Who’s to blame? How Jason Todd is blamed for his own demise (Part II)
This is the second part of our two-part essay on how Jason’s character is affected by victim-blaming. To read the first part, go here.
Here’s a scene from Nightwing #99, written by Devin Grayson, where Dick Grayson is speaking to Bruce Wayne:
Dick: But Jason didn’t know what the hell he was doing or why
In the context of this discussion, Dick is blaming Bruce for failing to impart the same clear moral code to Jason that he felt he himself understood when he was Robin. But his choice of words in “didn’t know what the hell he was doing” also carry the implication, again, that Jason was incompetent or not sufficiently gifted enough to be Robin. And as mentioned before, the theme of Jason’s incompetence is one that gained more traction after his death, fuelled in part by the very fact that he failed to save his own life.
This idea surfaces again and again in the DCU comics – even in the midst of Bruce’s guilt and self-blame, the text is scattered with suggestions that Jason should share some or all of that blame.
In Gotham Knights #44, written by Scott Beatty, when Bruce returns home from the Middle East without Jason, Alfred tells him: “It’s not your fault. The lad was determined to disobey you.”
Alfred: And then you went and found another child with vengeance in his heart. I told you this could very well end in disaster. I warned you. I did everything but beg and plead.
"It’s not your fault. The lad was determined to disobey you."
Here, Alfred blames Bruce in his internal monologue, but then chooses to comfort him by saying that Jason’s death was not his fault, instead describing it as the inevitable consequence of Jason’s disobedience. The implication that the reader is expected to garner is that Jason’s reckless, rebellious nature was the direct cause his own death – rather than the tragic (and rather improbable) convergence of coincidences that it in fact was.
In Detective Comics #790, written by Andersen Gabrych, Batman visits Jason’s gravesite on Jason’s 18th birthday. Batgirl Cassandra Cain attends with him. At this moment, it should be noted that Jason is not the only Robin to be blamed or believed to be at fault for his death.
Stephanie Brown, too, was blamed for being incompetent, reckless, and held responsible for starting a gang war to prove herself worthy of being Robin – although this was in part because Batman, her field commander and mentor, deliberately withheld vital information from her.
Stephanie was tortured and mutilated by Black Mask and was believed* to have been killed by him. Again, the fault was mostly assigned to her, the victim, and not the insane and evil Black Mask. See Project Girl Wonder for more information. (*Note: Stephanie was later revealed to have not been tortured to death, but in Africa with Dr. Leslie Thompkins. She was still tortured and mutilated and was considered deceased from the period of 2004 until it was revealed in 2008 that she was not dead)
In these first few panels, Batman, in an attempt to note the similarities between Jason and Stephanie, calls Stephanie “reckless” and one who “doesn’t know when to quit.”
In these next two panels, Bruce says Jason was "brash. Impulsive. Headstrong. Never looking before he leapt." The way it reads is that these appear to be bad characteristics that directly led to his death.
Rather than respect Jason (and Stephanie) as heroic, or at the very least playing a heroic role, the attitude of victim blaming is continually reiterated in the text by other superheroes in the crime-fighting community.
Again, here we have Adventure Comics #3, written by Geoff Johns as well, from 2009. In this, Superboy questions Tim Drake on why he chose to wear the Red Robin costume. Conner calls Jason both the “bad Robin” and the “failed Robin.”
When Tim took over the role of Robin in late 1989 in A Lonely Place of Dying, creators went out of their way to make sure he was nothing like Jason.
As Mary Borsellino writes in her paper, "A lot like Robin if you close your eyes: Displacement of meaning in the Post-Modern Age,"
DC Comics needed a Robin who looked like Dick Grayson and Jason Todd had — dark hair, white skin, male — and equally importantly, he had to be obviously distinct from the “uneducated children” which the readers had been coached into disliking. On his first visit to Wayne Manor, Tim gazes around, wide-eyed, before remarking,
"Gosh — you know, I’ve seen pictures of this place, but it’s even bigger and better than I thought.
Oh, my — there’s the Renoir Mr. Wayne bought last year. I read about that in Art World Today. He’s got an Erte ?
Oh, I love his stuff. My dad bought an Erte litho last year… But this is a statue. Mr. Pennyworth, Dick, please, can I see the rest of the house?”
When (William) Urricchio and (Roberta E.) Pearson, in the closing chapter of The Many Lives of the Batman, refer to the differences between the “often clearly ethnic” thugs who menace Gotham and the “Graysons, Todds and Drakes, with their blue eyes, firm chins, straight noses, noble brows, and Anglo names” 32, they write without a knowledge of the less immediately evident (but deeply textually ingrained) class distinctions between the Robins.
Denny O’Neil described Jason as “an arrogant little snot” 33 on more than one occasion, citing his rough, slangy speech and abrasive personality as reasons why the character had earned himself such a grim fate. Contrast this disruptive, unruly force with the well-spoken character of Tim. Where Jason was homeless and orphaned, Tim is from a wealthy family — his father can afford to buy an Erte lithograph. And Tim is very much an educated child: he reads Art World Today.
In an early Robin mini-series, written in 1990 by Chuck Dixon, before Tim was featured in his own ongoing Robin comic, Tim questions whether he’s good enough to be Robin, particularly in the wake of Jason’s death. Bruce tells him:
I don’t need an impulsive partner, someone who jumps in without considering the consequences. That’s not what I’m looking for, Tim.
