Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Real Super Power Couple: Changeling and Terra

Okay, let's take a break from the wholesome goodness of Cindy Lee Crunch-- the new cereal from Post that's part of your complete breakfast-- for a walk on the wild side.

A few weeks ago, in another example of that company's typical deft touch with public relations, the DC Comics website posted an adorable list of their top 10 "Super Power Couples."  As you can see from the comments attached to it comic fans are in nearly complete agreement with the choice for top couple.  Celebrating love and all that.  It's what we do best online.  Unfortunately, what everyone seems to be overlooking in their rush to praise is this list is flawed.  There's a serious omission that calls into question its integrity as an objective document.  Tim Beedle, the lucky cat who compiled it, left out the most important DC love match of them all:  Changeling and Tara "Terra" Markov.

The young ones.  Darling, they're the young ones.  And the young ones shouldn't be afraid to live, love while the flame is strong.  For he's a chronic sexual harasser and she's a manipulative psychopath.  They're not Joanie Cunningham and Chachi Arcola, that's for sure.  More like Benny Hill meets Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme.  Yet all the world loves a lover, or so I'm told by songs and drunks.  So in that spirit, let's take a look back at romance.  Let's take a look back at love.  Let's take a look back at a relationship so perverse Caligula himself looked up from the bowels of Hell and barfed on his toga.

Setting the tone for their relationship earl
Terra-- or, in her civilian guise, Tara Markov-- first pops up in Teen Titans #26 (December 1982).  To foreshadow her villainous ways, artist George Perez puts Galactus ear-horns on her costume.  But to obscure matters, he also slaps her between the eyes with a large orange version of that weird tuning fork thing Black Bolt wears on his head.  Form before function, I suppose.  Changeling greets the visibly distraught Terra with a cheerful, "Hi, honey -- what's your problem?  Lose your boyfriend?  Come to Uncle Changeling -- I can help you if something's wrong!"  Nice.  His first flip reference to incestuous molestation and their relationship is just seconds old.  It just never occurs to him during that endless mental video-loop of the Playboy Mansion grotto that substitutes for his thought process to simply say, "Hey, you look like you're in trouble.  How can I help?"

We find out in Teen Titans #27 (February 1983) Changeling's actually been stalking Terra for several days.  And it's in this issue when unable to contain his animal lusts (literal), he transforms into an octopus and wraps his loving tentacles around her, despite Terra's very loud verbal protests.  This sets the pattern for their interactions for the rest of her very short, very violent life.

Molly Ringwald forever!  If your store don't
got Molly Ringwald, then your store could
use some fixin'!
What exactly is the deal with Terra?  Sure, she looks like a blonde Molly Ringwald circa the first season of Facts of Life, but she's actually a demented chain-smoker in league (and in bed) with the Titans' dread enemy, Deathstroke the Terminator.  Terra not only likes her guys less horny than Changeling, she also prefers them decades older.  Entries later found in her diary by the Titans indicate an unhealthy fixation on George Burns's withered physique and whether or not he was still "capable," as she put it.  Perez calls her insane.  She scores pretty high on Dr. Robert D. Hare's Psychopathology Checklist, Revised.  As a layperson, I would never dream of applying my poor understanding of a diagnostic tool to an actual human being, but in Terra's case, it's a fun exercise and it beats explanations like Deathstroke gave her some of his crazy-juice, or she was mentally affected by some kind of magical substance when she got her earth-moving powers.

Comic books love to deal in simplistic moral dichotomies, good versus evil.  In real life, it's rarely that simple.  Of course we can use "evil" as a catch-all explanation for malevolent actions, but in some cases these are undertaken by people with with what they consider good intentions.  Terra, on the other hand, has nothing but the worst intentions.  She's cunning, manipulative, lies, demonstrates few signs of empathy or remorse and blames others for her shortcomings.  Then there are the infrequent murderous rages.  She's a much more satisfying character if she's allowed simply to be a psychopath from the get-go because it's so diametrically opposed to her looks and comic book archetype-- which, as we'll see, she'll later badmouth in a moment that exists as a satirical comment on all the Kitty Prydes and Jubilees and kid sister tag-alongs so popular in American comics.  Some people are seriously bent for reasons we just cannot fathom, and they sometimes come in the guise of people we love.  That's Terra all over.

