I have to admit, the reason I got into the Batman comics in the first place is because of Jason Todd. I went through a phase after the Nolan movies, sure, but I started seeking the comics when I heard there was a Robin that died. Death in the Family. That’s the title. The drama! I was so intrigued that even though I knew literally nothing about Batman at this point (besides the watered down version I got from the movies) I decided to dive into the admittedly never ending world of Bat-Family comic books.
The first shocker was learning there was more than one Robin. I was super late to that party. I knew about Dick Grayson, I could even tell you his name (I watched Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans), but that was the extent of my knowledge. I’m way too neurotic to not know, though, so I quickly skimmed some wikia page to get the lowdown on the various Robin incarnations. And this matters not just because Jason was the second Robin, but because his story is informed by all those who came after him and vice versa.
Jason Todd has had an all-around tough life (and death). His dad was a low level thug that died when he was a kid, and his mother (who he later finds out was actually his stepmother) was a drug addict that died from cancer. Jason was the street kid. That’s how the comics, the characters, the writers describe him. He worked the streets to support himself and his ailing mother when he was just itty bitty, and when his mom died he did what he could just to survive. And that’s how he meets Batman.
Jason is the tough little brat who had the balls to try and boost the tires from the goddamn Batmobile. Boy saw Batman’s car, knew he must be in the vicinity, and then managed to steal three tires off the most heavily fortified car in Gotham before returning for the fourth. Batman was so genuinely shocked that he was just like, what the fuck, giving Jason the chance to hit Batman with a crowbar, call him a “big boob,” and run off. (These comics take place in the 80’s so the slang is a bit off.)
Batman of course catches up, sees that Jason is squatting in a shitty hole in the wall by himself (and he’s only like 13) and ends up dropping him off at a boys’ home. In a hilarious turn of events, the sweet granny running the home is secretly a vice-loving crime master who trains her wards to work for her. Bruce finds out, shuts her down, and the pretty much adopts Jason. This occurs long after Bruce fired Dick from being Robin, so Dick’s off being Nightwing and only occasionally shows up to fight with Bruce.
As all crime-fighting pseudo-fathers do, Bruce eventually makes Jason his sidekick. This begins his tenure as the Boy Wonder. Dick’s not very cool about it at first, since the whole reason he was laid off was because no child should be fighting crime, so his relationship with Jason is rocky at best. Which is unfortunate because Dick’s actually very good at being a big brother and if anyone needed a big brother it was Jason. They eventually warm up to each other, but not nearly to the extent that Dick and his other (eventual) brothers do.
So Jason is a child soldier to the World’s Best Detective, his older brother isn’t there for him, and he was pulled out of a life of squalor and survival to live in a high society world of the rich and famous where he doesn’t fit in. Boy has a whole slough of issues. Bruce’s form of anger management is to beat up bad guys, so he basically just points Jay at them and hopes for the best. When people oversimplify the Robins, they say Dick is happy and enthusiastic, Tim is analytical and a detective, and Jason is rage and fire. They’re not wrong.
But Jason’s also a huge nerd. He got amazing grades in school and read all the time; he was actually really smart. And despite his anger issues and lack of confidence (he thought he could never measure up to Dick, his predecessor), boy tried really hard. He loved Bruce, wanted to impress him, wanted to stay with him. People forget this now, I think, when they focus on the more recent comics. Go back and read the originals from the 80’s. Bruce and Jay had the best, most loving relationship. It’s seriously heartwarming.
But this is what happened. The fans at the time didn’t take to this new, angry, not-Dick-Grayson-Robin. In what is now famous comic book history, the writers gave the readers a “choice”: a vote whether or not to kill Jason Todd. And they voted. Overwhelmingly.
(In more infamous comic book history, there was a lot of drama and conspiracy involved in this vote, but it doesn’t matter so we’re moving on.)
The way it plays out is this: long before the vote takes place, the writers make Jason increasingly disobedient, violent, snotty. I’m forever bitter that they tried to make us hate Jason because of their own shitty writing, making it an easy choice for readers to kill him off.
Jay’s actions may or may not have lead to the death of a rapist, and Bruce benched him. Jason then runs away in pursuit of his birth mother, who is apparently alive and doing humanitarian work in Ethiopia. But mommy dearest is working for the Joker. Even though Batman catches up, even though Sheila Haywood reunites with her son, even though they hug and kiss and makeup, Jason still gets played. Mom literally hands Jason-as-Robin over to the Joker to save her own skin.