Fail here and I don’t get up again. Fail here and I die. And all I can think of is that I might let him down. Might show the world that I wasn’t really worthy of the honor he gave me.
It is, in essence, suggesting that to fail is to not be worthy of the name Robin. And in part, implying that because Jason “failed” or “died” he just wasn’t worthy of the title, or couldn’t live up to the honour and prestige the title of Robin holds. As Batman said to Dick in Frank Miller’s futuristic tale The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it’s implying Jason simply “couldn’t cut the mustard.”
However, such an act of selflessness that Jason did, to save his mother — who had betrayed him in the first place — and die doing so should afford him the benefit of being called a hero. And yes, Tim believed Jason to be a hero and Jason’s memorial and grave suggest as such. But fans and characters of that universe are also led to believe that Jason is still somehow responsible for his own demise.
The idea that Jason got himself killed because he disobeyed orders is one that’s often repeated by creators, too, right down to their letter to an eight-year-old girl who said she cried “for a whole day” after learning of Robin’s death.
Notably, DC has never done another 1-900 vote-in on a character’s demise or anything else related to a call-in stunt because of a character since Jason’s death. The comic creators and editors were blasted by fans and the media for the stunt. Denny O’Neil, then editor who oversaw Jason’s death, spoke about this on the Blu-Ray Documentary for Under the Red Hood.
O’Neil even blames a caller who is rumoured to have dialed the 1-900 hotline number over and over again to kill Jason. Yet, it was O’Neil’s idea to create the 1-900 call-in stunt in the first place.
Here’s what O’Neil had to say in the foreword of Robin: Tragedy and Triumph:
The comment O’Neil makes is, “he was an interesting, and somewhat spooky case of a fictional character seizing control of his own destiny. Nobody ever decreed he be less likeable than his predecessor…”
Because interestingly, that is in fact, what was decreed. In an interview for The Many Lives of the Batman, edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, O’Neil said they actually played up the idea of making Jason “bratty”:
I think that once writers became aware the fans didn’t like Jason Todd, they began to make him bratty. I toned some of it down. If I had to do it again, I would tone it down more. But you make these decisions from hour to hour and sometimes not under the best conditions.
So we did a story, for example, in which it was left vague as to whether or not Jason pushed someone off a balcony. The writer, Jim Starlin, thought he did—I thought he didn’t, but we let the reader decide. There was certainly no doubt that throughout much of the story he wanted to push this guy off of the balcony.
And then when we were building up to the death of Robin we made him rebellious—he ran away, and in a way he got what he was asking for. He disobeyed Batman twice, and that’s what led his demise.
It’s troubling that O’Neil’s view of Jason as “less likeable” and a “disagreeable problem child” seem so closely tied to his realistic portrayal as a troubled youth from a severely impoverished background. And again, O’Neil focuses on Jason’s transgressions, but what’s worse, actually comes out and says, "in a way, he got what he was asking for." Does disobedience really deserve death? Most parents would say a time-out, some might even opt for removing privileges or grounding a child. But in Jason’s case, it clearly means capital punishment, and boy, oh boy, did he deserve it!
The idea that Jason got what he deserved even made its way explicitly onto the printed page, in the form of the Joker’s commentary as he bludgeons Jason. The Joker calls Jason a “bad boy,” and whimsically describes his brutal beating as both a “punishment” and a “severe spanking.” Although Starlin chose to put these words into the mouth of the villain, ostensibly the unreliable voice of “anti-reason,” they could be read as a darkly humourous reflection of the real life views of Starlin and O’Neil.
Joker: “That wasn’t a very nice thing to do to Uncle Joker. You’ve been a bad boy. You must be punished. Prepare yourself for a severe spanking, young man. But let me tell you right from the start… This is going to hurt you a lot more than it does me.”
Starlin, who wrote Jason in Batman issues up to and including A Death in the Family, stated he didn’t like the idea of Robin or a kid sidekick.
Starlin in an interview with Universo HQ said:
I wanted to kill off Robin as soon as I started writing Batman. The idea of taking a kid along to fight crime is ludicrous.
And, in an interview with Adelaide Comics, he says he wanted to kill off Robin so badly that he pitched a story about making Robin die of AIDS.
At one point DC had this AIDS book they wanted to do. They sent around memos to everybody saying “What character do you think we should, you know, have him get AIDS and do this dramatic thing” and they never ended up doing this project. I kept sending them things saying “Oh, do Robin! Do Robin!”
Starlin’s frank proclamation that he intended to kill Robin right from the beginning of his run belies O’Neil’s attempt to frame Jason’s demise as an organic development rooted in his essential character.
The death of Jason Todd was not a “case of a fictional character taking control of his own destiny,” but a long-planned outcome. Jason was doomed from the outset, written as he was by a creative and editorial team who were no longer sure what purpose the character of Robin was supposed to serve. It seems as though it was much easier for the editorial team of Starlin and O’Neil to blame an individual character for the “failure” than to admit that who or what Robin in the modern era should be was in a state of uncertainty.
Unfortunately, for Jason, the victim blaming has not only held the character accountable for his demise, but has also had a detrimental effect on his reputation among his fellow crime-fighters, and has birthed retcons that attempt to paint him as a bad seed from the very start.
And, really, who decides — or should be the decision maker in a fictional character’s life and death? Not the character, but the creators. Yet, this is an attempt on the editors part to shift the blame, once again, to Jason — a fictional character.
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