As much as I can’t believe it, 2021 marks the ten year anniversary of the DC Comics publishing initiative known as The New 52. For a variety of reasons, DC made a clean break from the previous continuity by blowing it up and starting it all over from scratch — except when they didn’t. Over the course of a year, I’m going to go back and re-read every single debut issue from The New 52 line-up to see how much it changes things from the way they were before, how much of this new status quo stuck around and just how well the comic holds up ten years later.
If I had to pick just one comic out of fifty-two which highlighted every wrong decision, every misinformed choice and just all around every single thing wrong with The New 52, I would choose Teen Titans #1. All of the faults of The New 52 — the nineties throwback aesthetic, the lack of connection between characters, the boys club hiring practices, the bickering heroes — it all comes together in the ugly, unappealing mess that is Teen Titans #1. I still have 43 #1 issues to read after this one, but I’m going to be really surprised if I come close to hating anything as much as I hate this comic.
Teen Titans #1’s writer and penciller are Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth, two creators who were pretty big deals in the nineties and have absolutely no business getting top tier gigs in the modern day. Lobdell is perhaps best known (and most liked) for his work on Generation X with Chris Bachalo, which definitely has a big influence on his Teen Titans. Brett Booth, prior to his inexplicable 2010s resurgence, was best known for pencilling Wildstorm’s Backlash in the mid-90s and Marvel’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter adaptations in the late-2000s.
I’m not saying that Lobdell and Booth didn’t deserve careers in comics — although post-Teen Titans revelations and statements regarding both men might warrant that now — but there was no reason to put both creators in charge of DC’s premiere youth superteam in 2011. I’m also not saying that creators from the nineties can’t write superhero comics in the 2010s, but if your output and sensibilities haven’t grown and evolved over the course of fifteen years, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing and drawing a comic about sixteen year olds.
Teen Titans #1 is a mess for a number of reasons, but honestly my biggest problem is the art. Booth’s style is just anathema to me; it’s ugly and unappealing in ways that I don’t think any other creator comes close to. If I forgot this comic existed and you told me it was from 1994, I would completely believe you, but even then it’s bad by 1994’s standards. Norm Rampund’s inks are actually a lighter touch than I’m used to with Booth’s work, while Andrew Dalhouse’s drab colours don’t help in bringing the art to life, but I’ve seen what his pencils look like, I don’t think there’s anything that could save them.
The character designs for this new era of Teen Titans are a mixed bag but I think it’s an area where Booth can occasionally shine; he did design the post-Rebirth costume for Wally West that I like a lot. Kid Flash and Red Robin don’t get their full outfits in this issue, so I don’t want to say too much about those, and while I don’t like giving Tim Drake wings, I do actually like how Kid Flash starts off with a home-made suit. Wonder Girl’s costume could maybe work under another artist, it’s kind of a combination of Troia’s starfield suit with a Cassie Sandsmark colour scheme, but Booth’s art does the teenage hero no favours. Superboy’s tron suit, I can never make my mind up on, but I do think it works better for him as an antagonist rather than as a hero.
My biggest turn-off in Teen Titans #1 is the art but the cardinal sin it commits is in its character work. This issue has the same problems as Justice League #1 in that we only see about three of the characters in what’s going to go on to be a seven person team and when characters do actually meet and interact, they can’t stand each other. Everything about the issue just screams “superheroes are dumb and you’re dumb for liking them.” At separate points in this issue, Tim Drake and Cassie Sandsmark both have moments where they outright reject their superhero names and the one person who seems actually interested in being a superhero, Kid Flash, fucks it up and ends up injured as a result.
I’m trying to just talk about the first issue here and not focus on the run as a whole, but knowing the ways that Lobdell and Booth completely screw over some of these characters — some of my favourite characters — it’s hard to remain impartial and pretend I don’t know where it’s going. By the time this run is over, DC is basically going to have to hold its hands up and effectively say “those versions of Kid Flash and Superboy, despite originally being referred to as Bart Allen and Kon-El, are actually completely different. Here’s Young Justice back, let’s ignore the last five years.”
There are a few bright spots in Teen Titans #1 but then again, none of them are particularly original. It’s at least interesting that Lobdell reaches back to Morrison’s Doom Patrol and plucks The Men From NOWHERE to be the big bad guys, but he just turns them into the kind of shady organisation that Morrison created them to parody. The one thing I do like with minimal reservations is how it brings in Caitlin Fairchild from Gen13 as a supporting character but she doesn’t even get named in the comic and you’re going to have to go read Scott Lobdell’s Superboy to figure out who she actually is.
In a better world, Teen Titans #1 would have been a great way for DC to establish a forward thinking superhero aesthetic for the 2010s but instead, it feels the most dated of all of The New 52 comics and really sets the tone for the whole line in a way that Justice League #1 should have. I was excited for this comic before it came out but I used to be more optimistic about things in general; looking back, even judging by the cover you can tell that it’s a disaster waiting to happen. This is the ninth New 52 comic I’ve covered so far and going forward, it will be the comic that all others are measured against; as long as it’s better than this, then at least it’s not the worst.