Teen Titans #15, written by Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Brett Booth, is a strange read. It’s part of the Death of The Family crossover going through the Batman Family books, and it features the same Joker as those books, with his skinned face strapped to his head, and ostensibly more terrifying than ever, but it doesn’t feel of that crossover. Where most of the other issues in this crossover put the focus on how Joker is more modern and direct and personally violent in many ways, this issue feels almost… quaint. Sure, it has several characters talking about how deadly Joker is, and how frightening it is to face off with him, but the overall feeling is that it comes from another era. An era of death traps and convoluted master plans and big primary colors and crappy gag lines.
This is a 90s comic book, from the plotting to the scripting to even the art style. It is a strange fit with the terror and brutality that has been the stock in trade of the rebooted Joker in other issues of Death of The Family, and it therefore feels… odd. It is like being in line for an Odd Future concert and seeing someone roll into the parking lot in a neon blue Dodge Neon with flames and a spoiler, and seeing the driver jumping out with Hammerpants and a Kid-N-Play fade haircut. It is retro where retro is not needed – or necessarily wanted – and therefore the instinct is to beat the perpetrator like a rented goalie.
And make no mistake: I will be throwing some punches at Teen Titans #15… however, there is some good stuff in this issue, and that deserves some attention, too. After all – M. C. Hammer and the Houseparty movies didn’t make a billion dollars twenty years ago because they were always reprehensible to everyone everywhere.
The issue opens with Red Robin missing and presumed kidnapped by Joker in Gotham, with the remainder of the Titans clueless and with only one number to call: Batgirl’s. So Batgirl, thinking she has been texted by Red Robin, meets the team at Scott’s Toys (cute, Lobdell), fills them in on the nature of the threat Joker poses, and gives them several locations for them to split up and check out, because if years of horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that splitting up when a psychotic murderer is skulking about is always the right call. Meanwhile, Red Robin finds himself locked in what seems to be a warehouse, dressed in his old Robin costume (Joker redressed him while Red Robin was unconscious, proving once again that your Mom was right when she told you to always wear clean underwear just in case you are kidnapped by a psycho) and being taunted by Joker. Joker tells him that he knows Red Robin’s secret identity, and that he has a master plan to trick the Titans into destroying Gotham, proving it with a chalkboard of doodles like any master scientist or crappy alternative stand-up comedian. The Titans fall straight into Joker’s trap, requiring they be rescued at the last minute by a familiar hero whose solo title clearly needs a boost by a crossover appearance.
Okay: so we have Joker with someone in a Robin costume held hostage while a convoluted master deathtrap plan unspools off site, threatening the people of Gotham. This general storyline could have come from absolutely any Batman story written between 1947 and 2011. Which is fine; God knows I have a certain soft spot for the classics, but… the combination of the old-school plot, with the general tone of the issue, really take the wind out of the sails of the new, more threatening and dangerous Joker that has made the core Batman title so exciting over the past couple of months. There is nothing particularly menacing about Joker in this issue; he doesn’t directly threaten any of the heroes, and his plan amounts to the same old “gas the city” plot that has been such a staple of the character that we would have felt robbed had we not seen it in the 1989 Batman movie… but it ain’t 1989 anymore. Just ask my waistline.
Further, there’s no real sense of danger when it comes to the rest of the Titans. We’ve been led, thanks to the other issues of Death of The Family, to the constant feeling that Joker will absolutely crush anyone who isn’t Batman himself in the interest of his master goals, but none of the Titans are directly threatened here. They are simply vehicles to execute Joker’s poisoning plan, and the only danger directly posed to any of them is by civilians caught up by the Joker’s poison. And frankly, we spend pages with these kids – kids who have been told that they are facing one of the most dangerous killers on the face of the Earth – telling jokes, trying to get hugs from Batgirl, and showing off just how much some of them want to chuck the meat to some of the others. The overall effect is to lighten the mood, which makes the stakes of the whole thing feel lower than they should. The rebooted Joker has been presented, in the other Death of The Family chapters, as the most terrifying and dangerous villain in the Batman world; Harley Quinn says in the first chapter that it’s not the same old “Mister J” anymore… but between the comfortable old deathtraps and the lighter tone of this issue, it feels like nothing’s changed since Cesar Romero refused to shave off his moustache.
There was, however, one device that I thought worked extremely well: the parallel deductive skills and extrapolation abilities the writers gave Red Robin and Joker. The issue opens with the camera on the other Titans, but with voiceover captions by Red Robin, where Red Robin is intuiting almost exactly what every other character is doing, sight unseen. It’s a nifty gimmick to demonstrate just how clever and observant Red Robin is, and would be effective enough character development on its own… but Lobdell and Nicieza have Joker do exactly the same thing while talking with Red Robin later in the issue – every thought Red Robin has, Joker quotes back to him almost immediately. The overall effect of the structure is to show that Red Robin is, at best, evenly matched with Joker on an intellectual level. It jacks up Joker’s formidability, and it adds some balance to the old-school story and general jokiness of the book. It’s good writing, and while I clearly didn’t think most of the issue worked as part of the Death of The Family arc, it deserves to be called out as a damned effective device.
And then there’s the art. Booth draws highly detailed, beautifully idealized superheroes. The anatomy is spectacular, the images are packed with detail, and his poses are iconic. The man could draw one hell of a pin-up… and that’s a good thing, because that’s just about all this issue is filled with. Out of twenty pages, I counted eleven that were pretty much some story packed around a carefully posed poster style drawing, and fully seven that were all but splash pages with maybe an extra panel shoehorned in. The effect is that there is almost no storytelling in the art to speak of; we go from big pose to big pose, which means the action has to jump around quickly and needlessly confusingly to accommodate all the real estate spent on characters flexing and looking badassed. In short, this is 90s comic art, meant in the most pejorative sense of the word: Booth is not drawing a comic book, he is drawing stuff that he can move in the four figures on Artists’ Alley, or maybe get an extra paycheck for turning into a poster. Don’t get me wrong: he draws great pinups. If I was a Batgirl fanatic, there’s one panel that I would happily spend the rent on to frame and put on my wall… but when it comes to serving the actual story? This is not what I want.
Teen Titans #15 is not a terrible comic book, but it isn’t a particularly worthy entry in the Death of The Family crossover. In a story that has distinguished itself as a dark, brutal reintroduction to The Joker – a Joker more than happy to get his own hands dirty, symbolized by his wearing of a mechanic’s coveralls throughout the event – this is a throwback to the days of giant typewriters and Bat Shark Repellent. Lobdell redeems the light tone somewhat with a great device that shows just how smart and observant Joker is, but overall, between the plot, character tone, and most of all, the art, this is a mid-90s book stuck in a 21st Century storyline. If that’s your style of story, you’ll be happy as a pig in shit reading this issue… but that’s not me. I came to Death of The Family to hear some Jack White, but this story came in blasting Batdance.