A lot has changed for the Teen Titans since Jackson Hyde showed up on their door step two short issues ago. As the not-yet Aqualad struggles to adapt to his new life, the rest of the team is still recovering from the events of “The Lazarus Contract”. Now Jackson has some very big, very friction-resistant shoes to fill.
This issue does a fine job of balancing its responsibilities to its own ongoing narrative and the greater universe to which it belongs. Though some hints remain that this story may have existed in a form prior to the “Lazarus Contract” crossover, the fallout from that event is integrated into Jackson’s story well enough to feel like one tale.
If there was a fusing of stories, however, a couple of this issue’s weaknesses do start to make sense. The only action scenes of the issue are both rather brief and one of them references some of Jackson’s inner demons in an exceedingly rushed fashion. It would also explain why the the issue feels so pressed for time and why the pace of the story speeds and slows so drastically between scenes.
Whatever the production history of the issue may be, Benjamin Percy remains a perfect talent for the Rebirth era. As in his run on Green Arrow, Percy shows a knack for connecting to the core of his characters’ histories while adapting them to the current landscape. It’s nice to see a book that continues to challenge Damien Wayne and neither gives him a pass on his anti-social behavior nor undercuts his role as Robin. Likewise, Raven and Starfire manage to say a lot about themselves in the short amount of time they have on the page, with each one transcending the reductionary characterizations they have often received in recent years. And Beast Boy remains Percy’s most lifelike creation, even if he can’t escape the dangerous effects of talking about the internet in media.
In fact, one of the issue’s greatest weaknesses is that, while much of what it has to say is interesting, the scripting isn’t comparable with Percy’s usual level. Too many lines, particularly near the start of the issue, are overly expository or unnaturally worded. The dynamics being played with, especially within the main plot, are fascinating but the phrasing won’t be mistaken for anything particularly meaningful.
As for our lead, well, the point is that he’s still something of a blank slate. Deep down he knows that there is an essential truth to him, but he’s having trouble filling in the layers that come between it and the outside world. That lack of confidence, if not necessarily identity, marks Jackson as an outsider among the Titans and offers something very different from the rest of the team. His melancholy feels authentic, not some affectation to build him up as a brooding hero who doesn’t know how beautiful he is. It’s just quietly nice. However, it’s not any of the Titans who steal this issue, but Jackson’s mother.
In his Post-Crisis interpretation, Jackson Hyde was raised by adoptive parents after Mera left him in their care. Here, Jackson has his biological mother and that changes the dynamic significantly.
Lucia Hyde is not an easy character to relate to. She’s secretive and overprotective and at least a little homophobic, but there’s an under-tapped power to her as written by Percy. Jackson is obsessed with the father he never knew and how that connects him to another world, another world that makes sense, one that maybe even understands him. But it’s not his dad that he inherited his powers from, but long-suffering mom. Though her absolute refusal to tell Jackson important elements of his history is frustrating, Percy leaves no doubt as to her force of will or quiet strength and it’s a pleasure to see a mother/son story like this.
Of course, that raises the issue of Jackson’s other parent. As in every other interpretation of the Kaldur’ahm character, the identity of Jackson’s father is never really in doubt. Those who didn’t have it spoiled for them long before the character’s first appearance by DC and have never seen another version of his origin story will still be easily tipped off by the title of this story, “Blood of the Manta”. I certainly understand the hard place Percy was in, having to reintroduce a shocking twist that never really had any punch to it, but the result leaves this feeling, pardon the pun, watered down. It’s hard to view this as the definitive telling of that moment when it just assumes that you already know.
One other unfortunate situation imposed upon Percy is the removal of Kid Flash. Regardless of how long in advance he was made aware of this move for the character, Percy only had seven issues to write Wally as one of the Titans. With five of this series’ issues dedicated to a Robin-centric origin story for the team, Kid Flash never got a moment to himself and, as such, the aftershocks of his departure feel a little hollow.
Even more unfortunate is the role that throws Aqualad into. Especially with this series utilizing the familiar Teen Titans Go lineup, with Kid Flash already replacing founding Leaguer Cyborg, it is noticeable and awkward to have one black character casually swapped out for another. And though the problem is largely a matter of optics, the story doesn’t exactly fight against it: reminding us that Wally is struggling with the revelation that his dad was a supervillain and having two members of the Titans explicitly use or reject Jackson as a replacement for Wally.
Just as the Titans wrestle with the unexpected departure of Kid Flash, Teen Titans still feels off balance after Jonboy Meyers walked off the book, taking the striking visual style that it sold itself on with him. Khoi Pham has been the series’ penciller ever since, but this week Phil Hester steps in to help him with the layouts.
Hester’s layouts are smart, if a little traditional, with plenty of big, central panels to draw the eye. The book is full of classic comic flair, with simple yet varied panel arrangements and dramatic imagery. Panels like Beast Boy’s transformation or Lucia’s reveal sell their moment really well, though one suspects that the number of spreads and other large panels are either a cause or a symptom of the pacing issues mentioned earlier. There are also some places where it seems like Hester’s layouts peek through and interfere with Pham’s linework, though it rarely does so seriously enough to become actively distracting.
At times, perhaps influenced by Hester, Pham leans a little heavier into unnecessarily traditional superhero style than he typically would. Though Pham appears to struggle a bit with the heavier style he proves particularly effective at reaction and emotions, contributing quite a bit to the consistency of Jackson’s character in particular.
I also think it’s important to highlight the work that colorist Jim Charalampidis is doing. Beyond simply providing a sense of continuity from the Meyers issues to Pham’s, Charalampidis really gets to go to town with Aqualad. From the brilliance of Jackson’s water powers to the stark, luminescent shade of the Hydes’ eyes, Charalampidis does some wonderful things with blues around Jackson. His use of palettes for each scene helps elevate the book further and he gives the Titans distinct looks that still feel complimentary, as they should be.
The Teen Titans face a somewhat bumpy reentry to their ongoing adventures as they put “The Lazarus Contract” behind them. It feels as if the crossover came too early in this title’s lifespan and the entire creative team seems a little slow to readjust. Kid Flash gets a nice, if slightly intrusive, farewell, but this is really the story of Aqualad and his mother seeing each other for the first time and, when the issue allows that narrative the primacy it needs, it genuinely works.
Teen Titans retains the heart and meaningful character moments that made its first arc tick, but it’s pulled in too many directions to give the two stories at its core the time they deserve. A non-reveal at the heart of the story and some pacing issues make this an unlikely issue to make new fans of the series, but those who enjoyed Aqualad’s introduction will find no reason to jump off.