It’s maybe an hour before I finally read the words. Art Baltazar’s and Franco’s panel breakdowns, character postures, gestures, framing, color, focal length, outcroppings, photoshopping-in of real-life objects all build a visual narrative that is beautiful, flawless, perfect. And when I finally do read the words, the story is even more perfect. I want to remain lost in this moment. Page 10 of the final issue of Tiny Titans is one of the Great Safe Places of comics, and there’s no reason to leave. Ever. But all good things…
It’s a time to say goodbye. And it’s a simple visual story. Cyborg and Robin return to Wayne Manor, to Alfred dusting the Trophy Room. On their way in, on page nine, they pass all manner of memorabilia. Cartooned photos of the Tiny Titans various allies, adversaries and nemeses all hang on the wall in a glittering display. Cyborg carries a trophy that is yet to be explained.
But it’s on page ten that the real magic happens. The second panel shifts focus from just the Titans themselves, to the Titans standing before Alfred, the trophy still resting in Cyborg’s hands. It’s a single panel that speaks volumes. It’s the opening of the Final Act, whatever trials they’ve faced by themselves, Cyborg, Robin and Alfred are there together at the end. They’re caught up in each other’s lives, and the richer for it.
And of course, there’s the small matter of the trophy. Beneath an autographed photo of DC publisher, Dan DiDio (a long-running gag, an autographed photo of Dan appears in every issue of Tiny Titans; we may be fans of the Titans, but they’re fans of Dan), the story is unfolded. Cyborg won it in a burger eating contest. And Alfred has the perfect place for the trophy—on the shelf, right next to the ‘shopped in images of a pair of Eisners, a Harvey, and a photo of Art and Franco.
In the very next panel the kids are off, to tend to the through-narrative of Beast Boy transforming himself into Superman to take one last shot at winning Terra’s heart. It might just work this time.
The wonder of this page, and the pure joy, lies in that simple, easily-accessible visual narrative. There’re no gimmicks, there’s no wordplay, there’re no visual puns. Just an easy to follow story, and exactly the right balance between word-story and image-story. And there’s that trophy, for when we succeed in piecing the story together ourselves.
Comics as a medium is completely reliant on readers gauging for themselves on where and when and how to “assemble” the various narrative elements (image sequences and word sequences) into a coherent story. Unlike film or novels, the stories don’t come readymade. And when readers do assemble all the elements, there is a profound sense of achievement.
One of the most endearing aspects of Tiny Titans has always been the ease with which the cartooned world of the Titans, bleeds into the real. That cartooned trophy that Cyborg won, is something we ourselves participate in. Not just for Cyborg having eaten the most burgers, but for ourselves, for our capacity at navigating all those separate story elements, and for us eventually having assembled them into a coherent, meaningful story.
That trophy is a marker of our success, just as much as it is a narrative device indicating Cyborg’s success. And to see that marker stand side-by-side with real-life Eisners, with a real-life Harvey is a promise of the success to come, for those of us reading this final issue of Tiny Titans, who will not-yet-but-soon go on to win Eisners of our own.
It is this deep aspirational narrative, firmly embedded in every page of each of the 50 issues of Tiny Titans that fills me with a sense of loss. There will be something less now, this world will be smaller without Art and Franco and the Tiny Titans each month. Just as this world has been far greater with Tiny Titans in it.
It is this aspirational drama that recalls perhaps one of the greatest aspirational comics, certainly one of the earliest, Little Nemo. And although I came to it decades after its original publication, that final full page cartoon of Little Nemo is as powerful and as vivid and as arresting as the day it was printed. Whatever aspiration that original comicpage builds to is still readily available. In that final story, years after the thousands of adventures they’ve shared, it’s Nemo and the Princess, and Flip and the Imp, gathered together in a single room of the palace.
It had been, in the beginning, the longest and hardest of roads to draw these characters together. Originally, the cartoon strip began with the King of Slumberland sending word for Little Nemo to be fetched as a playmate for the Princess. And it would be years before Nemo even arrived at the Palace. And more years before he met Flip, and longer still before Nemo began to trust him. And only many, many years after did they encounter the Imp.
But there they all are, on that final Sunday, drawn together. And everyone is perfectly themselves. Imp throws the entire scene into disarray, just as he’s always done. Over the years we’ve come to know Imp as a force for what Austro-Hungarian economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to as “creative destruction”. Whenever boredom or bureaucracy threatened, the Imp would act. He was that kind of rock ‘n roll that you came to rely on. This Sunday was no different. Not to be left out, Flip plunged headlong into the thick of things with the Imp. If the Imp was the kind of character you relied on to enact an ongoing justice of creativity, Flip was the character you depended on to always stand by you in the midst of the Imp’s wilder adventures. There they are this Sunday, Flip and the Imp, drawn together and wholly undaunted. And then there’s the Princess, teaching Nemo to dance.
It’s just the most remarkably perfect of all Little Nemo stories. Just talking about it, you’re already imagining the complex mastery needed to learn to move your body in a dance, while sleeping. Not at all unlike the complex mastery needed to assemble one of the finest pieces of comics in the history of the medium.
If anything, page ten of the Tiny Titans finalé offers just that little bit more—a trophy that may yet become a real trophy, years from now. If my heart will go on after all of this, it’s not because Tiny Titans have reached their final issue; it’s because there’ve been 50 issues to date. Fifty singular issues, each with twenty-something pages of the kind of Great, Safe Places to be found right here on page 10. Fifty issues that take me back to a place before Hemingway, before Fitzgerald, before Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg, before Greil Marcus and before Hunter S. Thompson and Bill Gibson. Back to a time when, although things were never easy, they were easily mastered.
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// Notes from the Road
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