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Re-examining Terra, New Teen Titans, and the Judas Contract

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Jul 8, 2019, 3:01 PM EDT

The Judas Contract is considered to be the creative culmination of the New Teen Titans run from Marv Wolfman and George Perez that began in 1980. Throughout the early '80s, X-Men and New Teen Titans, both rebooted series from the ‘60s, ran head to head as the top-selling books from Marvel and DC. In NTT #26, they introduced Terra, who could move and control earth, riding around on self-made rafts made of dirt, causing earthquakes, and hurling rocks through the air. Ultimately, it was revealed that Terra was a traitor to the team, working with Deathstroke the Terminator to destroy the Titans from the inside out.

Naturally, a lot of fans were devastated. Through a modern lens, after years of inconsistent storytelling around Terra, the beginnings of her story have taken on a different context. While New Teen Titans did many things well, such as seamlessly marrying past and present plotlines, establishing a threatening rogues gallery, and introducing great female characters that we continue to see to this day in Raven and Starfire, there was a great deal of problematic material as well.

Content warning: This comic has some pretty unsettling stuff in it.

new teen titans 28

New Teen Titans #28, written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez, Romeo Tanghal, and Adrienna Roy, lettering by John Costanza

Terra's Origins

Tara Markov was born the sister of hero Geo-Force in the country of Markovia, which saw a violent insurgency when she was just a child. She fled and fell in with a group of assassins, soon becoming a gun for hire herself. It was through this that she met Deathstroke, who wished to exploit her talents to infiltrate the Titans. Despite the fact that she was 15 years old, their relationship became sexual. Disturbingly, the creators don’t seem to view this as rape, and it is never referred to as such in the story. It is strongly implied that it was Terra's fault for coming on to Slade, to begin with, and that is indeed the troubling foundation of much of the plot. Terra is intrinsically blamed for the actions of an adult, and given more responsibility for the crimes that take place than the adult.

Terra joined the Titans, appearing as a supervillain and fighting with the Changeling (aka Beast Boy), who discovers she’s being forced into a life of crime by kidnappers who took her when her father’s empire collapsed and held her hostage for years. This, of course, turns out to be untrue. Wolfman and Perez gave fans 18 months or so to become attached to her so that her betrayal would carry emotional weight, but, even in the beginning, the creative team had always intended for her to die.

Through the Eyes of Terra

The first chapter of The Judas Contract, entitled Through the Eyes of Tara Markov, shows Terra gaining the trust of the team while revealing that there is a camera linked with her eyes and she’s been photographing everything and gathering information on the team as a spy for months. Donna Troy invites Terra to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, and Terra and Changeling share a kiss. The next day, the team are engaging in simulated combat with one another, and Terra is matched against Changeling.

It’s important to take a moment and observe that Changeling is absolutely awful in the New Teen Titans series. Nearly every time he speaks, it’s to cross a line and aggressively flirt with a female teammate. When Starfire and Donna Troy spar, he yells that he wishes they were mud wrestling. When they embrace, he groans, “What a waste of two hugs!” In the first several dozen issues of this series, Changeling does five or six things per issue that should see him suspended from the Titans. He is the worst.

Changeling sexually assaults Terra in front of the team by turning into a python, wrapping around her, saying, “So round, so firm, so fully packed!”, then demanding that she kiss him before he’ll let her go. Terra responds with justifiable rage and very nearly kills him before she calms down enough to remember that everyone is watching. She offers a weak excuse for attempting to kill her teammate, while Changeling suffers absolutely no consequences for his actions. This scene was strange because it made it seem that Terra’s hatred was fairly reasonable given the team’s willingness to completely dismiss Changeling’s highly upsetting treatment of her, but it’s evident that no one on the creative team for the book felt that way.

Slade and Terra succeed in capturing the Titans before Slade has a change of heart and Terra symbolically destroys herself by losing control of her powers and burying herself under a mountain of rubble. Terra might have been a fan favorite, but she had always been intended to betray the team and then to die as an irredeemable villain, bringing the other Titans even closer together than they had been before. It is true that the series temporarily seemed to regain focus after this storyline, although the departure of George Perez from the book soon after was a heavy blow and the quality of the series slowly decreased as editorial took greater control and Wolfman grew tired of the book's repetitive themes.

teen titans annual

Tales of the New Teen Titans Annual #3, written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez, Dick Giordano, and Adrienne Roy, lettering by Ben Oda

Just Drawn That Way

As for Terra, this is a character who really never stood a chance. When commenting on her creation, Perez and Wolfman both have said some fairly concerning things about their choice not to empathize with Terra and their intention to pathologize and exploit her sexuality for the sake of the story. The language used in conversations about Terra and Deathstroke remains upsetting in many modern reviews and reboots of the story. People consistently refer to the relationship between a 15-year-old girl and a man in his 40s as the end result of Terra's manipulations. Obviously, that is a deeply upsetting stance to take on the situation. The idea that a man who had extensive knowledge of the criminal underworld, had assassinated dozens of people, had a wife and children, and traveled the world as a hired killer would be somehow free of guilt, while Terra’s sexuality as a teen is given full agency and responsibility, indicates one of the more serious downsides of the initial run of New Teen Titans — though it gives greater focus to female characters, it does not always do so kindly or ethically. These women are generally belittled and not treated well by the men in the book. In the case of Terra, she is villainized through her sexuality despite the fact that she is a literal child.

