Sunday, February 21, 2016

Teen Titans was an American anime TV series based on the DC Comics characters of the same name. It premiered on Cartoon Network on July 19, 2003, and was scheduled to last just four seasons. The popularity of the series led to a fifth season, and the show ended its run on January 16, 2006. Fan demand for more TT led to a two-hour feature film, Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo, that premiered on Cartoon Network on September 15, 2006.

Teen Titans was created by Glen Murakami, a wanna-be comic book artist who got a job drawing backgrounds on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Over time, he became producer Bruce Timm's right-hand man, and he left the show in 1995 to become Art Director on Superman: The Animated Series. His tenure there lasted to 1999. He was also Art Director for The New Batman/Superman Adventures, taking on those duties in 1997 and leaving in 2000. Murakami was named producer of Batman Beyond in 1999, and won an Emmy in 2001 for his work on the series. He also wrote the story for the 2000 animated feature film, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

In 2001, Sam Register was named as Senior Vice President for series development at Cartoon Network. Register liked the Teen Titans comic book property, and had several different people developing it. Register also approached Murakami, and it was his take on the property that was close to what Register wanted.

CN already had several superhero shows which were hitting the 9-to-14 year old demographic. He wanted a series that would skew younger, more 6-to-8 year olds. Register also wanted something very different from the "Dark Deco" style that had been created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski for Batman: The Animated Series and which had been successfully used in Superman and later Justice League (although considerably lightened up, palette-wise).

Murakami developed a visual style for the show which has since been called "Murakanime".

Murakami went into the development phase without preconceived notions of what the show should look like. He did know that it couldn't be a typical superhero show, which meant Teen Titans would need to focus heavily on character. Murakami had just seen the Japanese anime series FLCL (known in the U.S. as Fooly Cooly) and Kikaida. Both became a major influence on Teen Titans. Murakami had also worked with the Japanese animation studio TMS when working on Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, and was impressed with the anime work they were doing for Japanese studios. Murakami had also grown up watching Super Sentai -- a genre of Japanese anime featuring children organized into military units and wearing mecha-suits. He'd also seen Shotaro Ishinomori's live-action TV show Himitsu Sentai Gorenger (The Go Rangers or The Five Rangers, later updated as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers) and Ishinomori's animated movie Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super Vortex. Murakami had also seen what inventive things anime had accomplished since reaching a mainstream American audience in the late 1980s, and he thought an anime-like approach was an opportunity to tell stories in a different, very stylistic way.

An anime-like style also emerged from the way Murakami was thinking about story lines. Artist Nick Cardy and writer Bob Haney had created the Teen Titans for The Brave and the Bold #60 (July 1965), and the two continued to draw and write the super-team until the comic book's cancellation in Teen Titans #43 (February 1973). A resurrection in 1976 (written by Bob Rozakis and pencilled by a number of artists) failed after just 11 issues. DC Comics Presents #26 (October 1980) introduced a new Titans, written by Marv Wolfman and pencilled by George Pérez, and a new comic book, The New Teen Titans #1 (November 1980). (They both quit in March 1985.) Murakami loved the goofy and extremely colorful Haney/Cardy Titans, but Register wanted the show to use the stories by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Murakami agreed, as he'd grown up reading those stories. An anime-like style fit this mixture very well.

Murakami didn't want to slavishly imitate Japanese anime, however. Japanese anime aesthetics did creep in, however, when characters became more emotional. In anime, the distortion of facial features or character due to extreme emotion is called "Super D". Teen Titans was a show about teenagers, and teenagers are emotional. So when the characters became extremely emotional (laughing, moping, disappointed, etc.), "Super D" visuals would be used to depict this. Eyes would pop; embarrassment would make a character a third of their normal size; shock would make a character's mouth super-wide and geometric.

