RHatO 18

Did someone put something in the water at Scott Lobdell’s house?

After six great issues, Red Hood and the Outlaws started a nosedive, delayed slightly by a decent Starfire story, right about the time I gave up on Teen Titans and Superboy. But somehow, despite a series of truly awful tie-ins to Death of the Family, the most hated author at DC has made a stunning comeback, delivering an excellent issue of Red Hood while righting the ship over on Teen Titans. Seriously, my review about how shocked I was to be enjoying Teen Titans again is and has been the most viewed article on this site since less than a week after it went up (thanks for the awesome turn out, Titan-fans). Dare he go for the hat-trick?

Oh yes, he dares.

Spoilers ahead.

This issue feels rather different from last month’s but at the core it’s an equal and opposite reaction. Issue #17 saw the other Outlaws meeting Jason’s family as he said his good byes.  This issue is all about the ways that Jason’s good-byes are phony.

Like many fun comics, this one centers around a dream sequence, namely Jason’s as he recovers from acid burns. What treatment he receives and why Alfred is the best candidate to administer it are fine questions that will not be answered, but we can cut it some slack for continuing the positive trend in Lobdell’s recent work.

Jason’s dreams, while nothing terribly innovative, are fascinating and reflect a familiarity that Lobdell and the New 52 have critically lacked. While it may not be the friendliest to new readers, moments like Jason looking at a bomb and telling the Joker “not again” remind us that we’ve been places with this character. Though Judd Winick did excellent work with Jason, one thing he never fully did was give us a sense of continuity between Robin and Red Hood. This is precisely what Jason Todd has needed since his resurrection a decade or so ago.

Speaking of Judd Winick, rejoice fanboys, it seems Jason’s lethal protector days are back in continuity. While I’ve applauded Lobdell’s willingness to redefine his characters, it always did seem a shame to me that this new Jason came at the expense of the old one. I mean, there was an entire issue of him in prison, still cleaning up Gotham!  Even If that arc wasn’t Jason’s finest hour, it showed the value inherent in the premise of the Red Hood; it’s nice that it has a place in New Jason’s past, even if that place is somewhat vague (seriously, I’ve been refreshing my science cred lately and I will just say that it’s probably not good how easy it is to segue from the New 52 timeline to the study of electrons. Particle physics references? Anyone? Moving on.)

Another interesting wrinkle is the continuing rivalry between Jason and his predecessor, Dick Grayson. While the prodigal son doesn’t actually appear in this issue except for a brief appearance in Jason’s fever dream, his presence hangs over the book in its own way.

While I’m not sure its in any way intentional, the New 52 Nightwing book (which coincidentally has always been assigned to come out on the same day as Red Hood and the Outlaws. Gotta love sibling rivalries) has made Dick Grayson’s forward facing philosophy one of its central themes. This week’s issue is even about it. The idea that Dick’s best and worst quality is his inclination to move on is an interesting wrinkle, even if I don’t feel that it’s led to the kind of stories it could have. Either way, it does prove an interesting contrast to Jason in this issue.

Jason’s dreams are all about the way he shackles himself to the past in the name of moving forward. His thought about his mentor Ducra, that her insights go on past her, is an interesting look at the delicate balance Jason walks. Like Dick, Jason doesn’t like dealing with the past, but, in Jason’s case, he still brings it with him. Dick moves on quickly, he lays down roots and then goes on, trusting that they’ll grow, but Jason wouldn’t mind stopping if his nightmares would let him. Is it ironic that the memory of a deceased mentor is telling him to let go of what came before, or is she telling him to change his perspective on the past? It’s hard to say, but, especially for a boy like Jason, whose childhood was so damaged, it paints a telling picture.

In fact, most of the best parts of this issue are glimpses into Jason’s younger years. Jason has always had an interesting place in many fans’ minds because he was the only Robin not to come from a loving family. Some will argue that Dick’s circus life didn’t provide him much, but Jason is also the only Robin to come from true poverty. Not to mention a number of tasteful and not-so-tasteful references over the years to various traumas Jason may or may not have endured to get by. Though it reeks of targeted revisionism, fans have often looked at the ways that Bruce simply couldn’t understand Jason’s situation.

Since his revival, this has become an even more interesting issue. As the Red Hood it was important not to let Bruce and Jason’s differences become too personal, so as to not discredit either of them, but Jason has been much beloved for his ability to speak (half-)truth to Bat- power.  Lobdell hangs on the line between intentional and unintentional use of this trope, consciously questioning Bruce’s objectivity while also showing supposedly happy memories with potentially unsettling implications.

Speaking of which, why is Lobdell the only writer who seems to get Alfred these days? I suppose Tomasi does pretty well with him over in Batman and Robin (debatably Alfred’s book) too, but every other version of him feels like an actor playing Alfred. We need more awesome Alfred. Get on that Snyder.

Tyler Kirkham provides the art this month, finally giving us an issue that feels like Red Hood and the Outlaws again. While I hope he’s not trying too hard to replicate Kenneth Rocafort’s style, the essentials are there. Crazy architecture? Check. Beautiful coloring? Not his doing but nonetheless check. Interesting layouts? Check. A stunningly attractive Jason Todd? Check. (I’m sorry, it’s true. Clearly Lobdell has finally realized that Jason is the real fanservice character in this book).

And Kirkham isn’t just drawing pretty pictures, he’s telling the story. Each panel does exactly what Kirkham wants it to. It makes me wonder where this Tyler Kirkham was all those months I followed him on Green Lantern: New Guardians. All I can say is if Kirkham can produce comics like this on a monthly basis, then I can’t think of a reason he isn’t the lead artist for a DC series anymore. I could probably look closer and find some issues with his work, every artist has them, but I don’t see the point. He does everything an artist needs to and the book is pretty.

If there’s one major criticism that does need to be made, it’s  that this is not Red Hood and the Outlaws. To be honest, ever since issue #13, it’s pretty much been the Red Hood Show starring the Red Hood. Last month reminded us how wonderful Lobdell’s Roy Harper can be and even started to undo some of the damage he’s done to Starfire, but this month they’re nowhere to be seen. I understand why leading with Jason is tempting to a writer, but looking back on Lobdell’s run, the uneven quantity of the book’s protagonists is a definite mark against it.

The book has some other problems as well, unoriginality, faulty marketing, weak stakes, Jason commenting on things that he’s not conscious to hear, etc. But overall it’s worth it.

Like Batman and Robin #18 last week, this book stands on its final page. It’s not some shocking twist, but somehow it can still take you by surprise. While I can’t help but worry that it will be largely undone or irrelevant in the long run, seeing Jason and Bruce reconcile after all these years is the sort of thing that hits a fan of the Bat-family right in the heart.

It’s almost sad to see Red Hood jump in quality these past two months knowing that neither Lobdell nor Kirkman will be back next month. But for all the bumpy road I’ve traveled with Jason, Roy, and Kory these past eighteen months, Lobdell’s run ends on a high note, with a complete story of Jason’s new role in a new world.

Let’s all just hope that James Tynion IV brings all the talent he’s had on Batman and Talon with him when he steps up to the plate next month.