In the summer of 1970, when I was finding my way back into the regular habit of comic-book buying after almost giving the whole thing up a few months earlier, I seem to have been inclined to give just about any and every title a shot. At least, that’s my best guess as to why I picked up this issue of Teen Titans — a title I’d only ever read once before, and that over two years previously.
If I had to come up with a more specific reason, however, it would have been the cover — which, in addition to being a typically fine effort by the series’ long-time semi-regular artist, Nick Cardy (pretty much at the peak of his powers in this era), promised that the issue’s story would feature an extra couple of superheroes in addition to the usual gang of Justice Leaguers’ junior partners I was used to; namely, the Hawk and the Dove.
Not that I was a big fan of Hawk and Dove, by any means; in fact, I’m pretty sure I’d never read a story featuring the two prior to this one. As best as I can recall, I’d been intrigued by DC’s house ads for their earliest appearances, but not quite so intrigued that I ever actually ponied up the coin to sample one. That might have been because when the heroes made their debut in Showcase #75 (June, 1968), the art of their co-creator, Steve Ditko, still came across as a little “weird” to me; by the time I’d developed a taste for Ditko’s style (mostly via reprints of his work for Marvel of several years previous, such as I’d found in Doctor Strange #179), he’d left the series; and not so long after that, The Hawk and the Dove was cancelled. I’m not sure I was even aware that they’d made a guest appearance in Teen Titans back in issue #21 (May-Jun., 1969), let alone that they’d returned in issue #25 (Jan.-Feb., 1970) — just in time, as it turned out, for them to join the other teen heroes in hanging up their costumes and forswearing the use of their powers.
But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. When I bought Teen Titans #29, I’m fairly certain I had little idea of the big changes the team had been going through in recent issues. Indeed, unless I’d cracked open the the book to the first page prior to making my purchase, I may not have even realized that I was coming in on the second part of a continued story:
Wait a second, here — “our vow”? What vow? And who the heck is “Lilith”?
Back in 1970, my thirteen-year-old self would have to piece together the answers to these and similar questions as best as he could from scraps of exposition in the story, as well as from fans’ letters (and editor Dick Giordano’s responses to them) published in this issue’s “Tell It to the Titans” page. But there’s no reason to make you work that hard, dear reader, and so, here’s the background.
In Teen Titans #25, writer Robert Kanigher and artist Nick Cardy told the tale of a fateful evening in which the Titans regulars — Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Speedy — attended a peace rally, where the featured speaker was Dr. Arthur Swenson — a Nobel Peace Prize winner and “modern day saint”. Unfortunately, a stand-off between two opposing groups of demonstrators turned violent — and though the Titans, as well as the Hawk and the Dove (who coincidentally also happened to be present), attempted to intervene, tragedy was the ultimate result:
The bullet struck Dr. Swenson — and though the Titans rushed him to the hospital, medical efforts to save the life of the great man of peace were unsuccessful, and he died. This was clearly a terrible tragedy, with echoes of the then-recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy that would have felt especially resonant to readers in 1969.
And then, as if the Titans didn’t already feel bad enough…
I didn’t read this story until some years after it was published, so I don’t know what my younger self would have made of it if I’d read it when it first came out — but from my present-day adult perspective, the Justice League’s dressing-down of the young heroes in this scene seems way too harsh. After all, it’s not as though the Titans encouraged that guy to pull out a gun, or aimed it themselves, or pulled the trigger. Superman claims that the Titans were “reckless” in the use of their powers — but what would the JLAers have done differently in this situation? The story doesn’t suggest any alternatives.
But, of course, a scenario had to be contrived to bring the Titans low, so as to justify the drastic change in direction Kanigher, Cardy, and Giordano were about to introduce into the series — a change that came in the form of an offer made to our despondent heroes by one Mr. Jupiter, “the richest man in the world“:
It should be noted that the story had already given Robin a “pass” for the disaster for which, by the story’s logic, the Titans would be required to atone; at the peace rally, he’d ducked out to summon the police before violence broke out, and so wasn’t present when the fatal shot was fired. Of course, the real reason that Dick Grayson couldn’t take Mr. Jupiter up on his offer was that, even after having left Gotham City to attend classes at Hudson University, he was still appearing regularly in DC’s “Batman” titles, in costume, as Robin.
