Ask Chris #252: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Jason Todd?
A: I doubt it's going to surprise anyone reading this to find out that I have some pretty complicated feelings about pretty much everyone who has ever been called "Robin," and Jason Todd's no exception. Really, though, there's a pretty simple answer to this one: No, I don't think he should be part of the Batman family --- the active Batman family, anyway --- because Jason Todd oughtta be dead. If nothing else, we didn't collectively dial those 1-900 numbers ten thousand times to make that happen just for some retcon to come along twenty years later and bilk us out of fifty cents a call.
If, however, Jason Todd has to be alive, and it's become pretty clear over the past decade that somebody definitely thinks he does, well... that's where things start to get complicated.
For me, Jason has always been one of those characters who's way more interesting dead than he was when he was alive, although I think a lot of that has to do with being a kid who was getting into Batman right before Death in the Family. Even though I've certainly gone back and read those comics in the years since, I grew up with a Batman --- and a Joker --- who were at least partially defined by Jason's death.
And really, if you do go back and read those stories, it's pretty easy to see that they're telegraphing Jason's death from a mile away --- and not just because Dark Knight Returns had mentioned Something Bad happening to Jason, leaving everyone in the late '80s in a rush to see who could make their comics line up with that story first. It was set up as the only end for that story long before it actually happened, and even the ad for the call-in number that ran back in Batman #427 doesn't say, "you have the choice to save Jason Todd's life," it says, "ROBIN WILL DIE BECAUSE THE JOKER WANTS REVENGE." Oh, and also, you can try to prevent it, I guess.
It's not exactly something they were subtle about.
I've written about this pretty extensively before because it was one of my first comics, and the first that really made an impression on me, but Jason's fate is sealed as early as Batman #424, when he kicks a guy off a building to his death. The scene is portrayed as ambiguous, but only in the barest, most academic sense --- you don't know that Jason kicked him off a balcony, but, well, that's definitely what happened.
Admittedly, the guy that he kills in the story is a complete scumbag who committed a truly reprehensible crime and is going to skate on it because he has diplomatic immunity, because this is one of those comics where a guy who dresses up as Dracula and drives around in his rocket car fighting bank robbers decides that he has to obey the strict letter of the law, but still. "Being Robin" and "committing premeditated murder" aren't exactly character traits that go well together.
One way or the other, that was the beginning of the end of Jason's tenure as Robin, and the beginning of the idea that Jason was someone that Batman couldn't save, if only from himself. It's the idea that the same kind of anger that drove Bruce Wayne to become Batman isn't always something that can be channeled into a positive effect; that there's a difference between the revenge that Jason wanted and the justice that Batman's looking for.
It's the counterpoint to what you see with Dick Grayson, who goes through the same tragedy that Bruce does and emerges as a better, happier person because he didn't have to go through it alone. The difference, though, is that Batman's there on Day One of Dick's tragedy to guide him through it. With Jason the anger and pain have time to fester, going deeper into the core of who he is.
And it's not focused, either. Bruce and Dick both have those single, brutal, violent moments of tragedy, and they both know that there's someone responsible for it who can be brought to justice. In Jason's first appearance --- you know, the one where he's ripping the hubcaps off the Batmobile? --- we find out that he watched his mother slowly die of disease and an overdose. That's a different kind of tragedy, and one that doesn't condense that hatred into a focal point. Instead of being mad at criminals, or even the concept of Crime, Jason Todd's just mad.
Which probably came as a surprise to everyone who was reading Detective Comics at the time.
See, while Jim Starlin, Doc Bright and Jim Aparo were over in Batman working on the sullen, moody, unstable Jason Todd that everyone remembers, Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis were doing stories with what seemed like a completely different character over in Detective. They even called him "Jay" instead of "Jason" in that book, and Jay was all big smiles and bad puns, written and drawn to seem a whole lot happier and a whole lot younger than Jason.
Which makes sense, really. Barr's year-long run with Davis, Jim Baike, Norm Breyfogle and Todd McFarlane was designed to be a bit of a throwback. It was a run that combined Silver Age hooks with distinctly modern storytelling, and the chummy relationship between Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder was a pretty big part of that.
