Review: Titans: Total Chaos trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Consider that when the issues collected in Titans: Total Chaos first came out, DC Comics' New Titans title was riding high on the wave of the blockbuster fourteen-issue "Titans Hunt" storyline that had just concluded with "The Jericho Gambit." These were heady times for DC and the buzz was loud in general; when "Total Chaos" launched, the Superman, Batman, and Flash titles were within a couple months of "Death of Superman, "Knightfall," and "Return of Barry Allen" respectively, not to mention that the "Armageddon 2001" and "War of the Gods" crossovers had just concluded (even if these seem bloated by today's standards, in the day they had tongues wagging).

[Review contains spoilers]

"Total Chaos" would mark the first crossover between Marv Wolfman's New Titans and its popular spin-off title also written by Wolfman, Deathstroke, the Terminator, plus it would launch a third connected "Titans-verse" title by Wolfman, Team Titans. The Team Titans were themselves subject of much interest, a rare set of characters who figured prominently in one of the "Armageddon 2001" annuals' alternate futures and then actually continued into the comics proper, and who included among them a Terra. I should say, "a Terra!" to underscore just how shocking this was that Terra, seemingly of Judas Contract fame, was back on the page -- this would have been akin at the time to a sudden second coming of Jason Todd or Barry Allen.

And don't miss that New Titans Annual #7 bills the Team Titans as "the all-new, all-great Teen Titans!" It's easy to discount in this age of relaunches and reboots, but there had never been a second Teen Titans before then. With the original Teen Titans, now "New Titans," taking on new names, getting married, and having kids, the prospect of a new, younger Titans team -- fresh from a dystopian future, with a mysterious future leader whose identity might be any one of the current Titans, and replete with love triangles and angst (they had a vampire, for gosh sakes) -- was astoundingly exciting, and Total Chaos was going to be where the New and Team Titans finally met and the Team Titans title started. So this was big.

What turned out was that Total Chaos (being Deathstroke #14-16, New Titans #90-92, and Team Titans #1-3) was softer and smaller than "Titans Hunt," didn't make as big a splash, and ultimately heralded the beginning of the end for Marv Wolfman's Titans. All of this is why Total Chaos is probably less well known than "Titans Hunt" and why much of the conversation surrounding the release of the Total Chaos trade has involved why not "Titans Hunt" instead. "Hunt" had used many classic, recognizable Titans characters even as it tore them apart; by Total Chaos, the team was absent Cyborg, Raven, and Jericho, replaced with hard-sell characters like Red Star, Pantha, and Baby Wildebeest, making it feel less Titans-germane.

Just after Total Chaos, New Titans #93 and the Titans $ell-Out special were oddball comedy bits, and then #94-96 had a guest creative team -- Louise Simonson and Phil Jimenez, no slouches, but the absence of the Wolfman and stalwart Titans artist Tom Grummett was jarring. After issue #100, Nightwing and Starfire left regular team rotation; if you map to events in the Batman books like "Knightfall," "Prodigal," and Nightwing: The Return of Alfred, this was about the time Dick Grayson transitioned from a Titans character to the Bat-character we know him as today. Artist Bill Jaaska came on Titans with a much darker, sketchier style that was a big contrast from Grummett and George Perez; by this point Titans was near unrecognizable from "Titans Hunt."

Wolfman would stay on Team Titans just until issue #12 and then that title would end with issue #24 during Zero Hour; New Titans and Deathstroke would each get story and art refreshes with Zero Hour (around issues #114 and #41 respectively), including a younger-skewing Titans team, but those titles would end a year or two later within months of one another with issues #130 and #60. After Total Chaos, Deathstroke still had some life in it (see "Nuclear Winter" and more), but I'll venture that no "Titans" title has ever been as consistently good again in something like twenty-five years as New Titans was during "Titans Hunt" and that downturn more or less began with Total Chaos.

Total Chaos does do well the first official meeting of the New and Team Titans. For me, Chaos' biggest "Titans Hunt"-level shock, at least for a less-discerning 1990s reader, was that Team Titan Mirage had been impersonating Starfire for who knows how long. The New and Team Titans don't have direct analogues to one another, but we do get much-anticipated conversations between Deathstroke, Changeling (nee Beast Boy), and Terra, as well as some fun banter between Pantha and the vampire Dagon, aka Nightrider. It's a strong moment when the New and Team Titans finally team up as one; also, thrilling to fans at the time, the Team Titans all get new costumes and I'm pretty sure this is the first time we see some of their real identities.

But again, Total Chaos is kind of a small story that mostly sees the Titans involved in fight scenes broken up by running from one place to the next and sniping at one another. Many of Wolfman's "Titans" stories conclude in starscape alternate dimensions, but as compared to "Titans Hunt," here the Titans are mostly standing around, and the "battle" per se is just to get a crazed Donna Troy to come back to herself. Though the Deathstroke issues had "Total Chaos" cover billing, they grow increasingly disconnected from the main story, including an in medias res eight-page flashback to a mission of Slade Wilson's in Cambodia. Deathstroke #15-16, Total Chaos parts 4 and 7, are nigh well skippable (except they do include the first appearance of Rose "Ravager" Wilson).

