Sustainability and Character Depth: My Issue With Jason Todd

I don’t hate Jason. For a while, he was even one of my favourite members of the Batfamily. But then…I came to realize that I was loving him more for his potential as a character than anything, because he’s so inconsistently written. Much of what fandom loves about Jason has little to no basis in canon. It’s great that fandom has made him into a more interesting and three dimensional character, but that doesn’t mean it exists in the canon version of him. And when I look at the canon version of him…well, he just doesn’t actually have much of his own.

I wrote a post a while back about the issue with the Robin mantle, where I discussed how the Batfamily is collapsing under its own weight. And I think if you exclude characters like Harper Row and Duke Thomas to focus on what’s usually considered the “core” Batfamily, it’s most obvious with Jason, to the point of being actually glaring. Sure, Jason has largely grown out of being the Dick clone who even had his same backstory that he was pre-Crisis, but for a long time, everything he got was Dick’s castoffs. He doesn’t even really have a generation of his own – in the very brief period during which he worked with the Titans, he was there as Dick’s younger brother, because that was the original team that Dick had founded. In the first Red Hood and the Outlaws, he was partnered with Roy and Kory – again, Dick’s friends, not his own. And in order to make that work – to the limited extent that it did – DC had to take two characters, both with much more history of their own than Jason and tear apart all their characterization. The end result? No one except Jason fans was happy.

Nowadays, Bruce’s thing for adopting every kid he meets is a fandom joke. But I think it’s important to remember how that started – he got lonely and missed Dick so he brought home Jason. It was only after forty years of contentment with his one kid that he felt the need to adopt another, and that was only because his one kid had left home. Contrary to what fandom would have you believe, Bruce does have some element of self control. He’s met plenty of kids without feeling the need to take them home. Dick was different because of how much he saw himself in him. The only reason the Batfamily as we know it exists is because DC realized Dick was too good and too popular a character to remain Bruce’s sidekick forever, but still wanted to preserve the Batman and Robin dynamic in some form. That form was Jason. Jason was literally Dick’s replacement, both in and out of universe. His issues stemming from that are so hugely important to his character that when he moves past it…where does he even go? You could argue that Dick had a similar issue, with a large chunk of his character revolving around his need to move out of Bruce’s shadow, but he also had plenty of other stuff going on so that he could become his own hero and still have stories worth telling, even though a number of writers do go back to that tired idea of him struggling to live up to Bruce. Jason, not really so much. He’s too heavily defined by two stories.

I came across a discussion the other day about Dick and how you can argue that he’s been around longer than all the other Robins combined. Sure, it depends on whether or not you count the years in which one of them was dead, but Dick’s history is so long, his impact on the universe so heavy, that I started immediately thinking about the idea of how that legacy has impacted the stories we get. Legacy matters in DC. This is especially true for the Batfamily. Jason as Robin was one of the first legacy characters in that he was specifically introduced to take up the Robin mantle. And because of this, writers didn’t know what to do with him beyond having him fill Dick’s shoes alongside Bruce, which resulted in a weird kind of limbo where he didn’t have his own friends or own storylines or anything – just him, the only one in his generation, with stories that were just rehashes of Dick’s. Dick has Wally, Donna, Kory, Roy, Garth. Tim, Cass, and Steph are all in the same generation, along with Kon, Cassie, and more. Who does Jason have, though? Maybe Artemis and Bizarro, now, but mostly he’s dependent on Bruce and the Robin mantle for meaning. This can translate a little awkwardly into stories.

Let’s consider the Young Justice cartoon for a second. I absolutely adore YJ. I was so happy when we learned we were getting a season three. As far as I’m concerned, it stands as a model for how to please both comics fans and those that have never read a comic in their life. It respects canon while not being tethered by it. But. Jason’s existence in that universe coupled with the fact that he actually appears in season three makes me question what they’re going for with him in a thematic sense. The show compressed the timescale and skipped five years in which a lot happened. We don’t know how old Dick was when he became Nightwing, just that in five years, he went from being not ready to lead the team to an eighteen year old kid with two younger brothers, one of which is dead, playing speed chess with everyone around him, who everyone listens to. And as a Nightwing fan, as much as I would have wanted to see those years we missed, that’s awesome! Season two of Young Justice let us see him be his own hero. In a lot of ways, it did the same thing Titans is doing right now – not really showing us the origin, because it doesn’t matter. We know Dick and the how isn’t quite as important. But if I consider it from a different perspective, the fact that in those five years, Dick grew up, Jason came and went, and Tim became Robin? It’s a lot. Too much. They’re all uncomfortable close in age, and it kind of diminishes the legacy, which doesn’t do Jason any favours.

