Sunday, August 16, 2020


When Mrs. Bhagpuss and I finally caved and signed up for our own Netflix account earlier this month, one of the first series I added to my list was Titans. I've always been something of a fan of DC's junior Justice League, going back almost to the day it began.

I still have my copy of the team's first headline outing in their own title, Teen Titans #1. It came out at the very start of 1966. I probably got hold of it a few months later. I can't remember exactly what I thought of it when I was seven or eight years old but it has the distinction of being the only comic where I burned away the faces of all the characters on the cover with a magnifying glass, so maybe that tells us something.

Whatever my feelings, it didn't stop me going on to buy every other copy of the original run I could get my childish hands on, which wasn't all that many. Comics distribution in the United Kingdom was infamously random in the 1960s and '70s, a much written-about topic I don't intend to re-hash here.

I'd always liked the artwork in the Teen Titans comics. It was lush and illustrative rather than brittle and cartoonish. When I advanced into comics fandom proper in my late teens I began to pay attention to the names of artists and writers and I learned that was down to Nick Cardy.

At this point I could easily get sidelined onto a discussion of Cardy's talents and the changes in house style that made DC Comics of the period feel so jarringly inconsistent. But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Let's just stick to The Titans.

Remember when smoking was cool?
Like almost all superhero series, the Teen Titans underwent endless revisions and relaunches. Perhaps the most radical came at the very start of the 1980s, when Marv Wolfman and George Perez re-branded the title as the New Teen Titans and turned it into one of the most successful superhero comics of its era.

I interviewed Wolfman at the peak of the title's success, talking to him for around an hour in a back room at a London comic convention for a piece to be published in a U.K. comics semi-pro 'zine. He was a friendly, approachable interviewee, as well he might have been, given his own origins in comics' fandom.

He may have been tired by then of being quizzed by eager fans on his controversial creation, the psychopathic Terra, who "infiltrates the Titans in order to destroy them" as Wikipedia puts it, but if so he didn't let it show.  He responded with enthusiasm as I quizzed him on the putative personality and motivation of his imaginary bad girl, with whom, to the surprise of absolutely no-one who knew me at the time, I was openly and obviously enthralled.

I recall that the Terra storyline was considered somewhat controversial back then, centering as it did on an amoral, foul-mouthed, nicotine-addicted, murderous sociopath and pathological liar, who also happened to be a member in good standing of a team of adolescent superheroes. By the early eighties comicbook anti-heroes were hardly a fresh phenomenon but Terra's particular style of nervy, sassy badness was particularly hard to hand-wave away, even when set against a cast of morally compromised characters that included Raven, daughter of the evil godling Trigon and Starfire, battle-hardened warrior-princess of an aggressive, alien empire.

Absolutely nothing I dimly remembered about that supposedly morally grey rendition of the Teen Titans could have possibly prepared me for the latest incarnation of the team as delivered by Netflix. And yet, without those memories, would I even be able to make even the slightest sense of any of it? Doubtful.

Two things distinguish Netflix' Titans: an unremitting brutality and an absolute refusal to acknowledge the  existence of an audience outside its given milieu. The former is disturbingly commonplace in contemporary fantastic fiction, the latter, less so. Creators generally have at least a passing interest in widening the circle. Not this time.

I'd be very interested to hear the opinions of anyone who's watched this series without prior knowledge of the characters. Is it even clear who they are? Does anything they do make the slightest sense? Are any of them remotely bearable as personalities? Do they come across as anything more than vicious thugs with a shaky line in self-justification?

It seems to me that the writers began with the assumption that no-one would be watching the show at all unless they were already fans of the I.P. so they didn't feel they needed to waste time explaining anything. And what a lucky break for them that was! The lack of exposition must have left plenty of space to graft in some more gratuitous violence and Titans is a show than can never have enough punches to the head.

If you are acquainted with the group's history, though, this feels rich. I haven't read a Teen Titans comic for maybe a quarter of a century so the resonances are faint but my god they're strong. And frequent. Every episode rings with echoes of my past. Names, situations, relationships, storylines; they all emerge, tangled and distorted, changed, screwed with, torn, ragged and bleeding.

Much like the "heroes" themselves and very much like the helpless, defenceless targets of those heroes' bludgeoning fists. I've watched a lot of superhero shows in the last few years and naturally they all involve people beating up other people but this is taking superhero violence to another level altogether.

