A light week at the comic shop means that at long last it’s here – A Very Special™ Spotlight Sunday!
The New Teen Titans: Plague
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Artist: George Perez
The 1980s are famously associated with a lot of cultural trends. Parachute pants! Breakdancing! Shoulder pads! Big hair!
Alongside all of those artifacts of that bygone era, the “Very Special Episode” enjoyed something of a heyday, as normally goofy sitcoms would set aside a half hour every so often to “get serious” and tackle one of the problems of the day, whether it was Alex P. Keaton learning that his fun-loving uncle, portrayed by Tom Hanks, had a not-at-all fun drinking problem, Arnold and Dudley hanging out at the world’s worst bike shop, or, in a carryover to the following decade, Jessie Spano being so excited and so…scared, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some message-heavy bit of TV programming.
(There may have even been an episode of Perfect Strangers that warned people not to throw rocks.)
Comics weren’t immune to this phenomenon, of course, particularly given that taking the approach of delivering a very important message was one of the only ways to address certain topics at all back in the days of the Comics Code Authority. Sometimes, even that approach was not sufficient to earn the CCA seal of approval.
And, while some people forget, comics are a business, and most businesses look for ways to increase their exposure and market share, often through assorted gimmicks (*cough*), and by latching on to current trends. Sometimes the Big Two did that within the pages of their regular comics, working to push the boundaries of their medium, as with the O’Neal/Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow in which Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy is revealed to be a drug addict – which is, of course, relevant to the comic we’ll eventually talk about – but while there was value in improving their existing products by exploring real-world issues, that didn’t always move the needle when it came to increasing sales and getting more eyes on pages.
So, in addition to the work they did within the pages of their regular books, Marvel and DC often partnered with other businesses and federal agencies to produce special editions that were often distributed to potential new readers via schools, using their recognizable characters to drive home a particular message.
The earliest such Public Service Announcement comic I remember receiving in school featured Captain America teaming up with the Campbell Kids (as in Campbell Soup) to promote energy conservation. While somewhat informative, it…wasn’t good, nor was it particularly memorable or worthy of nostalgia.
Some time later, however, DC, partnering with Keebler, put out the PSA comic we’re here to discuss, featuring the characters from one of the hottest comics of the era taking up arms in America’s War on Drugs, with a little help from First Lady Nancy Reagan.
What makes this comic stand out from the crowd is that it was produced by the creative team behind the regular New Teen Titans comic, which, to be honest, was often extremely heavy-handed when delivering a “message” at the best of times, so despite some differences – which we’ll get to – it was almost indistinguishable from a comic you might plunk down $.75 for at the newsstand.
In fact, not long before this comic made its appearance at schools across the country, there had been an arc in NTT that could have been pretty easily recycled and used as a PSA, although it would have required jettisoning some of the long-running story elements and sub-plots, such as the ongoing journey of Adrian Chase from being a suit-wearing Manhattan DA and family man to being the costumed, gun-toting Vigilante, and Dick Grayson’s struggle to get out from under the shadow of the Bat and find his own identity and destiny as a hero in his own right rather than as a sidekick.
Speaking of the Teen Wonder and leader of the Titans, Robin doesn’t make an appearance in this comic, or in any of the sequels, and is instead replaced by a rather generic new character called The Protector, who would later be added to canon in the regular comics, though I don’t recall ever seeing him anywhere other than in the 1987 update to Who’s Who in the DC Universe.
For one thing, by that time Dick had hung up his pixie boots and was no longer Robin, and had yet to settle on a new costumed identity.
For another, the licensing rights to Robin were then held by Nabisco.
(As an aside, some time before the comic was released to schools, I saw an item about it on the news, and when I saw him in the group shot from the back cover, I thought that The Protector might be the debut of Dick’s new costume and identity.)
The inside cover of the comic features a letter from Mrs. Reagan, and on the first page we get the first of several “confessional” pages, featuring a young girl named Debbie, who, despite her tender age, has been using drugs – she provides a long laundry list of the drugs she’s used – for three years. We learn some of the – ideally relatable – reasons that she was tempted to try drugs in the first place, and how her use of drugs has negatively impacted her life.
While it’s kind of a standard feature – especially in the era of “Reality TV” – I do kind of wonder if Tom King was at least somewhat inspired by this comic when crafting his confessionals for Heroes In Crisis, especially since Roy “Speedy” Harper has a confessional scene here, just as he does in HIC.
From there, we move on to the action, as the Titans bust up a drug distribution center, and we learn that Protector – Pro, as his friends call him – was invited along specifically for this mission. (Despite the occasional asides about his backstory, it’s pretty clear that Protector was originally written as Robin, especially given that the team defers to him as the leader, despite him just being a guest. I actually suspect Robin was physically in the comic and then just drawn over, as his combat moves are pretty much identical to Robin’s.)
After beating the snot out of the drug dealers, Raven has a bit of a freakout – Has she gone rogue and decided to try some of the product? – and the team determines the cause: a young, panicked boy hiding in the warehouse has overdosed, and Raven’s empathic abilities caused her to be overcome by his emotional state. The Titans get the boy to the hospital, but it’s too late.
However, it may not be too late for Debbie from the first page, who is also in the hospital after an OD. The boy who died was a friend of Debbie’s, and when her parents come to talk to the doctor about the boy and about Debbie’s chances, they meet up with the Titans.
