12 September 2010

Looking Back on Jason Todd

Today’s comic-book marketing depends heavily on creator interviews put out on the web for retailers and fans. Amazingly, every writer, artist, and editor feels excited about the stories that are just going on sale. Of course, they can’t say why they’re excited without giving away plot twists, but excited they are. I find these interviews to be nearly indistinguishable and almost useless for seeing how superhero comics get put together.

But give the same creators a couple of years, a new assignment, a managerial change or two, and then the interesting behind-the-scenes stories come out: the arguments, the unexplored paths, the mistakes. Many of those stories are probably even true.

Batman editor Dennis O’Neil offers an interesting example. In 1987, soon after taking that job, he gave an interview to the first issue of Comics Scene (a printed fanzine in those pre-web days, quoted on Titans Tower) about the new Jason Todd:

Jason steals the tires off the Batmobile. And Batman decides, “This kid is going to end up dead or in prison by the time he’s 20 anyhow, I might as well see what I can do with him.” He also likes the kid, he feels a kind of chemistry. . . . And thank God for people like Jason Todd, because without him and Alfred, Bruce Wayne would be sort of a monster. They’re a very humanizing influence.
That’s how things looked—or at least how O’Neil and his employer wanted fans to see things—in 1987. Within two years, Jason Todd was dead, killed off by his unpopularity.

Less than two years after that, in an interview for The Many Lives of the Batman, edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (1991), O’Neil ruminated about how the wheels had come off:
Q: Why did everyone hate him so much? Why did he get killed?

A: Boy, that’s a good question. They did hate him. I don’t know if it was fan craziness—maybe they saw him as usurping Dick Grayson’s position. Some of the mail response indicated that this was at least on some people’s minds. I think this is taking the whole thing entirely too seriously.

It may be that something was working in the writers’ minds, probably on a subconscious level. They made the little brat a little bit more disagreeable than his predecessor had been. He did become unlikeable, and that was not any doing of mine. Once we became aware of that, of course, we began playing with it.

Q: And this decision was influenced by the fan letters you were getting?

A: Yeah. The general response. The fan letters and then being a comic book editor, artist and writer in the eighties mean you go out and meet the fans a lot. What we get in the way of verbal response and mail is certainly not definitive, but it is probably as informative as the television ratings. It’s sort of an informal sampling.

I think that once writers became aware the fans didn’t like Jason Todd, they began to make him bratty. I toned some of it down. If I had to do it again, I would tone it down more. But you make these decisions from hour to hour and sometimes not under the best conditions.

So we did a story, for example, in which it was left vague as to whether or not Jason pushed someone off a balcony. The writer, Jim Starlin, thought he did—I thought he didn’t, but we let the reader decide. There was certainly no doubt that throughout much of the story he wanted to push this guy off of the balcony.

And then when we were building up to the death of Robin we made him rebellious—he ran away, and in a way he got what he was asking for. He disobeyed Batman twice, and that’s what led his demise.
Starlin himself sees things differently, according to interviews he gave in the past decade (i.e., many years after the events) to Universo HQ and Adelaide Comics:
I always thought that the whole idea of a kid side-kick was sheer insanity. So when I started writing Batman, I immediately started lobbying to kill off Robin. . . .

And Denny O’Neill [sic] said “We can’t kill Robin off”. Then Denny one night got this flash that “Hey, if we get this number where people call in and they can vote on it, they can decide whether Robin lives or dies.” . . .

So we did this and the book came out, Denny was on all these talk shows across the country that day saying, it’s kind of funny because he was taking credit for the whole project. But as soon as the book came out and Robin died, the executives up at DC started going “Whoof!” because they had all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture on it—suddenly it was all my idea again.
I don’t find Starlin’s recollection as convincing as O‘Neil’s. Despite his contempt for the idea of a kid sidekick, Starlin wrote Jason Todd as a very traditional Robin in a 1988 miniseries called Batman: The Cult. He’s a pro; he would have continued to write stories about both Batman and Robin if the fans had continued to demand them.

