After reviewing my comics buying and reading habits of a half-century ago for close to three years now, I’ve just about concluded that the younger me of those days wasn’t all that interested in teenage superheroes. Oh, I didn’t have any problem with, say, Robin, when he was appearing with Batman. The same would apply in the case of Kid Flash with Flash, or Aqualad with Aquaman. Teenage sidekicks were OK as supporting players, so long as there was a grown-up hero at the top of the bill. But I appear not to have had much interest in checking out the three junior partners named above, or their colleague Wonder Girl, when they were having adventures without any adult mentors around — not, that is, until the issue of Teen Titans that is the subject of today’s post.
As for the other teen heroes of the time — well, at the risk of having to surrender my Silver Age Fandom membership card, I have to admit that I somehow managed to almost completely avoid the Legion of Super-Heroes throughout not only the Sixties, but even the Seventies (indeed, I didn’t get around to buying an LSH-starring book until #265, in 1980*). Nor did I sample any of the solo adventures of the Legion’s two best-known members, Superboy and Supergirl. It’s true that by March, 1968, I was regularly buying and reading The Amazing Spider-Man — but, as I’ve detailed in an earlier post, I didn’t immediately realize that Peter Parker was a teenager. If Stan Lee had opted to call the hero that he and Steve Ditko brought into the world in 1962 “Spider-Boy“, it might have taken me even longer to become a Marvel Comics fan than it did. Similarly, the X-Men, whom I’d soon be reading about for the first time (in April, 1968, in fact — less than a month after Teen Titans #15’s publication), might not have captured my attention to the degree they soon did had Lee had called his and Jack Kirby’s creation the “X-Teens”.
Still, for whatever reason, after ignoring Teen Titans for over two years, I did finally decide to give the book a try. How come? I don’t really know, but I can think of a few considerations that might have influenced my purchasing decision at the spinner rack on that long-ago March day.
One possibility is that I was so taken by Spider-Man at this point that I deemed it was time to take a closer look at teen heroes in general — but I think that’s highly unlikely. Another possibility, with a higher potential for being true, is that I’d become more interested in the Titans, specifically, since catching their segments on The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure in Saturday mornings, beginning in September, 1967 (which I enjoyed, even though they replaced Robin with Speedy, and also colored Kid Flash funny). But I believe that the strongest contender for point-of-sale influence in March, 1968, is the book’s swell Nick Cardy cover, with its clever design — most likely conceived, if not actually laid out, by Carmine Infantino.
Whatever my reasons may have been at the time, however, I did plunk down my twelve cents for “Captain Thunder Blasts the Scene!”, took it home, and opened the book to this splash page:
There aren’t any credits on the splash page, or anywhere else in the book; but both the Grand Comics Database and Mike’s Amazing World list the penciler as Lee Elias and the inker as Nick Cardy, and I see little reason to doubt those attributions. Indeed, Cardy’s touch is quite obvious to anyone familiar with that artist’s work. At this point, he’d been the series’ regular artist since the Titans’ final tryout appearance in Showcase, doing full pencils and inks for every issue save for a few that were penciled instead by Irv Novick, then inked by Cardy. As for Elias, he never produced any otherTitans work, as best as I can determine, being primarily busy with Mystery In Space and Strange Adventures during this era. (As a side note: in what’s either an indication of Elias’ interest in trends in the visual arts during the Sixties, or simply an interesting coincidence, the same month that saw the publication of this Titans story –with its psychedelia-influenced page layouts — also witnessed the release of Elias’ “The Man with the Op Art Eyes” in Strange Adventures #212.)
The script, according to our sources, was by the book’s regular writer Bob Haney, who’d written every Titans story since their debut (as the otherwise-unnamed trio of “Kid Flash, Aqualad, and Robin”) in Brave and the Bold #54. Haney’s status was about to change, however, as Dick Giordano’s replacing George Kashdan as editor of Teen Titans with this very issue would soon prove a harbinger of further changes to come.
