By Brad Meltzer, originally published in Give Our Regards to the Atom-Smashers.
I was fourteen. She was sixteen.
I had a long, shaggy bowl cut (feathered on the sides, natch). She had a blond Dutch-boy hairstyle.
I was at the height of puberty. She was far more experienced.
I was an innocent. She was, too (or so it seemed).
Her name was Terra (aka Tara Markov). And she was the first girl to break my heart.
Simply put, she lied to me. And I’m not just talking about the standard grade school lies (“You’re definitely my best friend,” or “I never told Julie Lerner you were fat.”). I’m talking something far more sinister. Terra betrayed me. She deceived me. She shoved a knife in my belly and sliced upward all the way to my heart. And at fourteen years old, I loved every minute of it.
To back up a bit, and to give a little background in the hope that, when my mother reads this, she won’t feel the parental guilt that will cause her to spend the next year of my life asking, “Who’s this Tara Markov, and how come you didn’t tell me about her?” here’s a quick primer. In December 1982, New Teen Titans #26 was published, introducing Terra, a troubled fifteen year-old who became the first new member of the Teen Titans. Let me make one thing clear: this was a big deal to me.
In 1982, New Teen Titans, written by Marv Wolfman, and drawn oh-so-exquisitely by George Perez, was easily the best book on the market (that’s right, I said it–and yes, smart guy, I’m well aware that Byrne-Claremont X-Men was being published at the same time). Made up of the “junior” superheroes of the DC Universe, the Titans brought together such mainstays as Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl, with new characters Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, and Changling (a young, green (yes, green) fifteen year-old class clown who could change into green animals (yes, green, and yes, animals). As I type those words, I’m reminded that comics always suffer in the re-telling, but take my word for it, the alchemy between Wolfman and Perez created a vehicle for stories that redefined what comic-book characterization was all about. Sure, the Titans beat on the bad guys, but the book was first and foremost about the relationships between these young kids who were saddled with enough power to knock down a mountain. And you thought your puberty was tough.
Which brings us back to Terra. At the time she was invited to join, the Titans were a family. Seven members. And now there was an eighth. As I said, it was a big deal–imagine Ringo telling the other Beatles, “Hey, blokes–I got a great fifth to play tambourine!” Still, it was accepted without much fuss. Let’s not forget, that’s how superteams work. Members leave . . . members join. Even Batman and Robin parted ways (the original Robin, fanboy). There are no Beatles in comics.
As Terra spent time with the group, there were definitely a few doubters. Would she fit in? Was she joining the team with the right intentions? But me? I was like Changling–simply smitten.
I’m not ashamed. I was twelve when she first appeared. Wonder Woman was far too old, and Wonder Girl was mature enough that she was dating a guy with a beard. Dammit, where were the teenage girls who’d like insecure, loud-mouthed boys wearing Lee jeans like me? And then, out of the George Perez blue sky, comes this fifteen year-old fast-talking blond with super powers who could control the Earth itself. You better believe the ground quaked beneath my feet. Sure, she was trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty, but that was only because terrorists were threatening to kill her parents if she didn’t take Lady Liberty down. She didn’t want to do it, though–remember her words? “I don’t want to do any of this!” Look at the back issues. There were tears in her eyes as she begged Changling to stay away. “Don’t make it harder on me,” she begged. “Please!!” No question, this was a girl who needed help. She needed someone to come to her aid. She needed me.
Fast forward to issue twenty-eight. Terra was robbing a bank. Like before, her heart wasn’t in it. She even apologized to Changling as she attacked him. ” . . . I’m really sorry I have to do this—” And again, there were the tears. Curse those tears! They melted my pubescent heart like Fire Lad tonguing a Klondike bar. Dammit, world, can’t you understand she’s only doing it to save her parents!?
