27 June 2010

The Short, Happy Life of the First Jason Todd

When I posited that Reason for Robin #10 is that “Robin Isn’t Evil,” I promised to discuss the two major counterexamples. Actually, back when I conceived of that series, I had only one counterexample in mind: the second Jason Todd. And to lay the groundwork, I have to address the first Jason.

Back in 1940, Dick Grayson went from meeting Batman to becoming his costumed companion in the course of a few panels on one page. His decision to leave the partnership in the early 1980s took considerably longer, aided by the huge success of the New Teen Titans magazine. Leading DC’s hottest team (in every sense of the word), Dick became an independent young adult.

The pivotal moment arrived when a meeting of writers Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman, artist George Pérez, and their editors concluded that Dick Grayson should break free from the Batman books and adopt a new identity—eventually Nightwing. Meanwhile, Conway could develop a new character to take his place at Wayne Manor.

This was the first Jason Todd. Conway had a traditional understanding of how Robin functioned in Batman stories, and his Jason was very much like Dick Grayson. To the extent of being a young trapeze artist whose parents are murdered by criminals and goes to live with billionaire Bruce Wayne.

Jason fought crime in a costume and mask in Detective Comics, #526—the 500th appearance of Batman in that magazine, and Conway’s last issue. But it took the rest of 1983, and some black hair dye, before he officially became Robin. One milestone in that period was when Dick Grayson graciously passed on the red, green, and yellow outfit. For merchandising reasons (all those pajamas with Robin’s picture on them), Jason had to look exactly like Dick.

Just like the Robin of the 1940s through 1960s, the first Jason Todd was occasionally impetuous and immature. He made mistakes, and showed more emotional reactions than Batman. He was, after all, still a kid.

In that period, each superhero comic usually had a complete adventure in one issue, but subplots extending over many months. The first Jason Todd became the object of a custody battle between Bruce Wayne and Natalia Knight, the criminal Nocturna; basically, he went undercover as her adoptee. Again, that plot emphasizes how Robin is still a child.

Robin scholar Mary Borsellino quotes a letter from a reader in Detective Comics, #530, calling this Jason a “quiche eater,” an allusion to the 1982 bestseller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. But of course a Boy Wonder isn’t supposed to be a Real Man—yet.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s terrific Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything” (1985), an extraterrestrial conqueror dismisses Jason as “the little yellow one.” Yet who saves the world in the end? That tale is the first Jason Todd’s finest hour.

(In that story, Jason had also grown up enough for Batman to famously remind him, “Think clean thoughts, chum.” But different artists depicted him at different stages of adolescence.)

Then two major events jolted the DC Universe. The first was Wolfman and Pérez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-86), which opened the door for DC to relaunch and redefine all its major franchises.

The second was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the story of a potential future Batman. Among its innovations was a female Robin. Among its allusions to the standard comics was a brief line about Jason Todd being dead; clearly, this was a rougher Batman in a rougher world. This series was highly stylized, highly violent, and highly successful.

Post-Crisis, DC commissioned Pérez to retell the origin of Wonder Woman, John Byrne to relaunch Superman, and Miller to set a new tone for the regular Batman series. Editors thought that the character’s origin myth still worked, but that readers would appreciate more grit. The audience for superhero comics now consisted of young adults in specialty shops, not kids browsing in drugstores.

In Batman, #404-7 (1987), Miller and David Mazzucchelli showed the start of Bruce Wayne’s career as Batman. Like Miller’s earlier series, Batman: Year One was stylized, stark, and very successful.

The first Jason Todd, cheerful former circus acrobat, had come out of the Crisis of 1986 intact, and appeared in a few more months of stories. But DC’s editors felt that his character didn’t fit the new, grittier Batman’s world. Therefore, in Batman, #408, the Caped Crusader met a new Jason Todd.

COMING UP: Battling for the soul of a new Robin.

No comments: