Friday, January 25, 2008

Teen Titans: The Lost Annual

You’ll read a lot of people talking about the Silver Age, how those comics had something missing today, and everything would be great if comics were just like they were. This is a book written in 2003, but done in the style of the Silver Age, and it absolutely owns. Like the best of Grant Morrison’s work, it manages to mix Silver Age craziness with some real emotion towards the end for a thoroughly joyous read.

I have a problem with people who do a one line pitch, like zombies vs. astronauts, and wind up selling a huge amount of books from people who say that must be awesome. That said, John F. Kennedy fighting in an alien space war is a pretty killer high concept, and the great thing is, the book more than lives up to the concept. It starts with that and then goes forward for a whole bunch of other interesting stuff.

The pacing of the book is very Silver Age, barreling through a huge amount of story in a short amount of time. In a matter of panels, Robin and the gang hop through billions of miles to the alien dimension, and the huge war happens in a hyper compressed way. I think this kind of compressed storytelling works in the same way that the missing reel of Planet Terror does, cutting out the parts of the story that are usually placed in, but don’t really have a purpose. There’s no logical way for them to get to the alien dimension, so the easiest way is to just send them there quickly and move on. The people who will enjoy this story just accept the logic of it. To quote Grant Morrison, a lot of our society is schizophrenic and unable to press metaphor. These kind of people will get hung up on the weirdness of the content, and not enjoy the story.

It’s disturbing to me that so many people use ‘weird’ as a negative when describing a work of fiction. I want fiction to be like a drug, to open a window into another world, and make perceive things differently. A work like this has an entirely different logic system than the world we live in. Is it plausible in reality? Not at all, but it runs on its own internal logic, and once you engage with the world, it’s a joy to read, an experience that takes you out of the everyday to a world of wonder where anything can happen.

Now, one could take that as an excuse for forgiving sloppy, illogical storytelling. I read the first few issues of Joe Casey’s Godland recently, a comic that’s going for this Silver Age insanity, but doesn’t quite get there. It feels a bit too self consciously wacky. With that comic, you feel like Casey is doing a Silver Age pastiche. He’s emulating Kirby’s wacky ideas, where Kirby didn’t have that layer of self-conscious, he was just hurling the ideas on to the page. Reading Casey’s book makes you appreciate what Grant Morrison is able to do, Morrison’s work is in that same area, but manages to do Silver Age stuff without that layer of self-consciousness.

Back to the Annual, it’s the vibe of this book that makes it works so well. The compressed storytelling maximizes the enjoyment, Robin’s able to go to the White House, and it happens so fast, you don’t even look back to think about whether it makes any sense. Once things get going, we get the inherently enjoyable spectacle of ‘Leader Kennedy’ on the alien world, leading this group of mod aliens against the hippy aliens. There’s definitely a 60s subculture war vibe going on there, and it fits with the whole youth culture theme of the book.

The book is interesting for me as an interesting companion piece to Manhattan Guardian #4, Grant Morrison’s wonderful take on the secret history of a kid gang, not unlike this one. Here, Kid Flash and Speedy are uncomfortable with Wonder Girl’s relationship with the Violator. The three boys don’t want Wonder Girl to break up the platonic gang they’ve got, but her sexual desire is going to soon destroy what they had. It’s one thing to have a crush on President Kennedy, to actually be in a relationship with the Violator, a guy who looks decidedly older than our boyish heroes, disturbs them.

In Manhattan Guardian, we saw the way Chop Suzi’s pregnancy led to the destruction of the group. As a kid gang, they were unprepared to deal with growing up. Ed couldn’t see her pregnancy being anything but the product of rape, he didn’t want to deal with real maturity. What Morrison did with that comic is bring the subtext of all these teen gangs to the surface and explore it in a way writers of the 60s just couldn’t. That’s the thing that makes Morrison’s work so special, he manages to combine the crazy pop joy of books like this with very real emotion and deep thematic substance.

That’s not to say there’s not emotion here. The final pages present a startling alternate history of the Kennedy assassination. It’s really weird, and unexpected after the adventure of the previous pages. Reality comes crashing in to the fantasy world. What’s interesting here is the deep affection you can tell Haney has for Kennedy. Kennedy was famous for incarnating ideals and hope, it wasn’t so much what he did as president, but the idea of Camelot that made him so beloved.

The ending of the work sends Kennedy back to Ulustra to battle with the aliens and fight the good fight in space. It’s a crazy ending, and really touching. I love that someone came up with a whole alternate scenario to save a leader they loved from untimely death. Even though Kennedy’s dead, his spirit lives on, that’s what the ending says, and it does so in a dynamic, pop way.

And, I’ve got to give big props to the art. It’s very pop, but still emotional. The art places you in that 60s pop place, and also does a great job of conveying character emotion. It’s not an easy thing to make a comic like this work, Alan Moore’s greatest failures usually come when trying to emulate Silver Age stuff. You need a total commitment to what you’re doing, to come from a mindset where weird ideas come naturally, you can’t think about it, you’ve just got to do it. In that respect, it’s the same thing that separates David Lynch from the myriad Lynch knockoff films out there. Lynch’s stuff is so weird because he’s not trying to be weird, he’s just doing what comes naturally.

This book has me wanting to check out more Haney Titans. If it’s even half as good as this, the Showcase volume should be well worth it.


Mauricio said...

Ok, I'm gonna come clean: I really don't care about the teen titans. But since I saw the trailer I've been wondering what's gonna be your opinion, and now with his tragic death, it's inevitable: Ledger in The Dark Knight trailer is one of the most exciting things I've seen in quite some time. I mean, I disagree completely with your opinion on Burton's Batman and Nolan's Batman, but you have to admit that the guy looks extremely amazing. What do you expect?

Patrick said...

Even though I really didn't like Begins, I've got to admit that Ledger's Joker looks really cool. The major issue I had with Begins was the lack of pop or fun in the Batman world. The character should be dark, but even in Miller's stuff, you always got the sense that Batman enjoyed what he did. I didn't get that sense from Bale, nobody in the movie was enjoying themselves, and that robbed it of a human element.

Everyone tells me, oh the movie is just like the comics, to which I say, what comics? Batman's been through so many incarnations, and he's always been dark, but I prefer the slightly unhinged Batman of Batman Returns to the gritty, heavy whispering Batman of Begins.

But, if Ledger's Joker is a kind of dark, joyous energetic presence, it could make the film work. I'd like to see him as an over the top figure, taking sadistic joy in all he does. What makes Nicholson's Joker work is that he takes such joy in what he's doing, it doesn't feel like it's evil, it feels like he's just beyond morality and using the world as a playground. This is in contrast to Batman's more troubled self. For Batman, the death of his parents creates a darkly committed crusader, for the Joker, his birth trauma creates an unhinged psychopathic madman who will do anything to feed his own desires.

So, we'll see. Either way, it'll be curious to see how the movie is perceived in light of its star's death.