11 July 2010

The Two Paths of Jason Todd

As the last weekly Robin described, in 1987 Max Allan Collins turned Jason Todd into a new kind of Robin, offering new storytelling possibilities. He explored Jason’s criminal background, rashness, and anger for a handful of issues, and then left the Batman magazine.

Meanwhile, at Detective Comics Mike W. Barr was writing a very traditional and fun set of Batman and Robin adventures. Alan Davis drew many of those stories, depicting Jason as a cute, spindly-legged kid in his early teens. (Greg Burgas has profiled the Barr/Davis run of Detective for Comic Book Resources.)

This run of issues straddles the period when Collins introduced Jason’s new origin, but Detective made almost no reference to the boy’s now-troubled past. Instead, Barr’s Robin acts very much like Dick Grayson from the 1940s through the 1960s, fulfilling the usual reasons for the character:

Barr’s scripts did edge into the darker universe that DC was trying to create in the late 1980s. Detective, #571, ends with an image of Jason’s tombstone, albeit an imaginary one. In issues #573-4 Jason gets shot, forcing Bruce Wayne to examine the danger he exposes his sidekicks to. Those stories show the dark side of Batman himself. In #570, he almost beats up a helpless Joker, but Jason holds him back—because Barr’s characterization also fulfilled Reason for Robin, #10: Robin Isn’t Evil.

Barr’s last story gave Jason another encounter with Two-Face, who killed his father. To his surprise, Jason discovers he can pity the villain. Those two issues, illustrated by Jim Baikie, depict Jason in his late teens, and in addition to growing up physically he’s clearly grown up emotionally.

However, over at the Batman magazine new scripter Jim Starlin moved in the opposite direction, going deeper into the dark side of Jason Todd that Collins had established. Starlin worked mainly with artist Jim Aparo, who had already illustrated many Batman stories in The Brave and the Bold and Batman and the Outsiders.
In a 2001 interview, Starlin declared that the character of Robin simply didn’t make sense: “The idea of taking a kid along to fight crime is ludicrous.” Barr had probed that very topic, but for Starlin the remedy was more drastic: “I wanted to kill off Robin as soon as I started writing Batman.” At least that’s what he said over a decade after that fact.

Back in late 1987 Starlin’s built stories around conflicts between Jason and established characters. In issue #416, he brought Dick Grayson back to Gotham to meet the new Robin, and to confront Bruce Wayne over their break-up. The result was an emotion-packed issue, worthy of reprinting. In the end Dick praises Jason’s potential. But for a lot of readers that tale probably turned them against Jason Todd.

Because it’s one thing to show Jason sassing Batman, acting cocky, or roughing up criminals. It’s quite another to show Jason disrespecting Nightwing—the leader of DC Comics’s most popular team, the character readers had grown up alongside, the one hero who’s most assuredly not evil. Jason was in serious trouble.
This recent panel from The Black Cat captures the character of Jason Todd by late 1987, tugged between competing portrayals.

COMING UP: Jason goes to the dark side?

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