The Titans are all over the place these days, with one show for kids in Teen Titans Go!, one show for adults in the upcoming Titans, and a surprising lack of shows actually targeted at, you know, teens. While it might seem weird that a comic and show that says "Teen" in the title is marketed to anyone but teens, the important thing to remember is that it’s not even close to the weirdest thing about this franchise.
Maybe it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a superpowered team of teenage sidekicks that live in a tower shaped like a “T” and regularly engage in battle with villains like a French gorilla, a four-eyed demon from another dimension, a brain in a jar, and another guy whose brain you can see due to his glass forehead can sometimes get a little strange, but needless to say, some stories are stranger than others.
The Titans are devout pacifists for about four issues
In Teen Titans #25, the story The Titans Kill a Saint? shows the team coming into contact with Hawk and Dove, brothers that have exact opposite ideologies towards violence — Hawk is an aggressive agitator and Dove a pacifist — and yet they have chosen to work together as a team just to throw a little extra drama into the mix of what are already life-or-death situations. It was the ‘60s, so the Titans find themselves hanging out with Hawk and Dove while trying to mitigate the violence at what is supposed to be a peaceful protest, and in the fracas a gun discharges while every single person in the Titans except Robin is touching it. It turns out that the bullet kills world-famous philanthropist, Dr. Arthur Swenson. The Justice League shows up to yell at them for a while, and the Titans, Hawk and Dove, and a kind of random teen psychic named Lilith all decide to turn to pacifism by joining with the mysterious Mr. Jupiter, who promises to teach them the ways of nonviolence. Except for Robin. Robin stays on campus, like, “OK, gang, let me know when all this blows over, I’m going to pretend to go to school for a while.”
This story continues over a few issues as the team gets to know their pal Mr. Jupiter, who turns out to be this random nice guy that gives a bunch of money to the team and imparts his will on them like really nice guys tend to do to complete strangers. Most fiction tends to kind of miss the point of pacifism, so there’s a lot of scenes of people smacking the Titans around and Titans crying about it but refusing to strike back. And then Aqualad shows up.
Aqualad is inordinately enraged by the pacifism of the Titans, and screams at them and threatens them and calls them cowards and wrecks stuff, serving as the audience member who has grown weary of watching everyone cry for the last few issues. The Titans come to their senses in the following issue, not by realizing that you can be a pacifist without bursting into tears every time someone says something mean to you, but rather deciding that their perspective shift didn’t make that much sense to begin with. Everyone completely forgets about the story arc and learns nothing — a Titans tradition!
In New Teen Titans #26-27, right in the middle of a campy superhero series, all of a sudden things get heavy. The story, entitled "Runaways," focuses on homeless teens who are cast out of their homes due to abusive parents, then quickly become drug-addicted hustlers with short lifespans. This is important stuff to talk through in life generally, but it's a really strange mood break from a team in between space adventures, and the commentary is very much akin to an after-school special minus the happy ending.
The Titans do what they can to help in the situation, but they're really doomed from the start. A young man falls in front of oncoming traffic and Raven struggles to save him. The DA Adrian Chase who “doesn't care about the law, just what's right” tries to bring down the drug czar supplying the kids, but fails, which leads him down a pretty dark path. Again, it's not so much the subject matter as it is the "I'm sorry, what's happening?" aspect of the stories. It's a weird tonal shift to say the least, and it comes and goes without resolution.
The story ends by giving us a heads up that the Titans are powerless, the problem continues, the vigilante DA is way too willing to take the law into his own hands, nobody cares, and ultimately, there is no justice in the world. It's weird not only because of its subject matter but its complete lack of practical solutions dealing with homeless youth, so while the team can be applauded for bringing attention to the subject, I would likewise highly recommend not giving these comics to the teens they are geared towards lest you throw them into a serious depression about their options.
Every successful franchise needs a Scrappy-Doo, a character that is introduced for kids that every adult bears a surprising level of aggression towards. For the Titans, that Scrappy was Baby Wildebeest.
Even from the beginning, BW wasn’t so much a storyline as the painful remnants of one. Introduced after the incredibly long-running Titans Hunt storyline in the second volume of New Teen Titans, Baby Wildebeest was a genetically engineered little monster created by a society of people that low-key loved dressing up like wildebeests. Titans Hunt ran for many, many issues consisting of Titans unmasking various people and yelling “but — it can't be — not YOU!” on the cover. When it'd finally been played for every shock DC could get out of it, Titans Hunt ambled to a close, leaving us with one Baby Wildebeest, who bonds with the very forgettable, very ‘90s Titan Pantha. For her part, Pantha spent a lot of time openly talking about murdering the literal baby that loved her above all others.
