15 August 2010

Jason Todd Had to Die Before He Could Soar

As recent weekly Robins have described, in late 1988 the Batman magazine depicted the Joker killing Jason Todd, the latest Boy Wonder. This was big news in the American comics world, big enough to intrude into actual newspapers for a while, particularly because readers themselves had voted through 900 numbers whether the character would live or die. Observers both in and outside the industry complained that this whole process was crass and ghoulish.

And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Jason Todd.

To explain myself, I turn once again to this passage from Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics:

Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction. They’re the closest thing that exists right now to the “novel of ideas.” . . .

Virtually every major superhero franchise, actually, can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories.
Before he died, the symbolic significance of Jason Todd’s character—the collection of ideas he represented—was still hazy. There were several reasons for that: Jason’s death in late 1988 clarified the mysteries in a most final way. The angry, disobedient teen was now the personality people would most remember, and there was an end to his story, defining its meaning.

Jason Todd had become a narrative experiment about what sort of personality could be Robin. The result was a clear confirmation of the tacit hypothesis that Robin isn’t evil. Jason’s tenure as the Boy Wonder was officially, undeniably a failure.

Readers could argue about whose failure it was. Did Jason himself fail to live up to the Robin ideal? Did Batman fail to protect him, or to train him adequately? Did the Caped Crusader set impossible standards? Was the very idea of a crime-fighter’s kid sidekick so ludicrous that it was a miracle Dick Grayson had reached adulthood? Did the fault lie with DC Comics, for trying to give readers “grittier” stories, or with the readers themselves, for demanding (and, in this case, determining) them?

Batman: A Death in the Family is quite a bad story, so sloppy on some levels as to be insulting. But its end succeeded in making Jason Todd’s muddled, inconclusive fictional life into a “bold metaphor for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions.” Now Jason signified something, both to the other characters in the DC Universe and to readers. And unique meaning makes superhero characters last.

Earlier I reported finding few letters in Batman protesting the removal of Jason Todd. But those same issues have several letters discussing what his death might mean to Batman. Would the Dark Knight get darker? Would he abandon his commitment not to kill villains, particularly the Joker? Would he ever risk taking on another partner, especially a young one? Could Bruce Wayne cope with Jason’s loss, potentially as traumatic as his parents’ murder?

Another sign of Jason’s new importance appears in Batman and Philosophy, an anthology of essays edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. Its index lists more entries for Jason Todd, who was Robin for less than seven years, than for either Dick Grayson (42 years) or Tim Drake (19 years when that book was assembled). Jason’s loss represents the biggest challenge to Batman and his ideals, bringing up the toughest philosophical questions.

Jason Todd was an unsuccessful Robin, but in death he succeeded in signifying what other Robins could not.

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