FRED VAN LENTE formally launches a fancy new feature comparing great classic comics!
Back in May, columnist Fred Van Lente tried out a new concept for his column here at the ol’ 13th Dimension: He took two titles that are linked historically — Justice League of America and Fantastic Four in the early ’60s — and compared key issues over several years, determining which was the better title. (Click here to check it out!) We called it SILVER AGE DEATH MATCH because we’re clever like that and you folks responded enthusiastically. So like a pilot getting picked up for series, we’ve decided to make this a semi-regular thing — now calling it COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH — for at least as long as it’s fun. (Oh and credit to Mr. Sam Greenfield for that groovy new banner up there.)
Anyway, in this installment, Fred’s playing with fire — The New Teen Titans vs. The Uncanny X-Men, from 1980 to 1984.
Oh, and if you have any ideas for future competitions, let us know in the comments!
But, please — no wagering…
By FRED VAN LENTE
Heigh-ho, musty comics fans, and welcome to the latest installment of a semi-regular column pitting the runs of semi-related titles against each other to see which one is better, just for fun. The first time I tried this was with Justice League of America and the title it supposedly inspired, Marvel’s first flagship, Fantastic Four.
Though Fantastic Four started the Marvel Universe as we know it now, by the end of the ’60s it had been overtaken in popularity by The Amazing Spider-Man. The genius of the title that supplanted Spidey, Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men (though it had many excellent artists, he remained the consistent creative force as writer), was to synthesize the inter-team conflict that made FF tick with the over-the-top soap opera that made Peter Parker’s life so miserabl—er, interesting.
The year-plus-long Dark Phoenix Saga — which brought together massive space battles and a struggle with the (ripped-off of The Avengers TV show in Britain) Hellfire Club in an epic tale that ended in the death of its titular Goth Bird Lady With a Cosmic Prophecy — put it on the map as Marvel’s most popular title, if not the most popular title in all of American comics, until the end of the century.
Marvel’s Distinguished Competition was highly motivated to capture similar lightning in a bottle by revitalizing a struggling concept from the 1960s (when Giant-Size #1 came along, X-Men had been in reprints for nearly three years) with a combination of old and new characters and a heavy dose of melodramatic angst. DC wisely enlisted the former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics and the former penciller of Fantastic Four and The (non-British) Avengers to do it.
Using the month-by-month pubdate data assembled by Mike’s Amazing World, we will pit Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s revival of Teen Titans against its inspiration – though the creators have denied any connection — and see which one of them comes out on top, based on a criteria entirely of my own damn choosing because it’s my column.
Ring that bell!
The New Teen Titans #1
Immediately we see a few easy comparisons between DC’s new team and the X-Men: Cyborg, like Wolverine, is a cranky hothead constantly starting fights before the rest of the team is ready; Starfire and Storm are otherworldly fliers without irises; Changeling and Nightcrawler are light-hearted furballs; Robin and Cyclops are legacy characters with sticks up their butts (ironic, since the whole reason Robin was created was to get the stick out of Batman’s butt).
Furthermore, the Titans not only have their own Goth Bird Lady With a Cosmic Prophecy, she’s the person who forms the team in the first place. It’s a pretty brilliant move on Wolfman’s part, to have the reason a superteam needs to form basically be Raven yelling “No time to explain!” Ultimately, we learn they are destined to defeat her astro-demon father, but we skip all that for now in favor of gorgeous George Pérez pages of superheroes whaling on alien lizardmen. Bravo, I say.
The Uncanny X-Men #139: …Something Wicked This Way Comes!
Meanwhile, over in the Marvel Universe, the Goth Bird Lady With a Cosmic Prophecy Saga has just concluded and this issue is mostly narrative housekeeping. Kitty Pryde joins the X-Men under one of her 17 different codenames; alumni Angel and Beast stop by for some Danger Room shenanigans; Wolverine takes Nightcrawler north to square with his estranged original team, Alpha Flight, and they run into a bloodthirsty Wendigo.
This is a perfectly acceptable installment of a long-running series that is successful enough to allow all its many subplots room to roam hither and yon. Penciller and Alpha Flight creator John Byrne is credited with plotting what is essentially the set-up to his AF ongoing. Nothing all that particularly noteworthy happens… except we learn that Wolverine’s real name is apparently “Logan.” (Except when it isn’t.)
WINNER: It’s tough to side against the first appearance of Heather MacNeil Hudson, one of my all-time favorite comics characters (despite what Greg Pak and I did to her in our own Alpha Flight run), but New Teen Titans’ inaugural effort is superior—as the pilot episode, it kind of has to be!
New Teen Titans #15: The Brotherhood of Evil Lives Again!
One big difference between this title and its inspiration is that Wolfman and Pérez set up clever little threads for each one of their main characters from the jump; whereas Uncanny meanders through its plotlines like a backpacking tourist, in NTT you get the feeling there’s actually a destination in mind.