The Titans then have an encounter with some of Debbie’s other druggie friends – including Anna, the sister of the boy who died – and decide that they really need to step up their game when it comes to tackling the part of the drug epidemic that they can handle. Namely, beating the snot out of drug dealers.
The rest, however, is up to the kids and their families, and while they have suggestions for things that can be done – using love and understanding, mostly – all they can really do is hope.
While the Titans tackle the drug distribution infrastructure, Anna shows up at her brother’s funeral high, but her parents harness the power of love and understanding, and she decides to stop being a dope and give up on drugs, as does Debbie, after she comes out of her coma, and the rest of Debbie’s friends, inspired by these examples, and by the Titans, decide to do the same.
The comic is rounded out by various activities that the readers can engage in, such as visualizing the kind of futures they want to have, futures that would be impossible to attain if you give in to the allure of drugs, and others that reinforce a more general sense of responsibility. (These activities are presented by Ernie, the Keebler Elf.)
I didn’t get the two sequel comics when I was in school, and didn’t actually know they existed until relatively recently, but I remember being very excited about getting this one – I snagged multiple copies, as our tiny school got a lot more than we could ever possibly need – because hey, a free comic, that I’m supposed to read at school featuring one of my favorite super-teams, by one of my favorite creative teams. What’s not to be excited about?
The Titans were an ideal fit for tackling this subject, as they were within the same age cohort as the target audience, one of their own was a recovering addict, and the often heavy-handed, message-heavy nature of their regular series was rarely all that different from an earnest PSA comic anyway. (Don’t get me wrong; I loved the Titans – and even going back and rereading the old comics, I still do – but for all of their many strengths, such as fantastic art, compelling and complex storylines, and strong characterization, the comics were set at a level of earnestness that was several degrees beyond painful, and the morality plays at their core were anything but subtle.)
While there is much about this comic that is laughable and the message was in many ways simplistic, and with hindsight – though many of us saw it at the time – we’ve seen how the War on Drugs has been racist in its application and has been an expensive boondoggle that has in many ways weakened our democracy, it’s an interesting artifact of a bygone era, and one that towers above other examples.
For one thing, it presents a sympathetic and understanding view of kids who are drawn to drug use. The message isn’t “Users Are Losers” so much as it’s “Users are People…and people make mistakes and also life is complicated.” For another, while it doesn’t necessarily provide the most accurate view of drug use – or the typical behaviors of users – and reinforces the myth of pot as a “gateway drug,” it doesn’t give in to full-on Reefer Madness-style fearmongering either.
And beyond that, it features art by one of the greatest comic book artists of all time, with inks by the late, great Dick Giordano.
At the time, I also appreciated that it didn’t really dumb things down the way comics-related material designed for a non-reader mass market often did. There were stakes. People died. There were hard-hitting battles. This wasn’t some Saturday morning cartoon goofiness.
That said, some concessions were made. The
two big thing s that was most noticeable to a Titans fan, particularly one for whom puberty was well underway, was that Starfire was drawn in a much more modest fashion, in terms of her costume design, which featured a closed, cleavage-free front, and in the size of her assets.
And while never shown to be quite as busty as her buxom BFF, Wonder Girl was scaled down a bit as well.
That reminds me of another change to the lineup. In addition to the lack of Robin and the presence of Speedy – who, at the time, was not a regular member of the team – Terra was not featured in this, though that makes sense, given the nature of the character. She comes to mind mostly because of her tendency to make snarky comments about Starfire’s figure – she often referred to her as “balloon bod” – which would have been out of place (and inaccurate) here.
Similarly, Changeling’s general skeeviness was mostly absent, with the only sop to it being a singular instance of him referring to Wonder Girl as “gorgeous” rather than using her name.
It’s been a long time since I was in school, so I’m not sure if these sorts of PSA comics are still a thing. As mentioned, I never got any of the other Titans comics, and beyond that aforementioned Captain America comic, the only other one I ever got was one with Supergirl talking about the importance of seat belts when I was in high school. Other than that, I’ve only encountered the non-PSA comic-length ads for businesses, such as the ones from Radio Shack featuring Superman and Wonder Woman teaming up with the TRS-80 Whiz Kids.
However, in this, the Golden Age of Television, “Very Special Episodes” are fairly uncommon, so I imagine it’s likely that its time has long passed. Still, this was an entertaining trip down Nostalgia lane, and one that has inspired this Very Special™ Spotlight Sunday.
What makes it so special? Stuff! That you can win!
Use the form below to enter the first-ever OpenDoor Comics prize giveaway for your chance to win:
Your very own copy of The New Teen Titans: Plague!
A one-of-a-kind print of the “Deleted Scene” image above,
defaced signed by the artist! Suitable for framing and/or recycling!
An OpenDoor Comics T-shirt, suitable for wearing, or wiping the sweat from your brow after you angrily toss that print in the recycling bin!
To improve your chances of winning, do what drug users do: utilize peer pressure! You can earn extra entries by referring a friend!
The OpenDoor Comics Peer Pressure Prize Sweepstakes runs until Saturday, December 8th, so don’t delay!
The OpenDoor Comics Peer Pressure Prize Sweepstakes
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