The changing of nerd culture and gritty "TITANS"

by Charles Gerian

It's been a month or so since I talked about the DC Universe streaming series TITANS, the gritty live action adaptation of the iconic Teen Titans series that was brought into the public consciousness in the early 2000's as Cartoon Network's “anime-style” TV series that ran for 5 seasons. Well, today I'm back with a multi-part examination as to why exactly this series works so well and why it makes perfect sense to make it now.

When you go to the movie theater, you're assaulted with superheroes. Namely, Disney's creatively bankrupt and visually uninspired 20-film ongoing saga known as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” which, as it continues, becomes less about telling artist-driven stories and more about hitting every viable common denominator for as much market exposure and money as possible aka “The Disney Method” established just after 2013 when the studio stopped taking risks and started thinking in terms of the almighty dollar.

Cartoon Network's “Teen Titans” is where this begins. In 2003 when the series premiered, Japanese animation or “anime” was just hitting it's second wind stateside following the late 1990's introduction to the cultural zeitgeist with mature series like “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, the film AKIRA, “Cowboy Bebop”, GHOST IN THE SHELL, and even more accessible fair like “Digimon”, “Cardcaptors”, “Dragon Ball Z”, and the big kahuna and global sensation “Pokemon” which anyone with a pulse from the turn of the century will remember. In the early 2000's, in our post 9/11 world, culture was taking a radical turn. The internet and the online scenes of “fandom” (sects of fans belonging to individual cultural circles) were becoming more prevalent and hobbies like internet role-playing, fanfiction, and more were being born, usually from these Japanese anime series. Cartoon Network realized this and tapped into a more “Eastern” animation style for their series, giving the characters more stylized expressions, movements, and personalities along with a very fluid and snappy style of combat.

“Teen Titans” came as the perfect storm to tap into the Anime obsessed pop-culture mindset of the internet era that was being hooked on newcomers like “Naruto”, “Full Metal Alchemist”, “One Piece”, and more...all of this existing and fusing together in an online world that became focused on things like “shipping” (seeing two characters together romantically) and “fan-fic” written stories by fans about their favorite series, usually leaning more towards a more gritty or sexual interpretation than what fans got. This Anime culture hit fans of TT'03 hard, and Cartoon Network were plainly struggling to catch up by the time they had axed the show on a ridiculous cliffhanger in 2006. By the time the show had ended, sites like showed just a toe's dip into the ocean of that rabid fanbase.

By my calculations just under 2 thousand FanFiction entries had been written from 2003 to 2007 (ranging in length and rating) and, according to Google Trends, “Teen Titans” was in the top searching percentile- the value of 100 is “peak popularity”- in February and June of 2005, which was the peak after a sharp climb from the series debut in 2003-2004. Interesting to note is “Teen Titans” search trajectory with the term “cosplay” which is an amalgamation of “costume play”, a tradition found among fans of Japanese anime which consists of dressing up as someone's favorite character (traditionally from anime) for conventions, a practice which had always been big in Japan but had only broken ground over here in the early aughts. “Teen Titans” steadily outpaced “cosplay” right until March 2006 when the series ended and began to decline, only for “cosplay” to sky-rocket just as the English dub of “Naruto” and other series began to hit Cartoon Network (2005-2006). Effectively, “Teen Titans” was the precursor to this golden age of...well, weaboos.

So, Okay, you might be thinking, that was in 2006. This show just began in 2018. What changed in that decade of time? Two things: Culture, and cartoons. Superheroes, anime, and the way we perceive them.

In summer 2008, things would change forever with the release of IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT, both films being huge rebranding opportunities for WB/DC and then-Paramount and Marvel Studios. The former had to change appearances from their catastrophic public image problem that stemmed from blunders like CATWOMAN and SUPERMAN RETURNS and the latter had to sell a then-unknown superhero (Iron Man) with a then-struggling washed up actor (Robert Downey Jr.) and, on top of it all, had to strategically plan the baby steps to an unprecedented move: forming an interconnected movie universe leading up to an Avengers team up film.

THE DARK KNIGHT was a brooding crime-drama that owed more to Michael Mann's HEAT than to Joel Schumacher's BATMAN FOREVER. A hard PG-13 rating and a gloomy world filled with crime and death and an up-beat, peppy, pop culture infused cape tale about Tony Stark, the wise-cracking philanthropist who traded greed for glory. These two opposites, and their respective audiences, would soon change the face of comics and film as we know it...and lead directly to the birth of TITANS...