Monday, October 5, 2009

Oz and Ends: A Return to Carrie Kelley

Almost forgot. One of my rants made it onto author J.L. Bells' wonderful blog, Oz and Ends. It is now available exclusively there. Here's the link. Enjoy!  Oz and Ends: A Return to Carrie Kelley

A Good Soldier

Alrighty then, for the purposes of this post, we will assume that bringing Jason Todd back from the dead as an antagonist for Batman is not a terrible idea, in and of itself (there being considerable debate even on that score). What will be illuminated and discussed here today are the reasons why the execution of said idea was really, truly terrible. Because I hate to complain about a problem without offering a solution, I will provide possible tweaks that I believe could have salvaged the concept as decent entertainment.

Introductions first. For those of you don't know, Jason Todd was the second person to wear the mantle of Robin as Batman's erstwhile partner. Actually, he was the second version of the second person to wear the mantle. If that sounds confusing, it's because it is. Prior to the continuity resetting events of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jason Todd was a shameless red-headed (soon dyed black) origin-clone of Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who was created to replace the latter when he grew up and switched to the costumed hero identity of Nightwing. Post-Crisis, DC took the opportunity to replace the rather uninspired Jason "Jay" Todd with Jason Todd, a street-wise kid with an attitude, first encountered by Batman during his attempt to pry the wheels off the Batmobile.

Fan reception to the new Robin was mixed. For many, this "Robin with an attitude" did not go over well. In trying to tell more interesting stories with Robin, the writers gave him key character traits of recklessness, anger, and rebelliousness. In one story, it was even implied that Jason may have broken Batman's sacred "no killing" tenet (though for my money, Jason didn't push the guy off the balcony, he startled him, and was too ashamed of what his temper had caused to tell Batman what happened). It was quite a contrast to the almost always respectful and well-behaved Dick Grayson. It was perhaps a concept ahead of its time. Soon enough, the controversy over the new Robin reached its height with the now notorious "A Death in the Family" story arc.

The gist of it is DC let the fans vote as to Jason's fate at the end of the story with a 900 number. They never expected the fans to actually vote to kill him off. But for good or for ill, that's what happened, though rumors persist to this day that fan's using auto-dialers to vote repeatedly were the cause. There was a huge upset, but at the end of the day, Jason was dead, slain by the Joker, and Batman had another great tragedy to deal with, this one perhaps even worse than the death of his parents. A memorial went up in the Bat-Cave, Jason's suit inside a glass case, with a plaque that read "In Memory of Jason Todd, A Good Soldier". Gets right here, ya know?

This being comic books, death is usually more of a footnote than a conclusion, and so the case ended up being with Jason, albeit almost 15 years later. This is where my problems with Jason begin. To be clear, I liked Jason. I like Tim Drake (the next Robin) a lot more, but I never would have voted to kill Jason. Who knows what he might've evolved into had he survived? But, his death was honorable and heroic, and I didn't mind remembering that way, a cautionary tale that Tim would oft reflect upon, and attempt to honor in his own way.

Judd Winick, the writer who's idea it was to bring Jason back as a villain and executed the first major story-line with the revamped revenant, said that he did it because he always liked Jason, and he wanted to visit the idea of what revisiting one of his worst mistakes would do to Batman. Okay. We'll go with that right now. He says he got the idea from Jeph Loeb's story "Hush", another tale that I have a lot of problems with. There is a scene in that story where an evil (and quite grown up) Jason Todd fights with Batman in a graveyard. In that sequence, The World's Greatest Detective deduces from a number of clues that he shares with the reader that he is fighting the shape-shifting Clayface, copying the body and moves of Dick Grayson, the whole time. Apparently, Mr. Winick saw this and thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if that really was Jason?"

In Re-Todd's (as I will refer to the third Jason incarnation from this point on) debut story, "Under the Hood", a mysterious new villain calling himself the Red Hood shows up and harries Batman from all angles, including economic, mental, and physical. Clearly this new opponent is an accomplished tactician, with considerable resources and enough training to fight Batman to a stand-still. Of course, it turns out to be Jason 2.0. He appears as a man roughly the same age as the current Dick Grayson, heavily muscled and decked out in gun-toting biker chic. I will note here that at the time of this appearance, Jason would have been around 18 years-old, assuming an uninterrupted aging process from the time of his "death". We know this because Batman observes Jason Todd's 18th birthday with Batgirl on panel shortly before the "War Games" story-arc. Especially in comic-book-time, very little time passed between the two stories. Four to five months, maximum. The more you know, kids. Similarly, Tim Drake turned 16 in his own comic shortly before that, so Jason is roughly two years older than Tim, give or take.

