The Other Side of the Page: Books and Comics
Teen Titans: Blinded by the Light
Recently on Twitter thousands of people posted pictures of their 4 favorite characters in the universes of DC Comics accompanied by the hashtag “4faveDC”. I missed the frenzy but I have an answer: Bruce Wayne (Batman), Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Shayera Hol (Hawkgirl, specifically DCAU version), and
Cassie Sandsmark (Wonder Girl).
As with any and all comic book superheroes who have been around for some fifteen to seventy-five (!) years, there are different versions of Cassie Sandsmark. Introduced in Wonder Woman as an adorkable superfan who donned a black wig and stole Diana’s gauntlets, she was a core member of Young Justice and finally Teen Titans. She’s had one mini of her own, a one shot in 2011, and appeared in the animated Young Justice. In the New 52 continuity she was given a whole new backstory and introduction. Cassie’s various appearances and arcs are more like variations on a theme than a cohesive personality. But the theme is that of a young woman struggling to become herself in a world that wants to define her on its own terms.
Teen Titans: Volume 1: Blinded by the Light collects issues 1-7 of the latest Teen Titans title. The cover of Issue 1 stirred up controversy as soon as it hit the stands. And then the controversy stirred up more controversy. So much controversy. Even reviews were centered on it. If they didn’t want me to bring all this up in THIS review, they should have used a different cover for the graphic novel — there is a gallery of variants in the appendix. It’s important to keep bringing it up because it is a problem that a seventeen year old girl is overtly sexualized in the art:
It’s not that teen girls don’t sleep this way, it’s that these drawings are NOT aimed at teen girls. And just for extra fun bonus points, an offpanel adult is overtly sexualized in the text:
Interestingly, how these characters are presented is the point of the story. There are two central themes in the book and both are related to the commodification of superheroing. Thanks to social media the Titans are a celebrity team: Bunker’s rant against homophobia goes viral, Raven inspires a band, and in a great call-back to Cassie’s first appearance a girl gang of wannabe Wonders starts to follow her around and try to fight crime in her name. S.T.A.R. Labs’ Manchester Black decides to capitalize on the team’s success and notoriety and offers them corporate sponsorship. The Titans are becoming more than a team, they are becoming a brand.
What kind of hero do you want to be?
Some individual quirks are stressed: Tim’s intelligence and lack of superhuman abilities, Miguel’s homosexuality, Raven’s otherness, Gar’s adaptability. New Power Girl Tanya gets to retell her tragic origin story — spoiler: dead parents — which has left her angry and determined. I really like Tanya but I am so incredibly bored by her depressing backstory and I worry she’s falling into Angry Black Woman territory. It’s even more worrying alongside latino, gay and also Angry Miguel. Minority characters don’t have to be shouty all the time, y’know? But Tanya is the one who suggests the team should not settle for the status quo plus a medical plan, but reinvent themselves as proactive warriors rather than emergency responders.
The branding theme is most clear in Cassie’s arc. Not only does she have the fangirl gang, she agrees with Tanya about repositioning the team and she has two people — her mother and Mr. Black — ask her in so many words “How do you want to present yourself?”. True to form, and this is a great deal of why I love her, Cassie doesn’t have an answer. She knows she doesn’t want anyone else to define her, but she is not sure yet how to define herself. And that is the essence of every great teen, and Teen Titans, book.
Don’t judge a book only by its cover, or its controversy. This one is full of flaws, but also gems. I give it a B+.
A copy for review was provided by the publisher.