TITANS TOGETHER Part One: Geoff Johns exclusively talks 'Teen Titans'

Tue, May 6th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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NOTE: Look for our interview with series artist Mike McKone after Noon Pacific Time.

"Teen Titans" #1
When you're one of the comic world's hottest writers, reviving one of the most popular teams in comic history on July 16th and you're doing it with a launch that's garnering attention from almost every major comic press outlet, what do you do?

Keep your mouth shut.

With the exception of the recent "Wizard: The Guide To Comics" sneak peek, Geoff Johns has been unusually quiet about the re-launch of "Teen Titans." Since the series was announced as one of the spin-offs from the now cancelled "Titans" and "Young Justice" series, fans have been clamoring for more information. Over the course of two interviews, CBR News spoke with "Teen Titans" writer Geoff Johns and artist Mike McKone, and of course, for the latest news on the animated "Teen Titans" shows, check out CBR's daily "Comics2Film." For those who might not be familiar with the superhero teen team that Marv Wolfman and George Perez made as popular as the X-Men in the 80's, Johns provides the perfect introduction:

"Teenage super-heroes go to school like every other teenager Monday through Friday," Johns explained to CBR News. "They sit in class and surround themselves with people they can't really talk to. Because they can't be themselves. They have to be...normal. These kids need some freedom, and that's what the weekends are for. Ever Friday after school the heroes head to Titans Tower in the San Francisco Bay. The Tower is operated by Cyborg and Starfire, created as a place Robin and the others can hang together on the weekends. Here, they CAN be themselves. They can train, they can just goof off, they can do whatever they want to do...kind of. You see, things never stay quiet with the Titans. From saving each other to saving the world, dealing with their mentors and their greatest enemies, and getting into trouble as all good young rebels do the Titans will have their hands full.

"If you're looking for a fun, adventurous, beautiful, character centered book 'Teen Titans' is it."

Over the years, as the "Teen Titans" series has become "The All New Teen Titans" and then "The New Titans" and even just "Titans," the cast has been in a constant state of transition, with members constantly departing. So who is going to be part of this team? Johns says the initial lineup is not exactly the lineup that'll be permanent. "As far as the cast goes, let me get this out of the way. We have big plans for everyone. New directions, re-examined motivations, costumes, everything. We want their journey with the Teen Titans to be a growing experience, and actual evolution, and we'll see that as the series progresses. We'll be pushing these characters to new limits, and we're going to prove that without a doubt -- the Titans are a force to be reckoned with.

"ROBIN - Trained by Batman, he is an urban vigilante detective. Tim Drake is not what he appears. He's not what you think. And he's not Batman Junior. He's better. He's a helluva lot better. This kid is more adjusted than Bruce Wayne will ever be. He's more realistic, he's more down to Earth, and he's better at dealing with people. However, that doesn't mean he's the straight-laced kid that gets all 'A's' and always says 'Thank you.' He's not perfect. He has a sly smile, makes you wonder what the hell he's thinking. He can stay quiet, he can play the role of 'the good kid' but he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. Robin has slowly become something entirely different than I was expecting -- and I couldn't be happier with that.

"WONDER GIRL - Given powers by the Greek Gods, Wonder Girl learned her skills from the fabled Amazons. Cassie Sandsmark was blessed by Zeus and given the power of the Greek Gods. She's grown from an awkward girl to a competent and beautiful young woman. Coming into the Titans she'll have some issues to deal with head on, and one in particular will challenge everything she believes in. Cassie will be continuing to grow, and maybe not in a direction Wonder Woman agrees with. Cassie is a born leader, and dealing with the older Titans won't be a cakewalk.

"SUPERBOY - A clone of Superman, Superboy fights for truth, justice and the teenage American way. Superboy is perhaps my favorite of the 'new generation' of Titans. He's a character I've wanted to work with for a long time. Superboy is the one I can say the least about. You'll see his entire story, who he is and why, early on. Where he's going? It's gonna be good.

"IMPULSE - The Fastest Boy Alive, latest in the legacy of the Flash Bart Allen is a really, fun character -- who others see as a joker or impulsive airhead. They under-estimate him. Big time. Bart probably has more emotions invested in his teammates than anyone else on the Titans. He actually cares, and thinks more about others than himself. But he's also written off by the others quicker than even he can say 'IMPULSE.' We'll see how he handles the challenges ahead.