There are a few, very disturbing, instances of sadism and torture but mostly it's sheer, unmitigated brutality. People punching other people in the head, again and again. Sometimes breaking an arm or a leg for variety. The occasional stabbing.

One of the lighter moments from Season One: Rachel's father rips her heart out before crushing it in his fist as her friends watch and smile. Seriously, this did count as a lighter moment. It's comic-book violence, at least...
Starfire provides some variety from the punch-punch-punching whenever she burns someone to ash, which, in the first season, at least, is often. Raven occasionally unleashes her cosmic side to throttle a team-mate or slash them with razors. Gar's the pacifist of the bunch, mainly restricting himself to a roar and the ocasional over-the-shoulder body toss. Only once does he savage a man to death, which shows some restraint for a tiger.

Since several of the supposed "super" heroes have no powers at all, beyond extreme physical fitness, and some of them don't even have that, there's not much they can do, other than use their fists. The Robins (there are two of them and that's not confusing, at all...) have the benefit of Batman's exceptional training plus some technological back-up courtesy of Wayne Industries but Hawk is just a college football star and Dove is... a young woman who used to be a ballet dancer? I think. It's a bit vague, to be honest. How that equips her to fight super-villains is anyone's guess.

But that's okay because mostly they don't fight super-villains. They chase down sexual predators, drug dealers and sundry ne-er-do-wells with the intention of delivering vigilante justice with their fists or any old iron bar or broken bottle that falls to hand. They frequently beat to a pulp individuals who very clearly have absolutely no hope of defending themselves, let alone fighting back, the justification sometimes being that those individuals gave no more consideration to their own victims.

That would be morally awkward enough but things frequently move far past scales of grey to something approximating an absolute absence of moral illumination of any kind. There are multiple scenes across many episodes where one or other of the team cripples or kills someone - often many someones - who merely happened to find themselves in the way.

There's one astonishing scene where the younger Robin, Jason Todd, viciously attacks and injures half a dozen police officers, not merely because they arrive to investigate the sounds of battle in some fight he's having, which would be bad enough, but because he hates policemen and he judges he can get away with it. And says so. The other Robin, Dick Grayson, isn't happy about it but he doesn't do anything to stop it.

There are dozens of scenes like that across the two seasons although the second season features more beating up actual costumed villains and less crunching fists into the faces of uniformed law-enforcement professionals. It makes the supposed moral dilemmas that bring anguished expressions to the characters' faces as they wrestle with what we are expected to imagine must be what passes for their conscience embarassingly into focus.

At least when Kory uses her powers you can see what's going on. This show is dark in more ways than one.
An extended sub-plot concerns Dick Grayson's anxiety over whether his mentor, Batman, might be on the verge of going "too far", by which Dick means killing someone, most likely The Joker. Unfortunately, the entire thing is rendered ironically risible by the simple fact that every one of the Titans, without exception, has killed at least one person, on screen, in front of us, already. Some angst about it afterwards and some openly enjoy it but they all do it, regardless.

At first I found the level of violence utterly astonishing but after a while I just kind of got used to it. It would be nice to think the writers' were making some kind of point about habituation. The characters do occasionally allude to it so maybe they are. It feels more like a demonstration than a deconstruction, though.

The certification is confounding, too. I realize that things that would have required dozens of cuts to gain an 18 certificate not all that long ago now routinely feature in GCSE syllabuses but even so. Titans is a 15 certificate but Bojack Horseman, which I started watching at the same time, is rated 18. Bojack, so far, has fewer drug references, milder sex scenes and less swearing than Titans. And no violence at all. Plus it's a cartoon so it's already distanced. Who rates these things and how?

Moving away from the violence, there's the less controversial but more confusing question of who this show is made for. I can answer that one: lifelong DC fans. It surely can't be meant to interest anyone else.

The sheer number of callbacks to information that exists only outside the world of the show is astounding. When Donna Troy, Wonder Girl, appears I don't think there's a single moment when it's explained who she is, why she has the name she has (which she no longer uses, anyway), who the all-female organization who tell her what she can and can't do are and what authority they have over her. The name "Themyscira" is thrown around as though it might be "Paris" or "Florida" but if Wonder Woman ever gets a mention I missed it.

