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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Romance In Comics And The Editorial Tug Of War Over Characters

Hi! Popping back in after weeks of absence to discuss how romance in comics can serve as an indication of what is currently seen as the most important aspect of a character.

As probably anyone that’s reading this knows, I love Dick Grayson. I’m very much invested in stories about him. But I do not care whether he ends up in a romantic relationship with Starfire or Barbara Gordon or any other character. I like Kory, I love Barbara, and there’s probably not going to be a new love interest that I actively can’t stand, so. It does not matter to me. What does is Dick getting to remain the beautifully complex character I’ve literally loved for more than half my life and develop so that he doesn’t stay stagnant forever. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about his development – past, present, and future – without discussing his romantic relationships. This is because his relationships with his two most prominent love interests act as kind of a barometer for what editorial considers most important about him, and as such, what we can expect in the future.

Characters that have their own solo series – characters that are considered anchors, of a sort – usually have their own supporting cast from which the key players are chosen, the key players being love interests, Rogues Galleries, family members, and the like. It makes sense – it’s way cleaner than trying crossover pairings. I think that’s one of the many reasons Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t work. It’s not just about Lois. It’s that you can’t have them as main characters in each other’s solo titles. Forget about in universe reasons and how iconic Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship is. Long term, Superman and Wonder Woman can’t last, because it’s not practical in terms of writing. That brings me back to Dick.

Dick is a unique case. He’s undoubtedly a major character – he’s got his own series and supporting cast. He’s one of the core members of the Batfamily. He’s led the Titans – hell, he’s led the Justice League. He’s absolutely not a character that’s only perceived as important as a member of the Titans. Despite that, for a long time, his most important romantic relationship was with his fellow Titan, Kory. Someone that has absolutely nothing to do with Gotham or Bludhaven. What’s interesting about this is that while in many cases, this sort of relationship would indicate to me a character that writers and editors had no intention of developing as an individual, the context and timeline behind it make it seem more like the era in Dick’s publication history where he was most independent.

Dick joining the Titans was him asserting his independence, because he didn’t have a solo series until the 90s. He was defined by his partnership with Bruce. His relationship with Kory, his leadership of the Titans…those things helped him break free of being considered a supporting character. And you know how I said that I don’t really care whether Dick’s with Kory or with Babs or with someone else altogether? That’s still true, but despite all the good elements of stories featuring him in recent years, despite the fact that I’ve loved seeing him as Batman and as the eldest son of the family, all told, the era where he and Kory were a couple and he was on his own was probably better for him as a character.

Dick’s relationship with Kory spoke of a time of freedom for him. He was involved with her when he gave up the Robin identity, when he became Nightwing, when he wasn’t on good terms with Bruce. They went through a lot together. And they could have still been together today…had it not been for the tug of war between those writing the two of them and those that wanted to bring Dick back into the Batfamily. The latter won out. And as much as I do love his dynamics with the different members of the family, it kind of sucks that him going back home involved pushing him back into being, on some level, a Batman sidekick, rather than the completely independent and awesome hero he had become.

When Dick is off with a team – whether that team be the Titans or the JLA – he gets to be the hero that learned from both Batman and Superman, the former sidekick that’s surpassed his mentor. But – as I brought up in a post I wrote a while back on the issue with the ever expanding Batfamily – when he’s back in Gotham, in the same story as Bruce, he’s often pushed back into Batman’s shadow, because Bruce has to be so special that his son can’t ever be better than him at anything. So he gets deaged, made less competent, and has parts of his history erased. That brings us to his relationship with Barbara.

When Dick shifted back to being considered a Bat character, we started to see the rise of his and Barbara’s romantic relationship. That has continued into the present. When it comes to comics, Dick is nowadays considered primarily a Bat character and secondarily a Titan. His relationship with Kory has been left to the past. He doesn’t spend nearly as much time as he once did far away from Gotham with the Titans. The focus is on his relationship with his family. Romantically, he’ll have brief relationships with others, but those are relationships that we know have expiration dates. Even while he’s in those, there are reminders of his and Barbara’s relationship. Right now, that’s a pretty significant part of who he is (of course, once we bring in the Ric thing, there’s a lot more discussion to be had about the nature of who he is and Barbara’s importance, but frankly, I’m way too tired for that. Let’s not talk about Ric).