"STARFIRE - Alien Princess from a world since destroyed. Starfire grew up as a slave to an alien culture. She escaped and made it to Earth where she gained her freedom. Nothing is more important to her than that. She defies anyone to tell her otherwise. And she defends herself not with words, but force. Starfire does her best to restrain her combative mode, but it will explode. She's very invested in these kids, in helping them, and nothing better get in her way.

"BEAST BOY - Gar Logan, animal shape-shifter. After getting a strange disease and even stranger treatment for it, Gar Logan was able to change into any animal he could think of. He takes life light, despite the curve balls he's received, hell, if anyone was a poster child for rolling with the punches it'd be him. He still can find the humor in situations and people, though this doesn't mean he sits on the sidelines cracking jokes. Beast Boy is younger than Cyborg and Starfire, a little older than the new kids. This will make him a very important part of the team.

"CYBORG - Victor Stone, half-man and half-machine, Vic was caught in a horrible accident that left more than half of his body destroyed -- he was rebuilt into Cyborg. End of story. Vic is probably the most complex character on the Titans. He has no fear, his arm gets ripped off he'll get another one. Vic has accepted his lot in life, and like Gar, has remained optimistic. With all the ups and downs he's gone through, and a new one he's currently going through, Vic sees the value of a group like the Teen Titans. He's dedicated, and nothing can sway Victor Stone's determination."

[Geoff Johns]
Geoff Johns
Many fans will ask why Johns chose these specific characters and not someone like Arrowette or Nightwing, to use two completely random examples, but as with any creative process, the writer explains that each story has a certain dynamic that can only be achieved by including certain elements. "There is a lot of 'They're in the cartoon! That's why they're in the book!'" laughs Johns. "To some extent, sure. The more exposure the better, but really when I was asked about this a year ago my immediate thought was Wolfman/Perez Titans with the new kids. Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy and Wonder Girl, Robin, Superboy, Impulse. That made the most sense to me in terms of dynamics. When 'New Teen Titans' launched it was the new generation and the classic, that's what I wanted to do here. The new generation and the classic. Am I glad the cartoon features some of the same characters? Sure. The more people know about the Titans, the more recognizable these characters are, the better. But if you want to blame someone for the line-up, blame me."

When it's pointed out to Johns that Raven, a fan favorite from the old "Teen Titans" series, is featured in promo material, he smiles (adding, "I don't want to say too much about what we're doing with Raven other than, she will appear. She'll be the focus of our second or third story arc") and in the classic charismatic Johns way, moves onto the next topic. But that smile also represents the joy that the DC-exclusive writer feels while writing about characters whose adventures he grew up reading and creating adventures for some new favorites of his, thanks to "Young Justice."

"I love team books, and I've always loved the Titans and the new generation of heroes in Young Justice," explains Johns. "Superboy, Impulse, Robin. They're exciting, enthusiastic and full of great stories. When I was approached about this, I knew the characters I wanted to work with, I knew the era I wanted to work from and I knew where I wanted to take them. It was the easiest developmental process I've had on a book because I was already thinking about all of these characters and I've been reading them for some time now.

"The inspiration for the approach on 'Teen Titans' comes from something I find very important in a book like this. We have to deal with their personal lives, their secret identities, I wanted to see them still go to school and still deal with the real world as teenagers. I want to make these characters as real as I possibly can, and with the amazing work of Mike McKone that's happening. Every page he's turning in has a flesh and blood kid on it. They all are very distinctive, very natural. When Impulse stands next to Robin there is a big difference in body type. That goes with all of them.

"Look at where the characters are coming in from -- Gotham City, Gateway, Keystone City, etc. Fictional towns to the Titans Tower in San Francisco. To reality in other words. It's a super-hero book, but I want to ground it. I want this to feel different than any book you've read with any of the characters. I believe we're achieving that goal."

