06 February 2011

Jason Todd’s Memorial Trophy Case

There was a time when the Batcave contained no trophy cases devoted to the memory of the late Jason Todd.

Last year the weekly Robin reviewed the history of Jason, by my reckoning the second and third Robins in the Batman mythos, until his death at the hands of the Joker. The Batman comics then had to shift away briefly as DC’s editors and writers worked out the ramifications of fate their readers had chosen for Jason. In early 1989, the team dove into stories about reactions to Jason’s death.

The panel above, from Batman, #436, shows Dick Grayson’s first return to the Batcave after learning of that event. For decades that cave was graphically defined by the Dynamic Duo’s trophies, particularly a robot dinosaur (species variable, but eventually a T. rex), giant penny, and giant joker playing card. As technology burgeoned, the team installed a giant computer as well. There were also many smaller trophies in glass cases, wall-mounted batarangs, and other memorabilia. But, as Dick noticed, Bruce Wayne refused to memorialize any of his work with Jason.

Eventually, Dick, Alfred, and a potential new Robin named Tim Drake helped Bruce through the mourning process. Denial gave way to a new trophy case displaying Jason’s Robin costume, floating in space, mask and all. That costume looked exactly like Dick’s, but its emptiness symbolized loss.

Like so many other parts of the modern Batman mythos, the glass case with the costume actually appeared first in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. That story, set in one potential future, also suggested Jason’s death, and introduced the phrase that sometimes appears on the case’s label: “A Good Soldier.”

As I’ve written before, when Jason died, he finally acquired the symbolic definition that the living character had lacked. Indeed, we might say that Jason became that costume in the trophy case, haunting the Batcave. He and it were together a symbol of youth cut short, of Batman’s greatest failure, of the dangers of masked vigilantism.
In the following years, Bruce would brood in front of the case. Tim would gaze up at the costume, seeing both the allure and the danger of being Robin. The trophy case was how Tim’s friends on the Young Justice team learned about his late predecessor. If villains invaded the Batcave, their desecration of that ground became undeniably clear when the fight that followed always smashed Jason’s case.

Eventually that glass case with the costume floating inside supplanted the Batcave’s older landmarks as a visual shorthand for that setting. Its design varied from one artist to another, but it was always immediately recognizable. (Perhaps Bruce had it rebuilt in different styles every time it got smashed.) Comics fans embraced the importance of the case. Matt Cauley at Iron-Cow Productions hand-crafted his own action-figure version. When Stephanie Brown died after being Robin, fans at Project Girl Wonder demanded to know why Batman hadn’t created a trophy case for her costume as well. (She got better.)

Remarkably, the symbolic significance of the trophy case endures when even Jason is not dead. In the DC Animated Universe of the 1990s Batman cartoons, which never had a Jason Todd, Tim Drake gazes at a costume in a glass case, a costume that those cartoons never show Dick Grayson wearing. A sense of promise and danger hovers overhead, even though there’s no explanation for it.

In the comics Jason Todd has returned from the grave (a story for another week), but his costume is still on display, and the trophy case is still sacred ground. In Batman and Son Damian Wayne goes down to the Batcave, breaks into the case, and puts on parts of Jason’s costume; that seems like such defilement that it’s hard to recognize how Damian is seeking acceptance into the Batman family.

That parti-colored costume behind glass thus now carries a symbolic weight separate from the actual loss of a young man. Indeed, in recent years Batman comics have shown future or imagined Batcaves with multiple trophy cases holding multiple Robin costumes, some not previously seen in that DC Universe. The sight of a Robin costume behind glass now has a visual resonance and significance of its own.

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