Even there, though, they set up Jason's death well in advance of the actual event. In "Fear For Sale," one of the single greatest Batman comics ever published, the Scarecrow makes Batman sloppy and overconfident by removing his fear of failure, leaving Batman to conquer it by imagining the one thing that scares him most of all:
Intentional or not, if that's not the biggest bit of foreshadowing in comics history, then I don't know what is.
All of which is to say that when Jason actually does die, it feels like a pretty natural consequence of what's happening in the books at the time, and so does the aftermath. It's one of those moments that marks the transition from one era to the next, a bloody crowbar serving as the exclamation point for a Joker that, after being steadily pushed into darker and scarier territory since the '70s, couldn't really go back to just robbing banks anymore.
I'm of the opinion that Batman doesn't need to be relentlessly and cynically dark, but there is a level of give and take that I think the mythology needs to have in order to keep going. Jason's death represents a pretty big balancing of the scales for two of my favorite ideas of Batman, the aspects of his character that I always find most appealing: The idea of family and the idea of what Crime is in his world.
As a child, Bruce Wayne loses his family, so as an adult, we see him building a new family around himself. Alfred, Jim Gordon, Robin, Batgirl, Leslie Thompkins, even Superman, they all form that support network around him. And, as I've said so, so many times before, the great thing about Batman is that as a child, he decides to end crime, and as an adult, he does it. Crime has to evolve to keep up with him, to become something else, something that produces people like the Joker, and so for those scales to be balanced, those two ideas have to come into contact. If Crime can become something that requires Batman to battle against it, then it needs to be capable of affecting him in that same way.
It's something that keeps Batman vulnerable and human, and, as an added bonus, it sets the stage for Actual Best Robin Tim Drake. But, you know, it's still comics, which means that death is only a matter of time.
Sidenote, but that's actually one of the things that I really liked about the stuff that happened in the immediate aftermath of Damian Wayne's death, with Batman going to Lazarus Pits and trying to figure out how Frankenstein works, because this time, he didn't want to give up on bringing his son back. It's what a smart person who lives in his world would do, and it was pretty interesting.
With Jason, though, I actually do like the way that he comes back. Co-opting the Red Hood identity is a really neat way for him to give a big eff-you to the Joker and to Batman at the same time, and the idea that he's so frustrated and angry with Batman and his methods that he's going to try to kill criminals --- with guns, no less, the ultimate rejection of Batman's philosophy --- is really interesting, too. It plays into the narrative that was set up going into Death in the Family, that Jason never understood why Batman doesn't kill and was never going to devote his life to following that goal. I might not have liked the answer that Judd Winick and Eric Battle had Batman give, but I do like that Jason is asking the question.
The thing is, once that happens --- and once the Red Hood tries to kill Dick and Damian with a call-in poll in one of the more hilarious moments of Grant Morrison's tenure on the Batman titles --- I feel like there's not really much you can do with him. He's certainly a villain at that point, but his history and the knowledge that he has mean that you can't treat him like the others. Jason Todd can't go to Arkham Asylum, but Batman can't let someone that he trained, and that he thought of as a son, run around shooting people with guns, either. As long as he's out there, he pretty much has to be Batman's #1 priority.
From a character standpoint, that puts him in a weird position of not being able to go away and come back without doing some pretty huge storytelling gymnastics to get around it. And if he does come back, then the impact of the debate between the characters about their opposing philosophies is already gone. We know how they both feel about it, but there's not really a satisfying ending there.
Morrison and Burnham tried to get their way around this in Batman Incorporated, where, in true prodigal son fashion, Jason is welcomed back into the fold:
On paper, I really should like this, since it turns Batman's greatest defeat into his greatest victory and plays into the same idea that I love so much about Arkham, that in his heart, Batman wants people to be better, and wants to help them get there. But in practice, it rings a little hollow. The philosophical differences are too big to be waved away so easily, and the characters have never been able to hash it out in a way that's satisfying.
In the meantime, Jason Todd as the Red Hood is a successful enough idea that it's persisted and become a big part of his character, and, because this is comics and things need to be readily identifiable from simple visuals, he's doing it with a big red bat on his chest, and it doesn't seem quite right.
But maybe I just need another 20 years to get used to it.
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