A few months ago, Talking Jason Todd on Twitter brought up the fact that despite Jason Todd’s consistent status as an underage minor, history has regularly attributed his death at the hands of the Joker to his own arrogance.
Aggressive reminder that Jason Todd was killed by the Joker and DC endlessly blamed a 15-year-old boy for his own murder throughout years of comics and had other heroes in the universe tear down a dead kid and I will never stop being pissed about it. pic.twitter.com/Hvcr8H2GWv
— Talking Jason Todd (@talkingjtodd) January 31, 2019
This is interesting as much of Jason Todd’s personality has been in flux, evening out relatively recently in the days since his Red Hood identity has been the status quo around 2011. It raises the question: Should Jason be blamed for his own death?
Of course, Batman and the other heroes of Gotham hardly use Jason’s character to excuse the Joker whenever the events of 1988’s “A Death in the Family” are referenced. For example, in Batgirl #7 (2000), Batman’s insistence on Cassandra Cain being ready for anything stems from Robin’s encounter with the Joker more so than her being too headstrong or ambitious.
But Talking Jason Todd has a point, and presented examples to help illustrate it. In Hush, Batman mused on what made the first three Robins different from each other, and Jason’s opinion on crime-fighting as a game is what Batman blamed for his death.
The mentions of Jason’s skewed perspective aren’t for nothing. We’ve talked before on TBU about how Jason was very different from writer to writer, with Jim Starlin being the only one who wrote Jason as the rash youngster who made the most sense to grow up into Red Hood. Concentrating on that, how much of “the game” led Jason to his fateful encounter with the famous crowbar?
Starting off from his Post-Crisis origin story in Batman #408-409, we see that Todd had a knack for jumping into danger when the odds were stacked against him.
When seeing this during a Robin origin story, one remembers the end of Dick Grayson’s first appearance, where Bruce chides him for jumping into action before waiting for Batman to arrive.
Compare this to many years later, in Batman #408, where Batman’s horrified at the sight of Robin (Dick Grayson) shot by the Joker. Despite the fact that Robin is more experienced, saves his own life from falling off a ledge, and is legally an adult, Batman claimed that his well-being is his responsibility and fired Dick from the Robin role.
The inanity of this decision by Batman is brought up later in Batman #416 by Nightwing, prompting one to think that Bruce intentionally distanced himself from Dick, perhaps believing he saw no more place for him in the young man’s life. It’s hard to say, and this version of Dick’s transition from Robin to Nightwing has been re-written and retconned several times over.
Of course, the endangering of an underage child in waging a war on crime is a talking point of the Batman comics that has never been settled. By 1987, the books were more than happy to invoke the concerns of the real world without fretting too much over the implications of Batman’s sanity. Nevertheless, In Batman #410 both Alfred and Commissioner Gordon express unease at the new, much younger Robin.
Jason’s reintroduction into the books followed Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, where in that timeline his death implicitly led to Batman’s retirement. When Carrie Kelly came on the scene to become the third Robin, Bruce accepted her but was unerringly strict about her following his orders.
Bruce doesn’t come on as strong with Jason as he did with Carrie. This might lead down the sexism debate with how Batman interacts with his women partners compared to how he works with partners that are male. But remember, these issues were written before any Robin had died. With Carrie, Bruce had the fact of Jason’s death in his mind. With Jason, he only had Dick’s gunshot injury.
Jason does make mistakes throughout his Robin career. In Batman #415, he knocks out the Scarecrow and brings him back to the Batcave, where Batman is none too pleased. But nothing happens to the kid in terms of any serious reprimand.
By this point is when Jason’s mistake comes not from lack of experience, but overestimation of his own abilities. In the story that serves as a flashback tale in Batman #416 to one year in the past, both Bruce and Nightwing sum up Jason’s problem in working solo.
Batman #424, “The Diplomat’s Son” shows Jason’s high opinion of his skills in conjunction with his thirst for vengeance. When he encounters a woman beaten up (possibly raped) by a drug dealer, he wants blood. But Batman and the police need hard evidence first. Jason’s already been shown the consequences of leaping before looking, but he still can’t deal with it.
This issue is important to Jason Todd because it shows his willingness and yearning to exact justice on criminals in ways which go against Batman. They eventually apprehend the dealer, Felipe, but he’s let out on bail awaiting deportation back to his South American country. Before leaving, he makes a call to his abused girlfriend in front of Batman and Robin, threatening her. The two rush to comfort the woman, but discover her hanging body. Robin immediately goes after Felipe, having a head start on Batman who arrives just in time to see Felipe fall out of his high-rise apartment.
We don’t actually see Jason push Felipe off his balcony. It’s entirely possible Felipe was spooked to his death. It’s never been addressed. However, consider this scene from Batman #402 (Pre-Crisis, but so close to Post). In discussing a killer who masqueraded as Batman, Jason questioned their rule against killing.