Of course, the Titans understood, and helped her track down the terrorists, only to find that her parents were already dead(!). Raging out of control, Terra screamed for revenge, gripping the terrorists in an enormous fist made of rock. As the villains begged for mercy, my girl squeezed them tighter. The Earth was shaking. She was so powerful, she started an earthquake. My young eyes went wide as the stone fist tightened–I couldn’t believe it–she was really gonna kill ‘em. But like all true heroes, as Terra peered into the abyss, she didn’t like what she saw. Crumbling to her knees, she showed the villains the mercy never given to her parents. Again, my heart plummeted–Terra was fifteen and all alone in the world. Didn’t anyone hear what she was saying on the final pages? “I . . . feel so alone.” And then, Changling looked into those sad, newly-orphaned blue eyes and said exactly what my twelve year-old brain was thinking: “You don’t have to be, Terra. I’m here.” (Emphasis not mine, but man, it could’ve been.) The teaser on the cover of the issue said, Introducing Terra! Is She Friend–or Foe? “Friend!” I shouted. “Friend!”
I have to hand it to Wolfman and Perez. They knew what they were doing. Preying on the knight-in-shining-armor gene that’s inherent in every male comic fan (oh, c’mon, why do you think we read this stuff in the first place?), they conjured the perfect young lady in distress, then stepped back to watch us put our legs in the metal trap. The first step was done. By introducing her as a victim, they made us feel for her. But then they raised the stakes. Sure, she was in pain, but she was far from helpless. In fact, when Changling tried to come to her aid, she not only refused it, she actually punched him in the face, called him a “nerd,” and flew away. Think about that a moment. Do you have any idea what a strong female character like that does to a thirteen year-old psyche? No? Then let me back up even further and explain.
In 1981, in the heart of New-York-accent Brooklyn, my biggest social dilemma was deciding between Karen Akin and Ananda Bresloff. The slam books (aka, popularity ratings that were passed around to decide our social fates) were clear: given the choices “Good,” “Fair, and “Yuk,” both Karen and Ananda had ranked me as “Good.” Even in fifth grade, “Good” was a good sign. Now the ball was in my court. How would I rank them? Sure, we had traded slam books at the exact same time, but only a fool ranks someone before they see how that person ranks them. Make no mistake, I may’ve been dumb enough to think my knee-high tube socks were cool, and even insecure enough to want to wear a gold Italian-horn charm around my neck even though I was Jewish, but I was nobody’s fool. And so, I handed Karen and Ananda their respective slam books.
“Did you do the chart?” they asked.
“Of course,” I said.
But when they checked inside, here’s what they saw:
That’s right, bubba. I left it blank. Who’d they think they were dealing with? I read far too many Lex Luthor stories–every single Adventure Comics digest and the oversized maxi-books–to fall for some simple trap. I wasn’t putting my heart on the line until I knew it was a sure thing. And so, armed with my recent “Good,” ranking, I knew who I was deciding between. Time to make a choice.
Here’s how it looked to me in fifth grade: Ananda was really cute, nice, soft-spoken, and really cute. Karen was loud, had a face full of freckles, and thanks to her older sister, seemed to have far more experience than everyone else in the class combined. She knew how to write in cursive before anyone–and told us all what a blowjob was. She was tough too. More important, she made fun of me and pushed me around. Even back then, the choice was clear. Now I just had to break the news
It was the last day of school in fifth grade at P.S. 206. I’d spent weeks going through slam books and leaving Karen and Ananda’s rankings blank. But today was the day that would all change. In fact, if I summoned the strength in time, I might even be picking my first girlfriend. The clock was ticking toward three. The school year was almost gone. Forever melodramatic, I waited until the final bell rang. I remember putting my little checkmarks in the appropriate columns, then slamming the book shut before anyone got a peek. As we all ran for the doors, flooding into the schoolyard, I handed the book back to its owner. I still remember her flipping through the pages to see my answer. She looked up when she saw it: Karen–Good; Ananda–Yuk. Yet before anyone could even react, I–being the brave young soul that I was–darted from the schoolyard and ran straight home without talking to anyone. The next morning, I left for camp. Two months went by before I’d have to face my decision. Was I a puss or a genius? All I knew was, when I returned to Brooklyn in early September, Karen was my girlfriend, even if she did push me around and completely intimidate me.