But, more about that a bit later on. For now, let’s follow Haney’s “Titans Four” as they stroll through the streets of “Hippieville, USA” — an obvious fictional stand-in for San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood circa 1967-68:
Today, Haney’s Teen Titans run is pretty much the poster child for “middle-aged comics pros trying to engage with youth culture in the Sixties, and doing it badly”, and the dialogue of the Titans, beginning here on page two, gives pretty clear evidence why that’s the case. The young heroes attempt to show sympathy for the hippie counterculture — even (in the case of Wonder Girl) approval — while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length. Haney attempts to emulate the teen slang of the era, and while some of it comes across as reasonably realistic (some teenagers were using the word “groovy” in 1968, I’m pretty sure), much of it sounds hopeless dated (as in the first panel, where Aqualad appears to have wandered in from a late Fifties beatnik coffeehouse). From the perspective of fifty years later, there’s a certain charm to the tone-deafness of it; but you can also see why a number of older and more sophisticated fans during that era were annoyed by the whole business. By all accounts, Haney didn’t much care — he once declared that his Titans was “very calculatingly aimed at a 12-year-old audience. We kept it very simple. We were not going for the Marvel readers.” (Amazing Heroes #2, July, 1981) Fair enough, I suppose — but surely even 12-year-olds deserve the basic authorial respect shown by taking care to imbue characters’ dialogue with some verisimilitude.
(While on the subject of the Titans’ dialogue, it seems rather odd for Robin to needle Aqualad about the latter’s “middle-class junior super-hero background”, considering that Aqualad’s “background” includes being a member of the royal court of Atlantis. Sure, in his identity of Dick Grayson, the ward of millionaire Bruce Wayne, Robin’s a very rich kid — but it’s hard to imagine that even he would consider Atlantean royalty to be “middle class”. Yeah, I know I’m probably making too much fuss over a throwaway line, but still…)
Page two also introduces the only bona fide hippie character (not counting the story’s narrator, the guitar-strumming “Poet”) who gets a name, let alone a distinctive personality. The story presents this character, Eddie the Guru, in a pretty favorable light — but that seems to be due in large part to the fact that his bag turns out to be helping “failed” hippies return to their conventional lives, as we learn on page 3:
“All gurus get mystic vibrations about the reality beyond the everyday illusion…!” I hate to think that Wonder Girl’s dialogue in this scene was my personal introduction to the Eastern religious concept of Maya, but it’s probably true.
While Eddie is getting in tune with the “great, groovy marmalade skies” (a phrase which indicates that Bob Haney was familiar with at least one song on the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper album), we find that the object of the Titans’ quest (and Eddie’s meditation), runaway Ken Matthews, has gotten himself mixed up in some shady, and probably dangerous, business:
Hmm. You know, if I needed to surreptitiously move packages from one set of hands to another, to avoid being caught out while committing some kind of criminal activity — I think I could probably come up with a slightly less suspicious time and place for a drop than a manhole on a public street in broad daylight. But hey, what do I know?
Kid Flash quickly trips up the fleeing Mr. Matthews, of course, and then…
OK, now we’re picking up some steam. Our story’s main villain has made his entrance, at last! I wonder what kind of crazy metahuman powers or weapons technology Captain Rumble is packing, to make this skinheaded motorcyclist a match for the might of the Teen Titans?
Um… none, actually. He’s just an ordinary motorcycle gang leader. But — there’s strength in numbers, maybe?
Maybe not. When the cop tries to run Captain Rumble and company off, and meets resistance, the Fab Foursome hurry to his aid. Four panels later…
Ken slips away, somehow, between the next to last panel on page 7 and the first panel on page 8. Then, as the Titans are getting briefed by Officer Friendly on the details of the local situation — in short, a crime ring is using runaway kids as stooges for various unsavory activities — we catch up with Ken at the apartment of his girlfriend Karin. He tells her that both “the fuzz” and the Teen Titans are after him — unbeknownst to them, however, the crime ring’s boss, Big Arnie, has called up Tram the Trucker to find out what went wrong with the manhole drop (because that brilliant setup should have worked like a charm, y’know?), and now Tram’s thugs are after Ken as well.
Hmm… did Anglo-American hippies appropriate traditional Native American costume in the Sixties? They could have, I suppose — so we’ll give Haney, Elias, and Cardy the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that Robin’s cultural insensitivity is at least secondhand.
The incognito Titans now put “Operation the Most” into action; and the rest of Part 2 involves them intercepting the thugs chasing Ken and Karin, thus allowing the duo to escape, as well as getting into altercations with the hippie-hating cohorts of Captain Rumble. Ultimately, however the operation is less than a complete success; as we hit page 16, Ken and Karin are still on the lam, while the Titans are at a loss where to look for them next:
Time to get ready to rumble! With Captain, er, Rumble:
While Eddie exhorts his fellow flower children not to fight back, the Titans prepare to put a serious beatdown on the Captain and company. After all, non-violence may be a noble aspiration, but this is the real world, kids.