One such thread is the ongoing efforts of Changeling’s adoptive father, Mento (the Fresh-Maker), to track down the Brotherhood of Evil, who killed his wife and the rest of her superteam, the Doom Patrol. Turns out they’re trying to take over the criminal island nation of Zandia (soon to be the HQ of perennial Titans nemesis Brother Blood). It’s a three-way battle as two warring iterations of the Brotherhood throw down with the Titans, who get turned into cavemen in a “Devolving Pit.” Glorious, classic superhero insanity: *chef’s kiss*.
Uncanny X-Men #153: Kitty’s Fairy Tale
John Byrne has departed to write his own books, and X-2.0 co-creator Dave Cockrum has resumed art duties. This is a cute little done-in-one in which Kitty regales Colossus’ young sister with a Princess Bride-esque fairy tale starring herself in the Dread Pirate Roberts role. (Though Rob Reiner’s classic adaptation doesn’t premiere for another six years, William Goldman’s novel came out in 1973, so the influence seems pretty clear to me.) The other X-Men become her traveling companions to save the land from the evil Dark Phoenix. The Nightcrawler-elf “Bamfs” and Wolverine’s ogre-like Mean are particularly charming. Sweetly, Kitty retells the Dark Phoenix Saga as a fantasy epic with a happy ending it was denied in reality.
This is the comics equivalent of the Broadway musical-style episodes of long-running TV-shows. Only a series as stupidly successful as Uncanny X-Men would ever even be allowed to do such a light-hearted diversion from its usual super-angst, and it does it extremely well.
New Teen Titans #25 & Annual #1: War!/Final Conflict!
The Titans have rocketed into space with the Starjammer—um, Omega Men, to rescue Princess Liland—I mean, Princess Koriand’r, a.k.a. Starfire, from her evil sister, Deathbird. Wait, no. Her evil sister Blackfire, who is working for the oppressive Shi’ar—uhhhh, Citadel Empire.
This is no one’s favorite Titans storyline, but I wonder if it begins the 1980s DC practice of paying off big storylines in double-sized, double-priced annuals. Good for the bottom line, murder on the wrists of the regular artists. Incredibly, Pérez and Romeo Tanghal handle the art duties on all 61 new pages of NTT eye candy this month, something that would be inconceivable in American comics today.
Uncanny X-Men #163: Rescue Mission
Geez, another Kitty Pryde cover? I swear I’m not doing this on purpose. It’s hard not to notice that in a period when Uncanny was locked in serious competition with Teen Titans that their most public-facing member was also its teeniest. Also, both titles are doing derivative outer space storylines. In this case, the merry mutants fight their way out of a Xenomorp—uh, Brood spaceship, which is in the rotting carcass of a giant space whale. Kitty even Sigourney Weavers a pursuing Alien out of an airlock.
If you’re wondering why I’m focusing on a kind of humdrum month for these titles, it’s because it’s the same month this comes out, blowing its sires out of the water.
[DEEP BREATH] Marvel and DC Present Featuring the Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans #1: Apokolips…NOW!
This is a justly beloved, action-packed one-shot with nice character moments and a superlative ending. Darkseid comes to Earth to rob the X-Men of their memories of Dark Phoenix so he can recreate her with the help of his parademons and hired hand Deathstroke. Raven of the Teen Titans is alerted to the scheme via her plot-specific clairvoyance powers and after some mandatory mistaken-for-a-villain shenanigans, our heroes unite to stop the villains from turning Earth into Apokolips South. Facing defeat, a panicked Dark Phoenix tries to possess Cyclops, but he rejects her by shooting a flaming-bird-shaped eyebeam at Darkseid, blasting him all the way to the Source Wall. It’s pretty rad.
The absolute star here is pre-Thor Walt Simonson, who two decades later would do the fourth-best Fourth World comic (after the original three). I read an article that claimed this is the book that vaulted Darkseid to A-Lister status as a DC villain. He’s also doing double-duty as the Big Bad in the most famous Legion of Super-Heroes story arc at the same time, so I’m not so sure about that. Also, have we forgotten his constant attempts to shotgun-marry Wonder Woman on Super Friends?
As I noticed when reviewing Alpha Flight, Chris Claremont is very good at writing these massive, summer tentpole crossover books. His skill at characterization lets him deftly juggle (by my count) 18 different speaking parts with ease, and the focus and smaller real estate of the format saves him from his tendency to ramble.
Which makes me wonder why Claremont wasn’t entrusted with writing these big event books more often? Uncanny was such a sales driver Marvel didn’t want to dilute his focus by loading him up with a lot of non-mutant responsibilities, I guess.
WINNER: DRAW (literally, the winner is a crossover featuring both titles)
New Teen Titans #33: Who Killed Trident?
