The name Jason Todd is one that comes up fairly frequently in Bat-centric discussions. Featured in this week's episode of DC Universe's Titans ("Jason Todd", watch it here on Friday, November 16th), he's a character who -- to put it lightly -- has some baggage. It's not just that he was the first person to take on the role of Robin after Dick Grayson's departure, he was also the first Robin to die in the line of duty. A choice made all the more infamous by the way it happened: a call-in poll in which fans were able to cast a vote for whether or not he would make it out of the story alive.
Since then, Jason's become something of a comic book legend -- part cautionary tale, part narrative benchmark -- but what, exactly, does that mean? Who is Batman's most infamous Robin really?
Jason's introduction to comics actually happened twice. The first, in 1983's Batman #357 (written by Gerry Conway, penciled by Don Newton) occurred before Crisis on Infinite Earths functionally rebooted the continuity of the DC universe, and established Jason as -- well, basically just another version of Dick Grayson. He had red hair, so that was a little unique, but otherwise, he was a circus kid who lost his parents and found himself in need of a father figure -- a niche both Bruce and Dick were more than willing to occupy when the need arose. It was in Detective Comics #526 that Jason was officially brought into the Wayne household with Bruce's secret uncovered. Almost immediately after, he had dyed his hair black and taken up the mantle of Robin with Dick's blessing.
Personality-wise, this original incarnation of Jason was designed to be as similar to the original as possible. Dick had been allowed to grow up, go to college, and become the leader of the Teen Titans. So his continued presence as Batman's sidekick was running him a bit thin. Thus, the idea behind Jason was less to invent a "new" Robin, but to make him a copy of Dick, who had existed throughout the '40s and '50s. It worked, at least until 1986, when Crisis on Infinite Earths pressed the cosmic reset button.
The first Batman story post-Crisis was Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Year One", which chronicled Bruce's early days as Batman. But with the changes to the origin that this story introduced came the need for changes to the entire Batman mythos. Jason's story no longer fit into the mold that had been formed in the post-Crisis landscape. Dick Grayson's amicable departure from Gotham was redrawn into something considerably more hostile, and Bruce's need for a new Robin led him to bring the post-Crisis version of Jason in without ever letting Dick know he was being replaced.
Needless to say, things went decidedly less well this time around. Jason's circus background was completely erased and replaced with the version that stuck: he was a street kid, caught trying to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile by Batman himself (in Batman #408, read it here). Rather than punish him for his obvious crimes, Bruce decided Jason had potential and took him in.
Most people think about this particular story as a sort of warning sign, and while that may not be entirely true, it isn't entirely false either. The immediate consensus was that Jason was going to go wrong. Everything you need to know about him was right there in his re-introduction. He was a thief, a poor kid, someone who wasn't good with authority figures. He had no tragedy in his life to motivate him -- at least, not in the same way that Dick and Bruce both did. There was no inciting incident to make him suddenly see the light.
Whether or not this became a self-fulfilling prophecy is up for debate but, by Batman #426, less than twenty issues after Jason's post-Crisis debut, 1988's "A Death In The Family" story arc kicked into gear (read it here), and Jason's future was at stake. Before the ending of the story was published (two possible outcomes were written and drawn) it was up to fans to decide, via a call-in poll, whether or not he would survive.
Needless to say, the results weren't exactly in his favor. Jason Todd, by a narrow margin, "lost" in the polls and was killed by the Joker at the conclusion of "A Death In The Family", tearing a hole in the fabric of the Batman family that would never quite be repaired. Even after the introduction of the third Robin, Tim Drake, Jason's ghost loomed large, whether metaphorically or literally, as his costume was placed in a memorial shrine within the Batcave.
Jason remained out of the picture for almost twenty years, dead for longer than he'd ever been alive and remembered as such. At least, until the one-two punch of 2005-2006's Infinite Crisis and 2004-2006's "Under The Hood" storyline (read it here) returned him to life.
Jason's resurrection was a matter of some contention. After two decades, the fans that remembered him considered his death to be one of the few permanent things, the few fixed points, in the Batman universe, like pearls in the gutter of Crime Alley. Jason couldn't come back to life without undoing something fundamental about the way Gotham worked, yet, here he was. Or, at least, here he sort of was. Jason wasn't resurrected as a bright-eyed, scrappy kid sidekick. But as an adult who had punched through the veil of death and come out the other side with some brutal ideals of right and wrong. Murder, it would seem, becomes a whole lot less taboo once you've suffered it yourself, and personal grudges? Well, they take on a whole new set of rules.
As Red Hood, Jason fought with Batman for Gotham's soul, cutting a bloody, murderous swath through the city's underground. He beieve Bruce's methods were ineffectual for actually stopping crime. But his real inspiration wasn't at all altruistic. He'd returned to life knowing the Joker had murdered him, and he learned that Bruce had allowed him to get away with it. That was something he simply couldn't forgive. He'd trusted Bruce completely when he was a boy, and Bruce had failed him. In his mind, Bruce continued to fail him.
It's in the shadow of that failure that Jason exists today. Whether he's operating as a solo vigilante or as a member of the Outlaws, Jason Todd is the living embodiment of the argument that Bruce Wayne's war on criminals is, in one way or another, inherently flawed. He's also a reminder that, at the end of the day, the people at the heart of Batman's crusade are the ones who suffer the most. Things might sometimes take a turn for the better, but skeletons are never buried as deep as anyone would like.
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