But though the Boy Wonder didn’t sign up for Jupiter’s “secret training project”, the other super-teens — including the Hawk and the Dove — did. So did Lilith, an enigmatic young woman with precognitive abilities, and, as of issue #26, a young, non-powered African-American man named Mal. Mal (whose surname of Duncan wouldn’t be revealed for years) can be considered DC’s first black superhero, though that’s a designation made somewhat complicated by the fact that he wasn’t given a bona fide heroic identity with a code name, costume, super-abilities, etc., until 1976 — by which time other, more conventional African-American superfolks (such as auxiliary Green Lantern John Stewart) had made their DC debuts.
Mr. Jupiter’s program required the Titans to take the drastic step of renouncing their powers, costumes, and code names, and to suit up in matching purple uniforms, instead, for a look somewhat similar to those of DC’s other teams of non-super adventurers, such as the long-running Challengers of the Unknown, or the more recent Secret Six. According to a statement Giordano would give years later for a Back Issue article on the Titans’ history (issue #33, April, 2009), this concept had originated neither with him nor with Kanigher, but rather with DC’s Editorial Director, Carmine Infantino:
Carmine ordered the elimination of their [the Teen Titans’] powers and costumes as part of an effort to move toward stories of relevancy. Even our romance books featured stories of social workers and women who had a social conscience. I think the idea was only to treat them as normal human beings and expose them to the same uncertainties and doubts that regular vulnerable human beings had. I don’t think radical storylines were to be part of the package. We just made the heroes more vulnerable … to make them more like ‘other folk.’
Admittedly, the renunciation of costumes and code names wasn’t such a big deal for Lilith and Mal, but it certainly constituted a huge change for the others — Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, Hawk, and Dove. Why, in terms of internal story logic, was this step deemed necessary? Based on my recent re-reading of these issues, no truly convincing answer was ever given. And while this new, “grounded” approach to the Teen Titans might work reasonably well in a tale like the one told in #26, set in the tough inner-city neighborhood of “Hell’s Corner”, the situation depicted in the very next issue (Kanigher’s last), involving the team encountering aliens on the moon, didn’t mesh very comfortably with the new concept. Meanwhile, #27’s cover suggested that DC was hedging its bets on the title’s sharp change in direction, with the Titans (including Robin, who wasn’t even featured in the story) depicted in their traditional costumes in a vertical banner that ran to the left of Cardy’s illustration.
With #28, the series received a new (and younger) regular writer — Steve Skeates, who’d been working with editor Dick Giordano since before both men had left Charlton Comics in 1968 for the greener pastures of DC. Skeates’ earliest assignments for Giordano at the latter publisher had included both Aquaman — in which founding Teen Titan Aqualad appeared regularly as a supporting cast member — and The Hawk and the Dove. In retrospect, then, it hardly seems surprising that Skeates’ first storyline for Teen Titans — one which sharply questioned the new direction established by Kanigher in the previous three issues — would put the three heroes the new writer was most familiar with at the front and center of the action.
In issue #28’s “Blindspot”, Aqualad — who hadn’t appeared in an issue of Teen Titans since #19 — became alarmed when he couldn’t get in touch with his teammates after a week of trying (Skeates’ script never explained just why he was trying to reach them, but it didn’t really matter), and came to the surface to look for them in person:
Finding the team’s HQ not only empty, but deserted, Aqualad headed for the apartment Donna Troy (Wonder Girl) shared with a young woman named Sharon Tracy — only to find himself battling armed thugs attempting to silence Sharon, who, during an earlier walk in a nearby park, had seen a man struck by a ray-gun blast and turned into an alien creature. Baffled by this mystery, and more determined than ever to track down the Titans, Aqualad traveled next to Hudson University to find Robin. Robin then escorted his old friend and ally to Mr. Jupiter’s estate, where the two of them met up with the remaining Titans (including Hawk, Dove, Lilith, and Mal, all of whom were of course brand new faces to Aqualad):
“Chicken, cop-outs, sissies!” I’ve always sympathized with Aqualad’s frustration in this scene, but his invective hasn’t aged very well.
