Jason Todd is one of the most important characters in comic book history. But for some reason, we never talk about him. Despite being the first character to ever take on the mantle of another vigilante, he’s somehow the least well known Robin. Even though he was the first hero of the modern era to die in combat, he’s often overshadowed by Superman. But most importantly, the story of Jason Todd is the story of DC Comics. His death and return provide insight into the entire comic industry. And it’s time we talked about it.
Kid Sidekicks & Robin’s Origins
Kid sidekicks became the norm in comic books for a very obvious reason. Kids, especially young boys, were the target audience for comic books in the 1940s. Some publishers were worried that books about adult vigilantes might not be accessible to the young audience. The kid sidekick gave that audience an in. While a 10-year-old boy might not find Batman to be a relatable character, they would most certainly find a lot they recognized in his sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder.
On top of the accessibility question, there was another reason that kid sidekicks became popular: The Comics Code Authority. Comic book fans will know Fredric Wertham as the anti-comic crusader who convinced Congress to ban certain topics and themes from comics for years. When the CCA went into effect in 1954, destroyed the industry. The code banned violent images, horrifying creatures, frightening situations, and required that crime always pay. The CCA imposed a strict morality that only the most clean-cut superhero stories were left standing.
In the wake of the Code, more and more comics began to adopt the kid sidekick model laid out by Jimmy Olsen and Robin the Boy Wonder. A hero who worked side-by-side with a child character was more likely to adhere to the strict morality imposed by the CCA. On top of that, Batman, Superman, and Green Arrow were some of the most popular books going. And all three of them had kid sidekicks. So whether it was because of a desire to appeal to young readers, a government-imposed morality, or a combination of the two, kid sidekicks became all the rage in comics. Soon, Robin, the Boy Wonder could count Kid Flash, Supergirl, and Aqualad as just a few of his new peer group.
Dick Grayson’s Life & Pre-Crisis Jason Todd
Of course, there’s a problem with introducing children into comic books. Comics exist outside of time. Not only is Bruce Wayne Batman. He’s been Batman since 1939. And will likely continue on being Batman until 2039 and beyond. Readers are never supposed to pause and do the math. Mostly, that’s because comics were never supposed to be as big as they are today. The writers and artists working on these titles in the ’40s and ’50s never thought they were creating a kind of American mythology. They were just paying the bills by writing “funny books” for kids. But within a few decades, it became clear that the entire comics industry was quickly becoming something more than that.
Unfortunately, existing outside of time is a lot easier for adult heroes than it is for their kid sidekicks. After all, 10 years is a lot different when it’s your entire lifetime. Bruce Waye could, conceivably, be in his late teens or 20s when he started his war on crime. But for Dick Grayson, his youthful ward, going from 10 to 20 was a much different proposition than going from 20 to 30. And so, Dick went from being the Boy Wonder to being the Teen Wonder to, eventually, becoming his own superhero known as Nightwing.
Nightwing would go on to lead his own superhero team known as the Teen Titans, made up mostly of those kid sidekicks we talked about earlier. But, as a concept, Batman and Robin was still a wildly popular duo. With Dick Grayson out of the picture, DC Comics found they needed a new Robin. Enter Jason Todd. In his original incarnation, Jason was almost identical to Dick. He had also been in the circus. His parents were also dead. And he was also adopted by Bruce Wayne. Everything about him existed so he could sub in for Dick Grayson. But that was before DC Comics went through a complete upheaval that changed everything.
Post-Crisis Jason Todd & Reader Reaction
Crisis on Infinite Earths is probably the most important comic crossover of all time. Not only did it set the template for the modern comic crossover, but it also massively overhauled the entire DC Comics universe. Crisis on Infinite Earths gave DC the opportunity to hit the reset button on almost all of their comics. On a publishing level, Crisis gave the company the opportunity to pull everything into one continuity and lay the groundwork for the next twenty years of comics.
But while most things in the Post-Crisis DC Comics Universe was precise and calculated, things don’t always go as planned. DC made Post-Crisis Jason Todd into an entirely different character. Instead of his Pre-Crisis origins that were so closely tied to Dick Grayson, Post-Crisis Jason was his own person. In some ways, he was almost Dick’s opposite. Dick Grayson was a famous good-guy. He was the “Boy Wonder.” His reputation was indelibly tied to Burt Ward’s “Holy Smokes!” performance in the 1960s. By contrast, Jason Todd was a rebel. He met Batman while trying to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile. He was angry and scared and violent. But he was not what readers were looking for.