When choosing the characters to feature in Teen Titans, Murakami decided early on that there should only be four or five. Each character had to be radically different from the others, to pass what Register called the "squint test" (e.g., if you squint, you can still tell them apart). Robin was automatically part of the group, as Robin led the Teen Titans in the comic books. But there were other factors, too. Some of the comic book characters were just too old. Others had powers which would be too difficult to animate. And Murakami wanted to say away from characters that were too muscular, since this was a show aimed at kids. (Relatability was a major consideration.) Donna Troy/Wonder Girl and Wally West/Kid Flash didn't make the cut because Murakami thought they were too much like characters that had been seen before on other Cartoon Network superhero shows.

Relatability became the show's watchword. The idea was that kids could identify with at least one character on the show. Some might look at Beast Boy and realize "I'm Beast Boy", while others might see Raven and think "I'm just like Raven".

Robin turned out to be a problematic character. Murakami felt Robin had been depicted too old in the previous two Batman TV series (in his mid to late 20s). There was serious pushback from Cartoon Network execs, who felt Robin was boring. Murakami and David Slack (assistant, script coordinator, and art coordinator on Men in Black: The Series [1998-1999]; writer, Jackie Chan Adventures [2000-2003]; writer, Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot [2001]; story editor, Stuart Little [2003]), who helped develop the characters, decided to make Robin like Bruce Lee with a chip on his shoulder. Since Batman is essentially Robin's dad, they reasoned Robin will be serious and picky like his father, but also have a desperate need to have something to prove. That led them to make Robin a bit of a daredevil, a bit of a skateboard kid, a little punk rock. This latter element led to some visual design, such as Robin's steel-toed Doc Marten boots and spiky anime hair. They also gave him some Burt Ward mannerisms (especially punching his fist into his hand).

Beast Boy was another character Murakami struggled with. The decision was made to make Beast Boy the youngest character, so younger kids could have someone to relate to. This also added more comedy to the show. In the comics, Beast Boy (later known as Changeling) was originally part of the super-team known as the Doom Patrol. Murakami decided to abandon Beast Boy's red-and-white costume in favor of one based on Mento's costume from the Doom Patrol comics. (A season five episode established that Beast Boy is indeed wearing his old Doom Patrol costume.) Originally, the character arc for Beast Boy was supposed to have him be all serious like Robin, only to lighten up later. Instead, Murakami and Slack decided that Beast Boy should be more like a military brat -- someone who moved around a lot, who doesn't have friends, who doesn't have a home, and who gets by on not bonding and humor. His character arc would have him bonding tightly with the Titans, and not wanting to break the team up in season five. (His relationship with Robin, originally like that of an older and younger brother, would see a rupture as Beast Boy comes to see Robin turning into a Mento-like disciplinarian and obsessive.)

According to Murakami, the character of Cyborg never really jelled. Murakami read the comic book character as far too one-note-Johnny, constantly complaining that he's a cyborg. Later, the character evolved into a metaphor for puberty: Cyborg was a young teenager who who suddenly got a man’s body (e.g., mega-powerful implants). But his "change" happened overnight, so he didn't know how his body worked or how to deal with it, emotionally. But that metaphor was one that they couldn't use on the show. Murakami then hit on the idea of making Cyborg a nerd, someone who (like a Micronaut) would build himself anew over time, or who had interchangeable, snap-on parts. This not only made Cyborg too powerful but also required a lot of time. With just 13 episodes a season, that couldn't be shown. Eventually, Slack came up with the idea of "bigness". Everything Cyborg does is emotionally big. When he gets mad, he gets infuriated. When he's happy, he's ecstatic. When he's sad, he becomes mega-depressed. It didn't allow for much character development, though. By the time Slack's concept of Cyborg came out, it was late in the second season. The Terra story arc had been emotionally fraught, and the writing staff was not up to the task of creating another emotionally involved story arc (the Brother Blood arc) for the show. So Cyborg never really got stories as good as those developed for Robin, Terra, or Raven.