So what’s this have to do with Terra? Simply put, I was a Karen-guy, not an Ananda-guy. Maybe it was young masochism; maybe it was just a love of being dominated–but when it came to choosing sides, back then, I wanted the tough chick. Karen was tough–which is why we broke up soon after. Then, in June of 1983, my dad lost his job and my family moved from Brooklyn to Miami, Florida. When we first arrived, I didn’t have a single friend, much less a girlfriend. No Karen . . . no Ananda . . . nothing. It was right around the time Terra joined the Titans. At first glance, she was tough too. And she had super-powers. She mouthed off at Changling and definitely pushed him around. No doubt, she could kick Karen Akin’s ass. Truthfully, she could kick my ass. And with that soft spot she had from her parents’ recent death . . . it didn’t take three issues for Wolfman and Perez to achieve their goal . . . I was now a Terra-guy.
Laugh if you must, but it was a great infatuation. My father’s generation loved Lois Lane, who always needed her super-man. I loved Terra, who didn’t need me, didn’t want me, and could pummel me with fifty tons of rock if I really pissed her off. Forget Black Canary in her fishnets. Here was someone my age, wounded by the loss of lost parents and searching for a soulmate. It was a potent combination for us young comic readers. Before Madonna made strong women cool and Gwen Stefani made them hot, Terra was the first official grrl for the new generation. True love indeed.
For the next six months of my life, I watched as the kind, happy family of the Teen Titans welcomed this hardened orphan into their midst. She helped them fight the Brotherhood of Evil, Thunder and Lightning, and even the Titans’ most feared enemy, Deathstroke. Whatever concerns they had about her were quickly silenced. Month after month, Terra put her life on the line for the team. Within six issues (a lifetime in comics, or a day, depending on the storyline), she was one of the Titans’ own, enmeshed in their personal lives just as much as she was enmeshed in my own. Then came the final pages of New Teen Titans #34.
I’ll never forget–it was a right-hand page, perfectly placed so the surprise wouldn’t be revealed until us readers casually flipped past the DC house ads. I turned the page and there it was: in a rundown tenement, Terra was secretly meeting with Deathstroke! Her face was lit with a dark grin I’d never seen on her. My God, they were working together! My eyes stayed locked on her mask, which she twirled carelessly around a come-hither pointer finger. My world was spinning just as fast. It was like Batgirl sleeping with the Joker! She was plotting the Titans’ downfall with their greatest enemy. I trusted her! I was there for her! And unlike any other comic creation I’d ever read, and I say this in the least creepy way possible, I loved her! And now, she was reaching down my throat and ripping my heart out for her own enjoyment! Terra, how could you betray me like this!?
And now, a word from reality . . .. Okay, so it wasn’t that bad–but I also don’t want to undersell the moment. I can still remember my stomach sinking down to my testicles. In the world of comics, nothing like this had ever happened. Sure, there were always heroes who were later revealed as villains. At Marvel, The Avengers did it every week: “There Shall Be . . . A Traitor Among Us!” Both Black Panther and Wonder Man were originally there to infiltrate the Avengers . . . The Falcon was created by the Red Skull to kill Captain America . . . even Snapper Carr took a potshot at the Justice League. But the end of those stories was always the same: the so-called “villain” (Black Panther, Wonder Man, Falcon, Snapper) came to their senses and saved the day. In Terra’s case, however . . . this girl didn’t just infiltrate the Titans–she really wanted to kill them. And best of all, as the months wore on, Wolfman and Perez never backed away from the decision. Indeed, issue after issue, they kept turning up the despicable meter on Terra’s actions. By the time they were done, Terra wasn’t just working with Deathstroke, she was sleeping with him. Let’s see Black Panther do that.