The idea of writing a team book, or one with an ensemble cast at the very least, isn't new for Geoff Johns. His most popular works, "JSA" (co-written with David Goyer) and "Avengers" features large teams of characters, while the critically acclaimed "Flash" features a deep supporting cast. In fact, Johns is so experienced with team books that one might wonder if he's touched upon so many themes and explored so many of the basic team dynamics that "Teen Titans" will feel a bit like a retread. "I'm always trying to improve my writing, and with 'Titans' I think I'll be taking it to the next level," contends Johns. "I'm working incredibly hard on making sure every comma is in the right place while looking at the big picture. The purpose of the book. It's a celebration of young super-heroes. We aren't ashamed we're a super-hero book, and we're going to be a damn good one. This is going to be one of those books you can't wait for the next one. Something to look forward to. It's going to challenge what you think about these characters, what you think about teenage super-heroes. And you're going to see actual evolution and development. Like 'JSA,' only one member of the cast has their own book. The rest of them will find their main home at the Tower.

"I'm focusing on making this a very 'entry level' series. You start with #1, you go from there. It'll be very new reader friendly and any concepts we introduce from the past will, as always, be looked at from a fresh perspective. With that in mind, we'll of course have some surprises. Polishing up classic Titan villains and concepts and introducing new ones."

[Teen Titans Promo Artwork]
"Teen Titans" Promo Artwork
One way that "Teen Titans" had differentiated itself from other team books in the past was that most of the characters seemed to be sidekicks of well-known characters- from Aqualad to Wonder Girl to Robin. This isn't the case anymore. "None of the teenage superheroes are really sidekicks anymore, they're more independent, and they'll continue to be more independent," states Johns. "The book is now -- What do teenage super-heroes do on weekends? They hang with the Teen Titans!"

The ideals behind Geoff Johns' approach to re-launching the "Teen Titans" - accessibility, fun, aiming for a broad audience- might remind some readers of the goals of rival Marvel Comics' Ultimate line of comics, which has been wildly successful in taking existing characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man, recreating them in an alternate universe and letting big name talent tell new stories there. While this, of course, isn't exactly the case here, Johns sure is creating his "own" Teen Titans and brandishing the "Ultimate ideals," if you will, and the writer isn't afraid to tackle this question head on, saying, "Is this 'Ultimate Teen Titans?' Not really. It's modern day continuity. 'Teen Titans,' however, is a fresh start for all of these characters, a book for people who are both longtime and new fans of these characters. Obviously, the Teen Titans are going to have a big year this year. Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven are going to be a household names soon. Superboy already is. Robin is. A future member already is. This book has the potential to not only reach a large audience in the comic book market, but also outside it. That's one of the main goals for me with the Titans.

"I also think we have an art team that is going to explode on the scene. Jeromy Cox (our colorist) is knocking me out of my chair."

In many ways, "Teen Titans" does encompass many of the themes touched upon in Johns' other series- legacies, maturity and personal responsibility- but the writer is quick to say, much of these themes are simply universal to life. "Growing up and evolving is a theme of life. Changing because of what you experience and how your perceptions alter happens all the time. In big ways and small ways, and as a teenager you're much more open to that. You're bombarded constantly with people saying, 'What do you want to do with your life?' 'What?' 'You can't do that!' People telling you what to do and what not to do. Giving you advice because 'they've been there.' Guess what? You haven't been there. You were there in a different era and time. Things were different then. Yeah, there are problems with girls and drugs and all that stuff but the entire environment and state-of-mind is not the same. You haven't been there unless you're there. The Teen Titans have to deal with this from all sides, not only with their own personal lives and parents but also their mentors and adult super-heroes. They are criticized constantly from all angles, and judged over and over."

Taking all of these beliefs and turning them into a perfectly punctuated initial arc is Johns' goal, but he's reticent to reveal major details, because he wants to put some of the surprise back into reading comics. "As I said before, I wanted to find a good hook for why and how the Titans got together. They're supposed to be in school...so you know what? They are in school. During the week. Does every adventure take place Friday thru Sunday? No. Super-villains aren't that considerate. Sometimes things will stretch until Monday or Tuesday, and there will be consequences. Sometimes nothing happens during the weekend and they have to find something to do. Watching movies and hitting the city nightlife. I've already got an issue planned called 'School Daze' where we'll see what everyone does during the week. And all the pains that go with it!"

Now that Johns has established the classic characters that will be appearing in the series, for at least the first arc and the tone of the stories to expect, a lot of people are probably wondering about the villains. There's always been a colorful rogues gallery for the Titans in any of their incarnations and while not all of them are as memorable as Brother Blood or the uber-popular Deathstroke The Terminator (who even received his own series), there's definitely a lot of characters for Johns to update if he so chooses. "I think the Teen Titans have a few classic villains you can't and don't want to ignore. Deathstroke and Brother Blood being among the top. There are others out there as well, and other DC U antagonists we'll be bringing in, but we will see new adversaries for the Teen Titans emerge in the series."

