Monday, April 22, 2013

Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Last week, I wrote all about how Dick Grayson is really the heir to the Batman legacy.

Of course, have you ever stopped to think how insane it really is that the original concept of Batman and Robin involved Batman running around town with a pre-adolescent fighting crime? Okay, may Grayson was a few years older when they got started, but let’s face it, Robin's moniker is the "Boy Wonder." The original idea was that Batman was going to have a kid bouncing around knocking guns out of the bad guys hands.

Has anyone ever stopped to think about how incredibly DANGEROUS this is? I mean, if Batman is all about stopping crime, how about he arrests himself for child abuse and reckless endangerment? Well, apparently, the DC writers started to catch on to what an outrageous idea this really was. And they decided to go with it in a different way.

Enter Jason Todd.

At a glance, Jason Todd seemed like a copycat clone of Dick Grayson. Orphan, life disrupted by crime, athletic and a strong sense of justice. It seemed like a simple matter: this way Grayson could go on to lead the Teen Titans as Nightwing and Batman could still have ‘Robin’ by his side. And sure, Todd wasn’t 12 years old or anything. Again, the writers made sure he wasn’t wildly under-aged the way the Golden Age Robin had been.

But after a little while, Batman readers started to catch on to something striking about Jason. He didn’t have the same restraint that Grayson did. He tended to rush into fights and fly off the handle instead of following Batman’s orders. At first, it might have seemed like DC was trying to just make Robin a little edgier. Maybe some more tension between the Dynamic Duo would make the comic a little more interesting. After all, comics were slowly starting to gravitate towards darker and more mature themes.

Readers probably weren’t prepared for just how dark DC was going to get. They decided to let the fans vote on whether or not Jason Todd lived or died. And I believe by a somewhat significant landside, the fans decided they either A. had had enough of this little twerp back-talking to Batman or B. wanted to see something of this magnitude happen in a comic book just for the hell of it or C. both. And Jason Todd’s fate was sealed.

Luckily, this turned out to be a lot more than a small publicity stunt for the comic. Unlike many comic book deaths, this one STUCK (for a long while, anyway). Jason Todd really drove home how deadly and dangerous Batman’s life is. Even training someone to follow in his footsteps is condemning someone to live a life where death could snatch you at any moment. This sealed the deal to set Batman towards a new era of dark and brutal crime stories. Up until now, Batman had had mature themes, but he had always been more reminiscent of James Bond than anything else. He seemed smooth, calm and had tons of cool gadgets.

The sick and radical fixation between the Joker and Batman began to develop into the most intriguing and terrifying comic book relationship ever created, all in this one moment: the Joker beating Jason to death with a crowbar.

What became even more disturbing was the sudden notion that Batman might just be willing to get on the wrong side of the law and any other superhero who gets in his way at this point. I love it when he practically breaks his hand punching Superman in the face in Death in the Family. I’m not one of those guys that goes around constantly screaming that ‘Batman is so much cooler than Superman, etc.’ but I just feel like this moment seems so right to me. Bruce has got to KNOW that he’s going to hurt himself here, but he does it anyway because he’s furious and because he would do it even if he broke his hand.

My point all is this: Jason Todd was a bit of a vehicle to take Batman to a new place as a character. And it worked. Bruce Wayne wants to avenge his parents, but for the first time, Batman has a death on his conscience. His fight cost someone a life.

I appreciate Frank Miller’s take on this. A brief mention in Dark Knight Returns sums up Batman’s thoughts on this: ‘Jason was a good solider. He honored me’. Batman’s mission has gone beyond justice for himself and his city; now he’s fighting to make the death and the sacrifices of other people, like Jason, worth something.

Of course, Jason has returned in a trippy, the universe doesn’t make sense kind of way--the kind of DC thing that they love to do. It's strange to see this kind of surreal thing play out in Batman, but whether you want to take it as a cosmic loophole or have a more sort of grounded, Under the Red Hood sort of explanation of how Jason survives, Todd does make an interesting nemesis for Batman. Did Batman fail him? Or was there something in Jason that was always this bad? Who’s at fault here?


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