The series got a merciful death, but Baby Wildebeest did not. Pantha and fellow forgettable Titan Red Star raised the baby as their own until one day a rogue Superboy Prime committing mass murder decided to throw the cute little alternative family right into his path. Pantha is killed and so is Baby Wildebeest when he tries to defend his “mama.” I feel like people were working a lot of their personal stuff out on these characters. Many readers didn't like Baby Wildebeest at all but super did not want to see him cut in half for loving his adopted mom too much. You came a long way, Baby! Then Superboy laser visioned you to death. Sorry about that. It was a weird couple of decades there for DC.
The ‘90s was a wondrous time for mainstream comic books, filled with storyline inconsistency and people yelling catchphrases from action films, and they really took on a life of their own sometimes. The Team Titans speak to the zeitgeist, intended by DC to serve as a sort of response to Marvel’s top-selling X-Force, a violent and often hilariously gruff book that for some readers really defined the times in ways both positive and negative.
Meanwhile, Team Titans isn't even remotely that successful, either for its time nor when reading it back and judging it by today’s standards. The stories are violent and the characters are needlessly moody, a mark of the ‘90s, but the concept is far too loose to tie it together in a way that would make for an enjoyable read. The team originally appeared in the second volume of New Teen Titans, during a story arc in which Donna Troy and Terry Long’s son grows up to be a cruel despot named Lord Chaos. When all hope appears to be lost the Team Titans show up claiming to be from the same future.
It turns out none of that even happened, though. Later every member of the team discovers that they were simply fabrications of yet another despotic villain, and most of them are wiped from the slate, never to be seen again. Survivors of this bizarre plot direction include Mirage, who just kind of vanished from continuity, Terra whose story turned out to be the weirdest of them all, and an evil version of Nightwing calling himself Deathwing whose true origin is then never explained.
Who is Donna Troy?
It's important to start this entry with the answer to the question “who is Donna Troy?” which is “we don't really know and nothing I say here is going to help you understand.” To start, writers of the ‘60s Teen Titans series had possibly ignored or not realized that while all the other sidekicks they used in Teen Titans had established backgrounds no Wonder Girl had ever been officially introduced or explained. A teen version of Wonder Woman called Wonder Girl had been making appearances in Superboy style stories until one issue where she showed up as a separate entity. Her first appearance in Teen Titans was to arrive on the Titans doorstep and act like she had always existed. The original assumption was that Wonder Girl was merely the younger sister of Wonder Woman. In the following decades she's gone on to have possibly the most needlessly convoluted origin story ever and to be dubbed “most complicated” by people who have read X-Men comics.
The first retcon of Donna Troy was with good intentions — she'd simply never been given an origin story, so it was explained that Wonder Woman had saved her from a fire then pelted her with purple rays on Amazon Island to give her powers. After that, a change in Wonder Woman’s origin made it impossible for her to have saved an orphan from a fire at the time, so Dick Grayson, that absolute schmuck, decided he needed to start investigating the matter, which we all to this day regret him doing. He discovered the original story to be false, and Donna happened to be the victim of a good old-fashioned child trafficking racket. OK! Easy enough, but then in New Teen Titans #50-54, the fire plot gets brought back, and we discover it was actually the Titan (not Teen Titan but Greek Titan) Rhea that had saved Donna, and gave her and 11 other orphans superpowers to make them the Titan Seeds, which does not sound okay in the slightest. One of them goes rogue and starts killing the others, and Donna Troy changes her name to Troia. After that, it turns out that Donna had been created as an age-appropriate playmate for Diana who then was mistaken for Diana and cursed to live out painful traumas again and again for eternity. Later, during another retcon, we discover again none of this is true because it's all true because retcons.
All that said, it’s pretty difficult to say who Donna Troy is at any given point in time. If you ever find yourself asking a seasoned comic fan and they gruffly mumble “she’s just — a clone. A clone! Turn back now!” before chugging out of a flask and passing out in public, go ahead and believe them because we’ve pretty much universally decided to go with “clone” at this point to save ourselves the struggle.