Of all the news coming out of San Diego over the weekend, perhaps the most curious was the animated “Judas Contract,” to be adapted by writers Marv Wolfman and Tom DeSanto (with some help from George Perez) from the classic New Teen Titans arc by Wolfman and Perez.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW for those of you who are just now discovering DC Comics and/or the New Teen Titans.
In his recent Newsarama interview, Wolfman alluded to the central problem with the story: basically, “The Judas Contract” proper is a four-part arc (in Tales of the Teen Titans #s 42-44 and Annual #3) which wraps up subplots going back to the very beginning of the title. Terra was introduced in NTT #26 (the book switched to the Tales title with #41) and was revealed to readers (but not the Titans) as a spy in #34. Therefore, by the time “TJC” started in earnest, Terra had been around for some 16 issues (and an Annual) and had been a Known Baddie for the past eight. “TJC” mainly shows Terra’s betrayal of the team, introduces Nightwing and Jericho, and tells Slade “Deathstroke the Terminator” Wilson’s origin. The rest is catharsis. The storyline’s real power lies in its buildup, especially today. Over twenty years later, Terra’s real allegiance is as well-known as Luke Skywalker’s parentage, so “The Judas Contract” must use that to its advantage to be successful.
Although the arc focuses on Terra, Deathstroke is the real villain. Delivering the Titans to the HIVE criminal organization fulfills the contract he accepted at the end of NTT #2. Deathstroke had originally rejected the HIVE’s contract on the Titans, because they hadn’t done anything to him. However, the HIVE then sent the Ravager (i.e., Deathstroke-Lite) after the group.
The Ravager was Grant Wilson, a troubled young man who learned to hate the Titans in NTT #1, when their fight with the alien Gordanians wrecked his apartment and (I think) contributed to the breakup of his relationship. You can see how that would translate into murderous rage. Anyway, the HIVE process which gave Grant his powers also ended up killing him. Since (in another shocking-at-the-time twist) Grant was Deathstroke’s son, the latter took up the contract and now had a reason to hate the Titans too. In that respect, Deathstroke’s use of Terra — someone the Titans would have grown to trust, maybe even love — was an ironic, almost operatic, touch.
“TJC” also trades on the changes it makes to the team as a whole. With Kid Flash leaving and Robin becoming Nightwing, Wolfman and Perez were finally getting a lineup more to their liking. They considered Kid Flash too powerful to be used effectively, and Robin had to be coordinated with the Batman office. The other pre-existing characters, Wonder Girl and Changeling (nee Beast Boy) weren’t that connected to Wonder Woman or the Doom Patrol, so their only real home was with the Titans. The creators’ attitude toward the characters they wanted was reflected in the characters’ attitude towards the team itself — if Marv and George liked them on the team, they liked being on the team. Indeed, NTT #39 has Dick choose to stay with the Titans (just not as Robin) right after Wally announces he’s leaving. This confirms for Wally his feelings of never really belonging to the team.
That brings up another fairly large plot hole, now that I think about it. If one of “TJC’s” themes centers around belonging (certainly an important question for teenagers) and Wally decides he doesn’t belong even as the Titans decide Terra does — what does that say, in the end, about the Titans as judges of character? If nothing else, the animated adaptation has to avoid making the Titans look like saps.
This plot hole could be diminished, if not avoided entirely, by omitting Wally from the adaptation. However, if I read Wolfman’s hints correctly, he’ll be there; and his absence from the rest of the story will have to be addressed. Consider: Kid Flash is probably the most powerful Titan, at least on paper, but apparently the simple act of his leaving the team is enough to get him off the hook as far as Deathstroke and Terra are concerned. Wally’s leaving was a shock to Terra, so she and Deathstroke must have had some plan in place for dealing with him. Legalistic concerns about “the meaning of ‘Teen Titan’” aside, were they so confident that they could eliminate the rest of the group before Kid Flash could have done anything about it? Wally and Tara weren’t BFF, but they did seem to have at least the beginnings of an actual friendship, so with her hatred of the rest of the team, I could see her sparing him because he rejected them.
(Still, I for one would have appreciated a last-minute save by Wally, which could have been accomplished without distracting from the introductions of Nightwing or Jericho. It would have been a nice capper to his time with the team, and it would have advanced the “belonging” theme as well as resolving his outsider-y feelings. But I digress….)
If this is a viewer’s only exposure to the “real” New Teen Titans, Terra might well be an audience-identification character. Terra despises her teammates without much reservation because, to her, they are perfect, pretty people who spend most of their time whining about how their lives are only near-perfect. Therefore, Terra might come off as a sympathetic, albeit corrupted, innocent. (Wolfman’s interview also mentions Cartoon Network Terra’s continued popularity with young girls, who presumably won’t have their illusions shattered by the real thing until they’re old enough.) With these kinds of stories the predictable ending finds the flawed hero-turned-villain finally embracing the good inside her, and even in the late stages of the arc, the story still presents those kinds of opportunities. Raven could heal her mind; or she could be swayed by Gar Logan’s love.
Regardless, that was never Wolfman and Perez’s intent. They always wanted the biggest surprise to be just how evil Terra was all by herself. Even Deathstroke is shocked at the depths of Terra’s depravity, with her creepy “nightgown and cigarette” scene in #39 only scratching the surface. Where the Titans (and even Deathstroke) represent the superheroic ideal of potential maximized, Terra’s tragedy comes from her inner turmoil, and from her refusal to channel her potential for much of anything except her own id.
Deathstroke’s reaction to Terra’s death, and his subsequent reconciliation with Changeling in Tales #55, started him on the road to anti-herodom, including occasional alliances with the Titans. I’m not sure if it’s there in the original issues, but now I can’t help seeing parallels and other motifs connecting the Ravager, Terra, and Deathstroke’s other son Joey, who turns out to be Jericho. A “Judas Contract” adaptation could do a lot with those characters, maybe turning on its head the parents-controlling-children theme that ran through a lot of Titans’ backstories.
Maybe, in that context, the fates of the Ravager and Terra argue that parents can’t blame themselves for the evils of their children, any more than children can blame themselves for their parents’ failings. Both Nightwing and Jericho transcend their fathers’ expectations and establish their own independent identities, whereas Ravager just wants to be like Dad, and Terra’s rage is simply raw and unfocused. If Wolfman and DeSanto can work all that int a 70-minute movie that ends with a sprawling fight scene, they’ll really have something special.
Again, I was a little surprised to hear about the “Judas Contract” adaptation. Done right, it could be a powerfully suspenseful meditation about the desperate needs of teenagers to belong, balanced against their struggles to find their own paths. Done wrong, it might be nothing more than a super-powered potboiler featuring a psychopathic Lolita. Never mind having to compete with the current “Teen Titans” cartoon — “The Judas Contract” actually has to battle its own faithfulness. At least the producers won’t have to worry about spoiling the big twist.