Wolfman and Pérez do a great job at done-in-ones that still get almost every Titan involved—including reserve member Aqualad, who shows up just long enough to fish the titular murdered supervillian out of New York Harbor. Though he’s a new character to the reader, in little vignettes our heroes explain their past encounters with Trident. Great character work as always, and the solution to the mystery is genuinely clever.
Uncanny X-Men #171: Rogue
Wait, Kitty Pryde isn’t on the cover? How will I know it’s an X-Men comic?!?
X-Titans MVP Walt Simonson guest-pencils this issue, in which the X-Men welcome Rogue into their ranks. Mutantdom’s favorite Ah-dropping Southern belle was introduced as a villain in a Claremont-penned Avengers annual that many pros cite as an all-time favorite. There, Rogue ambushed Ms. Marvel and stole her powers and memories. Since then, Carol Danvers has acquired a totally new set of powers (must be nice), is called Binary, and is one of the X-Men’s closest allies. Rogue comes to seek Professor X’s help in controlling her powers at the same time Binary comes to visit, and they all get along famously.
No, I’m just kidding. There’s a big fight!
And I’ve only described one of the 17 different plotlines in this comic. The Claremont/Wolfman school of superhero writing almost anticipates the so-called modern Golden Age of Television (i.e., The Sopranos through Breaking Bad) style of serialized writing, where each episode moves the story a little further down the track, and while something noteworthy usually happens per episode, the writers save significant emotional climaxes for annuals and double-sized anniversaries—the “season finales” of comics that never take a seasonal break. Lots of people love this style, but the problem is that it makes trying to examine each individual episode apart from the others (as I’m trying to do here) a little challenging.
WINNER: NEW TEEN TITANS. I’ll take a good done-in-one over almost anything else these days.
[ANOTHER DEEP BREATH] Tales of the Teen Titans #43: The Judas Contract Part 2: Betrayal!
“The Judas Contract” is this title’s “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the big, iconic arc that brought us Robin’s transformation into Nightwing, the origin of the team’s archnemesis Deathstroke (Legally-Not-the-Terminator), and the conclusion of its longest-running storyline, Slade Wilson’s contract to murder our heroes at the behest of the criminal cult known as H.I.V.E. This is the best issue of the arc, with Deathstroke surgically taking out every member of the Titans thanks to information gleaned from Terra, his woman on the inside, except for Dick Grayson, who was between costumed identities. This is a gripping, flawlessly executed action comic.
Reading this made me realize how much we’ve lost in 21st century comics marketing. For many issues now the reader has known that Terra is a traitor, and Wolfman gets a lot of tension out of leaving when exactly she was going to make her move a mystery.
But if “The Judas Contract” were to run today, you’d have months of Twitter images teasing the presence of a traitor on the team, frenzied fan speculation about which Titan it was, a few feints in the storyline to throw Bleeding Cool off the scent, and various other related online nonsense. Bah, humbug. Realizing this makes me feel old.
You superpowered kids, get off my lawn!
Uncanny X-Men #182: Madness
Oh-ho-ho, Kitty Pryde, see how quickly they forget? Rogue has completely supplanted you as Uncanny’s new Cover Girl, just as Oscar® winner Anna Paquin will jack your whole schtick as suburban-teen-frightened-by-mutant-powers as Rogue in Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). Isn’t that always the way? Thrown over for the newer model.
This Rogue solo adventure is a clever idea that suffers from heavy-handed execution. While listening to the X-Mansion answering machine that hilariously provides updates on various other comics, Rogue gets a message from Carol Danvers’ old Air Force boyfriend, who is being tortured on the SHIELD Helicarrier by corrupt agents. Danvers’ personality takes over Rogue’s and compels her to immediately fly to the rescue. After slapping around a bunch of jumpsuited douchebags, she brings the old squeeze to Danvers’ parents’ house, setting up a confrontation between him and her two confused identities.
John Romita Jr.’s art is aces, but whatever emotional impact the story might have is smothered by an avalanche of verbiage, often delivered in Penelope Pitstop-level Southern dialect. Claremont can seem so enamored of his own characters that he wants to give us as much of them as he possibly can, every issue. It’s really too much of a good thing.
WINNER: NEW TEEN TITANS
So I guess I could go all Solomonic on you and declare the crossover the best of the bunch, which it is; but it’s unfair to judge ongoing series by a one-shot’s standards. In this particular five-year period, Uncanny is between two highly impactful storylines, “Dark Phoenix” and “Mutant Massacre,” and there’s not much of a contest here: The hungry newcomer trounces the fat-and-happy veteran.
OVERALL WINNER: NEW TEEN TITANS
— COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH: Justice League of America vs. Fantastic Four. Click here.
— The Complete COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH Index. Click here.
13th Dimension columnist Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, historian and playwright, who has chronicled the relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the play-turned-podcast King Kirby, written with Fred’s wife Crystal Skillman.