Teen Titans: Year One #1
Title: In the Beginning..., part one
Writer: Amy Wolfram
Penciler: Karl Kerschl
Inker: Serge LaPointe
Colorist: Stephane Peru
Letterer: Nick J Napolitano
Cover: Karl Kerschl
By Michael David Sims
10 January 2008 — Thanks to Karl Kerschl's artwork I was expecting to love Teen Titans: Year One #1.
But I do not.
Don't get me wrong, his smooth animation-influenced art is beautiful. The storytelling is perfect. Lush colors pop off the page while yanking you into this youthful, vibrant world. Each setting (e.g. Gotham City, the suburbs, Atlantis, "the big city") is starkly different from the last, yet they could all easily exist in the same living, breathing world he's created for these pages. Keep your eye on Karl Kerschl in 2008. On a book such as The Flash, Teen Titans or even Robin he'll have a brilliant spotlight shining on every page of his work, and he deserves no less.
(That said, there are some oddities in this world. Robin's using an IM client on a current-gen iMac with modern applications, the two-button mouse is wireless, the keyboard has an Alt key and not the Mac-standard Option key, a slim iPod rests in a dock at his side and Kid Flash plays with a DS. If this book is supposed to be set roughly 15 years ago, why are the characters using modern technology? Is this a flaw of the art, or did writer Amy Wolfram request these background items in an Alan Moore-like script? Either way, it presents minor issues with the book. Not enough to hinder the quality, but they are worthy of a head scratching. Also, at one point Dick Grayson and Wally West wear their respective superheroic colors, giving the issue a very Smallville vibe. Just because the Robin costume is red, yellow and green doesn't mean he needs to wear said colors as Dick Grayson. In fact, one would think he'd wear every color but those three, especially considering his mask barely hides his identity.)
My problem with Teen Titans: Year One #1, then, is obviously the writing.
For the most part the characters and their actions drive the story forward. (In truth, so far there is no story. Batman and Robin are tracking a "master cat burglar," Kid Flash suffers the pains of impatience, Aqualad is afraid of fish and Wonder Girl is awestruck of "the big city" as she searches for her sister. That's it. Nothing has gelled yet.) And those characters seem mostly natural, especially Robin (who clearly fears the looming presence of Batman, but will stand up to his mentor when he feels the need to) and Kid Flash (who can't sit still, showing hints of Bart Allen in Wally West). If the writer does anything well, it's capturing youth — which I'd hope of her, considering she wrote 15 episodes of the Teen Titans cartoon.
What she gets wrong is Batman, and that's what ruins the book.
We all know Batman can be a bit of a dick. That's nothing new, but (without spoiling a true shocker) it's how he treats Robin in the climax of this issue that completely altered everything I thought I knew about the characters. Honestly, it pushes the limit of taste, and made me recoil in a moment of disgust. If it turns out that this isn't Batman (and there are clues to suggest it might be an imposter), then one is left wondering where this phony acquired a costume accurate enough to confuse even Robin, how said imposter pulled off Batman's voice (again, well enough to fool the colorful sidekick) and why we're given a look into Batman's psyche as he interrogated a common thief. Sure, those could be red herrings, but why would a thief spend so much money on a fake costume to steal one string of pearls? Why is there such an emphasis placed on said jewelry if this isn't the real deal? How is it that he knows what Batman sounds like?
There's also the matter of Batman saying, "We don't need information. We need to stop a cat burglar." This line is delivered in the cave, and is therefore Batman. So that begs the question, since when does "the world's greatest detective" not need information, especially when he's still tracking an elusive thief? And why would he think a random courier is the "master cat burglar" he's seeking?
Nothing about Batman's characterization feels right, which jars the story and makes one wonder if Wolfram understands Batman at all. I mean, imagine Peter Parker not taking responsibility for his actions, instead making a deal with Satan to undo poor decisions that lead to tragedy. It doesn't make a lick of sense, and that's how ridiculously out of character Batman is portrayed. (Thankfully Marvel would never publish the far-fetched situation outlined above; I simply used it as an example of poor characterization.)
A story not coming together in the first issue I can deal with. Dick Grayson talking about his role as Robin in front of other youths is forgivable. An undefined, yet seemingly modern era for a retro story grinds my teeth, but doesn't kill the book. The gratuitous shot of a pre-teen Wonder Girl's ass and her laying on the ground, legs splayed as she hastily declares her love for a random boy I raise my eyebrow at, but I'm sure both were unintentional sexualizations of the character. But the outright butchering of Batman...
At this point, dear reader, I came to learn that in the origin story of the original Teen Titans (told in Teen Titans #53, cover date February 1978 and also entitled "In the Beginning...") the team was brought together to fight the evil of The Antithesis, who had taken mental control of the Justice League of America — sending the heroes on a crime spree. Due to this, the adult heroes acted very much out of character, and the young sidekicks had to band together to save the day by fighting their mentors. That said, it can be assumed that Batman's brutal behavior is not his own, and shows that Amy Wolfram does respect continuity.
So then, should I change my review; should I rewrite everything that came before my realization in order to incorporate what I now know?
No, and I'll tell you why: what I wrote was my honest, raw reaction to Teen Titans: Year One #1. Suppose you picked this up off the shelf, having never read an issue of Teen Titans before, and saw what I'm trying not to spoil. Chances are you'd put the book right back down. Then imagine I hadn't stumbled upon that information before closing my review. Would you call me a poor critic for not doing my research? I'd certainly hope not, because my review was based on the issue in my hands — not an issue of Teen Titans from 30 years ago that this one will eventually tie into. Currently there's no indication that a villain is at play here; it simply looks like Batman is a douche, and without said facts it looks like Wolfram is murdering an icon.
Initially I wasn't going to recommend this one. The plan was to tell you to gaze at Karl Kerschl's artwork, but otherwise it was to remain on the shelf. But now knowing where Wolfram is headed, does that change my grade? No, I still can't recommend Teen Titans: Year One #1. Normally I don't have a problem with writing for the trade, but when a very crucial piece of the puzzle is missing this early — when it makes it look the writer doesn't know what she's doing, when you have to independently research the facts — that's a tremendous problem with the issue. Comic book publisher have to learn that there's a balance when it comes to writing monthlies and for the trade. Enough of a story has to be given to justify each single issue, while it has to come together in the end to feel like a cohesive story worth collecting. Until then — as long as issues like this persist — wait for the collected edition.