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"Teen Titans": Robin the Cradle

Warner Brothers Animation recently added the animated Teen Titans to its stable of DC Comics-derived properties -- the show primarily airs on Cartoon Network, but maybe also on WB Kids, depending on the mood rings and tarot cards used by the programing oracles at your local WB affiliate. Teen Titans features five teenaged superheroes keeping The City safe from supervillians and other evildoers under the slogan "Truth, Justice, Pizza," and, for my money, it's the best superhero cartoon show for kids to come along in many years, successfully combining elements of Japanese anime and the title's long DC Comics lineage with strong writing, good characters, and solid entertainment. In fact, my main problem with Teen Titans is that I'm no longer in the ten-years-and-under set it's clearly intended for: if I were, I'd probably eat it up like faster than a box of sugar puffs. The first season of Teen Titans runs for thirteen episodes (there's one new one left, set to air in early November), and a second thirteen-episode season has been greenlighted, so it won't be going away soon.

For the uninitiated, here's a description of the show: the Teen Titans are a group of five teenage heroes -- Beast Boy, Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, and Robin (yep, the Boy Wonder, the kid who tagged along with Batman). They live -- sans adult supervision -- in Titan Tower, a ten-story T-shaped high-tech headquarters/clubhouse on an island just outside a city which kinda comes across as a combination of San Francisco and Kobe, Japan. They battle villians and ne'er-do-wells, play video games, argue about whose turn it is to clean up the communal kitchen, eat pizza, and hang out at the local park. They have no secret identities: they're superheroes 24/7/365. Naturally, each half-hour episode focuses on defeating the villian(s) of the week, but is also strongly character-driven: the episodes focus as much on the relationships between the Titans as the events in the plots.

Teen Titans' production style differs radically from other animated series derived from DC Comics, like the various Batman series, Superman, and the currently-airing Justice League: in fact, it owes as much to Pokémon as to the original comics and other WB animated superhero shows. For diehard fans of the original comics, this alone is cause to dismiss the series outright: they might concede Japanese anime can have merit, but an Americanization of Japanese anime for kids? No way. And taking major liberties with their oh-so-favorite characters? Bzzt. Two thumbs down. And I'm sure all those people have written their snotty opinions on snotty bulletin boards on (other) snotty Web sites.

Meanwhile, I'm sure kids are eating up Teen Titans faster than a box of sugar puffs. Even I think it's great, and I say that having never been much of a comic book or anime fan. Teen Titans works because it's not afraid to be silly, it's not afraid to be serious, it treats its characters with respect, and -- most importantly -- because it's not trying too hard.

In the comics, the Titan's membership varied widely over the years, but the cartoon's characters are distilled from the 1980's Titans lineup spearheaded by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez (and, in fact, Wolfman wrote one of the Teen Titans episodes). The group is led by Robin, in part because he's the only character viewers will recognize unless they're steeped in DC Comics lore. But this Robin is no sidekick: although he has no super powers, he's got great gear (his cape doubles as armor, he's got a cool collapsible staff, and tons of Bat-gadgets), he's extremely agile and, after all, trained in crime-fighting by the best of the no-super-powers superheroes, the Dark Knight. He's the most disciplined of the group, and the most obsessive: like his mentor, he never gives up. (For comics fans, this is probably the Tim Drake Robin, although his identity is never specified.)

The other characters in this menagerie are:

  • Cyborg, half-human, half-robot, all focused on kicking bad-guy butt. Although he's almost helpless without his add-ons, Cyborg is the muscle of the group, a big guy able to stand toe-to-toe with the most physically imposing villains. He's also got a serious arsenal built into one of his arms, although his cybernetic components are (of course) vulnerable to electrical disruption and digital hacking. Cyborg has a hot temper and is prone to solving problems by destroying them, but he's fundamentally a nice guy and also deeply loyal.

  • Beast Boy, a green-skinned lad able to take on the form (and attributes) of any animal he chooses -- although he's always green. Need reconnaissance? He's a hawk. Need muscle? He's a gorilla, or a tyrannosaur. Beast Boy is probably the youngest of the group, and will do anything for a laugh -- sometimes, this reveals a bit of an inferiority complex, as he worries he doesn't hold his own among the Titans. Beast Boy isn't the brightest Titan -- perhaps because he's younger than the others -- and doesn't exhibit a lot of imagination in his animal choices, switching between maybe half a dozen favorites. And, naturally enough for someone who can turn into any animal, he's a vegetarian. Beast Boy was the original name of the comic-book character Changeling.

  • Raven, a moody, dark-cloaked figure with otherworldly telekinetic powers. Raven is substantially modified from her (repeatedly modified) comic book incarnation: this Raven is more like a teen goth: cynical, pale, brooding, but still wanting the acceptance and approval of her peers. In the comics, Raven is more-or-less the daughter of the devil himself (Trigon, in the DC Comics world): to my surprise, Teen Titans is sticking close to that premise, which Raven has characterized as having "issues about my father." She's constantly suppressing and controlling her dark nature: fundamentally, she wonders if she might be nothing but her dark nature.

  • Starfire, a flying, green-eyed, red-haired, energy-bolt-shooting alien girl who knows very little about Earth -- just don't mistake her naivete for stupidity. Starfire is also heavily modified from her comic book incarnation: in the comics, Starfire was for me the absolutely most embarrassing thing about The New Teen Titans: her function seemed mainly to appear prominently on comic book covers with never-ending beehive hair and a barely-there painted-on purple stripper's outfit. In the Teen Titan's cartoon, Starfire's appearance owes more to Sailor Moon than the comic books, and, although it's still a skimpy outfit, the directors are being careful to draw Starfire (and Raven) in ways which don't encourage creepy fanboy obsessions. Starfire also exhibits a bit of a puppy-love for Robin.