Yeah. That guy totally looks 18. Anyways . . . the story moves along until reaching what I find to be one of the least satisfying endings in comics, with Re-Todd ranting about how Batman should have avenged him by killing the Joker, Batman talking about how he'd really like to but it would be wrong, and the Joker egging them both on. Batman wins, incapacitating Re-Todd with a ricochet batarang, and the Joker blows up the oil platform they're all on. That's the end. The next time we see any of them time has jumped forward a year, and the moments following the explosion and how they all survived are taken for granted and never revisited. Poor.

But not as poor as the explanation we were handed for Jason's return in Batman Annual #25, penned by Mr. Winick. It is revealed in this issue that Jason was never supposed to die (meta-fiction, wheeee...) and that he was resurrected inside his coffin six-months after his death (which would close the age-gap between he and Tim even further), thanks to Superboy prime resetting reality by wailing on the crystalline walls of his extra-dimensional prison. If you can't see what's stupid about that, I don't know if I can help, but I will try.

Making his resurrection happen as the result of the actions of a character outside the central Batman mythos (Superboy Prime being from another reality altogether and thus really outside even the central DC mythos) makes this less of a Batman story. Supposedly, this story was supposed to be all about the effect Jason's return would have on Batman. This approach makes it seems random. Someone coming back to life, randomly, because of an extra-dimensional alien punching a wall. Exactly what I want out of a good Batman story. Yeah, that fits right in with parent's being gunned down in alleys, circus performers dying for want of protection money, trying to steal the wheels of a car, and deducing Batman's identity with sheer brains.

Moving on, little Re-Todd, still suffering from his wounds at the hands of the Joker, digs his way out of his coffin and grave with his belt buckle. Then he wanders around in a haze for a bit before being found, put into a hospital, and falling into a coma. An indeterminate amount of time later (long enough for his considerable injuries to heal) he wakes up and stumbles out of the hospital in his gown. He manages to steal some clothes, but his brain damage keeps him living as homeless zombie for a while after that. Eventually, some street thug recognizes him as Robin. A street thug who knows how to get this info to Talia Head, who then nabs Jason and becomes his caretaker for a while, eventually dumping him in a Lazarus pit against her father's wishes. She frenches him (cradle robber) and tells him he is unavenged, then pushes him over a waterfall. At this point, Re-Todd gets mad and uses League of Assassins resources to follow a similar training path to Bruce Wayne's.

Similar training path? If by similar you mean finding guys Batman didn't care to learn from and learning what he could in 2, maybe 3 1/2 years max, as opposed to training with the very best Bruce could find with his not inconsiderable resources for (conservative estimate) 10 years and putting that into practice every night on the street for at least another 10...then yeah. Sure. Totally similar training path. Hey, let's say Stephanie Brown got rich somehow and trained with a bunch of vaguely referenced masters while she was gone for a couple years, so we can have her come back and give Batman a real fight!

So now, with these insights, we have a probably not quite 18 year old Jason Todd showing up and outfoxing Batman financially, laying various traps for and playing games with The World's Greatest Detective, and fighting a man with 20 years of experience, and a record of having fought the likes of Lady Shiva, to a standstill. Oh, and by the way, it really was Jason in Hush. So Batman was like, totally wrong. Even though it turned out he was right. Just for the wrong reasons. Cuz he's not like a great detective or anything. And it goes downhill from here.

After this, it seems DC just didn't know what to do with Jason. The next time we see him, he's dressing up as Nightwing and behaving like a grinning, murderous, knife-happy psychopath. Think Dexter Morgan, but without the charm or discipline.
Later, in the same story, he gets mutated into some sort of horrible blob creature. He gets better. I hate you, Bruce Jones.

After some more random outings as Red Hood, including a pointless appearance in Green Arrow, another comic Winick has been busy running into the ground, he started appearing in DC's Countdown ('scuse me, gotta suppress the gag reflex) and eventually took on the Red Robin mantle. Which he subsequently threw in the garbage, and which eventually ended up on Tim Drake's shoulders. Then he tried to be Batman. With guns. As of the time of this writing, it looks as though Grant Morrison is trying to reinvent him once again, still as the Red Hood, but now with a more. . . dramatic approach.

This has run longer than I thought it would, so I will save my methods for how this could all have been a lot better with a little tweaking will have to wait for next time. Have a nice day!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Coming Soon...

...a rant all about why Judd Winick's resurrection of Jason Todd II was one of the most poorly conceived, badly executed storylines in all of comics. Which is saying something.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First Rant

So, as an example of what I talked about in the previous post, here is what happened when someone on the Batman boards asked me to rate the following writers. Diarrhea of the keyboard. Enjoy.