It’s true that the last chapter of A Death in the Family was Starlin’s penultimate issue of Batman. But if there was pressure from DC executives about “all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture,” why did the company embark on a big redesign of the Robin character in 1990?

I think the recollections from both O’Neil and Starlin reveal the human tendency to massage our pasts into stories with coherence and meaning. For Starlin, Jason Todd died because his character made no sense, and Starlin saw that before others at DC. For O’Neil, the lesson of the Jason Todd debacle was not to let fans perceive a new Robin as usurping the place of the first one. O’Neil might also posit that Starlin’s hostility toward Jason was unconscious resentment about such usurpation, which I presume Starlin would deny.

Which man is right? Usually in a disagreement like this, the boss wins. O’Neil was the editor, Starlin a freelancer. O’Neil wanted to get Robin right, and Starlin wasn’t the writer to do that. So in early 1989 Starlin was off the Batman book, and O’Neil was seeking a way to introduce a new Robin that showed proper respect for Dick Grayson.


Richard said...

One exceedingly minor and pedantic correction: Comics Scenes was not a fanzine but a slick professional magazine with newsstand and chain store distribution, created by the publishers of Starlog and Fangoria. In that pre-desktop publishing era, the gulf between such publications and fanzines was more vast than it would be possible to imagine today.

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right. I was using “fanzine” to mean a magazine for fans of a particular genre and medium, and forgot the word’s roots in publishing by fans themselves.

The one “fanzine” that I was reading at the time, the International Wizard of Oz Club’s Baum Bugle, had actually worked its way up to professional typesetting by the mid-1970s, when I started to subscribe. So I didn’t realize what others looked like.

Thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous said...

But if there was pressure from DC executives about “all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture,” why did the company embark on a big redesign of the Robin character in 1990

A few reasons spring to mind:

To immediately establish that this was a shiny NEW Robin, unlike the previous one(s) that people were aware of.

To maximise the publicity value of the new Robin, in his new, more grown up costume.

A new Robin with a new marketing campaign and new merchandise works better than a lot of existing merchandise with a dead kid/characters face on it.

J. L. Bell said...

All good reasons for the 1990 Robin redesign, but if DC’s executives were really so locked into merchandise with the old design that they insisted on Jim Starlin suddenly being cut loose, as he claimed, the company would have had a hard time taking that risk.

I just don’t find Starlin’s perception of events convincing. It requires believing that DC didn’t realize the implications of its major marketing event of 1988, involving one of its top half-dozen trademarks. Beneath the laughs in Starlin’s interviews, I also sense some resentment at Denny O’Neil.

As Starlin tells it, he never thought Robin made sense in modern superhero stories. Which of course would make him a less than ideal writer to introduce a new Robin. Ironically, Starlin’s comics career will forever be linked to Jason Todd’s death.

Anonymous said...

if DC’s executives were really so locked into merchandise with the old design that they insisted on Jim Starlin suddenly being cut loose, as he claimed, the company would have had a hard time taking that risk.

I'd say there's a big difference between the options of A) having items with old Robin on them, if there was no plan to have any Robin at all, and B) to have a new, marketable Robin. A) is trying to sell clearly outdated stuff, B) is selling new stuff.

J. L. Bell said...

But what happened to the unsold old-Robin lunch pails that Starlin said caused his separation from DC? If the company suddenly found they couldn’t sell them in 1989, then they would have still been around in 1990.

Of course, there’s a business axiom to “ignore sunk costs,” and DC’s managers could have woken up to that. But I suspect Denny O’Neil was moving toward a totally new Robin even before A Death in the Family, given how soon Year Three followed. And I can’t believe there weren’t a lot of discussions within the company about all the implications of removing Jason Todd.

All that’s to say I think DC Comics had excellent reasons to redesign Robin and market the heck out of the new character when he turned out to be a hit. (One day I’ll write about products repurposed to take advantage of his popularity.) I just think the fact the company did that so soon after A Death in the Family undercuts Starlin’s perception of the situation.