This is one of those staged events where, even while it was happening, a lot of people in fandom were unaware of it. This despite the fact that it wasn’t truly disguised at all. It’s somewhat remarkable that a thing of this nature happened in this way this late in the game–though similar things happened again later on, so perhaps it’s not that difficult to believe. Anyway, in the early 1980s, inter-company crossovers were a new phenomenon, and still largely limited to those between Marvel and DC. Those crossovers had fallen apart with the troubles surrounding the never-completed JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA/AVENGERS project, which we talked about at length here.
But there was still a fannish interest in seeing the characters from two rival companies team up or trade blows in the same story. And so once in a while, some enterprising young creators would go forth and on the sly create a “stealth crossover.”
In 1984, there was no more popular title in comicdom than NEW TEEN TITANS, the brainchild of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez. Particularly in the newly-expanding Direct Sales market. So much so that DC decided to try an experiment. For a year, they would concurrently run two NEW TEEN TITANS series, one available on the Newsstand and a second one only available in Comics Shops. That second series would carry a higher price and be printed on far better paper with far better production values. After a year, the Newsstand series (formerly NEW TEEN TITANS and rechristened TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS) would reprint the stories being told in the upscale Direct Market series. This was a calculated attempt to gauge the strength of the Direct Market, while simultaneously driving fans who couldn’t wait a year to see the latest goings-on with the popular characters into comic shops.
But what this meant is that, for a year’s time, twice as much New Teen Titans material was going to be needed. At the outset, the plan was for George Perez to draw both books, only laying out TALES which would be finished by other artists. But that idea swiftly proved to be ill-considered–which meant that Marv Wolfman was suddenly looking for both evergreen stories for the Newsstand series as well as artists to help make them happen and keep the quality level up. I don’t know this for certain, but given that the principles involved were all friendly with one another, I’m betting that it was at the San Diego convention for that year that the idea of dedicating one of those issues to an unofficial crossover between the New Teen Titans and the DNAgents was first hatched.
DNAgents was the creation of Mark Evanier and Will Meugniot, and concerned a quintet of young super-powered beings who had been created in a laboratory by a megalithic Matrix Corporation. despite being sentient beings, the company that created them declared that they had no individual rights, that they were all in essence property. And so the DNAgents fled, with Matrix hot on their heels trying to recapture them while they simultaneously embarked on a journey of discovery, to come to grips with who they were as individuals. It was a popular-style super hero book published by Eclipse, who up to that point had focused most of its efforts on more personal and genre-based works. But DNAGENTS was an attempt to create a winning super hero property in the world of creator-owned comics, and for a good while, it was a popular series though it is somewhat overlooked today.
As the DNAgents had been styled in general upon the most popular super hero teams of the age, the X-Men and the New Teen Titans, it’s no great surprise that people were interested in seeing the two groups meet. So Wolfman and Evanier worked out the particulars of a pair of individual stories, either of which could be read on its own, but which gave readers an enhanced experience if they were consumed together. While the details were different in each book in order to make the story fit into the ongoing continuity of each title, the fundamental story plot was the same: The New Teen Titans (or, in the pages of DNAGENTS, “Project Youngblood”–a name that resonates differently today) are called upon to corral the dangerous DNAgents (or RECOMbatants in TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS) on behalf of an agent of the company that created them–Dayton Labs in TALES (which was owned by Changeling’s adoptive father Steve Dayton) and the Matrix Corporation in DNAGENTS. At the end of the adventure, the “visiting” team of characters was discoporated so as to write them out of any further usage.
As an added bonus of sorts, the TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS story wound up being illustrated by Steve Rude in what I believe was his first assignment for mainstream comics. Rude had made a name for himself on his and Mike Baron’s NEXUS, and so seeing him have an opportunity to illustrate a DC story was a bit of a treat, and definitely maintained the quality level set by George Perez. Rude may have played the game a little bit too well, as his RECOMbatants designs are virtually line-by-line copies of the DNAgents, with the only real disguising happening in the coloring. Fortunately, as Evanier and Meugniot were in on the joke, there wasn’t likely to be any legal action taken.
Obviously, far more readers read the TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS chapter than ever saw the DNAGENTS issue–especially since TALES was a newsstand title, while DNAGENTS was sold exclusively in comic book shops. So the event went over the heads of many readers, who had never encountered the DNAgents before this. But it was a fun bit of business in a time where the oversight was still loose enough that a crossover of this sort could be mounted without it becoming a massive problem. Today, it would be a very different thing.