In terms of writers who have ascended to true A-List status over the past five years or so, Tom King is absolutely one of the best examples of someone who emerged as a top tier creator who can sell a comic based on his involvement alone. Whether you love his work or find it frustratingly obtuse, King has been responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed superhero stories in recent memory. I first became aware of King as a co-writer on Grayson with Tim Seeley but he quickly established himself as a powerful, singular voice on offbeat maxi-series like The Omega Men and The Vision and it was obvious to anyone that whichever company would trust him with the keys to the kingdom would reap the rewards.
DC pounced first and gave Tom King free reign on Batman and while it received a lot more criticism in its back-half as it became maybe a bit too self-important, it solidified King as an A-List creator capable of commanding an audience. It was the twelve issue Mister Miracle with Mitch Gerads and Clayton Cowles that showed that King was still adept at taking less high-profile characters and giving them a radical new spin, but criticisms aimed at King’s overuse of formalism and pretentiousness have followed him to current output like Strange Adventures and Rorschach.
Before all of that though — or rather, contemporaneously to Grayson — there’s a Tom King comic that no-one talks about when they consider the former CIA agent’s comics oeuvre; 2015’s Teen Titans Annual #1. Scripted by Tom King and regular Teen Titans writer Will Pfeifer, based off a plot by King, it sees the return of Superboy to the ranks of the Teen Titans as he’s hunted by the Martian Manhunter for the murder of several aliens hiding out on Earth. It’s the epitome of an uncut gem, although perhaps lighter on the “gem” part of the equation.
I have to tell you that when I opened this comic — which is largely an inconsequential and forgettable comic both in the scope of the DC Universe as a whole as well as within Tom King’s career — and saw the first page, I burst out laughing. If you ask someone with a passing familiarity of King’s work what they associate with him as an author, the first thing they’d say would probably be the nine panel grid layout. The second thing they might say would be that his comics use themes, quotes or imagery relating to religion and spirituality contrasted against the worlds of superheroes in order to give everything happening more narrative weight.
I usually don’t post full page from comics on this blog, but I had to here. This is the first page of Teen Titans Annual #1 and is not the most Tom King shit you have ever seen in a Tom King comic?
Out of all of the recurring features on this blog, this one is probably the most fun to do because for the most part I’m not reading comics that I’ve already read before and I like to see if you can spot the kind of creator someone will become based on their early work. In Batman Chronicles #21, there’s no way you’d predict Bendis’ career based on that short story but Iron Man Noir gave us a good indicator of Scott Snyder’s tics and habits. However, I don’t think I’ll ever come across anything that just punches me in the face like the first page of Teen Titans Annual #1. It reads like someone in 2021 wanted to write a parody of a Tom King comic.
That’s just the first page and I want to be charitable to the whole comic, although it’s not a comic I enjoyed. As I mentioned, everyone thinks Superboy killed a bunch of people but they’re actually Durlans, shapeshifting aliens. Red Robin wants the Teen Titans to help him while Wonder Girl doesn’t think she can trust him anymore; the Martian Manhunter wants justice for the dead and Ra’ut L’lwer is the only surviving Durlan who wants to help Superboy prove his innocence.
The rest of the issue isn’t quite as *Tom King* as this first page, but I just had to point it out. There’s some nine panel grid pages here and there but they aren’t as formalist as King is known to be in books like Mister Miracle. Overall, this is a rather forgettable superhero story with mostly uninteresting house-style art. There’s two artists credited in the issue, Alison Borges and Wes St. Claire, and you can tell when the art changes between one and the other but I wouldn’t be able to tell you who did which segments, although one of them I’d say was a lot better than the other.
It’s interesting to me that the comic goes out of its way to reintroduce this version of Superboy, because it’s this version of Superboy that Geoff Johns cited as being one of the key reasons he wanted to give the whole DC Universe the “Rebirth” treatment less than a year after this comic came out. Johns, who spent a lot of time with Kon-El from Teen Titans through to Infinite Crisis and later in Adventure Comics, noted that when he picked up an issue featuring The New 52 Superboy, he felt no connection to the character and no reason to care about his adventures or his struggles.
I completely see where Johns is coming from and I don’t want to speculate that this specific issue is what inspired that revelation, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. I’m a lifelong Young Justice fan but when I see Kon-El, Tim Drake and Cassie Sandsmark in this comic they feel like strangers to me and that’s not even getting into the imposter Bart Allen on the last page who I’ll have to write something about eventually. It’s not King’s fault, he’s playing with the hand he’s been dealt and he’s coming in to help out with Pfeifer’s ongoing story but there’s nothing in here that makes me want to follow these characters back into their ongoing title.
That’s part of the problem too in that from what I can tell, this is essentially Teen Titans #8.5 and I don’t want to go read the issues either side of it to make better sense of what’s going on and where the story’s going. Ostensibly it’s a jumping on point but the main plot left me cold and uninterested. However, I did enjoy some of the background stories like Beast Boy and Bunker getting ready for a supposed Teen Titans reality show and Raven’s side-gig with what seems to be an emo or metal band. The appeal of the Teen Titans is all in the characters and their interpersonal relationships, and when this comic leans into that it’s a lot more enjoyable.
I usually end these by saying whether you should go check it out or not but this comic is extremely skippable. If you want to read some early Tom King, go read Grayson or The Omega Men; they’re both great and they don’t get talked about as much anymore. This comic mostly serves as a window into an alternate universe where Tom King became a journeyman co-writer as opposed to one of the biggest names in superhero comics, but that alternate universe doesn’t seem like a fun place to be and that window can stay closed.