This boy – this boy – was just sold out by his own mother, has been beaten within an inch of his life with a crowbar at the Joker’s hands, has been locked in a warehouse with a bomb and his bitch ass mom, and you know what he does with his last moments? He tried to save his mom. He knows she betrayed him. He kind of knows he’s going to die. And he still tries to save her. I mean, he doesn’t succeed, because they’re locked in a warehouse with a bomb, but still. Jason deserved better.
And Bruce. He’s literally just outside, just a minute too late. Batman could have saved him if he’d been there just moments earlier. He has to dig Jason’s body out of the rubble. The tragic image of Batman holding his dead son in his arms, weeping over his broken, bloody body has become iconic in its own right.
The methods in which they went about it may have been bullshit, but there were some things about Jason’s death that the writers did right. His death mattered. When Superman dies, you know he’s coming back in like 3 issues. When Batman “died,” he was gone for nearly a year but even then he wasn’t really dead, just lost in time. But Jason? He was super dead. When they killed him, they had zero intention of ever bringing him back. Dead for the long haul.
One of my criticisms of pop culture is that the consequences of plot points don’t carry enough weight. I always think, “If this or that actually happened in real life, you’d need serious therapy.” Instead, characters usually mourn for a few issues and then move on with their storyline. But Jason’s death made a huge impact. It literally changed the tone of the entire Batman comic series. Bruce pretty much goes off the rails. It gets super dark, and Batman stops caring about staying alive. He takes needless risks. Is injured all the time. He never gets over Jason’s death, not being able to save him. He sets up Jay’s Robin costume as a memorial in the cave. He goes back to working alone. He and Dick fight worse than ever, several times specifically about Jason. It’s bad. Tim Drake enters the scene because he noticed that Batman’s fucked up; Batman clearly needs a Robin to keep from losing his shit.
And it’s like that for a solid 15 years or whatever. Bruce acquires more children/Robins which helps bring him back to center, but we are reminded constantly that the loss of Jason Todd changed everything. It’s not until 2005 that writer Judd Winick revives the dead Robin, and god does he do so with flair.
Jason returns as the Red Hood, a stolen alias first used by the Joker. He returns vengeful. He returns strong, and cunning, and mean. He doesn’t pretend to be driven by anything but his rage this time around, but he’s meticulous in his planning, calculating in how best he can hurt Bruce. He makes it very clear: he isn’t upset that Bruce failed to save him. He’s angry because the Joker still lives and breathes, still tortures Gotham on a regular basis, still kills for no reason other than his own psychotic humor.
When Jason comes back, everything he once believed, needed to believe about his relationship with Bruce, seems negated by what has happened since his death. Batman has a new Robin and a new son, so clearly he’s easily replaceable. That the Joker’s alive means he wasn’t worth avenging. Gotham is still plagued with crime, so Batman’s system isn’t working. Jason thinks he died for nothing, lived for nothing.
I used to relate to Jason, cuz I have similar middle child issues, except without the murdering and stuff. His daddy issues are pretty warranted, and he thinks he’s easily forgotten. (He’s obviously wrong about this, but while we know the impact his death had on Bruce, he doesn’t. No one ever told him how much he meant, what his death did to the family).
So he comes back with a plan that culminates in forcing Batman to either kill the Joker or kill Jason. Neither happens of course and everything goes to shit. But Jason continues his rampage, and takes out his resentment on the entire family. He beats Tim bloody just because. He shoots Damian in the chest. He steals Dick’s Nightwing identity for a bit. Generally makes himself a pain in the ass.
Jason took everything Bruce taught him and used to for semi-nefarious, murderous ends. And while that hurts Bruce, Bruce is more upset about what that means for Jay than about himself. He doesn’t want the weight of all those deaths on his son. He mostly sucks at it, but every now and then Bruce is a really good dad. Or tries to be.
Jason is a super fun and interesting character to read. He’s hilarious and sarcastic, unafraid and takes no shit from anyone (his interactions with Black Mask are particularly entertaining). After the reboot in 2011, there are more serious efforts to reform Jay, bring him back into the Bat Family, though he remains the legally dead black sheep. I love him, I love reading about him, I love the drama he brings to the series, I love his redemption, and I love that he got me reading Batman in the first place.
Jason Todd, my bitter, sarcastic, undead son.