Season-long character arcs were NOT talked about during the run of Teen Titans. The staff talked several times about doing a two-part Starfire story, but it never came together. For one thing, Starfire's comics character is far too adult (she is a sexual libertine and foul-mouthed). Much of her backstory (rape, sexual and physical abuse, torture, etc.) simply couldn't be shown on Cartoon Network. When staff did identify "Starfire moments", they weren't big enough to base a story around. Instead, these would get absorbed into another story. Additionally, Murakami was very much opposed to allowing the Teen Titans to spend an extended amount of time in outer space. He felt these stories were boring, and that the Titans worked best as earth-bound teenagers. At one point, writer Rob Hoegee suggested that Starfire should go alone back to her home planet. She would realize that she never fit in, and return to Earth. But during staff conferences, the writers realized that ALL the Teen Titans are misfits who've found a true home in the Titans. Focusing just on Starfire's misfit-ness didn't seem to work.

Story development originally portrayed the Teen Titans more like 'tweens than teens, and plots were generally lighter in tone. This was in keeping with Register's concept that the show should be aimed at children, not teens. This allowed the writers to use or jettison as much of the comci book characterizations as they wanted, since the target audience had never heard of the Teen Titans. This also gave the writers greater freedom to do characterization, because it had to be built from the ground up. (This also led the show to get rid of secret identities.) Most story conferences were built around a simple metaphor ("Robin fights his brother" or "Cyborg fights himself"), and the story built around that emotional theme. Continuity with the comics, and backstory, were largely ignored by the show's writers. The writing staff felt that if they started thinking too hard about "how Red X came to be", they stopped telling an interesting story.

Characterization was key to the series. One episode depicted Raven having to enter Robin's mind. That allowed her to have a bond with Robin far different than anyone else, and Robin understood Raven differently. Beast Boy and Cyborg would be like brothers who are similar in age; Robin and Cyborg would have more of an older brother/young brother relationship. One thing the show refused to do, however, was to allow dating. Dating tended to define characters by their relationship, not by themselves. That meant there would be no Starfire/Robin pairing on the series.

Various characters from the show were drawn from the comics, but Sam Register pushed for the creation of new characters who might fit in with the TV show's style and tenor better. Register also liked the "Titans East/Titans West" story line in the comics, but Murakami resisted that because he wanted the focus of the show to be on the five main characters. (The story was used, but only in two episodes.)

Although each season, in retrospect, focuses on a different character (Robin in season one, Terra in season two, Cyborg in season three, Raven in season four, and Beast Boy in season five), that was not the intention when writing the show. Season five was always seen as the capstone for the series, as it was becoming harder to write good episodes that took the characters in any direction. After defeating the powerful demon Trigon at the end of season four, they "proved" themselves as superheroes. Season five would be seen as the Titans moving into the "big bad world", rather than isolated from it as they had been. This also allowed for splitting up the team into smaller groups, more comic-book adventures, and more continuity-based stories.

One of the reasons for the focus on Robin in season one was the decision to focus on a supervillain. Originally, Register wanted the writers to keep villains in the background, uninvolved in the story. But when the writers reworked the villain Deathstroke into the Teen Titans villain Slade, they realized they needed a motivation for him to keep attacking the Titans. They wanted to avoid giving Slade a backstory, because explaining villains often ends up making the villain sympathetic. The Teen Titans writers say their job as making their main characters (e.g., Robin) more sympathetic, not the villains. So another motivation for Slade was needed, and it became his decision to turn Robin into a villain. (In many ways, Slade became the anti-Batman. If Batman is Robin's father-figure, Slade became Robin's evil father-figure. If Robin is a son looking for a father, Slade is the villain looking for a son.) Originally, the first season stories with Slade were written with Robin needing to get his revenge on Slade. This forced the writers to create a Slade backstory. When the problems this revealed were discovered, the writers went back and rewrote Robin to be a coming-of-age story instead. This forced the writers to come up with motivation for Slade (wanting a son) but not having to come up with a backstory for him (which would make Slade sympathetic).

