What Do I Know About Pop-Culture? The Emerging Story of Jason Todd
I’m not sure why this is, but it seems like Batman’s history, especially, is prone to retcons. I don’t mean IN the comics, I mean retcons ABOUT the comics. I won’t go into too many details, but one of the biggest ongoing bits of modified history revolves around Batman being the light-hearted, silly character from the 60s right up until the release of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, completely ignoring the work that Denny O’Neil and other creators did in the 70s onward.
Of Red Hoods and Phone Polls
Recently, I saw an article that reminded me of another one of these revisions to Batman’s history. In this particular case, the revision is about Jason Todd, the second Robin, and who the character was at the time of his death in the comics.
The narrative that often evolves is that Jason Todd was an abrasive character that was wildly unpopular, which is what prompted DC Comics to do the poll to determine if Jason lived or died. There is some truth to that narrative, but it misses a whole lot of context about what happened.
For much of his history, Jason Todd wasn’t really any more rebellious or abrasive than Dick Grayson had been. He was the plucky kid sidekick, but the nuance introduced by Doug Moench’s run with the character (the era I was most familiar with), is that Jason was wrestling with feelings about his adopted supervillain mother Nocturna, as well as potentially retiring from being Robin now that Batman had Catwoman as a partner.
A History of Violence
For purposes of timeline clarification, here are some touchstones:
- In 1986, The Dark Knight Returns was published–In addition to introducing the “Batman is for adults” era of fandom, DKR also introduced the idea that, in this future, Jason Todd is dead
- In March of 1988, The Killing Joke came out, where the Joker cripples Barbara Gordon
- The Batman movie wouldn’t come out until 1989, but it was already known that the movie was going to move away from introducing Robin
- In December of 1988, A Death in the Family was published
Jason’s conflicted history with Nocturna and thoughts of retiring from being Robin were left behind when the post-Crisis Batman stories began to reestablish the new normal for Batman, concurrent to and after Batman Year One saw publication.
Tangential to the Jason Todd storyline, but worth noting because of the tangential nature of Catwoman being Batman’s new partner, Catwoman was mind-wiped and returned to being a criminal by Joker. This was a horrible storyline. Catwoman’s character development was reversed without any agency of her own. The common thread to all of this era of Batman’s history, however, is Joker doing horrible things.
Regardless, Jason didn’t have the “does Batman need two partners” question to lean on anymore. Max Allen Collins revised Jason’s history to be less like Dick Grayson’s. Previously, Jason was also a circus orphan, whose parents were killed by Killer Croc, and who was adopted by the supervillainess Nocturna before Batman took him in and made him Robin.
To make his history more streamlined, distinct, and “gritty,” Jason became the child of a career criminal killed by Two-Face, who met Batman when stealing the tires off the Batmobile. Max Allen Collins introduced Jason’s personality as “hard luck kid with a criminal past,” and at this point Jason did become less upbeat and more surly.
This is where we need to address the fact that Jason wasn’t being consistently rewritten in this new personality. While Max Allen Collins was writing more street level crime stories in Batman, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle were writing a slightly different version of Batman and Robin in Detective Comics. This version was a bit more in line with the pre-Crisis Batman tone, where the story could be dark and grim, but also touched on superheroics and big, colorful supervillains as well.
Jason in the Grant and Breyfogle Detective stories was generally an enthusiastic kid that wasn’t any more likely to ignore Batman’s orders or talk back than Dick Grayson had ever been. One of the biggest hooks that this version of Jason had was interacting with Leslie Thompkins, the doctor introduced as Batman’s secret physician, who was concerned with Jason’s well-being as a young person being put in dangerous situations.
Not only had the idea of Jason dying been hinted at in Dark Knight Returns, but the idea of Batman as a loner was becoming more and more popular. More stories went off on tangents about Batman solving cases on his own. Even the extended Bat-family was being developed, with the crippling of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke at the beginning of 1988. The momentum was already moving towards telling the story of Jason’s death, and Batman’s transition to a solo hero.
While Max Allen Collins moved Jason towards being more abrasive, it wasn’t a consistent portrayal of the character. By the time the phone poll for Jason’s fate came about, the momentum for Jason being dead, Bruce being a loner again, and Joker causing mass calamity to Batman’s world were all in place. Putting the onus solely on Jason’s characterization in one Batman book is missing the wider view of what was going on in Batman’s world at the time.
Jason’s death happened at the confluence of the emerging concept of “Batman isn’t for kids,” where fans seemed almost desperate to prove how adult and serious the concept of Batman could be. I would argue there was as much if not more hostility towards the Batman television series as there was toward Jason, specifically.
This is also the lynchpin of Joker’s emergence from “best known Batman villain” to “villain whose credibility is based on how horrible his actions are.” It may not have been planned that Joker would mind-wipe Catwoman, cripple Barbara Gordon, and kill Jason Todd, but once all of that happened, Joker’s defining characteristic to many readers was now “Batman villain with the highest body count.”
Resurrections: Details Don’t Matter
Not entirely unlike Maul in the Clone Wars, Jason Todd’s return left a lot to be desired as originally envisioned. A blip in time created by a mega-crossover brought him back originally, but the emergent story of an abandoned child trying to reconnect with the world that left him behind was powerful. Jason’s life has been redefined as continually being put in the worst possible circumstances, and not having the support that other members of the Bat-family have had in those moments, making him a great contrast to some of the other characters. But the idea that Jason “had” to develop this direction misses a lot of the actual work to change Jason from a character born of multiple false starts into a consistent flawed, damaged, and ultimately sympathetic character.
Oversimplifying the history erases the important aspects of comics and the continual struggle against massive revisions for the sake of novelty, versus creating an intentionally developed character with nuance and resonance over time. Jason Todd deserved better, but he eventually got an actual narrative that matched the meta-narrative of his arc.