If you had told me five years ago that one of the biggest comic stories of the early 21st century was going to be Jason Todd, I would have called you a liar. Frankly, Jason was just never that popular, in some circles the most hated character in the DC Universe. I guess it's all a matter of packaging, as Jason has played a major role in the pages of the Batman family of titles and is now a central character in DC's new weekly series, "Countdown." In a Wonder Con panel in March 2007, DC Comics Executive Editor Dan Didio let it slip that the Red Robin in the infamous "Countdown" promotional teaser was in fact Jason Todd. Didio has since retracted this statement, but whether it is true or not, Jason Todd is, almost unbelievably, at the center of major DCU events for the next year. As always, to know where we are going, we need to know where we have been.
As hard as it may be for some longtime readers to believe, Jason Todd first appeared all the way back in March of 1983, in the pages of "Detective Comics" #524. Two months later, Jason would don the pixie booties and green boy shorts of Robin, the Boy Wonder. Wary of alienating fans of the first Robin, Dick Grayson (who had gone on to operate as Nightwing in the wildly popular "New Teen Titans"), DC created Jason to be very similar to his legendary predecessor. Like Dick, Jason was the son of acrobats killed by criminals (in Jason's case, the murderer was Killer Croc). This initial version of Jason Todd was a redhead, and like the Golden Age Robin, was unendingly cheerful, cool-headed and of sound judgment. After being given his own Robin costume by Nightwing, Jason completed the traditional look by dying his red hair black.
Jason excelled under Batman's watchful eye, and even Nightwing declared that Jason was a better Robin than he himself had been. Then, as with so many stories, the Crisis came.ï¿½
In 1985 DC Comics unleashed "Crisis on Infinite Earths," an in-story attempt to consolidate the DC Multiverse into one cohesive world. As a result, much of DC Comics continuity was rewritten and many titles were wholly rebooted. The latter was the case with the Batman titles, and while Dick Grayson's history was left relatively unchanged, the Crisis saw Jason Todd get a full rewrite. Jason was now a streetwise kid who was caught by Batman trying to boost the wheels from the Batmobile. Jason earned his Robin wings when he helped Batman capture a gang of crooks. It is noted that Jason doesn't have Dick's acrobatic ability, and unlike Bruce, Jason was filled with a rage that couldn't be channeled into a productive career of beating up criminals while wearing long underwear.
Indeed, unlike the pre-"Crisis" Jason, this new Jason was reckless, angry and impulsive. The second Robin took foolish risks, sometimes ruining whole missions and months of planning in one moment of rashness. Jason was also prone to using excessive force. In a telling conversation with Batman's butler Alfred, Jason declared that no matter how much criminals fear Batman, they still know he won't kill them. In one famous story, it was presented, arguably, that Jason purposefully caused the death of a rapist who escaped legal justice by way of diplomatic immunity.
In 1988, anticipating the release of Tim Burton's "Batman" motion picture and the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of the Batman, DC Comics decided it was time for the Batman to fly solo again. In pursuit of this goal, DC made one of their most widely publicized and controversial decisions: A 1-900 number was used to poll fans and decide if Jason Todd should live or die. Fans voted for Jason's demise by a minuscule 50.34% majority in a vote of 5,343 to 5,271. What followed the voting was a story arc that is still talked about 20 years later: "A Death in the Family."
Written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by Jim Aparo with covers by Mike Mignola, "A Death in the Family" ran through the 1988 "Batman" issues #426-429, and followed Jason Todd in search of his long-lost mother. Jason traveled to the Middle East where he encountered Islamic fundamentalism, terrorists and the Joker. In a startlingly violent scene, Jason is beaten to death with a crowbar by the Joker and then blown up in a building. Batman swore vengeance, but to add insult to injury, the Ayatollah Khomeini made the Joker an ambassador from Iran. The American President sent Superman to convince Batman to not violate international law by killing the now diplomatically immune Joker. Batman walks a fine emotional line in the story; he is seen openly weeping and becomes more violent, even at one point striking Superman. While the Joker eventually is brought to justice, Batman continued to mourn the passing of Jason Todd for over a decade's worth of comics.
If the death of Jason Todd was controversial, his return was even more so. In the 2002 "Hush" storyline in the pages of the Batman family of titles, Robin III, Tim Drake, was kidnapped. When Batman confronted the kidnapper he discovered the culprit was someone who appeared to be a grown up Jason Todd. Batman defeated this "Jason," only to discover that it was merely the shape-shifter Clayface in disguise. However, it was later and rather infamously revealed that Jason was indeed back from the dead, courtesy of "Crisis" hero Superboy-Prime. Following the events of "Crisis on Infinite Earths," Superboy-Prime was trapped in a pocket dimension with the Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-2 and Alexander Luthor of Earth-3. Frustrated with his imprisonment, Superboy-Prime punched against the walls of the pocket dimension, which inadvertently disrupted reality. Say it with me - Superboy-Prime was punching time.