Because of the decision to focus on the Wolfman/Pérez stories, it was clear that the villain Terra needed to be incorporated into the show, and that occurred in the second season. But (a) Terra was depicted as purely evil in the comics, which seemed too trite for the show; (b) much of the Terra story arc (her sexual exploits, her backstory, her abusive relationship with Beast Boy) could not be depicted in a children's show; and (c) much of the Terra story occurred out-of-costume, which Teen Titans refused to depict. So Terra had to be much different than the comic book version. Terra was shown wearing street clothes (not a costume), and more conflicted internally.

The success of the Slade story line led the writers to want to focus on another "big bad", and the decision was made to use Brother Blood. This led the third season to focus on Cyborg, but by accident. Once more, Brother Blood as depicted in the comics was too adult, too extreme, and too comic booky for the show. This required Brother Blood to be a new character with the same themes, which meant someone flamboyant and craving the spotlight. Slack pointed out that this meant he could not be like Slade (who stayed in the shadows and had short, scary dialogue), but someone who had to be involved in a lot of episodes.

Murakami also wanted to do the Brotherhood of Evil, the Doom Patrol's greatest nemesis. In part, this was because they were quite different from the villains the series had used before, serious but also comic booky. They were almost evil versions of the Titans, and their existence helped drive many episodes of the fifth season.

The series' final episode was "Things Change". There had been a growing concern over the previous season that some of the show's fans, particularly its older, teenaged and college fans, were taking the show way to seriously. The producers were receiving an immense amount of email and chat-room comment attacking the series for lack of continuity, lack of continuity with the comic books, and not providing enough "happy endings". The writers felt that fans were now projecting too much onto the characters. And since everyone wants themselves to be happy, they wanted the superheroes to be happy (and not dramatic, thereby). All season long, the Teen Titans flirted with breaking up, "graduating" if you will. In story conferences prior to the fifth season, Murakami and Story Editor Amy Wolfram decided to revisit the show's most emotional moment, the Terra story. But they didn't want Terra to be resurrected, and they didn't want to show to be too open-ended. (They suspected Cartoon Network was on the verge of cancelling the series.) Giving the Titans a story that doesn't turn out "the way it should" was a means of giving the show's fans -- who had grown up watching the series -- a more mature way of seeing the world. Not everyone is cut out to be a superhero. Everyone doesn't have to like everyone else. Not every character has to be dating. You don’t always get everything you want. Murakami had a fondness for "X and Y stories", in which different characters see the same events much differently. This drove the series finale's juxtaposition of a massive action story vs. a small personal story.

According to Murakami, the series' best episodes are Season One's "Sisters" (in which Blackfire comes to Earth and steals the Titans' hearts away from Starfire) and Season One's "Mad Mod" (in which a British "mod" from the 1960s traps the Titans and forces them to run a series of traps and illusions).

Teen Titans became one of Cartoon Network's most critically acclaimed series.

A "chibi" sequel series, Teen Titans Go!, premiered on April 23, 2013. This series uses the same voice cast and same character design. But it is in the "chibi" anime style (big heads, huge eyes, and tiny bodies), and is intended to be completely silly and humorous rather than a superhero show. Murakami has had nothing to do with this bland sequel/spin-off, which has been strongly criticized for its lack of ingenuity, its terrible Flash animation, and its blatant sucking at the teat of an existing show for its minimal popularity (rather than building its own following).

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Below are some early character drafts.


  1. I beg to differ a little on the last part. Attacking TT Go for dessicating the '03 Titans while letting it slide for the '03 series doing the same is a bit of a double standard. At least Go! is more consistent in tone, as opposed to TT's uneven, schizophrenic cadences, where it tried to be both silly and dramatic and just felt cheap at times, in spite of some strong storylines. At least the new DCAU movie incarnation (JL vs. TT, the Judas Contract) looks to provide something a bit closer to the original comics.

    1. NO. Teen Titans '03 was one of the best shows on Cartoon Network. Titans GO version is a pointless show that does nothing to expand the DCAU. '03 explored different themes of betrayal, abuse, depression, fear, romance, film noir, anime, etc. I would argue that '03 is more dynamic than Young Justice even.