In adaptations, it’s different. The Bats aren’t so much the priority anymore – not like they were in the 90s and early 2000s with Batman: The Animated Series and the related movies. Even though the comics version of Dick and Kory’s relationship has been left to the past, that’s Dick’s primary relationship in the adaptations, possibly just because we haven’t had as much real Batman stuff as we used to. The exception appears to be Young Justice, as of season 3, because that version of Dick is involved with Barbara. This is interesting, because it seems to me a sign that the Batfamily – and by that, I mean the family, not just Batman or Nightwing – seems to becoming a priority in at least this one adaptation. Dick has been a major character from the beginning, of course. And Bruce has had quite a few significant scenes, and is arguably one of the most important supporting characters. But it wasn’t until season three that we really started delving into the others. We have Tim, of course – we knew that already – and Steph, and promos have shown we’re getting Cass…but in a spectacular wham shot, we now know we’re going to see Jason and baby Damian, as well! This season is likely going to have a lot of the Batfamily, and we should have seen that coming from the second we found out that Barbara had become Oracle and was flirting with Dick via text, because the second we knew Young Justice involved their relationship, we knew that this version of him is most definitely being written as a Bat.

I find this a tiny bit frustrating, not because I’m opposed to any of these relationships or to having a character fit different roles in different stories, but because it implies that writers and editors find Dick to be kind of a piece of clay that they can stick in different places to tell other stories.He is a malleable character. None of his relationships are comparable to, say, Clark Kent and Lois Lane in terms of how essential to the character it is. He does serve different purposes in different stories, and I’m all for exploring his different relationships. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be romantic. I’d like some more focus on his consistent traits and on the strength of his friendships. Because those are just as important – indeed, when it comes to Dick, probably more – than his romances, and having this much weight given to his romances really isn’t all that helpful to actual character exploration.

Comparing Comics Dick Grayson to the ‘Young Justice’ and Fan Interpretations

In an ill conceived attempt at distracting myself from my mourning at the air date for season three of Young Justice being pushed back to 2019 – seriously, haven’t we waited long enough? – I started rewatching some of my favourite episodes. In doing so, I started thinking about the show’s interpretation of Nightwing and how that compares to the comics version of the character as well as the fan interpretations.

Dick Grayson is my absolute favourite comics character ever. He’s absolutely essential to comics, to Batman. There would be no Robin without him. By extension, there would be no Batfamily. And, like a friend and I once concluded, without the Batfamily, Bruce would be like the guy from the Dark Knight trilogy. And no one likes that guy!

I saw a Tweet a while back from someone justifying the need for a Cyborg movie, and one of his points was something along the lines of “Nightwing is getting one, and more of the general audience  knows who Cyborg is than Nightwing”. That statement could well be true. And I fully support Cyborg getting a movie. But I think it’s also an oversimplification, because while Cyborg may be better known than Nightwing, I’d be willing to bet Robin is better known than Cyborg. Dick Grayson is better known  than Victor Stone. Dick is very important and very well known. But precisely who he is and what he stands for varies dramatically depending on who you ask.

The fan interpretation frustrates me a bit because of how much it flattens the character. I mean, the same can kind of be said about all fan interpretations, especially the recursive ones, where that fan interpretation starts to bleed back into comics and movies and cartoons. Fan interpretations will nearly always flatten a character, with the rare exception of characters like Jason Todd, whose fan interpretation is probably more developed than he is canonically. But Dick being misinterpreted bothers me more than the misinterpretation of most other characters. It’s for a lot of reasons – one of which, of course, being that he’s my favourite comics character – but I think primarily, it’s because he’s flattened in order to make him look better next to the other members of his family,  usually Bruce. This post summarizes it all quite well: it’s a combination of a feedback loop, a cultural idea of Robin (more attached to him than any of the others), and it being easy to perceive him differently based on out of context traits.

Dick is one of the codifiers for the Sidekick Graduations Stick trope, and that’s true in that he’s never returned to Robin, but a lot of writers are wary of actually making that the case. Dick is better at what he does than Bruce. It’s a combination of who he has and the fact that Bruce raised him. Bruce himself has called Dick a better man than he is and acknowledged that Dick has far surpassed him in a lot of areas. But most writers are afraid of leaning into that because Bruce is just so iconic. So they make him less competent in order to make different members of the Batfamily look better, flatten his character to make his relationships with his family more saccharine, and regress him for the sake of keeping him Bruce’s sidekick rather than a full partner. It’s quite similar to how Barbara was reverted to being Batgirl – Oracle is an equal, with her own skillset, that mentors others. Batgirl, not so much.

It’s not at all that I think there’s only one way to write Dick. But I do believe that there are certain aspects of his character that should be constant if the circumstances of his life haven’t changed. Consistency may be all but impossible with comics, due to all the different writers with different interpretations, but the core of the character should remain the same.

