Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jason Todd's Meta-War on Crime (Specifically, His Murder)

The other day, I re-read the Red Hood arc of Grant Morrison's "Batman and Robin." In the past, I had dismissed it as an interesting but inessential bit of storytelling, but on this latest readthrough, I noticed a lot of things that made the story start to fit much more snugly into the stories Morrison has been telling of late.

The story is about Jason Todd, the second Robin, now using the name the Red Hood, challenging Dick Grayson (the first Robin) for the position of Gotham City's top crime fighter in the wake of Bruce Wayne's disappearance from the city. Todd's been used for this kind of story a lot of times since his resurrection, as a physical embodiment of Batman's failure in his war on crime, but Morrison presents him here as a new kind of crime fighter, one operating as much on the meta, storytelling level as on the physical one.

Jason is shown reading manuals on branding, using social media and catchphrases to usurp Batman's role in the "Hero" slot of Gotham's mindset. He praises his sidekick, a young woman disfigured by one of the city's many psychopaths, for tapping into the city's (and the Batman books, in general) love of freaks whose deformities physically express their inner traumas. And, most tellingly, Todd's ultimate plan for taking down Dick Grayson is to show him, unmasked and discredited - once enough people in Gothan have declared that they WANT to see him that way. To decide his fate, Jason sets up a phone poll and asks people to call in.

Some background: Jason Todd was, as I said, the second Robin. He started out a similar character to Dick Grayson, taking his place after Grayson graduated into his own books, but the continuity-shifting DC Comics event Crisis on Infinite Earth changed his backstory, making him a "rebel" Robin, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. The character wasn't popular, apparently, so DC pulled a stunt. They decided to put Todd's live in danger, and then let readers decide whether he lived or died. To decide his fate, they set up a phone poll and asked people to call in.

Since his creation, Jason's been in a desperate struggle for space within the reader's mind - first to distinguish himself from the character he was intentionally designed to copy, and then simply to continue existing. And in the end he was, like a spandex-wearing Howard Beale, the first superhero ever killed by low ratings.

Grant Morrison is fond of pages where his characters reach out of the panel, trying to touch the reader on the other side. In the case of Jason Todd, the readers did their own reaching - to destroy him. And I do mean "destroy," not "kill." When the character was resurrected 20 years later, he was a fundamentally different being. If a character's DNA is what dictates where they fit into a story, then Todd wasn't even the same species when he came back. He was mutated by reader intent like we would be mutated by high-level exposure to cosmic radiation, from troubled kid sidekick to morally bankrupt dark shadow.

But Jason isn't taking his mutation lying down. If "popularity" is what keeps you alive (and for a fictional character, it very much is), then he'll be the most popular. He'll tweet his crime fighting, kill his villains with grim irony like a '90s antihero. If the man who embodies the Batman idea is dead, why not replace him in the reader's mind? Make his interpretation of the Batman idea the dominant one, and render Dick Grayson's take on the character obsolete. (Of course, 70 years of tradition and continual storytelling tie Bruce Wayne so closely to the Batman idea that no reader, when shown Bruce's death in Final Crisis, ever believed it would "stick," meaning Jason is almost certainly doomed in his attempts). And in the ultimate symbol of fighting back against the reader, he co-opts their murder weapon - the phone poll - in his war against Dick Grayson.

By having the people of Gotham (motivated at least partially by prurient interest, in a reflection of the sort of people who voted for Jason's death just to see if DC would really do it) declare Batman obsolete by the same method that was used to kill him, he's making his big play to hi-jack the Batman story to serve his own ends.

Morrison's entire run on Batman (not to mention his other DC work of late) has been about characters fighting back against the stories they find themselves trapped in. Final Crisis was about an attempt by characters within the story to reverse the "Heroes always win" dynamic of the universe in which they live. Dr. Hurt, the major villain of Morrison's Batman, is a direct attack on Batman's origin. He presents himself as Dr. Thomas Wayne, not murdered trying to protect his family in Crime Alley, but the engineer behind their deaths. He is, like The Enemy in Lawrence Miles' excellent "The Book of the War," a kind of hostile alternate history. Batman as he currently exists is functionally invincible within his stories. The only way to beat him is to attack him on the meta level, and so Hurt strikes not at the man, but at the iconic origin story.

And Jason Todd, killed by readers and resurrected by shifts in continuity (he was, really, brought back to life by an evil Superboy punching the walls of the universe) is trying to impose his story onto the Batman narrative. In Jason's story, he's the charismatic dark hero, using intense violence to put criminals down forever. "Heroes" like Batman are ineffectual jokes that exist to make him look stronger. In Jason's story, Jason wins.

Of course, inevitably, he fails. Batman and Robin escape from the phone poll trap, just in time to save the Red Hood from the consequences of his actions. Because, by turning the story into one of grit and violence, he has summoned a corresponding villain - the inarticulate, insane, brutal Flamingo. By breaking loose "Batman and Robin" the book from its central ideas (Batman fights crime through fear but does not kill, Batman always wins, the villains are dangerous but not so dangerous that they cannot be defeated), he has allowed Flamingo to bring his heightened, gruesome violence to Gotham. It is only through the actions of Dick Grayson and his sidekick Damien that the natural order is re-asserted, with Batman and Robin triumphant and the villain defeated.

And in the wake of Batman's story taking back over the book's narrative, The Red Hood is no longer a subversive anti-hero, but a murderer. Just one more Gotham supervillain with a tragic past. In the end, Jason bemoans the way the world (that is, the narrative universe created by writer intent and reader reaction) has forced him into his role as the inevitable black sheep of the Batman family. His only solace is that he "Did something even Batman couldn't do... I beat my Arch-Enemy." He says this in a panel where the panel border that had been penning him is suddenly gone, as though no longer separating Jason Todd from his nemesis, the entity that killed him and has forced him into humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat.


(Last note: It's interesting, in light of all this to compare Jason to the version of Damien that we see in the future of Batman #666. The Damien-Batman seen in this future is violent, often murderous, anti-heroic. In the safety of a "future" story, divorced by time from having to be the "main" Batman story, he has reformed Gotham in his image, to the point where the entire city is booby-trapped to protect him. By waiting until a time when the Bruce Wayne is truly dead, he has hi-jacked the Batman story and bent it to his own purposes far more successfully than Todd or Hurt ever could).

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