Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Escapism: Tales of the DC Decade (Part 1)

No, not this one. The other DC Decade. The one Marv Wolfman announced in 1984.

I was twelve years old in 1984, the year that DC initiated its hardcover/softcover plan, splitting The New Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes into regular “Mando” and deluxe “Baxter” format books. Wolfman’s trumpeting of the details of this plan in a guest editorial for Dick Giordano’s “Meanwhile…” column is worth savoring in full (click to enlarge, left), for it captures a moment in comic book history when DC’s commercial and creative impulses achieved an exquisite symbiosis (a symbiosis whose details uncannily anticipated DC’s current 52/One Year Later experiment). Even now, I find Wolfman’s palpable joy at the prospect of new, brighter paper for Perez’s Titans drawings totally disarming and totally charming. He is speaking here in the voice of fan and co-creator, not businessman, and he is as smitten with the idea of simultaneous “hardcover” (direct market) and “softcover” (newsstand) editions of the Titans being released each month as I was.

I don’t think it would be possible to overstate the degree to which my twelve-year-old self reveled in this new plan. In its original form, The New Teen Titans was the comic series that I already regarded as a confirmation of my own mature tastes: “Runaways,” “Who Is Donna Troy?” and the just-wrapped “Judas Contract” were not kid’s stuff after all! So when DC’s invention of a second, “Deluxe” edition of the Titans promised to launch me into even more sophisticated territory, I was thrown into what I can only describe as a kind of rapture or ecstatic fit. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone, for what Titans fan could fail to appreciate the magnitude of a plan that would take a book that was available to just anyone on the newsstand (the “softcover” regular series, renamed Tales of the Teen Titans and destined to be a reprint book after a final year of original stories) and supplement it with a “hardcover” title that was available only to the elite readership that frequented comic book specialty shops?

In my case, what made this “evolution” of the Teen Titans so electrifying was that the change in format corresponded almost perfectly with my transition from primary school to the unforgiving world of junior high—a transition that was, to say the least, bumpy. In the same year that my social fortunes plunged from the relatively comfortable heights of grade six (in a school that I knew) to the nerve-wracking depths of grade seven (in a school that I didn’t), at least my fantasy world was ascendant and expanding.

The plan—a softcover newsstand edition that would print original stories for a year at the same time that the hardcover direct market edition would jump a year ahead in continuity so that the softcover edition could seamlessly begin to reprint those stories twelve months later—turned out to be a kind of microcosm of the dual temporal track upon which my own life at that time was destined to run. My dreams may have been Baxter, but day-to-day life was, without a doubt, Mando all the way—and it was appropriate that the stories in the Mando newsstand edition of the book were themselves a little drab. The idea that I could literally jump ahead by a year in the better, glossier hardcover book while the regular book continued to trudge along was a luxury whose symbolic resonance was not lost on a kid who would have liked nothing better than to fast-forward through grades seven and eight.

It helped that in the new hardcover Baxter series the Titans themselves were more adult-seeming than ever. Dick and Kory were shown (scandalously) waking up in the same bed, and the remarkably horror-driven Raven plot reached new levels of darkness and seriousness. And of course, Marv was right about the paper. George’s art had never looked better than it did in those first two self-inked issues of The New Teen Titans, vol. 2. This was a book for connoisseurs only—a “mature” title at every level of its production. Script, art, and now format—a total achievement and a whole new level of comic fetishism to mark a new phase in the Teen Titans’ (and my own dreamed of) coming of age. That it was available only through subscription or “through the special network of comic book shops”—perhaps the most profoundly important counter-space to the official world of the school for many kids—confirmed an exclusivity that was already deeply felt.

For me, the new Baxter series of The New Teen Titans represented the acme of juvenile fantasy, not simply because it was so fanboyishly satisfying (which it was), but because it provided a very unique sort of consolation for the misery and uncertainty of junior high: it was an object that validated my precocious snobbery—my belief in the sophistication and maturity of my tastes and my conviction that, even though I felt like I had little in common with most of my classmates, there was some parallel universe in which a twelve-year-old’s capacity to appreciate the beauty, darkness, and, yes, profundity of the world was actually recognized. The book was also a peculiar kind of fetish. To read it, to hold it in my hands, was to regard a perfected self. A self that was, in its own mind anyway, already fully grown and complete, though it was of course a self that was totally incommunicable. No doubt, like all comic books, the hardcover New Teen Titans was an “escape,” but it was not merely “escapist” in the way that people usually mean when they invoke that word to characterize the preoccupations of twelve-year-old geeks. This was an “escape” that actually pointed somewhere. Not (just!) to some never-never land of perpetual narcissism, but to that hazy realm past secondary school, past even high school, towards the (relative) autonomy and freedom of adulthood.

to be continued...

For New Readers: The Best of Double Articulation

On Allusion
All-Star Superman #1 and “The Golden Apples of the Sun”

On Love
Clich├ęs, Obsessions, and Objects in The Amazing Spider-Man #205

An Archaeology of Affect
What I Learned About Gender from The Defenders #53

On Existentialism
Why Paper Dolls Do(n’t) Cry, or Steve Gerber’s Myth of Sisyphus in Marvel Two-In-One #7

What is the Impossible Man?
Mighty Marvel Metafiction in Fantastic Four #176

Spoilers Abound (Vol. 1, No. 6)
On Villains United

What I Did On My Summer Holidays
Notes on the Cabin Bookshelf

and, just for nostalgia’s sake, the first post: My Golden Age


gorjus said...

Jim, as always, your deft turns of phrase are perfect: "My dreams may have been Baxter, but day-to-day life was, without a doubt, Mando all the way." I'm just now getting around to this post--for me, DA is something to savor, sort of like those long-form essays in Harper's or the Atlantic. I have to let them settle a little bit.

Can't wait for the next installment!

Jim Roeg said...

You're too kind, gorjus! I'm relieved to hear that you take time to "savor" the posts, though, because at the rate I post, anything else might be too annoying for a reader!

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