[WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for "Red Hood and The Outlaws: Rebirth" #1.]
It's a new day for just about every characters in the DC Comics Universe, with the "Rebirth" initiative bringing new writers and artists - or giving old ones new freedom - with the hopes of telling memorable, powerful stories that connect heroes to the roots of their characters. It may sound like an obvious decision, but the results so far have shown that DC's writers and artists are still keen on pushing the envelope, opening new chapters in some of their biggest heroes' stories. And where the Batman family is concerned, it's an opportunity to give supporting characters a brand new lease on life.
With "Batman: Rebirth" giving Bruce Wayne a superpowered successor, "Detective Comics" putting Kate Kane in the spotlight, and "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" uniting the fan-favorite team for the first time, the resurrection has now fallen to the Dark Knight's greatest failure: Jason Todd. The boy from the streets who rose to Batman's side - before falling to his greatest enemy. A new life awaited as 'The Red Hood,' and decades stepping on either side of the hero/villain line - until now.
New comic readers won't want to pass up "Red Hood and the Outlaws: Rebirth" #1, with writer Scott Lobdell giving the title character's life story new detail (the connection to the character's legacy) and artist Dexter Soy bringing them to life in some truly stunning panels (the push into the future). In case some readers are a little foggy on the moments in Jason Todd's life alluded to in the issue - or for those casual "Batman" fans who may want to pick up this catch-all, 'reset' button for the former Robin -we're running down the comics touchstone moments, before the previously-shady Jason Todd decides to begin a new mission, perhaps putting his days of denying his knack for heroics once and for all (determined to convince Bruce Wayne, above all others).
Bruce, Meet Jason
It only seems right that a superhero born of loss should get in the habit of drawing similarly lost souls to his side, and every Batman fan knows that it was Dick Grayson's parents being killed that linked him to his future partner: an orphans-only club, of sorts. But when Dick Grayson grew out of the 'sidekick' role, fate intervened to deliver Bruce Wayne another boy in need. His name was Jason Todd, and from the moment Batman caught him stealing the wheels off the Batmobile parked in Crime Alley, the pair's fates were tragically intertwined.
Lobdell and Soy recreate the moment in detail, told this time from Jason's perspective. As a result, the Batman arrives like a figure from a ghost story, but readers aren't given a reason for Batman deciding there was promise in this self-proclaimed "street rat." Yet hearing Jason's total sense of defeat, resigning himself to a meaningless life tells all you need to know about his view of the world and his destiny in it - and Batman, as always, saw much more. Instead of Jason bolting, as in the original comic, he stands his ground. It may be that fighting spirit Bruce Wayne noticed, extending an olive branch (or hamburger) and a warning that the world (and the people in it) aren't all as bad as Jason assumes.
The New Robin is Born
The story skips over much of the actual physical training between Bruce and Jason, simply suggesting that Jason won over his new friend's trust, and was let in on Gotham's biggest secret: Bruce Wayne was the Batman. And with Jason showing just as much determination and promise as Dick Grayson before him, he was on his way to becoming a vigilante detective within the week. But it wasn't the training, the criminology lessons or even the family that shaped Jason into something heroic, it was simply people who believed he could be more than what others might assume.
Now, we know what you New 52 readers may be thinking: isn't Batman supposed to be too young to have actually done all of this, just over a decade into his career? Our answer is simple... and every bit as vague as DC Comics' - the fact is, if fans want Dick, Jason, and the Red Hood in the Batman comic canon, then they've got it. Just as long as everyone agrees to appreciate it, and not ask any questions. You're reading the Red Hood's comic, after all.
As sweet as Alfred's words may be when awarding Jason his first costume as Robin, the actual feeling of Bruce toward Jason has been a complicated one over the years. That's mainly due to the biggest difference between Dick Grayson and Jason Todd: where Dick felt loss and sadness, Jason had moved beyond into anger and lack of self-control. And, in typical Jason fashion, the fantastic wish fulfilment of seeing Jason and Bruce together as partners on a two-page spread in the issue is undercut by the fact that the end of this story is not a happy one.
Jason suggests in the issue (while recollecting the events) that Bruce had become a father figure to him, meaning such happiness couldn't last for long. And as Two-Face managed to put the Dark Knight's life in danger, Jason lost control, pummeling the villain until restrained. It's a hint toward the side of Jason that always made him doomed to fall short of Batman's hopes: he's human, like all of us. He feels anger, rage, fear, and hatred. Where Bruce always sought to control those emotions for a higher mission, Jason couldn't, showing that no matter what path lay ahead for him, it wouldn't be the same one Bruce would be walking.
A Death in the Family
The next chapter is not only the Darkest in Jason's life, or Bruce's, but perhaps the DC Comics Universe in general. For those who don't know, the comic arc "A Death in the Family" saw Jason seek out his presumed-dead mother overseas, eventually tracking her to a remote warehouse... where he discovered that it was all a trap set by The Joker. And there he was: Batman's sidekick, with no Batman, a million miles from home, caught in the Joker's clutches.