Dick Grayson is absolutely a good person. Hell, he’s a Multiverse constant – he’s a force for good, so much so that Golden Age Superman had to acknowledge that he’s still a good man in a world filled with morally bankrupt heroes. But he’s also much more complex than the cool, encouraging, happy-go-lucky child of a big brother that loves to hug his siblings and crack puns. Sure, there are elements of that in him. He is an older brother that cares about his family, but he doesn’t always get along with them. He does encourage his siblings, but he had to learn that, and each of his siblings required something different from him. Damian in particular needed him to be able to control the temper that he does have. He has a sense of showmanship – he was a circus acrobat that was born to be in the centre ring. He’s naturally a better athlete than Bruce, to the point where canonically, he and Cass are the only ones that can beat Bruce in a fair fight. Dick has a temper that he learned to control. He’s driven and obsessive, even if he’s much more capable of moving on than Bruce is. He cares about the people around him and they care about him, too, even if he struggles to actually let them help him when he needs it. And I think that’s why I adore the Young Justice interpretation of the character so much.

I was having a discussion with someone a while ago, and they said they thought that that incarnation was too Superman-esque and not Batman enough, and while I respect their opinion, I disagree. Dick’s strength is that he balances optimism and a desire to see the best in people with paranoia and an urge to check people’s stories rather than believing them blindly. As such, I think the first two seasons of YJ did an amazing job with him.

He’s quick and witty and charming, he makes jokes and has lots of friends, he loves Bruce but doesn’t want to become him. He’s just as prepared and paranoid. He’s fully capable of running unstable and risky gambits that could get people killed. He’s absolutely dedicated to fighting crime…but he’s afraid of losing himself, of becoming a person that will manipulate and pull strings and do anything to achieve his goals. The show managed to convey both how this is someone that was raised by Batman and that he influenced Bruce himself through depicting him as a good leader that makes tough decisions – often better ones than Bruce himself – and whose team trusts him enough to forgive him, even when they’re mad at him for making those decisions. For me, that captures the essence of who Dick is as a character.

Bruce had a very minor role in the show, but it was enough to demonstrate how his and Dick’s dynamic works. They’re a team and family both. When Dick is jealous of Kaldur, Bruce responds by inviting him to play basketball as a way of assuring him that he’s irreplaceable. When Wonder Woman criticizes how he introduced a nine year old Dick to crime fighting, Bruce said that he did it so Dick wouldn’t turn out like him. The show did shift a bit from the usually accepted canon in regards to Dick transitioning from Robin to Nightwing in that it was an amicable decision where Bruce and Dick both agreed he’d grown up and needed to do his own thing, rather than a result of a major falling out. That does change the context of the Batfamily, but in a way that I like.

I’m wary about Titans. The pictures we’ve seen and information we’ve gotten has made me go back and forth over whether or not I’m excited for months now. I’m going to watch it, of course, because Dick has always been my favourite and I’ve been looking forward to seeing a good depiction of him in live action for years – fingers crossed that this one will be good – and I’m delighted that we’re going to get other awesome  characters, some of whom have never gotten an adaptation before, like Donna and Kiran. I’m nervous about how Dick will be treated…but if I want him to be catapulted into the cultural conscience as himself, more than just “Robin is Batman’s partner and adds colour and joy to Gotham” (which I will always acknowledge is important), I’m going to have to be ready for adaptations and interpretations that I won’t always agree with. That’s the case in animation – I’m talking about you, Son of Batman – as well as comics themselves – Grayson – and will be the case in live action. So I’m cautiously optimistic. Here’s to hoping that pays off!

Young Justice Updates From SDCC

Today was the Young Justice panel at SDCC, and we got lots of interesting information. I’m still kind of in awe that we’re getting a season three, and even though it’s not on Cartoon Network anymore, I’m still not going to stop holding my breath until we get through the season without a hiatus.young justice season 3 characters.jpg

1. The Outsiders

The season is going to be called Outsiders. Out of these characters, I think only Arsenal has ever been on any incarnation of the comics Outsiders team. This isn’t unexpected for this show, considering that the season one cast was far from the traditional members of Young Justice.

2. Stephanie Brown

Stephanie was one of the characters fans were clamouring to see when the first two seasons were airing, and she did make a brief appearance in season two. From her presence in this picture, dressed in her Spoiler costume, it appears the Young Justice Batfamily will be expanding beyond just Bruce, Dick, Tim, and Barbara.

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3. Original Members

The picture of the original team is missing Wally, who sacrificed himself at the end of season two, and surprisingly, M’gann. This doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t be in the season, but if she is, it begs the question, why leave her out? Perhaps she’ll be undercover and her suit would be a spoiler? Notably, neither Artemis nor Dick, the only characters of the four included that usually wear masks/cowls to hide their identity are wearing their usual disguise, while they’re both wearing something on their lower faces, while Kaldur and Conner aren’t. A gas mask, possibly?