For my now-thirteen year-old brain, it was all too much. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t turned off by what she was doing. C’mon, I was fourteen. She was the first true femme fatale in my life. I was turned on. I can still remember the slutty eye-shadow they put on her when she was in villain mode, smoking a cigarette like a young blond Britney Spears doing Marlene Dietrich doing bad Eighties porn. There were even high-heeled pumps scattered across the floor by the (wait for it) beanbag chair. So scary . . . but somehow . . . so naughty. Which brings me back to my old girlfriend, Karen Akin.
In August 1984, I’d been living in Florida for over a year. I was now the new kid who sat silently in the middle row of the class. No one knew my name. Sure, I’d made a few friends, but it was nothing like Karen, Ananda, or any of the other girls from Brooklyn. All I had was Terra. The only question was: how was it all gonna end?
The final chapter of The Judas Contract was published in Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3 during that same summer of 1984. It was titled Finale. By then, all the cards were on the Titans Tower table: Terra was working (and sleeping) with Deathstroke, all the Titans (except for Dick Grayson) were defeated and captured, and Nightwing and Jericho were in the midst of a near-impossible rescue attempt in the heart of H.I.V.E. headquarters. No doubt, it all came down to this. Terra would either remain the villain, or come to her senses and save the day. I still remember looking at the cover, trying to guess the answer. Perez made the choice clear: on one side were all the Titans, on the other was Deathstroke and the H.I.V.E. Terra was in the middle, her head turned back slightly toward Changling, who seemed to be pleading for her redemption. To play with our heads even more, Perez added two “worry lines” by Terra’s face, as if she too were struggling with the decision. I made my guess. There was no way Terra was truly evil. Redemption was a few pages away.
Forty pages later, Terra was dead. I shook my head as the scene played out. Changling begged her to come to her senses . . . he pleaded and prayed . . . but Terra’s rage was all consuming. Remembering the cover, I kept waiting for her to look back at him and see true love. Or hope. Or the family who loved her. But it never came. Eyes wide with insanity, she attacked with a ruthlessness I’d never seen in a comic–and in the end, as a mountain of self-propelled rocks rained down and buried her, that rage–literally and figuratively–killed her. I shook my head. There’s no way she’s dead, I told myself. I don’t care what the omniscient narrator said. I know my comics. Hero or villain, Terra was too good a character. Until they find a body—
” . . . We found Tara’s body,” Wonder Girl said one page later. I turned to another right-hand page and there was Changling . . . down on his knees, clutching Terra’s broken corpse as her arms sagged lifelessly toward the ground. Self-destruction complete.
I still can’t believe they went through with it. A few years ago, I read an interview with George Perez that said Terra was created to die, and they never planned on taking the easy way out by suddenly writing the happy ending. I hope they know how much that decision affected me as a writer. Old girlfriends and teenage fetishes aside, it was one of the most heartbreaking stories I’d ever read. They took people in capes and utility belts and made them real–and just when we loved them most . . . just when we opened our arms to embrace them . . . Wolfman and Perez stabbed icepicks in our armpits and did the one thing neither Marvel nor DC ever had the balls to do–they kept her as a villain and slaughtered her. She was sixteen. No redemption. No feel-good music during the end credits. The pulp side of the genre has it right–it’s always best when the femme fatale buys it in the end–but in comics, it’d never been done. And the traitor side of the story? Wonder Man, Falcon, Black Panther, and even Snapper got honorary memberships. Terra got a headstone with her name on it.
To this day, The Judas Contract is one of the few stories that actually surprised me–not just in its ending, but in how it plucked at my emotions. As I said, Terra lied to me, betrayed me, and stomped on my trust with her six-inch heels. Without a doubt, I loved every second of it.
© Brad Meltzer