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Oped: THREE JOKERS, Batman Inc., and the Problem with the Red Hood

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DC Comics has a Jason Todd problem.

Jason Todd, the second Robin, was unceremoniously killed by a fan vote in 1988’s Batman: A Death in the Family. As a kid reading Batman in the 90s, one could read about how Batman was continually haunted by Jason’s death, as the cover for Batman #496 beautifully illustrates.

Then, in 2004, Jason Todd returned to plague Batman in Judd Winick’s famous “Under the Hood” story arc. Jason’s return had been teased in 2003 in Batman: Hush, in what turned out to be a fake out (which was later retconned to at least partially be the real Jason). The means of his return were explained in the most comic book-y way imaginable (just google “Superboy punches reality”). This was indeed the real deal.

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The fake out return of Jason Todd in Hush, later revealed to only be “sort of” a fake out.

“Under the Hood” was a great Batman story (and probably one of the best DC animated adaptations). But after it was over, DC had a Jason Todd problem. While the initial story was powerful, addressing Batman’s regrets and insecurities, DC kept the character around long after his original narrative purpose had expired.

That isn’t to say that all of the stories involving Jason Todd were terrible. For a while Jason’s “arc” consisted of him trying to find his new identity in a world that had moved on and forgotten him. What we eventually find, however, is that DC has a problem with the Red Hood becoming a narrative cul de sac, as exemplified in Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s Batman: Three Jokers. Though that story ends with the Red Hood embarking on a journey of redemption (that DC seems to be ignoring), Grant Morrison already redeemed Jason and set him on a new narrative path back in Batman Inc.

Jason Searches for His Identity

In Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans #29, Jason confronts Tim Drake at Titans Tower, taking off the Red Hood outfit to reveal an updated Robin outfit underneath. He fights Tim, all while jealously bemoaning that, despite being a Titan, he had been forgotten, yet Tim had been fully accepted and embraced.

Red Hood
Tim Drake will always be the best Robin!

Then, after Infinite Crisis and during the One Year Later story arc, Nightwing relocates to New York City, only to discover that there is another, more murderous Nightwing killing criminals. That second Nightwing’s identity? You guessed it: Jason Todd.

Todd eventually gives up the Nightwing mantle. He then gets shuffled off into a crazy multiverse adventure, Countdown to Final Crisis. This event not only holds the honor of being one of DC’s worst events, but it really shows that DC had no idea what to do with Jason. Still, it’s on this adventure that he temporarily adopts yet another identity besides the Red Hood, that of Red Robin. Again, this is only a temporary change.

Not too long afterward, Batman was believed dead at the end of Final Crisis. This led to Tony Daniel’s “Battle for the Cowl” storyline. This story saw Jason become a murderous Batman before being taken down by Nightwing, who assumes the mantle of Batman.

It was becoming clear that DC didn’t know what it was doing with the character. After he served his original purpose, he jumped from identity to identity, each time ending with a dead end and a new reinvention. Jason was beginning to stall.

Enter Grant Morrison

Dick and Jason come to blows again in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin. Jason returns to the mantle of the Red Hood, taking advantage of social media and marketing to become the new face of crimefighting in Gotham. He sets himself up as a rival to Batman and Robin. This marks one of the last times Jason is a direct antagonist of the Bat family.

Jason is captured and eventually escapes imprisonment, but Morrison wasn’t done with him. Perhaps recognizing that Jason was heading for a narrative cul de sac, Morrison sets Jason up for a new status quo at the end of his Batman Incorporated run. Rather than allowing Jason to slide into narrative limbo and turn into a storytelling device with diminishing returns, Morrison sets the character on a new, hopeful path. Giving his second son a chance at redemption, Batman offers him membership in Batman Inc. under the identity of Wingman (an obscure Silver Age character that appeared earlier in Morrison’s Batman run who had broken bad).

Red Hood

Red Hood
Jason is given another chance as Wingman.

And then the New 52 happened. Well, actually, it had already happened. Keeping continuity straight between Red Hood’s status quo in the New 52 and his use by Morrison can be tough. It’s obvious that Morrison had specific plans for Jason at the end of their Batman run, allowing the character a chance at redemption; however, since Morrison was no longer driving the Bat-train at DC, this is a change that didn’t stick (this happens a lot with Morrison).

Instead, the Red Hood became an antihero member of the Batfamily. This is where the character really starts to spin his wheels from a narrative viewpoint. As an antagonist to the Batfamily, Jason’s story could be compelling. But as long as he remains the Red Hood, it’s really hard to take Jason in new directions since he lives in the liminal space between villain and redemption (but again, without a lot of clear narrative path). The character needs to remain a villain, or grow and heal.

The Three Jokers

Whatever Morrison’s intention for Jason’s future, DC ignored it and returned Jason to the identity of the Red Hood. Really, because the character had an ongoing title, Red Hood and the Outlaws (as a part of the New 52), he never really stopped being the Red Hood (Red Hood and the Outlaws #18 does acknowledge Jason’s time as Wingman, in a “thanks, but no thanks” sort of way).

Whatever growth Jason experiences thanks to Morrison is done away, although Jason is no longer a Batfamily antagonist. He’s just an anti-hero, with less relevance. He is able to somewhat reconcile with the Batfamily, but some members carry a distrust for him because of his past misdeeds. And the character just became…stale.

Geoff Johns seems to recognize this, having Jason confront his fear and hatred of the Joker. At the end of Johns and Fabok’s tale, Jason abandons the Red Hood identity (in order to be with Barbara Gordon. That’s out of left field).

Red Hood

Really, I can’t emphasize enough how unearned this moment is. Barbara and Dick have always had a de facto on-off again dynamic, but Jason? It’s really hard to find support for something like this in the history of the two characters. I guess the point is that they bond over their shared trauma with the Joker.

But Johns, like Morrison before him, tries to move Jason’s character forward to prevent stagnation, even if it makes for an awkward storytelling choice.

The Red Hood worked as a Batfamily antagonist in “Under the Hood.” He even served as a decent nemesis or “violent twin” for Dick Grayson after that. He came to symbolize what happens when one of Batman’s proteges breaks bad. But as a Bat-themed antihero, the character stalls.

The narrative options for the Red Hood are clear: 1) return him to his status as a Batfamily antagonist, who strikes at the intimate heart of the Batfamily, 2) Let the character stall as an antihero, 3) let the character fully heal and find redemption, or 4) kill him off.

DC seems to prefer strategies 1 and 2, having given the Red Hood a new outfit and even making him an antagonist in Future State.

However, I think Johns recognizes that there is a story of redemption to be told with Jason. There is a future for him where he heals and moves on to better things. Too bad Morrison already beat Johns to it 7 years ago, and arguably, did it in a way that felt earned and wasn’t about being in a relationship with Barbara Gordon.

Don’t worry, though, Geoff. DC will probably ignore your idea, too.

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Matthew Brakehttps://www.popularcultureandtheology.com
Matthew Brake is the series editor for the book series Theology and Pop Culture from Lexington Books. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Religion and Comics series from Claremont Press. He holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy from George Mason University. He also writes for Sequart and the Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy blog.