Though he won't say how the masked man will appear, Johns says Deathstroke will be making his presence felt in "Teen Titans" and will once again be the bad ass that he was when he initially appeared, the kind of character that deserved to be called "the terminator." Some Deathstroke fans should also take note- Geoff Johns isn't going to pull any punches when it comes to making Deathstroke a true assassin. "Deathstroke will play a major role in the first arc, but how we're going about re-introducing him, what he's up to and why. People are going to cry bloody murder when they read #2. Literally. Deathstroke can have honor and loyalty and all of that, but at the end of the day this man is a hired killer. He slept with a 14 year old girl (Terra) for God's sake! He killed his own kid! So...maybe he's not such an honorable guy, no matter what he believes."

No anticipated series would be complete without an exciting artist and "Teen Titans" has newly DC-exclusive penciller Mike McKone to thank for it's aesthetics. Johns calls McKone the natural pick and says he couldn't have asked for a better penciller to join him on the series. "Mike does what he does best -- brings it down to the ground. His detail work and research on the entire fictional and non-fictional world we'll be in is nothing short of amazing. He's constantly knocked me out with page after page. The spread of San Francisco in #1 alone (previewed in 'Wizard') will knock you out. His Starfire is gorgeous, his Superboy tough, his Cyborg slick. And as I said, he's drawing real kids here. Mike is a pro and I couldn't be more thrilled to be partnering up with him on 'Teen Titans.' He's the absolute perfect choice for the book and he's going to get the praise he deserves as soon as Titans comes out. I look forward to a long, prosperous run on this book with him and I'm damned lucky to be working with him."

Speaking of those nifty visuals, the new costumes for the Titans have caught many fans off guard. Robin and Wonder Girl may look relatively normal, the former not being changed at all, but Impulse now appears to be wearing a modified Kid Flash uniform and Superboy isn't wearing much of a uniform at all- just a t-shirt and jeans! Fans have speculated as to whether Johns or McKone was responsible for these designs and the writer admits, both creators are guilty…. and they couldn't be happier with the results. "I really wanted to start from the ground up. That included taking a look at the costumes. We talked them through, and really analyzed it by character. Choice and environment. What would effect these characters to make them chose to dress this way, what are their personal tastes, what feel and look are we going for. I was very happy to see a more utilitarian approach to the costumes. Not so much zippers and lines and all of that, but realism in a different way. Wonder Girl wears boots and pants and shirt. Same with Superboy. Mike did a terrific job on giving the Titans a new look. The Tower is beautiful."

Even though "Teen Titans #1" hasn't hit the shelves and fans haven't seen the majority of the first issue in preview pages, there's also some fans who seem to feel that this new series is following the Wolfman/Perez era too closely or that it's simply "Young Justice-Lite." Comments like these aren't new and Johns isn't at all unaccustomed to fans pre-judging his work, so he's not worried about a few unhappy fans affecting the good times that he feels readers will have once they begin reading the new "Teen Titans" series. "How do I respond to critcisms? I don't," says Johns firmly. "The book's not even out yet. We aren't going to re-tell Wolfman/Perez stories, but we are going to be more in line with that kind of progressive thinking with a modern day sensibility. They really pushed the envelope on what DC team books were all about back then, and that's what we want to do here. We're going to rope you in with the characters and keep you on the edge of your seat with every issue. This isn't 'New Teen Titans' and it isn't 'Young Justice.' It, of course, will keep the spirit of those two alive but it's going to be a book all it's own. Different outlook, pacing and dynamics."

And for those "Young Justice" fans still upset about their series being cancelled or who don't believe that Johns won't respect the histories of the characters, though he's repeatedly said he's will, Johns has this to say: "I've said enough above -- the characters live on."

If you're one of those readers who appetites is wet and you want to know more about what is going to happen in "Teen Titans," Johns still won't reveal much more. "It's really early to offer any teasers. All I can say is everyone is working their asses off on giving you the top, must-read, book of the month here. And I can't wait to see the results when everyone reads #1."

 
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