As the Titans had surmised, Ken and Karin are indeed at the “happening” in the park. They attempt to hide in an empty maintenance building, but Ironhead and Buster are right on their tail:
It’s awfully convenient that there’s a pool in the park, allowing Aqualad to do his, um, water stuff, isn’t it?
As the melee continues, even our peaceful Poet is drawn into the conflict:
Some super-villain Captain Thunder has turned out to be — he gets taken down by the narrator.
But, as Robin reminds us in that last panel, Ken and Karin are still in danger, as are the other teens being pressed into service by Big Arnie’s crime ring. So, after rescuing the young lovers from Buster and Ironhead one last time, the Titans convince Ken to cooperate with the police by taking them to Tram the Trucker’s place:
That “fab and gear” advice delivered by Robin — “…if you can’t make a different scene, stick with the scene you’re in!” — would seem to be Bob Haney’s final word to his young readers on the subject of the hippie counterculture. It may be all right for certain, select people — even “groovy”, as Wonder Girl put it on page 2 — but look twice before you drop out, kids, because the odds are good that, like Ken, you’ll find that you weren’t “meant to be a hippie”.
The unstated rest of that sentiment, of course, is, “…and why would you want to be a hippie, anyway?” Because, as the story’s climax makes very clear, when the Captain Rumbles of the world come thundering down on you, throwing flowers at them ain’t gonna cut it. As Robin put it, “sometimes you gotta meet nasty force with super-hero power!” (Or, y’know, whatever kind of power you have available.) No, the best (or at least the safest) thing is surely to stay put right where you are, with good ol’ Mom and Dad. Be it ever so “crumby” or “square”, there’s still no place like home. Right?
There’s a general consensus among comics historians that, in the Sixties, Marvel Comics did better than their competition at appealing to an older audience, including young people of college as well as high school age; and that this reflected a greater ability on the part of Stan Lee and his collaborators to connect with youth culture. I believe that’s accurate, to a certain extent; on the other hand, it should be remembered that the Marvel staff and freelancers were, on average, not that much younger than their DC counterparts. If there was, in fact, a dramatic generation gap between youth and their elders in the late Sixties, Stan Lee (age 45 in March, 1968) was on the “wrong” side of it just as much as Bob Haney (age 42) was — in chronological terms, at least. One shouldn’t expect that Marvel would get the youth culture stuff exactly right, any more than DC would.
A couple of months after Teen Titans #15 hit the stands, Marvel published Thor #154 — a comic book which, like TT #15, directly addressed the hippie counterculture, though in the context of a single scene, rather than in a full-length story. I think it’s interesting, and perhaps even instructive, to compare the approach taken in this comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby** to that taken by Bob Haney and company in the Titans issue
The hippie-featuring sequence in Thor #154 comes near the end of the issue, as the Thunder God combs the streets of New York City in search of his wicked half-brother Loki, following an inconclusive battle between the two in the previous issue:
Thor’s main beef with the philosophy of the hippies — whom he calls “truly pure of heart” — is with their (presumed) desire to disengage from the world, and its attendant responsibilities and challenges. As the son of Odin declares, the hippies shouldn’t be dropping out — they should be “plunging in“.
By contrast, the story in Teen Titans #15 is more concerned with the hippies’ espousal of nonviolence — which, as we’ve already discussed, is portrayed as a nice, but entirely impractical idea — and with their supposed disdain for society’s authority figures. As Robin chidingly (and rather condescendingly) says to wannabe hippie Ken Matthews on page 5: “You don’t like the police, Ken boy? That’s really square and unhip –! Usually, if you’re turned off against authority, it really means you’re turned off against yourself — !”
As a ten-year-old, I probably bought into this assertion completely; today, however, I’m more inclined to echo Ken’s retort (“Skip the lectures, Robin!”). The Boy Wonder doesn’t provide any real reasons as to why authority is to be respected, or why being against authority is really just being “against yourself”; he, and the rest of the Titans, are, in the end, just toeing the Establishment line.