By today's standards, the sexual politics of Total Chaos are also problematic. Wolfman and Perez's Titans was always a book willing to push the boundaries of the DC Comics mainstream, whether it was the unmarried Dick and Starfire sleeping together, Deathstroke and Terra, or Donna Troy marrying the much-older Terry Long (and Wolfman often portraying Terry as a difficult figure despite that Donna loved him). Here, we find that Mirage has tricked Nightwing to bed by impersonating Starfire, an instance treated more casually then than it would be now. Starfire spends the rest of the book irrationally jealous, thinking this might mean Nightwing would actually leave her for Mirage; "Miri," for her part, takes every opportunity to hang on Nightwing despite his protestations. In this vein of Titans men being irresistible to the women, Terra makes continued passes at the disinterested Changeling, too. An art miscommunication sees Donna Troy, fully dressed and in labor, spend an entire issue naked before her clothes reappear again. New mother Donna then gives up her powers, though she'd be superheroing again within a few years.

It wouldn't be the 1990s without a gimmick, and Total Chaos' was that Team Titans came with five different covers, each with a different backup origin of one of the characters. I distinctly remember my embarrassment when I realized that each book had the exact same main story -- this was before comics news and solicitations were so readily available online, mind you, and it seemed a waste of $8.75. Looking back, however, for 48 pages the five first issues of Team Titans were exactly the same price as the regular-sized Deathstroke and New Titans, $1.75, and the main story is 22 pages while the "backups" are all 18 pages, so it actually comes out pretty even.

This book includes these backups at the end; in the front is perhaps not the right place for them either, though there is a bit in the Killowat story that comes back around in Total Chaos and might've been useful to read first. I had forgotten that, for the first issue of Team Titans, these stories were fairly ground-breaking, too -- we see some of the other compartmentalized Team Titans teams here; we meet some early members of "our" Team Titans; and we learn how Prestor Jon became a computerized entity and the origins of Killowat and Nightrider, among others. The stories are neatly connected, with the Mirage and Redwing stories ending in the same place and the Nightrider story fitting within the Killowat origin. That Nightrider story, a foreboding Transylvania tale, lets Wolfman channel his Tomb of Dracula roots for a spell.

Artists include Kerry Gammill, Adam Hughes, and Phil Jimenez (with George Perez on some of the inks). Jimenez, future Team Titans co-writer, draws the Terra story, and Jimenez's resemblance to Perez gives this an authentic feel in the significant references to Judas Contract. The nostalgia is great but the story is funny by today's standards. The evil Lord Chaos sends a brainwashed girl disguised as Terra to infiltrate the Team Titans, believing they'll accept her as a Titans legacy figure without being familiar with her treacherous origins. The Titans leader recognizes and suspects Terra right away because of her past and the jig is up -- had Chaos chosen literally anyone else from Gnarkk to Protector, he'd have defeated the Team Titans and ruled the world.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Titans: Total Chaos

All new collections are good collections, and I could not be happier to be able to hold a copy of Titans: Total Chaos in my hands. The story is not, I know, very well regarded, but that makes it all the better that it's been collected; "Titans Hunt" is probably the easier collection to receive (though DC, I've been very patient and it's about time now). Total Chaos is important not for how it turned out, but for how excited we were about it, and for what it reminds us about the times when Marv Wolfman's Titans was can't miss.

[Includes original covers]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Titans: Total Chaos
Author Rating
4 (scale of 1 to 5)
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10 comments:

  1. Great to see the return of some older material being reviewed! Hope we see another one every now and then.

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    Replies
    1. All the new stuff keeps me pretty busy, but I felt strongly about this one. I'll try to do another down the line. Any requests for a review of a new-release collection of older material?

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    2. Thank you so much for reviewing this book! I really would love to see you review the new Kyle Rayner by Ron Marz trades and maybe even the new Flash by Mark Waid trades. It would be great to see what you think of those older works and if you feel they hold up.

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    3. This review has been great!! Not only talking about the book itself, but also it’s original context, etc
      I’d love to see reviews for new collections of old material like these ones:
      - Green Lantern kyle rayner
      - legionnaires
      - batman dark knight detective and caped crusader
      -Vigilante by wolfman (with an analysis from your point of view on why the first vol looks like it will be the last one)
      - superboy by kesel and grummett
      - aquaman by peter david

      Just a few to start with!! :)

      David

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    4. I would love to hear your opinions on the Waterbearer/Sub Diego era Aquaman trades.

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    5. One day, if I can get atop my pile of new stuff (where I am actually making progress), I'd like to go back and review many of the collections you all mentioned, many of which I own. I would say Green Lantern: Kyle Rayner is high on the list because "Siege of Zi Charam" needs the same kind of Collected Editions love as Titans: Total Chaos. Also if those Dark Knight Detective/Caped Crusader collections continue. And generally reviewing them would go along with putting them on the Timeline.

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  2. I should be getting my copy of this tpb any day now. I loved the New Titans. I want a Titans Hunt collection so badly.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for buying one! I do think if this sells well, Titans Hunt would be next. I wonder if the size is a problem though; Titans Hunt proper is fourteen issues, and I'd really like to see them dovetail with Total Chaos, which would be like nineteen issues. But I wouldn't want them splitting it into two books.

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  3. I've never really cared about the Titans, but this review made me wish I did. Good one!

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  4. Agreed. Anything previously uncollected would merit a review when possible. Aquaman and Supergirl by Peter David, Superboy, Chuck Dixon Robin and Nightwing if they continue collecting them. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but would also love these new collections being placed in the TPB timeline.

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