This recalls a scene during the Under the Hood storyline from Judd Winick where Jason had no regrets about inflicting crippling damage on those who he thought deserved it (re-told in the Under the Red Hood animated movie).
Pay attention to how Alfred’s narration continues this thought process.
This became more of the narrative around Jason postmortem, as well as him being arrogant and too eager to jump into action. Considering the Diplomat’s Son story, Jason was shown to have a lack of empathy for criminals, bringing him to a more violent means of meting out justice.
Which brings us to…
By this point, Batman can’t ignore Jason’s actions. Despite this characterization being the vast minority of his appearances, Jason has been consistently endangering his own life and dealing out punishment to criminals disproportionately. Like the real-world concern of a boy fighting crime being implemented in Jason’s new origin story, Jim Starlin brings up the psychological effects of an orphan punching criminals night after night. Back at Wayne Manor, Alfred notes that Jason still hasn’t come to grips with his parents’ deaths, and for a moment Bruce is at a loss for words in recognizing how making him Robin has affected the boy’s emotional state. He suspends Jason from active duty.
This is also what sets Jason apart from the other Robins. While truthfully, he and Dick are the only orphans (technically Tim became one after Identity Crisis, but after a long while) the difference in upbringing separates the two, and that’s shown here. Jason spent an unknown amount of years on the streets, getting in trouble with the police and engaging in the violence of Gotham City well before he was adopted by Bruce. No matter the continuity, Dick was quickly taken under Bruce’s wing soon after his parents were killed. Jason’s outlook on life had already begun forming before he trained to become Robin, which would’ve only worsened his perspective on how to deal with crime.
Admittedly this is a pretty conservative estimation about the effects of poverty and coming from a broken home. Jason gets along pretty well with living in a mansion with a billionaire playboy. He never talks about how the Wayne Foundation might help out his former neighborhood or fund a clinic that might help those as ill as his mother was. His only outward psychological consequence from growing up on the street is his hatred towards crime, exacerbated by his encounters with Two-Face and Felipe. The idea of the Gotham City Police being corrupt and decadent was introduced before his Post-Crisis origin in Batman: Year One, but didn’t take root as the foundational understanding of the city’s system of law and order until years later. With that concept in place, anger at the police would make more sense for Jason, whether or not he could get away with it (see this scene from Titans for a peak into how that could’ve potentially played out).
The point remains that fifteen-year-old Jason, more than twelve-year-old Dick Grayson, thirteen-year-old Carrie Kelly or thirteen-year-old Tim Drake, had a very different set of circumstances that developed his character into the kind of person who made disobeying Batman a regular practice. Certainly, that doesn’t mean he deserved to die. The aforementioned scene from Titans shows a lunatic who could never be a hero, resulting from years of understanding Jason as having been the “bad Robin”. Jason was troubled, immature, and in this writer’s opinion ultimately unfit for the role, but he was never out-and-out villainous. Additionally, the fact that he went into action to fight the Joker for the safety of his birth mother has been left out of most retellings of his death. Unlike “Batman: The Last Crusade”, it wasn’t a case of ego or excitement that brought him to Joker’s door, it was a sense of obligation and honor. No one knows that except the readers of Batman #427.
So what killed Jason Todd? Was it his youth? His personality? Was he solely a victim of the Joker?
It’s up for personal interpretation. For me, what killed Jason was what killed the Waynes and what led Barbara Gordon to be shot by the Joker. It’s what led Jack Drake to be killed by Captain Boomerang and Vesper Fairchild getting murdered by David Cain and everyone in between. Chance circumstance. A combination of the decisions the characters chose to make colliding with the decisions of other characters who ended up causing irreparable harm. No one character is a force of their own doing, the same way people aren’t in the real world. That’s what speaks to the love and devotion the Batman fandom has to their favorite characters. Often times they react like anyone else would regarding tragic events, finding ways to justify how things might’ve been different (this is all ignoring the whims of the writer of course). Where Jason Todd is concerned, his roguish personality when compared to the more friendly Dick Grayson or introspective Tim Drake re-frames both his past and his future representations.
Everything that encompasses his character, from adopting a former villain persona to his anti-heroic actions, to his – sometimes weirdly written – bad boy behavior, comes from how different he was set apart from his predecessors, even though at the end of the day he was only a fifteen-year-old kid. It’s a mishmash of reasons why Jason has been characterized so strongly and so starkly when considering the fact that he was only written that way in two out of the six years of his initial existence. Nevertheless, for good or bad, the costume case in the Batcave will always point to him, over every other Robin, including the first one. Despite the several attempts to repeat the “Death in the Family” storyline, that’s an honor that can’t be replicated, no matter how much he may or may not be to blame for his own undoing.