In the next panels, Donna Troy tried to explain things to her old friend by briefly recapping TT #25’s tragic events…
I’d say that Aqualad (probably speaking for Skeates) made some pretty valid points here. Nevertheless, the Titans remained reluctant to get involved — and so Aqualad finally decided to go it alone. In the park where Sharon Tracy had witnessed the strange transformation of man-into-alien, the young Atlantean stumbled upon a discarded sheet of notebook paper containing mysterious “scientific mathematical notations“. But then he was set upon, and ultimately overwhelmed, by henchmen of an old foe of his and Aquaman’s — Orm Marius, the Ocean Master:
And with that, we’ve reached the cliffhanger that ended TT #28, and led right into the beginning of #29 — which is of course where my thirteen-year-old self came in, fifty years ago. And now that you’re all caught up (and much better informed than I was at the time), we’ll return to where we left off in #29, following the Titans’ rescue of Aqualad…
With this page, the focus of the storyline shifts from Aqualad to the other two characters new TT scripter Skeates knew best, the Hawk and the Dove.
For anyone out there who might not be all that familiar with the characters, they were conceived as a superheroic take on the late-Sixties cultural and political divide over the war in Vietnam. Depending on who (and what) you read, the basic idea may have been originated by Carmine Infantino and then given to Steve Ditko to develop, or it may have begun its life on Ditko’s drawing board. Either way, it seems to have been further developed with input from editor Dick Giordano, as well as from Skeates. Together, this committee of creators devised the characters who would personify the “hawk” and “dove” perspectives in costumed hero form — two teenage brothers named Hank and Don Hall, who were granted enhanced physical abilities (and magically-appearing costumes) by a mysterious “Voice”.
In later years, Skeates would speculate that he was brought into the project to serve as a left-wing counterpoint to Ditko’s Ayn Rand-flavored conservatism; nevertheless, he found it a continuing uphill struggle to give equal weight to both viewpoints in his scripts. As the writer told Glen Cadigan in an interview for The Titans Companion (TwoMorrows, 2005):
There were all sorts of problems with that. First of all, the Comics Code would not let a character question authority — the police or the government. That was a basic no-no according to them, which right there cut down the effectiveness of the Dove. I was working in the beginning from Ditko’s plots, and working with Dick and Steve, both of whom were fairly conservative and fairly hawkish themselves, they tended to see the Dove as a wimp rather than as a dove, or what I would describe as a dove. I think did a fairly good job of making the Dove into a strong character who didn’t believe in violence, but much of the time my dialogue, or even the action, was changed by either Dick or Steve, and the Dove was made, as I said, more into a wimp then a dove. So I think a lot of what I was trying to do didn’t get across…
Skeates remained as writer even as Ditko departed after The Hawk and the Dove #2, with his scripts for issues #3 and #4 being illustrated by Gil Kane. Then, Kane himself wrote as well as drew the next two issues; after that, the series was cancelled, with the Hall brothers moving to take up residence in Teen Titans — where the only creative link to their previous appearances was provided by editor Giordano, at least until Skeates came aboard with issue #28.
In TT #29, Hank has decided that he and Don can solve the current mystery on their own, by the simple stratagem of going to Sharon Tracy’s vacant apartment, turning on the lights so it looks like she’s returned home, and waiting for Ocean Master’s henchmen to show up. As it turns out, that’s a pretty good plan:
As Dove ducks out the window, he overhears the hoods say they’re going to take Hawk to Pier 51, where they’re due to rendezvous with Ocean Master. That’s a nice stroke of luck, since it allows Dove to show up at said location in the proverbial nick of time (with the other Titans in tow, pf course), just one panel later:
The Titans appear likely to make short work of Ocean Master’s henchmen — but then…
The preceding panel, and its accompanying footnote, directly connected the events of this story to a multi-part tale that had recently concluded in Aquaman — a storyline that had run through three issues, and had incorporated both the lead “Aquaman” feature (written by Skeates) and a “Deadman” back-up strip written as well as drawn by Neal Adams. While I had flipped through an issue or two at the stands, I ultimately hadn’t bitten, probably due to my frustration at not having been able to find every chapter of the previous multi-part Aquaman epic (including the last one). By July, 1970, my younger self may have already come to regret the decision to pass on Aquaman #50 – 52; if not, I certainly began to do so now.
Dove goes on to explain that the transformed aliens have been breaking into research labs and stealing classified documents, which they’ve used to help them assess our level of technological advancement, and thus our ability to fend off an interplanetary invasion.
