Forgotten Heroes: Raven and the Titans of Myth

This column comes from a sudden storm of inspiration based on two sources: the art and coloring of JH Williams III and Dave Stewart on Detective Comics, and Toyfare’s fan poll for a future DC Universe Classics action figure, which the subject of our column is presently winning. It also solves a couple of problems with DC concepts that have proven difficult to work with in the past: DC’s magical realm, and the oft-attempted secondary Titans group.

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The Character: Raven, founding member of the New Teen Titans. Daughter of the demonic Trigon. Occasionally evil thanks to her father’s influence, although this seems to have been expunged since her rebirth. Powers include wide-ranging empathic abilities, healing powers, flight, teleportation, astral projection, and other sorcerous gifts. Currently a cast member in the Titans book, but is anyone still reading it?

The Problem: There’s very little wrong with Raven herself. She’s a great character, just one that hasn’t received much spotlight since Geoff Johns left Teen Titans, and hasn’t progressed forward very much. Her resurrection in Johns’ Titans run brought her back as a teenager, and it’s nice that the character gets to have something akin to a genuine – if far from normal – teenage experience (including high school in Marv Wolfman’s recent Raven miniseries), but doing so threatens to arrest her growth. For a character whose history has been marked by emotional repression (in the most literal sense – her mother belonged to a religious order that believed in total passivity, and Raven feared the influence of Trigon’s heritage on her own spiritual and emotional state), keeping her stationary is a danger.

Other concepts this book would utilize have deeper problems. Many writers have tried working with the idea of a secondary or alternate Teen Titans group, usually either a Titans East/West branch or a book full of older Titans who haven’t found a new role yet. None of these attempts have survived because there was very little to distinguish these groups from the main Teen Titans lineup in style or purpose.

The largest problem the book will attempt to remedy is the inconsistent nature of magic in the DC Universe. This is something that’s been in flux ever since editorial forces cleaved Vertigo from the DC mainline – there’s numerous magical concepts from various eras of DC competing with each other, all following their own unique rules, with very few gaining any sort of traction with readers. DC’s magical properties are incredibly strong, but they tend to get shuffled to the side until a writer needs a huge threat and a deus ex machina to write himself out of the corner the huge threat placed him in (Final Crisis needed an entire side series just to explain why the Spectre couldn’t help out). 52 started the process in reasserting that magic in the DCU had rules and consequences, and that utilizing it had a price, but there needs to be a book to codify these ideas into a functional whole.

The Concept: As many comics fans know, it’s because of Raven that the legendary New Teen Titans lineup came together in the first place. It’s such a well-regarded plotline that writers keep coming back to the idea, usually with some variation of Trigon or Trigon’s legacy (sometimes even Raven herself) as the huge threat that spurs the band into getting back together. We’ll dispense with the Trigon affectations and the idea of a normal superhero group. This is explicitly magic-based. Raven is gathering a group of teenage magic users to serve as apprentices and guardians of Earth, and our entire dimension, against specifically supernatural threats.

So why Raven, and why a teen group only? The fact is, most of DC’s magical characters are too esoteric and idiosyncratic to really work together unless there’s a dire necessity. Loose communities like the Sentinels of Magic tend to be the rule. The formation of this group may be propelled by an imminent threat, but this is intended to be a consistent team, studying and fighting together. Raven has the combination of magical experience, team experience, and a relatively orderly life and open future necessary to lead such a group. And she needs teammates who are free of the emotional and spiritual chaos that most of DC’s magical characters endure as a result of their otherworldly abilities and cosmic perception of life. This means teen heroes, and it also allows Raven a chance to give them the kind of steady guidance that she never received and that people with such strange realities need.

This position as leader of a Titans group will also help Raven deal with the complicated nature of her own newfound identity. Leading a group of magically-powered teens, she has the opportunity to be both a mentor and an equal. She has the chance to have the adolescence that was denied to her while still being able to use her natural talents in meaningful ways, as well as finding others to connect with who share her perspective and experiences. As leader of this group, Raven gets to play normal teenager, veteran hero, and accomplished sorceress all at once, while having to grow into a role as mentor and protector. This is a nice foundation for complex character exploration – it allows Raven to function in a number of capacities, both comfortable and uncertain, and helps her bridge the age gap between her body and spirit that’s existed since her rebirth while still letting her take on facets of both youth and maturity. She can warm up and become more expressive while still possessing roles that allow her to retreat when she needs it, and that strengthen her resolve in the worst situations. She’s an empath – she’s used to processing a wide range of emotions and personalities from other people, but watching her figure out how to understand herself would be the underlying drama of the title. Her role in this book is also implicitly linked to the sense of abandonment and yearning for family that’s part of her core, and allows the book to build off her central history and motivations in a natural manner without a level of angst that would bludgen the reader.