What follows is the most brutal part of the story, when Jason - in a twist of fate that DC readers were given control over, thanks to a pair of phone numbers they could call to cast their votes - was savagely beaten by Batman's nemesis, and left for dead next to a bomb as Batman rushed to save him. Soy captures the savagery of the actual story beat from the victim's perspective. And as the fans decided, Batman was too late, arriving to find Jason Todd beaten, burned, and dead.
The image of Batman cradling the body of Jason is one of the most iconic in the superhero's entire history, embodying the hero's greatest failure. Soy recreates the image beautifully, placing even more sadness into Bruce's brow, while Lobdell's narration is sure to get a somber smirk from fans of the Red Hood, as death couldn't sour Jason's sense of dark humor.
But even the grave couldn't keep Bruce Wayne's darkest memory laid to rest... and Jason Todd's story was far from over.
A Return Under The Red Hood
Resurrecting a dead comic character is nothing new, but it's also a tricky thing to pull off well. Originally, it was the universe-altering punches of an evil Superboy that disrupted history and time itself, sending ripples through the DC Universe and seeing Jason Todd resurrected in his Gotham city coffin. After staggering away and suffering from amnesia, he was taken in by Talia al Ghul, lover of Batman and daughter of Ra's al Ghul. Together, he was trained to be a weapon against the Dark Knight, before returning to Gotham under the guise of 'The Red Hood.'
Of course, that was the original explanation. When the New 52 relaunched the universe, Jason's resurrection was simplified: Talia and Ra's acquired Jason's body, and used a Lazarus Pit to bring him back to life. It's this origin which is clearly still at work in "Rebirth," showing Jason emerge alive and well, and a hint at the entire plot of the "Under the Red Hood" storyline, told in the popular Batman: Under the Red Hood animated movie.
To keep it simple - like Lobdell - we'll stick to the facts: appearing under the red mask and name once worn by The Joker, his killer, Jason returns to take revenge... and find out why Batman never avenged him. Readers obviously know why, but Jason and Bruce were broken over the issue, sending each off into their separate (but not too distant) corners of the DCU, taking on what can only be dscribed as a dysfunctional father/son relationship in the years since.
A New Mission
When the "Rebirth" story actually begins its 'present' sections, the titular "Outlaws" are nowhere to be found. While Todd has made a habit of working with antiheroes just as troubled as himself, the mission of the issue is one he must take on alone: to infiltrate Gotham's deepest criminal circles, the Red Hood will need to assassinate the mayor, and take on Batman in the process.
Soy's artwork shines in the action scenes of the issue, but readers will be more entranced wondering if Lobdell's version of the former sidekick is actually the cold-blooded murderer he seems. And if so, what reasons could he have? The later reveal is that not only did he not kill the mayor, but he had saved his life, learning of the mayor's poisoning as part of an undercover mission undertaken with Bruce's knowledge.
It's a clever reveal, but the real applause goes to the writer for summing up the scars and distrust that now inform Jason and Bruce's bond. The mentor must assume the worst, having seen it in Jason before. The pupil knows that such trust is impossible, so he doesn't even bother explaining himself anymore. No one is at fault, but if anyone seems to have acted in the wrong, it's Bruce - always a welcome twist in a DC title.
The real mission seems to just be getting underway, demanding that Jason Todd not form a shaky alliance with Batman by investigating a link between Gotham officials and a crime cartel, but head undercover on his own to truly attack the enemy Batman has sensed. It's a job that the Dark Knight could never do, since it requires that Jason not only pretend to be a ruthless criminal, but become one in the eyes of the outlaws around him. And, as we've said before, that's a proposition that Bruce Wayne just can't allow, believing so strongly the worst of Jason is always a risk.
The two reach an agreement, with Jason standing poised on the cusp of a new mission, with new risks, and suspicions from friend and foe alike. In other words: the kind of environment Jason Todd is now all too familiar with.
A New Beginning?
What makes the "Rebirth" issue so interesting - and what will be the most exciting possibility for readers - is that Jason Todd truly seems determined to prove Batman's assumptions wrong. This time around, he won't be crossing the line, or giving in to his emotions and straying from the path of disciplined investigation. It's not a chance at redemption, per se, since his previous arc in "Red Hood and the Outlaws" dealt with that idea from the very start.
But it's hard to make the argument that Jason Todd has ever truly stepped out of Batman's shadow. Even if he has in the DCU, among the fan community, Jason's story still begins as Batman's sidekick. Where Dick Grayson has ascended into Nightwing, taking a role as more of a brother to Bruce Wayne than a son - and Tim Drake was his own man from the very start - Jason and Bruce remain locked in a cycle of adolescent rebellion and parental disapproval. Like a parent telling telling their teen that they aren't angry, "just disappointed," Bruce's expectations of Jason have always been off the mark - and Jason's more than tired of hearing it.
At the close of the "Rebirth" issue, Bruce is still not willing to trust Jason. But Jason isn't seeking Bruce's approval, or even his permission anymore. He has accepted that he was never going to be the hero Bruce dreamed he could be - but that doesn't mean he can't be something important. And what's more important than being what the Batman can't? Most importantly, the fact that Jason is thinking of his first days at Batman's side at this moment, when the two were closest, and Bruce most believed in his new ward... well, we hope as much as Jason (and Bruce) that people can still surprise you, given the chance.
Red Hood and the Outlaws: Rebirth #1 is available now.
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