A League of His Own: The New Teen Titans and Dick Grayson
With the impending end of Scott Lobdell’s run on the New 52’s “Teen Titans,” DC has planned yet another relaunch. To be blunt, Lobdell’s run was pretty terrible, so it was clear that a change was needed. Kenneth Rocafort did a pretty impressive job with his teaser cover for this new series; it was very dynamic and colorful, featuring both old and new faces. Hopefully the new writer, Will Pfeifer can get this team of hapless teens back on track. This has been the question in my mind since even before the start of the New 52. What is required for the Titans to get back on track? To find out, it is a good idea to look at the Teen Titans while they were at their peak, so this retrospective examines elements of the 1980s Marv Wolfman series “The New Teen Titans.” This run is legendary and beloved by comic book fans for both its strong characterizations and group dynamic, making it a bit reminiscent of the Chris Claremont’s “X-Men”, and the beautiful colorful art work of George Perez. This retrospective will attempt to examine just what made that run so compelling, and at the very least I get to pay tribute to a favorite series of mine.
One of the key elements of this series was the personal growth and adolescence of the Titans. The team is formed of heroes who have become too old to be side kicks and wards, and the time has come for them to start building their own careers and lives. The theme of personal growth is strong in this series with all the characters constantly making mistakes and their over all dysfunction as a result of their inexperience. In the case of Dick Grayson, this is especially prevalent. Once a side kick to one of the most popular heroes in comics history, he is now forced to find his own path without any input from Batman. What changes in him is a desire for validation and fulfillment. He is no longer satisfied with being the side kick, the Boy Wonder, because he is now a man. This causes him to grow apart from Bruce Wayne, as his mentor still sees Dick as the same child who came into his care all those years ago. Dick Grayson would eventually become a hero respected by his peers and beloved by his fans, Nightwing. The New Teen Titans is where his path to becoming Nightwing begins.
The New Teen Titans are introduced in “DC Presents” #26. This issue sees Robin slipping in between two realities, the “real world” and the world where he leads another incarnations of the Titans. It is revealed at the end of the issue that Raven, who is at that point still unnamed in the story, constructed those visions in order to drive Robin to become the leader of the team she was forming for her own purposes, again unknown at the time. The issue also reveals his dropping out of college and growing apart from Bruce due to his mentor’s unwillingness to acknowledge his progress and treat him as an equal. Aside from making clear Dick’s personal goal to be respected, this issue reveals just what makes the former boy wonder tick. Despite not knowing his teammates in the fake reality he experiences, he still leaps into action and takes charge of the situation. Even in a state of utter confusion and uncertainty, he still rushes to help at the mention of people in trouble. Potentially saving a life is more important to Dick than even his own sanity. This shows that he is dedicated to the mission, but also has something that Batman does not, natural leadership abilities. It is well established that Batman’s lack of ability to trust means he does not play well with others. It has been stated that Nightwing is the man who can lead just about any team, and the reader sees this potential immediately.
The major struggle throughout the series for Dick is the issue of legacy. No matter what he does, people are going to compare him to Batman, and that can be the most frustrating thing about growing up and just growing as a person in general. Whether it is a blood relation or not, it is an awful feeling to be in someone’s shadow, to be compared to this person relentlessly. Dick Grayson does not just want to be a copy of Bruce Wayne and instead seeks to prove that he can be a hero on his own terms with his own heroic philosophy. For once, he has to look at the world through his own lenses and decide what type of person he wants to be. This is the awkward phase between child and adult that can be quite hard to navigate. Anyone can relate to frustration that he shows throughout the series, especially in his later confrontations with Batman. Legacy is not a burden that most people handle gracefully, but Dick is a survivor leading a team of survivors.
Bruce Wayne raised Dick Grayson and taught him the skills he needed, but not all of Batman’s influence on him was positive. He is extremely disadvantaged in the social aspect of his life because Bruce didn’t teach him very much about trust and affection. In issue #16 he refuses to pursue Starfire, despite their feelings for each other being clear. He tells her that dating a teammate is a bad idea, and that he only cares for her as a friend. This decision brings him nothing but pain, which he then proceeds to hold inside to eat away at him. Starfire eventually gets a boyfriend and he is forced to face the fact that his misery was self imposed, and that he only pushed her away because it is what Batman would have done. This proves to him that happiness is impossible when living someone else’s life. He comes to wear his inner darkness very differently than his mentor, in a way that inspires trust and hope instead of fear.
The greatest challenge he faces, even greater than that of legacy, is uncertainty. This causes anxiety in any person, not knowing what will happen, but especially people at this stage in life. Dick is used to living with the man who is always prepared and was taught to plan things out before rushing in, but this is something that cannot be fully planned. There is nothing a person can do to guarantee fulfillment, to be certain that he will like the person that he becomes. By this point, the readers know that he does eventually find peace within himself and turns out to be a true hero. However, readers at the time did not know this, and the character at the time certainly didn’t either. The questions in his mind are the ones in the minds of all people in that transitional phase of “almost adult.” What if I don’t have what it takes, and what if I end up on the wrong side? Despite all of this and the dysfunction of the others, he still makes them into a cohesive team and leads them, often doing so in spite of poor odds and extremely unfavorable circumstances. Anyone who reads this comic will see that Nightwing was there all along, Dick Grayson just had to find him.