Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teen Titans #1 (February 1966): Nick Cardy makes a splash, Bob Haney makes a point

This is the colorful splash page to Teen Titans #1 (February 1966), drawn by Nick Cardy.  Written by the great Bob Haney, this first issue of Titans is essentially a positive, happy-go-lucky propaganda piece about the glories of the Peace Corps, which was a big deal for socially-conscious youngsters back in the early- to mid-1960s.

Officially established by John F. Kennedy with Executive Order 10924  in March 1961, the Peace Corps has been sending young Americans all over the globe to win hearts and minds by doing good works in developing nations ever since.  Back when the Titans made their collective bid for membership, the United States was still basking in the afterglow of having helped defeat fascism in the 1940s and taking leadership in facing down communism ever since.  World War II and the Cold War had frosted isolationism (except for a few backwards people living in mountain shacks and dank caves) in favor of internationalism, engagement on a global scale, and we Americans believed in solving humanity's problems and fostering democracy abroad by providing clean water and education.

In fact, we learn that almost every adult hero in the DC universe is some kind of Kennedy Democrat, a bunch of gaudily costumed but easily recognizable Eastern Establishment types of the kind hated and feared by Tricky Dick Nixon.  Or at least Rockefeller Republicans.  It's not enough that their young wards regularly risk their lives fighting crime.  It's joining their the Peace Corps that makes Batman, Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman beam with pride.  Not a single hero expresses anything but almost giddy enthusiasm for this Peace Corps thing.

We miss only Superman's reaction.  Why?  Because Superman is a god who needs no teen sidekick.  He's the father figure to all the other adult heroes, not a bunch of shirt-tail kids.  He's off trying to solve galactic entropy while they're fighting mutated fiddler crabs and giggling morons with chemical burns.  Superman does have his famous cousin, but Supergirl is probably digging canals, inoculating babies against tuberculosis and smallpox and teaching birth control and crop rotation on her own time.

Incredibly, even though he lives with Robin in palatial Wayne Manor, Batman has to learn of his ward's decision from a newspaper headline while he's scaling a drainpipe on a building in downtown Gotham City.  In the "dark of night."  Great night-vision this guy has after years of nocturnal crime-busting, hug?  The Caped Crusader may be on a case-- unless he practices urban mountaineering for fun-- but he still has time to turn, eyeball a handy newsstand through the gloom, make his discovery and loudly proclaim his joy to no one in particular.  I'm guessing he doesn't bother to buy the paper because the fabulously wealthy Bruce Wayne very wisely refuses to carry loose change in his Batman costume in case he gets into combat, kind of like Colonel "Bat" Guano in Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove.

The teen heroes let Wonder Girl choose their destination by sticking a pin in a map, which she does with an athletic flourish and characteristic joie de vivre.  So it's off to the Andes Mountains after a quick training montage to lend a helping hand to those in need.

And, as you can see from this splash page, the Teen Titans version of Peace Corps work doesn't differ all that much from the organization's directives; it's just a bit more aggressive.  They aid the needy using their personal expertise in punching, hitting and kicking things.  But that's not all they do.  They right historical wrongs, as well.  What else is toppling that giant conquistador but the defeat of  the lingering effects of European imperialism and a refutation of criticism America is merely engaging in a modified, cleaned-up twentieth century version?

In case you miss the point that America isn't like all those other old, abusive world powers, the ultimate villain turns out to be a greedy landowner run out of the village before the story even begins by the hard-working campesinos-- all your rapacious developing-world pirate capitalists out to thwart progress, one ruffle-collared bastard representing the kind of repressive guys who made communist revolutions in places like Cuba and Nicaragua necessary because the U.S. sided with them instead of doing what the Titans and the Peace Corps do here.  Of course, there's even one continuing in Peru to this day, but not for lack of Titans effort.

But this book isn't just politics.  After all, it would be a dull-ass comic with just Sargent Shriver making speeches to the Titans.  We readers demand some kind of giant menace for the kids to clamber all over (plus angry, attacking animals with human faces), and Haney knew how to deliver his patriotic, yet somewhat socialist, message in a colorful, action-packed way (like those sneaky vitamins in our chocolate-coated sugar-frosted rice puff cereals).

Looking back, it's obvious what this prescient story is telling us is the U.S. could have avoided a lot of grief in the coming decades if we'd only modeled ourselves after Wonder Girl, Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad and taken on the real menace instead of merely replacing recalcitrant dictators with more compliant ones.  But there's none of that cynicism in this story.  Haney makes me wish I'd joined the Peace Corps back when I was a teen-aged superhero.

No comments: