04 July 2010

Jason Todd Remade: ”Promises to Be a Real Thriller”

In late 1986, two new writers took over the Batman stories from Doug Moench: Mike W. Barr on Detective Comics and Max Allan Collins on Batman. Around the same time, Dennis O’Neil returned to DC Comics as editor of the Batman magazines.

Early in 1987, four issues of Batman were turned over to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s telling of Bruce Wayne’s first year fighting crime in Gotham City, which set a new, grittier tone for the series. Then Collins returned and tackled the challenge of Jason Todd, the current Robin.

At the time Collins was also scripting the daily Dick Tracy comic strip and the Ms. Tree comics with Terry Beatty, featuring a hard-boiled female detective. He would go on to write Road to Perdition, a bloody crime drama. He proposed a way to make Jason Todd part of Batman’s new, rougher milieu.

In Batman, #408, subtitled “The New Adventures,” Collins zipped readers into a new “continuity” for the Dynamic Duo. Dick Grayson’s departure to become Nightwing was no longer a drawn-out but peaceful story of a young man discovering his adult role. Jason Todd was no longer a second boy trapeze artist with murdered parents who found a new home in Wayne Manor.

Instead, the Joker shoots Dick, Bruce Wayne “fires” Dick as Robin out of poorly expressed concern for his safety, and Dick leaves to become Nightwing with the Titans. (New Teen Titans was still one of DC’s bestselling titles, so that last part was a given.) This sort of retroactive rewriting of characters’ history is known among fans as a “retcon.”

As for Jason, he now enters the scene by stealing the tires off the Batmobile in Crime Alley, the same place where Bruce’s parents were killed. When the Caped Crusader tracks down the young thief, he turns out to be living on his own in an abandoned tenement. This scene raises a number of logical questions. How can a young teen boost four tires from a supercar with a state-of-the-art security system? What abandoned tenement still has electricity, and how does Jason keep that stereo from being stolen? Where did he get those red jeans, and why does he wear a vest (aside from his clothes offering visual links to the Robin costume)?

But hey—it’s a superhero comic. Logic matters less than what the new character symbolized. Criminal activity, black vest, hard rock, even (gasp!) smoking—those markers showed us that this Jason Todd was bad!

In the following Batman issues, as Jason takes over the Robin role, Collins revealed that his father was a criminal. Jason learns that his father was murdered by the villain Two-Face, and for a time is devoured by rage, only to learn a valuable lesson about life.

From a storytelling perspective, Collins’s idea was very good. The new Jason was distinct. As reader Anne Guerra said in a letter four issues later:

[Jason’s] first origin was much too similar to Dick Grayson’s and, let’s face it guys, it wasn’t very original. This latest explanation shows imagination and promises to be a real thriller. . . . A gifted writer like Max Allen [sic] Collins could have a field day with a potential storyline like this.
Readers noted how Jason’s new past and personality reshaped the dynamic of the Dynamic Duo, opening the door for never-before-told stories. In that same letters column Adam Schultz wrote:
I hope Jason will remain belligerent for awhile, even after he becomes Batman’s partner. It will be an interesting change from the idol-worshipping that we can usually expect from Robin.
Dick sometimes took impulsive gambles because he was too eager to help. Jason could take the same aggressive risks, even knowingly disobeying Batman’s orders, out of anger at the criminal world. This Robin’s coming-of-age story could thus explore choosing values as well as learning skills.

But there was a problem with a Robin who has a criminal past, who’s driven by questionable motives, who habitually disobeys. DC’s creative team didn’t realize the importance of one thing the character represents:

COMING UP: The two paths of the second Jason Todd.

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