Robin is a hugely important concept. The idea of Robin as a Gotham legend informs a lot of what we know about the characters to have used the name. It changes not only a lot of Dick’s character to have been Robin for less than ten years, it changes what Robin means to the entire DCU. Arguably, comics Dick is more attached to the vigilante lifestyle than any other character. He’s been doing it for well over half his life. Him being Robin for nearly ten years – half his life, at the point when he gave it up – meant that he’d made Robin into a symbol that the whole world knew. One that Jason wanted to wear. One that Tim viewed as absolutely essential for Batman’s continued existence. But in Young Justice, as gorgeous as Dick’s character development is, the mantle itself doesn’t have the same weight, because all the focus is on Dick’s complicated relationship with potentially becoming Batman, not on the heaviness of his own legacy. If it were on the latter, we’d have gotten way more mentions of Jason in season two, more scenes between Dick and Tim. But we didn’t. So I can’t say I care about his appearance nearly as much as what seems like most of the fanbase, because without the context of that history, there’s not enough there to make me actually invested. Now that we’ve seen him, I have to consider the fact that it’ll be mainly comics knowledge that makes me care. I trust the writers to make something compelling, because they’ve always done that, even with characters I didn’t come in having any investment in, but without focus on the weight of the Robin name or on the Batfamily as a family, Jason means pretty much nothing to me. His story will be entertaining…but that’s it. Nothing where he needs to be a major character, or stick around past the end of his arc. That’s almost disappointing, because in my opinion, Jason can work in adaptations better than in main continuity comics.

I was talking to a friend recently about the uniqueness of the comic medium. We lamented the fact that superhero comics have become kind of circular, and endless cycle of death and rebirth with no lasting consequences and nothing meaning anything. In fact, I wrote a post about a similar issue in X-Men comics and how Chris Claremont wanted endings in a medium without them. When it comes to DC, that seems especially applicable to Jason, because his character development is so constantly reversed. That’s why I think he’s better suited for things like miniseries or one shots – those end. The characters age and the story wraps up before it becomes necessary to recycle the plot, so Jason could grow in a way that the nature of comics just don’t allow. I’ve seen a lot of people indicate they want him to get a full show, but I don’t see that working out. With shows, there’s a similar issue to comics – there’s no clear end. And Jason needs an end to work. I said at the beginning that I thought he had potential as a character and that’s why I cared about him. But truth be told, that’s not it, either. Because for me, his potential is limited. Jason isn’t a character suited to comics as we know them. I find him interesting through to Under the Red Hood, and maybe a bit after that, if the focus is on him getting past his anger at Bruce…but not any longer than that. Not if he continues being a vigilante.

There’s nothing sufficiently unique about him as a vigilante. His strained relationship with Bruce? Uh, duh, Dick had that first, that’s why Jason even exists. Grew up poor in Gotham with parents that weren’t exactly model citizens? So did Steph. A Gotham vigilante that’s thinks killing is sometimes necessary? Helena and Kate are right there. And all these characters have more going on. Jason may be older than all of them except Dick, but that doesn’t mean he works as well. As far as I’m concerned, if Jason still has potential, it’s not as Red Hood. If his character is going to go anywhere, it’s going to have to be as a civilian. DC doesn’t really do civilians, so I know this isn’t something that’s going to happen, but vigilante!Jason just feels static to me. Sure, he occasionally has some moments of growth where he moves past his issues with the Batfamily…but those issues are so crucial to the way he’s been written for so long, pretty much all writers bring them back to prominence eventually. There hasn’t been a single writer yet that has given me a compelling story of who Jason is beyond that angst. As long as he keeps killing people, that overdone tension with the Batfamily will continue to exist, and if he stops, well…the roster of Gotham vigilantes is overcrowded either way, but at least in the first way, he’s a little different from his family.

Oftentimes, talking to a character’s fans when I’m not a huge fan of said character helps me develop more of an appreciation for them. That’s been the case with characters like Tim Drake, Conner Kent, Cassie Sandsmark, Kyle Rayner, and more. It hasn’t been the case with Jason, at all. This combined with my general lack of understanding of a possible direction for his character has left me pretty confident that as much as I can appreciate the idea of him, appreciate Lost Days and Under the Red Hood, I’m probably not going to ever be keen on him in anything ongoing. Right now, I find him too shallow a character to be sustainable. But who knows – after all, it’s almost always possible to redeem a character. I didn’t like Damian at first! Now he’s one of my favourite members of the Batfamily. So maybe there’ll be a writer some time very soon that completely changes my opinion on Jason. I hope so. Comics are way more fun when I care about all the characters that show up in the runs that I’m interested in. It’s just that the material we’ve gotten for years now makes me skeptical that’s gonna happen.

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2 thoughts on “Sustainability and Character Depth: My Issue With Jason Todd

  1. Pingback: Superhero Adaptations As Completely Separate From Superhero Comics: Why Adaptations Can Tell Different Stories – Nerd With Words

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