There is no one more blindly, stupidly, optimistic than comics fans, though we hate to admit it.
Which is to say, I wasted a little less than an hour last night on the premiere of TITANS.
Yes, I know. I absolutely should have known better. The trailer alone should have been enough to put me off, and it was, indeed, very off-putting… even discounting Dick Grayson’s oh-so-edgy potty-mouthed dismissal of his mentor.
Let me save you some time. The TITANS television show is terrible. It’s glacially slow, it is hugely difficult to follow even if you are an expert in DC lore in general and the Titans in particular, and there is literally none of the charm of the original present in this adaptation; it’s almost as though someone was tasked specifically with extracting every iota of fun out of the concept before filming began. Plus they apparently have no budget for lighting so the vast majority of the show takes place in scenes so dark it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on.
Honestly, I have no idea why in the world they chose to go in this direction. The most successful iteration of the Titans is the upbeat cartoon version.
The second most successful is the comic-book relaunch that inspired the cartoon.
Now, I’ll grant you that the Wolfman-Perez comics could get pretty grim, especially with arcs like “The Terror of Trigon” that launched the direct-sales version of the title.
But there was always humor and humanity, as well; the family feeling that was built into the team from the beginning. I assure you that none of that was in evidence on the new television version. It felt like the product of people who felt Nolan’s Dark Knight films were just too upbeat and peppy.
It was everything many of us were dreading from what we saw in the trailer, only worse.
So why did I bother?
Well, honestly, it was the lure of nostalgia.
The one thing I got out of the trailer, the thing that caught my interest in spite of all the warning signs also present, was the clear signal that they were doing the Dick Grayson-achieving-independence story.
Now, if you came to the DC universe post-Nightwing, that’s going to seem like an odd thing to get excited about seeing. Let me give you a little background.
You have to understand, there was a huge cloud that hung over all of us reading Batman comics in the late sixties and early seventies, and if you weren’t there, you have no idea how it obsessed comics fans back then.
It was the fear of being jeered at and bullied for liking superheroes at all, and no costumed crimefighter was more jeer-worthy than TV’s Burt Ward as Robin, the boy wonder. So all that fear and hostility and self-consciousness about reading superhero stories in the first place got dumped on the character itself. We HATED Robin.
It wasn’t just readers. Comics creators had just as big a bug up their butts over him. When Batman got his coolness upgrade in the seventies, the first thing they did was write Robin out of the strip. Dick Grayson went off to college and that was that.
Except it wasn’t.
Because Robin didn’t just go away. His collegiate solo adventures ran as the backup strip in Batman and the mission statement there seemed to be to somehow make Robin cool too.
That’s a much heavier lift, creatively, than it was with Batman. But it worked. I realized that as Batman’s sidekick, Robin was gratingly annoying– but as the former sidekick, out on his own, Dick Grayson was a lot more interesting.
My introduction to this concept was in Batman #234, which I bought off the stands way back when, and it just about took the top of my head off. Although the big story in that issue– and rightfully so– was Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams giving us the return of Two-Face in “Half An Evil,” I have to admit that youthful me was just as blown away by Robin’s solo adventure, “Vengeance for a Cop!”
The groovy ripped-from-the-headlines approach really worked on me (The Mod Squad TV show was a favorite of mine and this was basically Robin in a Mod Squad episode, trying to find a killer hiding in a hippie commune.)
Around this time I also acquired the Justice League/Justice Society crossover story that had Dick Grayson teaming up with his older Earth-2 self… and getting a cool new outfit.
This was an intoxicating idea for us readers– the idea that real change might happen. Today, of course, we are all so jaded about event comics and new characters taking over a role (We’ve had, what, five in-continuity Robins now?) that it all seems like another day at the office… but back then it was a big damn deal.
Trying to figure out what an adult version of Robin would wear became almost as big an obsession as proving Batman was cool. (Well, really, that was just another aspect of the whole “It’s NOT ADAM WEST!” bugaboo so many of us were stuck on.) And DC constantly teased us with it.
Meanwhile, as time passed and different writers and artists took on the newer, darker Bat-books, Robin got cooler just in context. Now when he showed up in a Batman story, it was an event.
Playing him as the swinging collegiate version of Batman worked in a way that the original Boy Wonder hadn’t. The idea that there was at least this one guy in the DCU that Batman would loosen up a little in front of was kind of a nifty idea, and their shared history lent a certain depth to the relationship that you didn’t usually see in comics then: in-story, time had actually passed. At Marvel this approach was all the rage but it was still new for DC.
But something was still missing and writers kept tweaking it. Eventually we came full circle– Batman got a new Robin…
At the time, this was HUGE. And it worked… for Batman.
For Dick Grayson, it was more problematic.
A lot of this was just clumsy attempts to inject drama into a relationship that hadn’t really had any. But the net effect was to make everyone look like an asshole. And the constant revising of the history made things worse.
Everyone liked the idea of Nightwing… the sidekick that graduated to do his own thing. But with rare exceptions, no one quite had a handle on how he was supposed to fit into the Bat-universe.
The mistake everyone has made since the 1980s is trying to distance him from Batman. This is a theme that has come up over and over. In the cartoons AND the comics.
It’s a dumb way to create tension. Always has been. And it’s unnecessary. However, it looks like the new TITANS is all in on that idea. It’s the lazy shortcut to making Dick Grayson a badass.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was blindly optimistic enough to hope that maybe, just maybe, they’d go with the version of Dick Grayson I like the best… the Nightwing that’s made peace with Batman and with himself, who still drops by the Batcave once in a while to do his laundry and shoot the breeze with Alfred.
Weirdly, we saw that version in Grayson… a superhero title that at first glance seems to be completely into the whole re-invent Dick Grayson without Batman idea. But it’s actually not. The Bat heritage is a big part of the story and it was tremendous fun… as a finite story. I wouldn’t have wanted it as the ongoing status quo.
..and fortunately, now with the new Rebirth version of Nightwing, I think they’ve fully course-corrected.
Pity none of the TV people were interested in THAT version. Oh well. At least we still have the unauthorized web series.
Back next week with something cool.