Here's one reason I think the animated Teen Titans works so well: it not only takes on some of the visual style of anime, but also one of its fundamental character structures, what I call the "Team of Five." (I'm sure there's some official anime-analysis name for it: I'm no anime expert -- honestly, I can rarely work up the gumption to watch anime that's not intended for youngsters.) Anyway, I've noticed in Japanese anime series, when you have a group of five heroes, they usually break down like this:

  1. The Boy Scout (often with a Battle Cry)
  2. The Moody/Dangerous one
  3. The Princess/The Dandy
  4. The Big Guy
  5. The Kid

The Boy Scout is almost always the team leader, with the Big Guy or the Moody One being second in command. The Boy Scout and the second-in-charge also engage in battles of will, not so much about control of the team as about control of the second-in-charge. If you have a Princess (rather than an all-male team), she usually has a crush on the Boy Scout. The Big Guy and The Kid often have a tight bond, usually expressed as a lot of arguing and bickering; the Princess (or Dandy) usually takes a protective interest in The Kid. The Kid provides a comedic foil, but so does culture clash involving the Princess/Dandy. Elements of this Team of Five approach probably go further back than I know; in anime, I spot it in series like Speed Racer, but it crystallized in the 70's series Gatchaman, badly butchered portions of which appeared in the US as Battle of the Planets and (less butchered) as G-Force and Eagle Riders. Other examples can be seen in the various series slammed together as Robotech, Transformers, Voltron, Gundum, et al, here in the US, plus things like Sailor Victory. I'm sure I'm getting some of these names wrong.

Anyway, Teen Titans fits this Team of Five pattern pretty neatly: Robin's the Boy Scout (Battle Cry: "Titans, go!"), Raven's the Moody One, Starfire's the Princess, Cyborg is the Big Guy, and Beast Boy is The Kid. This approach lets the Teen Titans writers and directors draw on decades of anime storytelling techniques to convey characters, relationships, and actions using an almost iconic shorthand. Of course Cyborg and Beast Boy are going to argue in the kitchen about ham and eggs versus soymilk waffles for breakfast. Of course Starfire has that starry-eyed look for Robin. Of course Cyborg steps to the plate when Robin's missing in action. Of course Robin and Cyborg are both stubborn and refuse to give in to the other. Of course comedy ensues when Starfire thinks mustard is a delicious tangy drink. Of course everyone leaves Raven alone when she makes a sour one-line comment.

These moments are often punctuated by radical anime distortions of the characters: when Robin and Cyborg yell at each other, the remaining Titans may be drawn as diminutive, huddled children -- or Robin and Cyborg might be drawn like toddlers having a screaming match. Beast Boy might be drawn with enormous, shimmering eyes on the brink of tears; dumfounded Titans are often drawn with huge, gaping mouths drifting slowly down their faces, having no relationships to their jaws. Animation conventions like this would drive purists -- and fans of the comic books -- absolutely insane: you'd never see it on Justice League. But kids take it all in stride: it's just fun, and proof the show doesn't have to be all ponderous and take itself oh-so-seriously... you know, like Justice League.

Another reason Teen Titans works well is that producers Bruce Timm and Glen Murakami -- not coincidently, some of the brains behind the Batman, Superman, and Justice League series -- aren't afraid to dip into the vaults of Titans history with DC Comics. The first season's arch-nemesis Slade (voiced by Ron Perlman) is a variation on Deathstroke The Terminator, a character spun off from Teen Titans in 1991. The Titans also take on some recognizable graduates of HIVE (originally the Hierarchy of International Vengeance and Extermination), an organization whose purpose was basically to create opponents for the Titans, and one episode features a revamped, teen-dream Aqualad (voiced by Wil Wheaton!), who was one of the original Titans when they debuted in the mid-1960s. (Please please, let's not see original members Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, or -- ugh! -- Speedy!) A visually frolicking episode featured The Mad Mod (voiced by Malcolm McDowell), who originally appeared as a nefarious (ahem) fashion designer in Titans comics in the 60s. And there are more tie-ins: Raven quickly dispatches 70's villain Dr. Light in one episode, Starfire's older sister Blackfire visits (I think she originally appears in Titans comics in the early '80s), revamped brothers Thunder and Lightning (also from the early '80s Titans comics) appear in what may be the most anime-themed Titans episode. There are also some (I think) original villains, my favorite being the hysterical magician Mumbo, along with FixIt and the not-yet-seen Overload.

But Teen Titans works as a kids superhero show in spite of all these references to the title's DC Comics heritage, not because of them. Seven year-olds aren't going to recognize Dr. Light or Mad Mod or Deathstroke: they are going to understand that Beast Boy makes faces and teeters on the edge of potty humor, Cyborg's a robot who doesn't like having his car stolen, that Robin's pretty serious but can have some fun once in a while, Starfire can be a bit of a space cadet, and that Raven is dour but generally OK. That these are kids who can get along on their own, throw tantrums, be wrong, and still be loyal friends. And, perhaps most importantly, Teen Titans shows that superhero cartoons don't have to just be for yucky older kids: they can be fun for real kids too. More power to 'em.


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