Welcome back to “Continued After the Next Page”. If you are new here, we try to shine a spotlight on stories and comic book nostalgia from the past. Today we are going to talk about just one comic book. In my opinion, it is the greatest single issue that I have ever read. Now, that is a lofty perch on which I have just placed this book, and I am willing to listen to other suggestions, of course. However, this issue, which is a one-and-done story, strikes such emotional tones that I cannot find a book that tops it.
The book in question is The New Teen Titans #38. It was released in late 1983 with a January 1984 date stamped on the cover. The issue was co-plotted by Marv Wolfman and George Perez with a script from Marv and art by George and Romeo Tanghal. Sadly, letterer Ben Oda, colorist Adrienne Roy, and editor Len Wein have all passed on by now. If you are going to call something that is the product of a collaborative effort “the best of its kind”, then that thing should display a high level of talent from the individual collaborators that is independently identifiable, but is even better in the context of the complete collective work. This book certainly accomplished that goal.
Let us first discuss the topic of the book. The issue title is “Who is Donna Troy?” Now to some you in the younger generation out there, that might seem like a familiar story, since DC has painted themselves into a corner on multiple occasions regarding the origin of this heroine. There have been at least three subsequent origins of Donna Troy, the first Wonder-Girl, since this issue came out. Each of those were in response to editorial decisions that altered Wonder Woman’s history without thought of how that would affect Donna. The purpose of this issue was not to change or explain her place in Wonder Woman’s story, but to find Donna’s true origin separate from Diana. There seems to be something much more noble in that intent than the origin stories that came after this issue. For full disclosure, Marv and George had significant roles in the causes and results of the other origin stories, but that is not the point here. This is where they made a masterpiece.
For a quick synopsis of the story, it takes place shortly before Donna Troy was to marry Terry Long in the comics. Up to this point, Donna had never known where she came from before Wonder Woman rescued her from a burning building as a toddler. Feeling that Donna had reservations about what could be in her past, Terry asked Robin, the greatest detective he will ever know, to find out where Donna came from. Through some very tedious and brilliant forensic work and interrogation, Robin was able to find out the details of Donna’s birth mother, her subsequent adoption by a loving couple, and the terrible circumstances that put the toddler in burning building. The hand that chance plays in stacking the deck for Donna’s story is great, but the logical threads that are pulled together to make this a cohesive story are perfectly ordered. It is an incredibly inventive story that is detailed right into believability. Of course, it didn’t have to go too far to get there as we are dealing with mythological Amazons and teenage acrobats turned costumed crime fighters.
The plot is just one part of what makes this a great book. The visual design to the issue is tremendously important to the feel of the book. The issue is narrated by Robin and that narration is in the context of his verbalizing a case file as he records it on cassette tape. While that type of narration is not unique in storytelling, the manner in which the first two and the last page of the book are designed provides a very special framing sequence. The framing pages are filled with very dimly lit images of Dick Grayson in his apartment. The truly inspired decision is that the panels on the framing pages have squared off corners and the rest of the visual flashback of the story is filled with all rounded corner panels.
George Perez was the cream of the crop for superhero comic book art in the 1980’s, and this book is simply a fantastic display of a master at the height of his power. The camera angles that he chose were perfect. The facial expressions of the characters were incredibly powerful. Beyond the character work, the backgrounds that he and Tanghal detailed added to the feeling that the creators were trying to create a film story in a comic book. Indeed, you can read this book as if you were watching it on television or a movie screen.
The panel layouts in this book are amazing. Almost every page has nine to twelve panels but they are irregular sizes and somehow don’t seem too busy. Ben Oda’s lettering is of note in that regard. There is quite a bit of dialogue and it all fits without being distracting. Truly a masterful job. The great Adrienne Roy’s colors shine through in this newsprint printed comic. Today’s colorists have vastly more resources to work with than Ms. Roy did back then, and she absolutely knocked it out of the park.
I have not even mentioned the fantastic cover for this book. This marked the beginning of George Perez’s painted covers for New Teen Titans. The cover displays a shadowy Dick Grayson and portends a mystery to come. While Perez got even better on the painted covers, this is the perfect scene with all the right tones to serve this book well.
The detective story in this book is fascinating. One small thread leads to another and then another on the way to unraveling a puzzle almost two decades in the making. There is, however, a significant emotional story that is told in the most spectacular way. I am certain that the familial bonding story impacted me emotionally as an eleven-year-old, but I believe that, as I have gotten older and had my own children, the story is even more poignant to me.
There are two very specific scenes in this issue that are nothing short of tear-jerking. The emotional response is due to the perfectly paced lead up to the visual moments. The first is when the very elderly former orphanage director notices and remembers Donna’s doll. The audience is led to expect an old woman who cannot remember much and rarely speaks, but upon seeing the doll her memories flood back, and she screams “DONNA!!”. It is a shocking moment for the characters in the story and the reader. Those couple of panels on page fourteen are masterfully done by all involved. The art is perfectly sized and drawn. The lettering and coloring emphasize the emotion of the moment so well.
The second scene that crashes emotional walls is on page seventeen when Donna sprints and hugs her adoptive mother in a tearful embrace. As a reader, I could almost feel the thud of their bodies hitting each other. It is a hug in comics that I have only seen one other come close to matching the emotional value. In the DC Rebirth one-shot issue, Phil Jimenez, himself a descendant of Perez’s art style, drew a hug between Wally West and Barry Allen that came close. (You can see the comparison here) I cannot understand how someone can read this book and get to this panel without tears.
In the preparation for writing this column, I reread this issue and I cried and cried at the beauty of it all. I shared a picture of the hug on social media, and a response that I got from a comic professional was “NTT38 may be one of the finest single issues ever.” I could not argue with this sentiment. I have felt this way for thirty-five years. While there are other stories that may be better written or possibly, but doubtful, have better art in some other single issue, the completely outstanding work of all the people involved in this comic book raises it to a level that I have yet to see matched.