Changeling tries his subtle approach for once.
Terra and Deathstroke plan for the gerontophiliac girl to infiltrate the Titans and destroy them from the inside.   For her, it means willfully but never gracefully subjecting herself to Changeling's increasingly desperate sexual ploys.  Playing on his naivete-- to paraphrase Nabokov, Changeling is as naive as only a pervert can be-- she invites him to her shabby tenement apartment, shows him an adorable, wholesome new look and convinces the smitten kid to put her on the roster.  So as of Teen Titans #30 (April 1983), despite Cyborg's and Raven's misgivings and holes in her biography so huge even Changeling can't ignore them-- as much as he'd like to plug them with a certain part of his anatomy-- she's a Titan.

Even though they have a long and honored tradition of bone-headedness, the Titans don't immediately let Terra in on all their secrets.  She's unwilling to share much about herself, and as a result, it takes a while for the group to accept her fully.  And she complains about this.  A lot.  In Teen Titans #34 (September 1983), she and the Deathstroke stage a fake fight to speed up the trust-building process.  At the end of the issue, Terra and Deathstroke  join to gloat their impending success and Terra's whining and moping prove to be merely the theatrics of a consummate grifter.  Kid's got acting chops at 16 that would put Jodie Foster's to shame.

I forget when this happens.  Yes, even his teacher.
For the next few issues, nothing much happens.  Terra doesn't appear in some of them, other menaces occupy the Titans.  We do get to meet Terra's brother, Geo-Force of the Outsiders in Teen Titans #37 (December 1983), but in #39 (February 1984), there's a sequence that finally reveals the true Terra in all her manipulative glory.  It starts in the middle of the issue, after the Titans have defeated some minions of Brother Blood (another guy who frequently has it in for them).  Terra complains again about not being trusted and then Perez starts drawing close-ups of Terra's eyes interspersed with black and white panels shaped like a traditional TV screen.  She's wearing special "contact lens" cameras, and Perez illustrates this in a page of quick jump cuts that transition the story's time and setting to a few days later in Deathstroke's comfy ski lodge in some undisclosed rural setting-- where Terra's lounging around looking alarmingly like Jerri Blank from Strangers With Candy.  Smoking cigaretttes and watching Captain Kangaroo...

Okay, the smoking part is true, not sure about the Captain Kangaroo thing.  Deathstroke is a major Statler Brothers fan, though.  It's true. I can't remember which comic I read that in, but I'm sure I did.  Now maybe I'm wrong about the two of them sleeping together, but from her attire-- a brief silk robe that she casually allows to flap open-- I feel justified in making that assumption.  They're obviously quite comfortable with her near-nudity, and there's a shivery little moment where Terra picks up a photo of Deathstroke's family and asks, "Hey, Honey... who are these people in the pic with you?"

They just allow this.
This leads to an exchange as to whether or not Deathstroke is "going soft" on her, and he has to prove he isn't by holding his own in an outdoor sparring session that is all too obviously a visual metaphor for something else, kind of in the same way those old movies would substitute footage of a train going into a tunnel after the two lovers embrace, or a rocket launch, or two monkeys doing it in the zoo.  Terra opens the earth to consume Deathstroke, he finds hot lava there but escapes by shooting his staff into it, which sets off an explosion.  Both spent, Terra applauds and the pair exchange mutual compliments.  It ends with a little pillow talk about how Terra wants to kill all the Titans and a close up of her heavily made up face, a cigarette between her fingers.

But what about poor little Changeling?  With almost constant access to Terra, there's practically nothing she can say that he won't turn into innuendo or sexual invitation.  And when he's not hitting on her, he's consistently harassing his other female teammates, usually right in front of Terra.

He directs one of his classier come-ons at Starfire in Tales of the Teen Titans #42 (May 1984), the beginning of the end for Terra.

Starfire's just finished a photoshoot at Donna Troy's photography studio when Changeling barges in, demands she strip naked in front of him, then asks to marry her because he wants to have 128 and a half kids with her.  You know, "Let's screw each other over one hundred times."  Although if you think about it just a teensy bit, he's a green shape-shifting mutant and she's an alien of unknown biological function; perhaps they could achieve that litter in a single attempt.  But what makes this Changeling moment so magically sweet is how he says this not only in front of Terra, but also Starfire's boyfriend, Robin.

