18 July 2010

Jason Todd: Capable of Killing?

The last two weekly Robins have discussed how the personality and narrative function of the second Jason Todd varied greatly depending on who wrote the stories. Those differences arose from the approach of the new editor on DC’s Batman books, Dennis O’Neil. He had helped to usher in the modern Batman after 1969, then worked as an editor at Marvel, and finally returned to DC.

O’Neil recently described his ideal approach to editing:

During my first stint as a card-carrying, full-time comic book editor entitled to health benefits, personal days and my own invitation to the office Christmas party, I screwed up. I thought that the bossfolk had hired me because they thought I could write and therefore all I had to do was make the work of the writers I hired indistinguishable from my own. Which was dunderheaded. . . .

the editorial task was simply to get the best possible stuff from the creative people, given whatever limitations and restrictions were established. To cram another’s prose into the procrustean bed of my own productions was to get, at best, third rate O’Neil when what we should have wanted was first rate (fill in the name of some poor freelancer whose labor was massacred by the younger and dumber me).
Artist Norm Breyfogle confirmed what it was like to work for O’Neil at DC in an interview with Graphic Novel Reporter: “He allowed his creative teams great freedom while providing basic visionary parameters.”

What did that mean for Jason Todd? It meant O’Neil okayed the ideas that his writers thought would produce the best stories. As quoted at Titans Tower, O’Neil described this genesis for Jason’s reinvention:
In 1986, Max Allan Collins inherited the Batman writing assignment and told his editor he had an idea for an improved Jason Todd. Make him a street kid, Collins said. Make his parents criminals. Have him and Batman on opposite sides at first.

Sounded fine to the editor and, since DC was in the middle of a vast, company-wide overhaul of storylines anyway, Collins was told to go ahead. I was the editor; I did the telling. And I’d do it again, today. Collins’s Robin was dramatic, did have story potential.

But readers didn’t take to him. I don’t know now, and will probably never know why. Jason was accepted as long as he was a Dick Grayson clone, but when he acquired a distinct and, Collins and I still believe, more interesting back story, their affection cooled.
O’Neil’s hands-off approach allowed Collins’s Jason to differ from Mike W. Barr’s, which in turn differed drastically from Jim Starlin’s. O’Neil let each writer play to his strength rather than dictate a single approach. With troubling consequences.One of Starlin’s storylines in 1988 involved Batman and Robin tracking down a serial rapist, only to learn that he has diplomatic immunity because of his father. Jason, hot-headed and angry, wants to go after the guy. Bruce, eyes on the law, tells Jason to hold back.

It’s easy to see why O’Neil approved this plotline: it has good storytelling potential (as well as being gritty, the way the new DC wanted). Starlin laid out an interesting conflict between Batman and Robin, letting them act out important debates:
  • What do you do when justice appears to be in conflict with the law?
  • How do you balance the good of an individual against the good of a principle?
  • Can a crimefighter lose his sense of justice by becoming too emotionally involved, or sacrifice it by not being emotional enough?
  • What are the downsides of Batman’s principle not to kill?
In Batman, #424, Jason finds one of the rapist’s victims has hung herself, fearing he’ll come after her again. He swings over to confront the man on his balcony. In the next panel we see the man plunging to the street. Batman arrives.
Jason says the man slipped and refuses to answer any questions. What happened on that balcony remains ambiguous twenty years later. In some stories, that sort of ambiguity can be powerful. But for Jason Todd it was fatal.

Because Robin isn’t evil.

COMING UP: The decision point.


Georgethecat said...

I have to say, I'm really enjoying these posts about Jason's time as Robin.
I actually think he's a wonderful character and very complex. The whole story is just very heartbreaking.

I was able to find negative press articles when Jason was killed, but wanted to find more out about the negative fan reaction. Were there letters at all following the death to DC's offices, do you know?

Thanks again. These are brilliant and very informative.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m keeping my eyes open to responses to Jason published in the comic books themselves, and have found some. But I suspect that DC’s editors didn’t want to fill their letters pages with nothing but criticism, and that they might have taken such criticism hard and magnified it in their memory.

It seems clear from how O’Neil started publishing solo Batman stories in Detective and moved toward removing Jason from Batman that by early 1988 he’d concluded the character was an experiment that wasn’t working.