How Arkham Knight: Genesis finally Atones for the biggest Mistake in the Bat-verse
To mark the 75th Anniversary of his first appearance in Detective Comics #38, Robin(s) in the Bat-verse got a lot of attention in 2015, including the internecine Robin War series and a sprawling new Batman & Robin Eternal weekly. But it’s the limited series Arkham Knight: Genesis (by long time writer Peter Tomasi and artist Alison Borges) and it’s focus on one Robin in particular, the forsaken Jason Todd, that deserves applause for rehabilitating a DC character that never should have been revived in the first place.
As the second to wear the Robin costume—in its most garish iteration no less–Jason was created to replace Dick Grayson (who was off becoming Nightwing and a member of the Teen Titans before being rebooted entirely as a super-spy for Spyral). But he was also set up as the beaten-on, red-headed stepchild of the Bat Family. As an orphaned, other-side-of-the-tracks kid, Jason came from the school of hard knocks; he first met Batman after trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile in Batman #357 in 1983.
Practically epitomizing the term ‘sidekick’, a Robin has always rounded out Batman but in Jason a more rebellious, stubborn and harder to control Robin emerged. He should have been a feast for writers to work with but instead came across as whiny & self-indulgent to readers. He appeared in only a couple of stand-alone graphic novels, such as Jim Starlin & Bernie Wrightson’s superb Batman: The Cult before becoming disposable.
How he died was no mean feat. 1988’s A Death in the Family (Batman #426-429, written by Starlin, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo) raised real-world hackles for its politically-incorrect globetrotting sensibilities. And given that it came just a few years after The Dark Knight Returns, it also marked the Batman comics grim pivot from Caped Crusader to brooding Dark Knight.
The story takes the Dynamic Duo to the Middle East in pursuit of the Joker, who’s attempting to sell a cruise missile to “Shiite Radicals” in Lebanon at the same time Jason is trying to track down his birth mother. He eventually finds her as an aid worker in famine-wracked Ethiopia, but she betrays him to the Joker, who then beats & blows him up dead.
The decision to kill off Jason Todd was uniquely decided: readers were invited to call in to a 1-900 number and vote. DC’s editorial team, led by heavyweight editor Dennis O’Neil, created two separate endings but promised to abide by the phone-in poll. 5,343 votes were cast in favour of killing him vs. 5,271 against (though O’Neil suspected 1 reader called in as many as 320 times to kill off Jason). And thus comic book history was made.
Axing Jason may have been extremely controversial but it wasn’t a mistake. On the contrary, it was an admirable decision to fundamentally alter the Batman story once and for all. Jason dying at the hands of his archenemy forever defined Batman with this one, un-alterable failure, something that would haunt Bruce Wayne forevermore. What greater tragedy could a man who’s parents were senselessly ripped away from him fear more than proverbially losing his own son?
Virtually every major story thereafter acknowledged Jason’s death, most often through his glass-encased Robin costume gleaming reverentially in the Batcave, the starkest of all of Batman’s trophies. Writers, artists & readers were on the same journey, exploring a stark new turning point to the Batman story. Even if brainy & better-adjusted Tim Drake started appearing less than a year later, Jason’s death destroyed any last chance Batman had of ‘winning’ his war on crime.
And it was permanent. Until it wasn’t.
The decision to bring Jason back from the dead in 2005’s Under the Hood (fittingly co-written by Starlin) contradicted 17 years of storytelling. To be fair, it did so in spectacular fashion, including Jason adopting the Joker’s original alter-ego and a heart-rending confrontation that gets to the core of Batman’s mission, but the point still stands.
It’s not that DC’s superheroes haven’t come back from the dead before *cough Superman cough cough Flash cough Batman himself* but Jason was a peripheral enough character to be permanently expendable yet primary enough to actually matter to the canon. His death made Batman human in the way nothing else could. Thus, the editorial decision to bring him back was just short of comic book blasphemy
His return has been confusing ever since, indicative of the industry’s detrimental habit of continual reboots. First, Jason was revived during two universe-wide re-launches (Infinite Crisis & Flashpoint). Secondly, he was revamped with two stand-alone origin stories: Red Hood & The Outlaws #0 and now the video game-driven Arkham Knight: Genesis (following 2 other Batman: Arkham games by Rocksteady Studios), giving him two separate identities: Red Hood and now the Arkham Knight. While Jason’s personality as a free-wheeling Punisher-style anti-hero suits his backstory well, his attitude towards Batman (and to some extent, the Joker) pendulums between crazed lust for revenge, grudging ally (as seen in Death of the Family) and wayward progeny.
All told, he should have stayed dead. But one hopes that with the conclusion of Arkham Knight: Genesis, which reveals his ordeal of months-long torture and eventual death at the hands of the Joker (and completely erasing the unfortunate Iranian episode), Jason Todd, aka Red Hood aka the Arkham Knight is finally recovering from years of fascinating yet mishandled development into one of the Bat Family’s most interesting characters.