Change in comics is famously unpopular. Readers have a tendency to feel like they’re “owed” certain things because of the time they’ve invested in the franchise. This frustration was probably compounded by the fact that Jason Todd was the first character to ever inherit his superhero title from a former character. So it’s not surprising that Batman and Robin’s readers did not like Jason Todd. There was an outpouring of frustration in the letters columns. So the creative team made a decision to try something daring.
Killing Jason & Comic Death
In 1988, DC decided to give readers the opportunity to kill Jason Todd. The idea was that if readers were actually so upset about the new character, they should put their money where their mouths were. In a story arc called A Death In The Family, Jason Todd discovered his mother was not actually dead. When he went looking for her, he stumbled into a trap set by the Joker. In a now-infamous stunt, DC gave readers the chance to choose Jason’s fate. If they wanted Jason to survive, they could dial one phone number. If they wanted him to die, they could call another.
The annals of comic history are filled with stories about the famous vote to kill Robin. The man who supposedly hated Jason Todd so much he programmed a computer to dial the number constantly. The razor-thin margin by which Jason’s fate was decided. Even the alternate pages prepared for Jason’s survival recently surfaced. But what’s much less discussed is the impact that Jason’s death had on comics at large.
Jason Todd’s death was groundbreaking. Before Jason, the only masked hero who had died in the line of duty was Captain America’s kid sidekick Bucky. But that was different in a couple of crucial ways. First, in the original Captain America continuity, Bucky didn’t “die” as much as he sort of faded into the background. For readers in 1948, Bucky was seriously injured and replaced by Captain America’s girlfriend Betsy Ross. It was only several ret-cons later that readers would discover Bucky’s fate.
But the other major difference is that Jason’s death was an event. It was a calculated, deliberate decision by the publisher. It was a stunt they pulled to sell more books. DC decided Batman would fail to protect a child, his adopted son, so they could increase order numbers.
Hush, Under the Hood, & Jason Reborn
Now, DC Comics didn’t actually kill a ten-year-old boy. And we shouldn’t act as if they did. But Jason Todd’s death sort of broke the superhero model in a lot of ways. Not only did Jason’s death mean superheroes weren’t immortal. It also meant they weren’t infallible. The Joker killed Jason. But he also beat Batman.
Of course, as modern comic readers know, Jason Todd did not stay dead. His return was first teased in the modern Batman masterpiece Hush. Of course, the Jason who showed up in Hush was actually Clayface. But less than a year later Jason would actually make his return in Batman: Under the Hood. And since that book, in 2004, Jason’s Red Hood identity has been a DC Comics mainstay.
The ultimate irony is that the characteristics that have kept Red Hood popular with readers since 2004 are the same things that had them so angry in 1988. He is still an angry, scared, and violent rebel who defies Batman at every turn. Even more so now that he’s broken free of the Bat-family and armed himself with two pistols. But rather than demand that Jason retreat from the pages, fans have looked for more of him. In the last few years, Jason has taken center stage beyond the comics, moving into movies and television for the first time ever.
What Does Jason Todd Tell Us About Fan Culture?
It’s no coincidence that the company that dared readers to kill off Jason Todd is the same company that eventually agreed to release the Snyder Cut. The antagonistic fan response to Jason was an early version of the same toxic fandom that’s so common today. Readers were going through a time of deep transition in the late 80s. If they had taken the time to get to know the new Robin, they may have found that they liked him for all the same reasons modern readers love Red Hood.
Of course, DC Comics also were the ones making the decisions. And they decided to make the readers their story editor. And while that might have been a fun one-off, they’ve continued the habit again and again. In the years since Jason’s return, he’s become synonymous with votes to kill him or keep him alive. Most recently, an online fan poll decided Jason’s fate on the DC Universe show Titans. And the new interactive movie Death in the Family gives fans the opportunity to decide if Robin lives or dies as many times as they want.
Over the rest of this week, we’ll be examining the role Jason Todd has played in the DC Universe. We’re hoping to get a better understanding of who Jason is apart from the live-or-die polls. In many ways, Jason is the most important character in the DC Universe. But he’s also probably the most underappreciated. Our hope is that, by taking some time this week, we’ll have time to change that.
Welcome to Jason Todd Week.
Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you get all of our Jason Todd coverage in one convenient email.