No sooner have Hawk and Dove got themselves clear of the just-short-enough pole than a couple of Ocean Master’s accomplices happen to walk by, requiring our heroes to fight their way free:
The Hawk and the Dove keep battling on through the Ocean Master’s headquarters complex until, looking for the way out, they attempt to take a shortcut, and find themselves in the middle of the supervillain’s control room, instead:
Dove doesn’t want to punch anybody, but he’s willing to help out by restraining the super-strong disguised alien, at least:
A few issues after this one, in the letters column of Teen Titans #31, reader Charles Myerson opined that Dove’s decision to take violent action in this scene represented a “cop-out” on the pacifistic young hero’s part. Editor Giordano had this to say in response:
That’s a pretty good answer, I have to admit. On the other hand, Dove’s rationale that it’s OK to whale on another sentient being because they’re technically not “a fellow man” still seems like pretty weak sauce to me.
The fight ends somewhat abruptly — we don’t even see the result of Speedy’s last bow-shot — and then it’s back to Titans HQ for the wrap up:
OK, so the defeated alien invaders all just… “scooted back to their home planet”? And the Titans let them, but (presumably) took Ocean Master into custody, to answer for his crimes? Seems a little sloppy, but I guess we’ll have to roll with it.
The story’s thoughtful but ambivalent conclusion — which lays out both Aqualad’s side of the argument and that of the other Titans without coming down firmly on one side or the other — would turn out to be a fairly good indicator of what was to come in the next couple of issues of Teen Titans.
Issue #30 (which my thirteen-year-old self either missed or passed on, but in either case, didn’t buy) would feature a lead story starring Kid Flash, Speedy, Wonder Girl, Mal, and Lilith — in their purple uniforms, and not using their powers — complemented by a Kid Flash text story in which he does both suit up and use his powers, and an Aqualad solo tale (guest-starring Aquagirl!) along the same line. Fronting this package was a Cardy cover that spotlighted Aqualad (in costume, obviously), while also showing the Titans in costume in the left-side banner (which rather misleadingly continued to include an illustration of Robin, despite the fact that he wasn’t appearing in the stories).
Two months later, issue #31 (which I did buy), would lead off with another tale featuring the same core group of five Titans; this one, however, put Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Speedy in their traditional costumes for a page or two — just long enough to justify the in-costume appearance of the former two heroes on the over, if not Robin’s ongoing presence in the left-side banner. Meanwhile, the Hawk and the Dove returned, if only for a seven-page back-up story (which, as it turned out, would be the characters’ last appearance until 1976).
Does it seem to you as though DC wasn’t completely committed to the new direction in which they’d taken the Titans with issue #25, but, at the same time, weren’t quite ready to let it go? I’m tempted to say the publisher was still hedging its bets while waiting for sales numbers — but while that might have been the case back with issue #26 or #27, by issue #31, the “no costumes or powers” take had been operative about a year, so DC must have had some idea how things were going.
Perhaps the sales weren’t conclusive, either way; or perhaps the publisher felt that, regardless of sales, they couldn’t return to the version of the Teen Titans that had flourished in the series’ earlier years, when Bob Haney had been the scripter and George Kashdan had been the editor. As Dick Giordano (whose editorial tenure had begun in 1968, with issue #15) put it in issue #29’s lettercol, in response to a fan lamenting the loss of the “semi-lighthearted” (and super-powered, and colorfully costumed) Titans:
I don’t doubt that Giordano was sincere in his expressed desire that Teen Titans more accurately represent “the values and intents of the young” going forward than the the series had in the past. The problem, however, at least as I see it (with the benefit of a half-century’s worth of hindsight, of course), was that the young heroes’ chosen new direction for their lives and careers, as conceived by Infantino, Giordano, and Kanigher, wasn’t actually their own idea; but was, rather, something that was imposed on them by condescendingly paternalistic adult authority figures — first by the Justice League of America, and then by Mr. Jupiter. While the Titans may have been responsible for their own vow in the context of the stories, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the real-world adults guiding their fictional destinies didn’t actually have a great deal of faith in the ability of young people to make good choices for themselves.
Perhaps Giordano and Skeates would have eventually come to that conclusion on their own, and evolved the direction of the series in a way that allowed their teen characters more agency in their own lives and careers, had they continued on the title; however, with the very next issue, their tenure on Teen Titans came to an abrupt end. But to learn more about that turn of events, you’ll have to come back next January for our discussion of Teen Titans #32.