Superboy-Prime's actions restored Jason Todd to life, leaving the former Robin trapped inside his own buried coffin. Jason escaped his tomb and subsequently spent a year in a coma. After recovering, an amnesiac Jason encountered Talia al Ghul, one of the Batman's most famous love affairs and daughter to one of his greatest enemies, the immortal Ra's al Ghul. Talia recognized Jason and restored his health and memory by immersing him one of her father's Lazarus Pits, the keys to immortality. Talia informed Jason that his murder was never avenged, and Jason trained himself to defeat the Batman by traveling the world and following the same path that Bruce Wayne walked to become the Batman in the first place.ï¿½
In "Batman Annual" #25, Jason revealed that he had actually become an ally of the villain Hush, and had indeed confronted the Batman before switching places with Clayface. When Batman expressed no remorse for sparing the Joker's life after Jason was killed, Jason became the Red Hood--ironically, the same villainous identity the Joker had used before the accident that turned him into the Clown Prince of Crime.
As the Red Hood, Jason was seen hijacking a shipment of Kryptonite from the villain Black Mask. However, during a battle with Batman, Nightwing and Mr. Freeze, Jason returned the Kryptonite, telling them he had gotten the "lay of the land." The Red Hood then located the Joker and beat him with a crowbar, just as the Joker had beaten Jason years earlier. Jason did not kill the Joker, but rather spared the clown with the intent of using him later against the Batman. The Red Hood then takes control over several gangs in Gotham and goes to war with the Black Mask over control of the city's underworld. Despite appearances of criminal enterprising, Jason's goal was to cleanse the city of crime and eventually kill the Joker.
It is at this point that Batman finally discovered Jason's coffin had always been empty, and the detective began to believe that the Red Hood truly was Jason Todd. Next on Jason's agenda, he broke into Titan's Tower to confront Robin III, Tim Drake. Jason wore a different version of his own Robin costume and swiftly defeated the other Titans. Jason then battled Tim in the Tower's Hall of Fallen Titans. Angered that there was no memorial for him, Jason demanded to know if Tim was as good a Robin as Jason had been told. Tim said, "Yes" as he passed out from the beating that Jason delivered, and as Jason left, he ripped the 'R' emblem from Tim's uniform. At the end of the story, Jason said, "I'll admit. He's good," showing that Tim had earned Jason's respect and that Jason may have finally put that part of his pain to rest.
Jason Todd's next appearance found Jason kidnapping the Joker and holding him hostage. Using the Joker as bait, Jason lured Batman to Crime Alley, the site of their first meeting and as well as the place where Batman's parents died. Jason demanded to know why Batman didn't avenge his death by killing the Joker. Batman told Jason that he can never cross that line. Enraged, Jason insisted that Joker deserved to die for his crimes and also "because he took me away from you." Jason stated that the Batman must kill the Joker or that he would do it himself. Jason threw a pistol to Batman and began to count to three. Batman threw a batarang, slicing Jason's neck, and the Joker detonated some explosives sending them all into the bay
Later, in the pages of "Nightwing," Jason returned wearing Dick Grayson's Nightwing costume. At first Jason opposed Dick, but later joins forces with him in an attempt to overcome New York's gang bosses, the Pierce brothers. During the story, Jason transforms into a -- well, frankly -- a blob of goo and consumes a bad guy. Yeah, I don't like to think about it, and apparently neither does DC as immediately afterwards, Jason appeared inexplicably in "Star City," once again as the Red Hood. While in Star City, Jason allied himself with Danny "Brick" Brickwell, battling local criminals. The Red Hood and the Brick battled Green Arrow and the Batman, and while Green Arrow defeated Jason in a sword fight, Jason escaped with Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy. Jason told Speedy how similar they are, as they were both superhero sidekicks with checkered pasts. Jason defeated Speedy in a fight that he started and then freed her, telling Speedy that only she understood him. Finally, during the one year gap between "Infinite Crisis" and "OYL," Jason, in an uncharacteristically virtuous move, contacted Dick Grayson with information that proved Black Lightning (who was in jail at the time) was innocent of murder.
After such a long and twisted journey, Jason has found himself at the center of the events of DC Comics "Countdown" series, where he is investigating the Murder of Duela "Joker's Daughter" Dent. Whether the events of "Countdown" result in Jason becoming the Red Robin who appears in the "Countdown" promotional material remains to be seen. All that we know is that, controversy aside, Jason Todd, hero, villain or anti-hero, is here to stay.
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CBR Staff Writer Andy Khouri contributed to this article.