Few writers have had as great an impact on modern DC comics as Geoff Johns. Prior to becoming the company’s President and COO, Johns became a household name for fans by reviving classic Silver Age characters Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. More recently, he made waves by ushering in a Rebirth for the universe (or multiverse?) as a whole. However, before he became known as the “rebirth guy,” Geoff developed a following by breathing new life into a team of angsty, hormone-driven superheroes – the Teen Titans.
Johns’ Teen Titans has become the thing of legend. It’s a seminal run on the team, the Modern Age equivalent to Wolfman and Pérez’s run in the Bronze Age. It was a rebirth before rebirths became a “thing” at DC. The writer’s work on the book concluded ten years ago this year, and with the company finally re-releasing the run in trade format, now seems like the perfect time to look back and see what made it so impactful.
Bottom Line (Audio Summary)
Writing a good Titans tale is no easy feat. Not only does the story need to be as action packed and enjoyable as a normal superhero book, but the characters need to capture a very specific adolescent essence, while remaining relatable to readers of all ages. Johns nails the teenage spirit, and since adolescence isn’t uniform, he uses the various Titans to encompass different experiences. For instance, Superboy, Wonder Girl, and (to a lesser extent) Robin all embody a fight for individuality. They want to be seen as more than just younger versions of the DC Holy Trinity. They remind older readers what it was like to step out from their parents’ shadows and want to be treated as their own persons, adults with independent thoughts and desires. Their battle lasts the duration of Johns’ run, and even carries into the succeeding author’s work. Because the fight to be treated as an adult doesn’t end at 19, does it?
Meanwhile, Titans like Kid Flash and Beast Boy are fighting a different battle. Typically known as the team “jokesters,” Johns adds depth to these two as they mature to more serious characters. Their arcs ooze heart, as does the run as a whole, which is why it’s such a joy to read.
In the first storyline, Bart Allen – still under the Impulse mantle – receives a lot of flak from his friends about being too, well, impulsive and not thinking things through. Making matters worse, he realizes that his mentor the Flash doesn’t have much faith in his abilities as a superhero. Sure enough, by the end of the second issue, Bart rushes into a situation and takes a shotgun to the knee. Filled with self doubt, and terrified that everyone was right about him, Bart recovers and almost immediately speed reads through an entire library. He studies up on law, engineering, and everything else he can get his hands on so that he won’t be caught off guard again. Shedding the Impulse name, Bart suits up as Kid Flash in order to show his friends that he’s someone they can count on. The young speedster’s arc is one that any class clown can relate to: he just wants to be taken seriously when it matters.
Beast Boy’s maturity, on the other hand, is more thrust upon him than his own choice. He’s a member of the old guard, along with Cyborg and Starfire. Once the team’s “baby brother,” he now finds himself a role model to this new team of Titans. And he’s reluctant to accept that; at one point he mutters to himself, “Oh god, I’m an ‘old guy.'” But over the course of the series, he steps up and fills the role, and that’s no more apparent than in the “Beast Boys and Girls” storyline. When Gar is cured of the virus that turned him into Beast Boy, an elementary school full of boys and girls are infected and transformed. Without hesitating, Gar reinfects himself in order to save the day. His heroism, his sacrifice, and his journey over the course of this run exemplifies the major step from teenager to young adult. It’s not always expected, or even wanted, but it’s a step that everyone must face.
The characters and their chemistry with one another is clearly what makes Johns’ run on Titans special. The dialogue is quick, fun, heartfelt, and most importantly it feels real. The Titans fit seamlessly together like the cast of a John Hughes movie. They’re a family, and that’s what this series boils down to. Johns humbly acknowledges that the Titans are larger than anything he – or any other one writer – can tackle completely. Legacy characters like Dick Grayson and Wally West make frequent appearances, and at one point, every character that’s ever been a Teen Titan comes together to battle Doctor Light. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, no matter how old you get, Titans are family, and family is forever. Johns ends his run with perhaps its most emotionally charged moment, when the Titans archnemesis Deathstroke acknowledges that the team is “better” than he is in a sense. He manipulates events to ensure that his own children have a home with the Titans, a better home than he himself could ever provide them.
Johns’ Teen Titans run both starts and ends on big high points, but the best story in between them has to be “Titans Tomorrow.” The team is launched into the near future where they encounter their future selves under new mantles. Superboy is now Superman, Wonder Girl is now Wonder Woman, Kid Flash is now Flash, and – shocking his young self the most – Robin is now Batman.
However, the Teen Titans quickly discover that – save for Cyborg – their future selves are, as Superboy puts it, “freakin’ bad guys!” They rule with an iron fist, killing anyone that gets in their way. Tim Drake’s Batman even uses a gun, the very gun that killed Bruce Wayne’s parents.
“Titans Tomorrow” represents a fear that haunts most young people, the fear that they will grow up and surrender their ideals. The elder Titans are examples of what happens when you let the cruel world break you down. Things got tough, and they took the easy (and morally dubious) road. The adventure reminds the young heroes, and the reader, to always stay true to who they are, and stick to their ideals no matter how hard it is, lest they become their own greatest enemy.
While he was doing Titans, Geoff Johns also wrote Infinite Crisis, DC’s multiverse-shattering event of 2006. Unfortunately, as often happens during massive comics events, the regular ongoing titles suffered from “crossover syndrome.” The storytelling became messy as all the books suddenly had to tie into Crisis. The fact that Johns was writing the event probably didn’t help, as he had less time and attention to pay to his other books.
Issues 29~33 of Teen Titans volume three feel choppy and incomplete. They’re only part of a story, and if you aren’t also reading other DC comics that came out at the same time, you’ll be lost. Some trades collect parts of these other titles, like Infinite Crisis and Robin, to try and complete the story, but it still reads wonky.
This isn’t just a Teen Titans problem; this is a problem with comic events as a whole. Massive crossovers have a ripple effect, and tend to disrupt the flow that regular ongoing series get going. Luckily, in the case of Geoff John’s Titans, the title rebounded in the aftermath and delivered some of its strongest story arcs.
Geoff Johns’ early work is easily his best work, and Teen Titans falls right into that category. While being action packed, it’s more of a character driven run that packs an emotional punch. It’s a relatable story of growing up and learning how to be your own person. Read it if you feel the weight of adulthood coming down on you.