly Nightwing and Flash, maybe Ravager ... and could that be Kole, of all people? Lemire's first volume is clearly just the start, and my hope is he's already working on the second.

Again, I thought where Lemire's Teen Titans: Earth One especially excelled was in how recognizable the characters are, even as they're presented within the new "alien DNA" paradigm (a call-out, of sorts, to Dan Jurgens's Ray Palmer Titans). Vic Stone still loathes his mechanical body (and he still received it by virtue of his parents), Gar Logan is still the junior comic relief (and green!), Tara Markov's earth powers still bubble over with her anger, Jericho still says "Contact" as he jumps from body to body, and so on. Straczynski's Earth One Superman is still from Krypton and Johns's Batman is still Bruce Wayne, but I thought Lemire's characters were more faithful -- it was their outer surroundings that are changed, more than their inner selves.

Terry Dodson's rounder style does well here especially in the early high school scenes; one could easily imagine Dodson drawing an Ultimate-style Teen Titans series in perpetuity. The "lightness" of Dodson's style has an interesting effect when the book gets serious; when Deathstroke appears, as I mentioned, Dodson's style mitigates what another artist might overdramatize. At the same time, om the book's tragedies -- when Deathstroke cuts Jericho's throat, when Dr. Stone shoots Steve Dayton, or when Starfire kills Dr. Stone herself -- I did a double-take of sorts, the moments being all the more shocking filtered through Dodson's "lighter" art.

I did appreciate too that Dodson's animated figures lessen the book's gore. In an era where too many creative teams go for the gross-out, I thought Lemire and Dodson did a good job letting the book be shocking on the merits of the story and not on making the panels more outlandish than necessary.

In all, Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson's Teen Titans: Earth One is one of those books I'd give to a non-comics-reading friend with no qualms, and that's not something I'd necessarily say for all the Earth One books, much as I've enjoyed them. Superman and Batman were a lock for Earth One, Teen Titans not so much, but the book has turned out especially well; it makes me eager too for more not-so-obvious Earth One books, and also Earth One books less flashy. Grant Morrison's radical new take on Wonder Woman sounds interesting, but Jeff Lemire's not-radical, just-well-told take on the Teen Titans works just as well.
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7 comments:

  1. This sounds like the first Earth One book I am actually interested in... and I am way less into the Teen Titans than Batman or Superman!

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  2. Your review has convinced me to go out and buy it!

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    1. You won't be disappointed -- let me know how you like it!

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    2. You were right, that was a great read! I picked it up yesterday, started reading it today and could NOT put it down. I was totally going to skip this one; now I am glad I didn't!

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    3. Glad my suggestion worked out for you. Now's the long wait until Volume 2 ...

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  3. I'm shocked to see this getting a positive review. I read it a few weeks ago, and I absolutely loathed it. It was a pointless exercise in plot regurgitation, in my opinion. I've read a lot of Lemire over the past few years, and I can honestly say that I don't get all of the hype and buzz around his work.

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    1. Dan -- I always appreciate a dissenting opinion; thanks for your comment. Can you point to some aspects that you didn't like? In what way was it "plot regurgitation"? Is that the similarities to Wolfman and Perez's work, or in the book's storytelling itself?

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