Thor, on the other hand, seems more willing to engage intellectually with the hippies, to present what he hopes is an inspiring alternative to “dropping out”. And while it can be argued that Lee and Kirby misunderstood the essential meaning of that idea***, it seems likely that some wannabe hippies of the era could have misunderstood the full scope of it as well — and for those folks, Thor’s lecture might well have been worthwhile. In any case, the words that Lee puts in the mouth of his Thunder God are actually trying to say something — they’re not just reactively defending the status quo:
As far as I’m concerned, the point for this round of “comic books engage with the broader (youth) culture” goes to the House of Ideas. If you’re keeping score at home, I hope you agree.
Timing is everything, so they say. And as far as Teen Titans is concerned, my timing as a young comics reader was undeniably off. Which is probably why my first issue, #15, would also be the last I’d buy for a couple of years.
If I’d deigned to pick the book up when the first issues were coming out — when I was eight years old — I might well have been satisfied with both story and art. Bob Haney’s “gear, fab” dialogue would probably have left me unfazed in 1965. By March, 1968 — at which point I’d been reading Amazing Spider-Man for a couple of months — Haney’s patented “Titan Talk” couldn’t cut it.
By the same token, if I’d waited a few months after March, I might have stuck around longer — because Teen Titans was about to get considerably more interesting.
Issue #15 was, as noted earlier, the first published under the editorial supervision of Dick Giordano, newly arrived at DC from Charlton Comics. However, both it and the next couple of issues had probably already been largely assembled during the tenure of the previous editor, George Kashdan. It’s really only with issue #18 that Giordano’s touch becomes evident.
With that issue, Haney was out as the book’s regular writer (though he would still have a couple of his stories published during the Giordano years, and would be reinstalled as full-time regular scripter following Giordano’s replacement as editor by Murray Boltinoff, in 1971). The writing for the next year or so would be a varied lot, including some very young fans-turned-writers near the beginnings of their careers — Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Mike Friedrich — as well as veteran scripter Robert Kanigher, and even one relatively new talent best known as an artist, Neal Adams. Meanwhile, Nick Cardy would continue as the inker on most issues, as well as the regular cover artist, but pencils would be handled by a number of other artists in addition to Cardy — including Adams, Bill Draut, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, and George Tuska.
The series, it must be said, took some time to find a new direction under Giordano’s stewardship. Some of the earliest changes, storywise, included the replacement of Aqualad as a regular full-time member with Speedy, followed by the addition of the Steve Ditko creations, the Hawk and the Dove — first as guest stars, then as (more or less) regular members. Plotlines also moved further into social issues territory — sometimes awkwardly. (Neal Adams’ three-issue run only came about, in fact, due to a belated rejection by DC of a Wein-&-Wolfman-scripted story for TT #20 that would have featured DC’s first African-American costumed superhero — details of that unfortunate event are available here.) This turn towards “relevance” ultimately culminated in the series’ most drastic change to date, as, with issue #25 (written by Kanigher and illustrated by Cardy), the Titans (sans Robin) gave up their costumes and the use of their powers to join a new “training program”, developed and funded by the mysterious billionaire Mr. Jupiter, intended to equip teenagers to (in his words) “cope with the world they will inhabit!”. Also making their debut in this storyline, which continued into the next issue, were two new Titans members, Lilith and Mal — neither of whom were given a codename, costume, or even a proper surname (at least, not immediately).
One issue later, Teen Titans finally got a new regular scripter, Steve Skeates — a young writer who’d followed Dick Giordano over from Charlton and had already worked on two other Giordano-edited titles, Aquaman and The Hawk and the Dove. Skeates immediately brought back Robin and Aqualad (at least for a while) — and, with the next issue (#29, published in July, 1970), I was back as well, as a Titans buyer and reader. Unfortunately, Skeates’ run was abruptly cut short, as was Giordano’s editorial tenure, when….
Whoops. Seems like I’m getting way ahead of this blog’s 50-year-old-comic-books raison d’etre. I guess my thoughts about TT #29 will have to wait for another post, in another year.
See you in July, 2020?
*And to be completely honest with you, I only picked up that issue for the “extra” story included within — a Radio Shack promotional piece featuring Superman, which I wanted for the Jim Starlin artwork. I didn’t actually get into the Legion as the Legion until 1982, when Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen began their “Great Darkness Saga”.
**I should say for the record that my actual first issue of Thor was #158, published a few months after this one. I didn’t get the opportunity to read #154 until I acquired it in the ’70s as a back issue.
“Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations… were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.