Lately I’ve been struggling with the notion that I am too nostalgic. Of course, I remember when I was just nostalgic enough. Good times, good times….
Sorry. Moving on.
I did like the first issue of Amy Wolfram and Karl Kerschl’s Teen Titans Year One. It was mostly a Batman/Robin story which, intentionally or not, did a clever riff on both the G-ddamn Batman and the classic Titans-team origin.* Naturally, I appreciated the nods to Titans history (wow, the Flips!), but on a more basic level I just liked seeing the original Dynamic Duo in action — with a yellow-oval Batman, yay! I’m similarly looking forward to the other mentor/protege relationships.
TTY1 isn’t merely a retro exercise, as its use of instant-messaging indicates. However, I also don’t think it’s meant to be the new, “definitive” origin of the Titans in the manner of, say, “Nightwing Year One,” Superman: Birthright, or JLA Year One. TTY1 is its own story. Maybe it’s part of the marketing push for the new New Teen Titans reunion series (together with the “Lost” Teen Titans Annual), but odds are it’s not a direct lead-in to that series. Therefore, TTY1 is most likely not “canon,” at least not yet … although apparently AOL’s Instant Messenger (the app of choice for any Time-Warner character) first appeared in 1997, ostensibly within DC’s compacted 10-12-year timeline.
That’s the thing, though, about retelling stories grounded in the Silver Age: because those comics weren’t constructing a continuous narrative, there’s a lot more wiggle room, even without taking into account various timeline-changing events. The Silver Age bookends-and-specials event from a few years back paid lip service to the changes in DC continuity, but it didn’t have to work around a lot of established facts … because by that point, they’d become somewhat less established. By contrast, “Nightwing Year One” (serialized in Nightwing #s 101-06) had to fit within the well-known (and still valid) events of “The Judas Contract” and thereabouts, and it did a pretty good job. Again, though, TTY1 doesn’t appear to be the same kind of continuity-oriented gap-filler as those other story arcs. It reminds me more of something you’d see in the Classified or Confidential titles, not that any of those are long for this world.
As you can imagine, then, I’m a little disappointed that JLA Classified is being cancelled, with the others probably not far behind. To me, there’s nothing wrong with stories set in the past which don’t directly influence the present. While the “real” League tore itself apart and put itself back together (slowly, to be sure), JLAC was a steady dose of World’s Greatest Heroes action. I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been a retro title permanently, since focusing on various historical memberships was supposed to be its purpose. DC never seems to do well with the retro books, though, and it frustrates me.
It’s not that I don’t like the present; but it seems like the Big Two spend a lot of time and effort balancing progress and familiarity. The classic elements never stay away for too long, and their reintroductions tend to involve lots of continuity gymnastics. In that light, flashbacks never struck me as particularly objectionable, or even like a consolation prize. Marvel’s even had some success with ongoing retro titles like X-Men: The Hidden Years and Untold Tales Of Spider-Man, but again, DC hasn’t.
It’s even more frustrating because all of DC’s time-twisting reboots and tweaks have created gray areas in the characters’ histories, thereby giving DC some small advantage when it comes to retro stories. For example, Superman Confidential can run another version of his first meeting with the Forever People** because it falls within the post-Crisis Superman’s gray area and is thus easier to integrate into continuity.
Of course, that assumes you need the stories to fit snugly into continuity, and that gets us back to a given story’s underlying purpose. Obviously DC doesn’t mind the timing of that Superman Confidential story — especially since it incorporates Orion and Kalibak and has more fights in the streets of Metropolis — because its current big-event crossovers involve the New Gods pretty heavily. However, taken out of the event context, the S. Conf. arc looks like a less-expensive, less-involving alternative to four hardcover volumes’ worth of the original Jack Kirby. In other words, the message seems to be that if you just want some Fourth World Cliffs Notes to help make sense of Countdown and/or Final Crisis, read Superman Confidential. After all, that’s the story which probably “counts” more.
But I digress. Even if DC could attract enough readers to these retrospective books, there are logistical problems with telling too many backwards-looking stories. DC’s gray areas might give it more opportunities, but Marvel has a better command of its shared-universe history. Its dots are more easily connected.
DC history is more multiple-choice. Let’s say Batman Confidential was relaunched as an in-continuity gap-filler along the lines of Hidden Years. Maybe its gap-fillers would feature more early appearances of Hugo Strange, the Monk, and the Joker, which in turn would take their cues from the events of Matt Wagner’s Dark Moon Rising miniseries and Ed Brubaker & Doug Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs. Those latter stories were designed specifically to revisit the Golden Age originals, so they’d form a natural foundation for a retro-styled Batman book.
Nevertheless, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory also loom large over the early years of both Batman and Robin, and I’m sure All-Star Batman does nothing to clarify matters for uninitiated readers. That’s the big problem with the concentrated focus on “Year One” — nobody wants to do Years Two, Three, etc., anymore. (Appropriately enough, the Batman “Year Two” and “Year Three” stories have been pretty well ignored for a while.) Karl Kesel and Dave Taylor did about as good a job as a fan could want in their year-by-year World’s Finest miniseries, several years ago, and JLA: Incarnations was likewise pretty fun. Such projects are few and far between, though; and apparently with good reason. I’d love to read “untold stories” of a younger Batman and Robin, circa the mid-’70s — I have an irrational affection for the old Wayne Foundation tree-in-the-middle building — but I’m probably the only one. Aside from the perils of choosing the right esoterica, continuity can be a minefield of fan assumptions and logic traps. Marvel might have had more in-continuity gap-fillers, but as we’ve seen, its history can be a pretty fragile construct.
Good thing, then, that DC’s got all those gray areas. Good also that Teen Titans Year One is off to a fine start. I hope it’s received well enough to encourage similar retrospectives — not just because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but because a flashback doesn’t need all those continuity gymnastics.
* Told first in Teen Titans vol. 1 #53 and in more detail in Secret Origins Annual #3. Basically, the origin involves the Justice League being mind-controlled and the sidekicks teaming up to free their mentors … but you knew that already, I’m sure.