This is also the same issue Terra finally gives in and kisses Changeling.  It's an ambiguous moment because we can't be sure if he's finally melted her heart or if she's just doing this to make it that much sweeter when she finally cuts his out and shows it to him before eating it.  Perhaps even Terra herself doesn't know.  But considering where Changeling's mouth has no doubt been, it's probably the bravest thing this poor sick girl has ever done.

This moment will come back to haunt us later.  Kiss aside, Changeling's preferred method for interacting with women is simply transforming into various animals then just copping a feel.  Why ask permission?  Just jump right on, kid!  Telling your victims how much they're secretly enjoying it makes these moments all the more delightful for everyone involved.  The phallic snake is his favorite guise.  He uses this form twice against Terra (that we're shown), but it's the second time-- post-kiss, when he's completely convinced they're a couple, no less-- that finally makes Terra snap.  It's amusing, really, to think the one thing that could un-do a scheme that's turned and twisted for so many issues would be Changeling's grabby ways, but the surprising thing is no one's tried to kill him before.  This time Terra can't help herself.  Even Changeling admits he might have carried things a bit too far.

Does she look as though she's enjoying this?
As if to prove the Titans to a member are only slightly smarter than Gomer Pyle, they still have no idea what's happening-- oh, Raven occasionally stared a little and talked about evil vibes, but did absolutely nothing to prevent the onrushing tragedy that comes to her as a complete surprise even after Terra attempts to kill Changeling after he humiliates her in the snow-- until Deathstroke himself shows up and takes down almost the entire team in Tales of the New Teen Titans #43 (June 1984).  Dick Grayson, having dumped his Robin identity, narrowly escapes, but can't figure out how Deathstroke could have learned all the Titans' secrets.  No, it couldn't have been that furtive, unpleasant girl they didn't know all that well, the one they invited into the group and kept angrily demanding to know their real names and addresses until they finally caved, just a day or two before Deathstroke's attack, which must have been a complete coincidence.  Grayson's so thick, Deathstroke's supposedly deceased wife has to show up and laboriously spell it all out  to the former kid detective.  Trained by the Batman, he was.  World's greatest detective.  For pacing's sake, Wolfman and Perez edited out the already-drawn three page sequence where she acts it out for ex-Robin's benefit using hand puppets.

The rest of the Titans-- no brain trust-- still can't understand what's happening to them.  Everyone seems convinced Deathstroke recruited Terra and somehow mind-controlled her, but he's like, "Whoa, hold on, folks, she's the one who came to me with this whole crazy idea."  Changeling's so caught up in his fairy tale-slash-porn video romance Terra has to literally tell him to his face-- he's an elephant at the time-- she hates his guts and has always hated his guts.  She then tries kill him for the second time before he comes to understand she might be somewhat less than in love with him.  And even then you get the sense if she just backs off a little on the violence and mayhem, he's just going to morph into a bunny and trying to tickle her nose with his powder-puff tail.

The Titans are such dopes after Terra finally destroys herself in a rage focused solely on them, they dip into their team activity funds and build a monument to her, topped with a marble bust of her Ringwaldian countenance.  Her bust has a kind of stunned look to it, as if even she can't believe what a group of idiots they are.  Changeling becomes moody and violent and takes to brooding over-- and given his inclinations, no doubt doing other things with his hands, lotion and tissues-- a gigantic photographic portrait of Terra, then grousing at his friends.  Which is an improvement over trying to screw them, I suppose, but is no more endearing.  Apparently, you can have either randy, inappropriate Changeling or morose, accusatory, masturbatory Changeling, but nothing in between.  It would be emotionally affecting if Changeling had at any point in this story been remotely sympathetic.  Or simply less dripping with slime.

Terra and Changeling.  Star-crossed lovers or a psycho and a sicko?  I suppose it depends on whether or not you're a romantic at heart.  But they definitely deserve to be on DC's list.


Richard Bensam said...

The Terra as Jerri Blank comparison is one that will haunt me forever. Brrrr!

Joel Bryan said...

I'm so very sorry. Truly. But I do love me some "Strangers With Candy."