Terra seemingly returned from the dead in the short-lived Team Titans, a spin-off book featuring characters who were apparently from a pending dystopian future. The series was released to be a response to Marvel’s X-Force, cultivating an “edgy” ‘90s vibe. Already too late to the party and created by people significantly older than the intended demographic of the book, it didn't exactly work out. Still, Team Titans did feature incredible art by Phil Jimenez, and the version of Terra we got in that series was perhaps the most interesting. She was thought to be a clone, but then later was revealed to be the original Terra, whose memories had been altered. All that aside, this Terra was well-meaning, and her character was viewed in a more forgiving light. In the end, all the characters of Team Titans besides Terra, her teammate and potential girlfriend Mirage, and, of course, the completely unbearable Deathwing, were erased from reality during Zero Hour.

team titans 6

Team Titans #6, cover art by Phil Jimenez

It Does Not Get Better For Our Girl

Countless retcons have made it difficult to know what exactly the truth is with Terra at this point. She has been brutally killed on-page multiple times. In the New 52, Black Adam punched his fist through her chest in one of the most needlessly graphic acts of violence in mainstream comics history. She has been brought back in different incarnations, while several different people have also taken on her name and powers. For a time, she was the sidekick of Power Girl, and it was believed that she had been created by a race of underground humanoids who stole Terra’s body, then created a new version of her from it. This is a character who has become beyond complicated over the years, and hopelessly distanced from her fans.

It’d be good to believe people are out there learning lessons and treating Tara Markov a little bit better these days, but as recently as 2018, a cover of Deathstroke the Terminator depicted Terra attacking him while standing over a message in the snow reading simply, “LOVE ME." Overall, Deathstroke is a great series, but it's worth noting the changes it made to Terra's origin story. The comic did make attempts to flesh out her villainous nature by showing some of the graphic violence and death that she had been exposed to in her youth. On the other hand, the story depicted her as being desperately in need of love and approval from Slade, a father figure who clearly crossed the line with a girl who, although she flirted with him, was still just a girl. Though it had been made more than clear by past writers that Terra and Slade had been involved in a sexual relationship — or, in other words, he had assaulted and taken advantage of her — this story retcons the fact that their relationship had indeed not been sexual. He had kissed her and encouraged her affections, but the assault element is removed from the story. Instead, she is unable to shake her obsession with him and, years later, makes a very upsetting joke about how she's "legal now."

While this series works to examine and partly revise Slade's level of redeemability, nowhere near that same level of care is shown to Terra. She is described as Veronica Lodge meets Vampirella, and her sexuality continues to be emphasized. By writing her as a scorned woman obsessed with Slade and in desperate need of his approval, her autonomy is once again put on hold in the service of his character. While it's great to try and undo problematic aspects of the initial story, that's not really what happens here. Besides, any character growth she had seen in Team Titans is more or less undone. Rather than being allowed to work through and express her trauma from her deeply troubled interactions with Slade, this is erased and replaced with something that makes her seem still complicit while his responsibility is once more evaded. He does admit on-panel that she was a child and what he did was wrong, which is at least a step in the right direction for him, but for Terra, catharsis seems even further away than ever.

The fact that Slade has gotten his chance for redemption again and again while Tara Markov has never gotten hers is always a bit difficult to digest. Since her early days, writers have really struggled to find a place for her. The reductive view of her by her creators has echoed through several reboots of the character. There has always been the assertion that despite her many hardships, and despite the violence committed against her, she somehow deserved it. The punishment doesn't match the crime, because what she did was nothing very much more extreme than any run-of-the-mill supervillain, but her consequence is a moralistic death. So, why did she deserve it? Because she was angry at Changeling? Because she was exploited by Slade?

Still, in reading through her villainous early days, while considering a creative team going well out of their way to make her irredeemable, Terra still manages to come off as a sympathetic character — abused by those who should have loved her, prematurely treated as an adult by the grown men who sought to exploit her, and eaten up by the hatred that can come from abandonment, trauma, and loss. In her animated takes, she is given at least some semblance of autonomy, and for audiences and fans of her character, those may very well be the versions that serve her the best.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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