As complicated as Raven herself should be, the supporting cast should bring out just as much in her by way of juxtaposition. The most likely candidates for inclusion in this book would probably be Traci Thirteen and Zatara. Traci, daughter of DC’s resident skeptic Doctor Thirteen, practices a sorcery fueled by urban environments, but is also adept at other forms of magic. She’s probably the most well-adjusted of any magical character in DC and would often be an audience identification character in the series; at times, Raven will have to be reserved or strict as part of her position, and Traci provides a counterbalance to that, as well as a constant reminder to Raven of the kind of normalcy she’s striving for. Traci’s quick wit, ability with people, and resourcefulness also serve the team in extremely practical ways, as by nature their exploits will have to be clandestine and Traci’s the ideal member when they need a cover story, a con, or a plain-sight stealth operative (“stealth” tends to take on a different meaning in the world of the supernatural). Zachary Zatara, cousin of Zatanna and nephew of the original Zatara, shares his family’s backwards-speaking method of spell casting, as well as their theatrical nature. Petulant, selfish, and affected, Zatara creates some nice tension within the group, but his common sense for supernatural matters and his devotion to Raven (hinted at in a Johns issue of Teen Titans) make him ultimately if reluctantly dedicated to the group. The rest of the team could be filled by new players, preferably not legacy heroes – this book is about operating in shadow to protect humanity, and having new faces is a logical move. When your last name is Zatara, you tend to be a likely candidate for attack from all manner of dread creatures. Guest stars will also be common, as DC’s magical properties are too interesting to fully shun, and it’s possible to have them involved in ways that still leave them somewhat unaware of these Titans’ ventures. In a realm where spoken words can have a profound supernatural impact, sometimes the spread of knowledge is a dangerous thing. A likely reoccurring guest, however, would be Black Alice, who would serve nicely as a wildcard character who could have easily been part of the group, but whose motivations would run both alongside and contrary the Titans’ at various points.

The point is, this group is about silence, exile, and cunning. They’re on the fringes of normal superhero work, and even on the outskirts of the magic community. Let Dr. Fate fight Mordru again, it’s not a pressing matter. Neron? Zatanna and Captain Marvel can handle it. Hell, Batman can handle it. Even Trigon’s straightforward. Trigon wants power. These villains are definable. The Titans of Myth exist to combat things that aren’t. Things against nature and beyond comprehension, entities with a logic so abstruse and esoteric as to render their plans incomprehensible to all but the most perceptive magicians. This is a book about combating strangeness and subtlety with intense study and hair-trigger shrewdness. DC’s magic properties have been hindered by reductive and formulaic plotting: it’s either deus ex machina vs. deus ex machina in a battle of splash pages, or Dr. Fate solving a problem with an Ankh-shaped blast. That’s not going to be good enough in this book. Raven’s used to facing existential chaos and emptiness, and that makes her the prime character to face these kinds of threads.

The Style: In a word, moody. Somber, eerie, with a touch of ethereality. I’m usually not a fan of overly dark art styles, and we’ve got enough hyper-realistic, heavily shadowed books, but this is a superhero title influenced by classic horror comics and Gothic literature. The atmosphere should be foreboding, although not so dense and dreary that it can’t be penetrated by heroism. Dark panels should be punctuated by bright, vivid splashes of color, and protagonists would benefit from a smooth but heavily detailed look that might contrast with malevolent entities or settings marked by a jagged or nebulous feel (Expressionist influences would be extremely welcome – think Dr. Caligari). Even in darkness there’s room for complexity of tone. This is also a chance to experiment with uncommon panel layouts to accentuate or contrast the strangeness of the narrative when it proves effective to do so.

I’d also like to note the difference between terror and horror, because it’s relevant here. Alex Lucard here at the Pulse is much more knowledgeable on this than myself, but it’s pretty well delineated. Horror is revulsion, terror is dread. Horror occurs after something shocking, while terror is about the anticipation of something horrible. Blackest Night is a horror comic, and DC could use something that works within the other impulse. Hell, DC could use something subtle.

Another note: while DC has wonderful supernatural properties that can easily appear in this book, this is an ideal chance to create new ones. Much of this book involve gradual world-building, because the loss of Vertigo’s concepts not only sundered the rules and cohesiveness of magic in DC, it also blighted the landscape. Losing some of your best ideas and characters, concepts as powerful and unique as John Constantine, the Endless, and Swamp Thing, is devastating, and this book would be the perfect opportunity to consistently rebuild this part of DC. No more intermittent, fumbling attempts – do you remember The Helmet of Fate one-shots? No. No, you don’t. And it’s a lot easier to do this under the guise of a perenial brand like the Teen Titans than with an obscure property like the Shadowpact.

The Ideal Creative Team: As stated in the intro, JH Williams III on art and Dave Stewart on colors would be perfect in evoking the mix of supernatural creepiness and intense superheroics that this book needs. Their work on Detective Comics at present is some of the most satisfying, inventive art seen in a superhero title in ages, and a book that aims to revitalize magic in the DCU could use that level of craft and thought. The writer needs to be someone who can do dark with subtlety, can craft involving characters, and is clever enough to subvert or avoid clichés and genre tropes. Although this series might be too close to his work with Vertigo, I think Mike Carey would be excellent on such a title – his work on Ultimate Fantastic Four conveyed an expansive imagination and willingness to explore new facets of old concepts.

The One-Sentence Sell: Superheroes as filtered through H.P. Lovecraft.

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