Rachel: Just let me finish my coffee and then I'll get right on with killing you.
Rose: I'd like to see you try. But you're gonna have to move outta my blind spot first.

The entire first season is really an extended origin story for the team. The second season, too, really. The heroes themselves, though, get the most cursory of backstories. We're assumed to know all about Batman and Robin, which may be fair enough. Raven and Starfire come into focus slowly as they learn about their own pasts. Hawk and Dove are allowed a great deal of screen time to reveal their history but almost none of it makes any sense.

Beast Boy, or Changeling, neither of which anyone ever calls him - Hank calls him "Tiger Boy" once, as a joke - gets the equivalent of a one-line introduction. The writers seem to have no idea what to do with him, anyway. He mostly just turns into a tiger and roars then re-appears as a naked teenager, clutching the nearest plant-pot to hide his embarassment. Once he turned into a snake, so someone in the writers' room apparently at least remembers what his powers are supposed to be, but that happened after Hank had beaten him to death and never again, so who knows what was going on.

As for Rose, she's been in the show for most of Season Two (I'm about three or four episodes from the end) and literally all we know about her is that she's "Deathstroke's daughter". It might as well be her codename. Her powers seem to consist of some martial arts and an eye-patch. Oh, and Raven killed her once and then she got better so there's that. It's a bit of a rite of passage in Titans, killing one of your team-mates. Fortunately for recruitment, such deaths are rarely fatal.

If all of this sounds like I hate the show then... I don't. I might even love it. I'm not sure. Like every single character in the goddam show, I'm conflicted.

What I do know is that Titans was made quite specifically for me. I get almost all of the references, even the ones that refer to comics I never read. I know all these people as well as, better than, people I actually know. I've been with them almost all my life, after all.

As for the violence and the amorality, well, I'm the one who took Marv Wolfman to task for killing Terra off. She was my favorite character. I wanted her to get her own title or at least stay in the Teen Titans for ever.

Four out of seven's not bad.
Terra had the moral standards of a rabid, narcissistic rattlesnake. It's karma, isn't it? You want anti-heroes? Here, have them. See how you like it. And next time, be careful what you wish for.

The real danger isn't the bleak arithmetic of the hero business, though, or the exponential overload of negative karma. It's the realpolitik of megacorps business practices in the outside world. Season Three was commissioned and in production when the pandemic hit and put everything on hold. Since then there's been an even bigger existential threat to the future of this and every other DC show.

Parent company Warner Bros. decided to rationalize their streaming content under one brand, HBO Max. They canned DC's nascent in-house service, DC Universe, Titans' home channel. How that will affect the future of the show remains to be seen but it's hard to imagine it will be anything good.

The picture here in the U.K. is more complicated still. We never even got DC Universe. It was rumored to be coming to the U.K. around Easter but that never happened. There seem to be no plans, currently, to bring HBO Max here, either.

At time of writing almost every show I care about that's currently airing on HBO Max in the U.S. is on Netflix here in the U.K. That suits me just fine. Let's hope it stays that way.

Even if it doesn't, even if I end up having to wait til it comes out on DVD, one way or another, I'm in for the long haul with Titans. I'm not saying I like them. Far from it. I loathe Jason Todd, I despise Hank, I don't like Dawn much at all, although she's so rabidly inconsistent it's hard to know who she even is half the time.

Rachel is annoyingly emo. Gar is wishy-washy, also whiny and bland. Dick is arrogant, stubborn and frequently irrational. Kory and Donna, I guess I do like, at least some of the time. Even Rose has her moments.

What the heck, though. I've known most of them since I was at school. We grew up together. I don't need to like them. I just need them to be there.

If I can't have the Legion, the Titans will do in a pinch.


  1. As somebody who didn't grow up with Teen Titans, this show sounds horrific. I enjoyed the first animated Teen Titans series from a few years back, although I think Slade is a poorly-conceived supervillain and I quit watching when his arc began.

    Best commentary on HBO Max:

    1. Thanks for the link. The original HBO announcement linked in the thread is actually funnier than the parody.

      Teen Titans is a weird franchise now, with the almost toddler-friendly Teen Titans Go at one end and the nihilistic Titans at the other. Then again, that's no different from Batman, I guess. It's a DC thing.


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