Hoo Boy. Well, I'll try. Seems more like a topic for the general forums though...

Alan Moore: As a pure writer and master of the medium of comics storytelling, I'd have to put Mr. Moore up top. His stories are engaging, thought-provoking, powerful, and relatively easy to follow while still containing layer after layer of subtext and meaning. He loses points on superhero stories using established characters, at least with me, because I rarely get the feeling that he really likes them. By his own admission, his superhero stories sometimes put dramatic stress and burdens on characters who were not designed to carry them.

Neil Gaiman: Gaiman is up there, and it was tough for me not to make him number one. Ultimately though, I decided that Watchmen was slightly better than Sandman, and called it with that. Close though. Sandman is the comic that people who aren't really comic book fans read and say, "Oh yeah, I like comics. I read Sandman, like, twice." Very broad appeal. By turns clever, profound, melancholy, mysterious, and triumphant, his work has a distinct voice without becoming a cliche or parody of itself. A very close #2.

Grant Morrison: I am conflicted about putting Morrison above Miller, as my opinion of which is better tends to fluctuate, but Morrison is currently waxing in my affections. Huge, ambitious ideas, metaphysical exploration, grandiose, definitive "comic book" moments, and an ever-present and genuine love of the characters he's writing pervades his work. His weakness, in my book, is that his lofty goals are at times subverted by the inaccessibility of his storytelling to those who just want to relax with a good yarn, sometimes only within reach of those dedicated to penetrating his layers of subterfuge, metaphor, and at times just garbled execution. But what he lacks in grace and style I feel he more than makes of for in enthusiasm and concepts.

Frank Miller: Ah, Miller. Definitely a seminal influence on modern comic books. Love him or hate him, he's inescapable in his influence. Personally, I love most of his early work, even Ronin, which weirded me the heck out as an 11 year old reading it for the first time (I read it because I'd heard my beloved Ninja Turtles started out partially as a parody of his work on Daredevil and Ronin). Sin City was groundbreaking. Dark Knight Returns and Year One, for good or for ill, have guided the creative direction of Batman in one way or another for over 20 years, with many works being measured by how much their Batman either resembles or breaks away from Miller's portrayals. Sadly, he loses points with me lately for a sameness, or even what approaches a self-deprecating over-the-topness in his latest works. I dunno, maybe I'll look back in 10 years and grasp that he was really doing stuff ahead of his time, but at the moment, my enthusiasm has waned.

Denny O'Neil (I hope this is who you meant by Neal Adams): Often credited with being one of the first writers to introduce mature themes and realistic influences to comics, I can't deny his influence, but I couldn't rank him above any of the preceding writers either. Still, a very direct influence on the modern takes on several characters, not the least of which would have to be his Green Arrow.

Chris Claremont: I just don't like this guy. To give credit where credit is due, I do feel his view of Wolverine as a failed Samurai, someone with a perfect, pure, unattainable ideal of self and a strong sense of personal honor, set at odds with a bestial temperament and a history of failure, was the best one. His idea to have Sabretooth be Logan's father, and exist as someone whom he'd never beaten and who would track him down and beat him up annually just to prove a point rang truer than later interpretations for me. I really feel though, that the rest of the X-Men suffered for the time he spent on Wolverine. Stan Lee's Cyclops was a confident, competent leader with iron self-discipline and problems relating to others because of his feelings of being an outsider. Easy for an awkward teenager dreaming of empowerment to sympathize with. Claremont turned him into a guy whose insecurity and fixation on self-restraint and leadership as a job rather than a calling left him socially crippled, leading to him using Jean and the Professor as emotional crutches and allowing many fans to think of him as an insecure wuss (who at one point ran out on his wife and newborn son to be with his resurrected girlfriend...ugh) rather than a good soldier who cared about the dream, doing his best to save his whole species. Not to mention his wacky ideas for Wolverine and Nightcrawler's origins (though one has to admit that strange and controversial as his Nightcrawler origin would have been, it was much better than the pathetic "The Draco" story by Chuck Austen, which Marvel actually made canon). Overall, he just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I've rambled too long already, but I would like to say Garth Ennis belongs somewhere on this list. He's a great writer, and yes he doesn't like superheroes, but he's honest about it, and at his best with stuff like Preacher.

Trying To Use My Blog That I Never Use

I'm really terrible about updating this, but I'm gonna try to start using it. I have a tendency to come up with long rants about things that are obnoxious for people on message boards to wade through, so I'll try to start putting them up here. Also, I have a Deviant Art account, but it couldn't hurt to give my art an even wider dispersal. So I'll work on that too. You know, eventually.