Deconstructing Batman and Robin :

The Grayson Foils, Part 2

There is no one who could make a better foil for Dick Grayson than Jason Todd. The second Robin, Jason Todd entered the partnership of Batman and Robin with a chip on his shoulder. He could never be as good as the original because nothing ever is. So, due to fan frustration with the character, DC infamously gave fans the choice of calling one of two 1-900 numbers to choose whether he lived or died. Of course, in the end, more fans opted for his death and comics went on.

Any comic fan worth his or her weight in batarangs knows this story already, but it’s interesting when one compares the choice to kill Jason Todd with the fan outcry at the rumor of Dick Grayson’s death at the end of Infinite Crisis. Dan Didio felt that Grayson was redundant in the overall DC Universe and that his death would round out Infinite Crisis, but after much debate, he changed his mind.  Phil Jimenez has perhaps the perfect statement regarding Grayson’s impact in the DC Universe in the interview after the Infinite Crisis hardcover:

Dick has so many connections to other characters. In many ways, even more than Superman or Batman, Nightwing is the soul, the linchpin, of the DCU. He’s well respected by everyone, known to the JLA, the Titans, the Outsiders, Birds of Prey – everyone looks to him for advice, for friendship, for his skills. He’s the natural leader of the DCU. His loss would devastate everyone and create ripples through the DCU. If it wasn’t him, it had to be a hero that really impacted so many.

And, as the natural leader of the DCU, he is perfect to oppose the natural bastard child. A character that was so hated, that fans not only voted, but had to pay to vote for him to die.

But Jason Todd’s return as the Red Hood bears no aspirations toward a simple villainous get-rich-quick scheme. Jason Todd wants to become a next generation hero whose agenda is to kill criminals in order to prevent them for causing any more crime. Of course, other heroes throughout the history of comics have gone down this road before, but Jason plan on using viral marketing to get his message across. So, while the idea of Dick Grayson and Jason Todd being the surrogate sons of Batman is enough to unite them, Morrison takes it one step further by contrasting their respective marketing techniques.

With Batman, marketing isn’t necessary. The symbol on his chest symbolizes that he will be an avenging angel – a hero that will never rest until villains are brought to justice. The only real “marketing” that the hero has comes in the form of the bat-signal which shines out into the night to let the people of Gotham City know that their hero will soon be on his way.

Meanwhile, the Red Hood employs a variety of tactics to replace the marketing of Batman. He updates a twitter feed that chronicles the exploits of the Red Hood and Scarlet. He speaks in catchphrases like “Let the punishment fit the crime,” “The fight against crime grows up,” and “cleansed by the red right hand of vengeance.” He evens leaves a calling card of a red hand with the words “Vengeance arms against his red right hand.”

After Scarlet seems to criticize Jason for getting all of his ideas from the book “Getting the Best Out of Your Brand,” he explains, “That’s all Batman is now – a brand, a logo, an idea gone past its sell-by date. We’re the competition. We’re making him obsolete like the iPod killed the Walkman.”

This isn’t the first time Morrison has explored the idea of corporations or branding. I’ve discussed his connection of branding to super-heroes last year in my article regarding Batman Inc., but Morrison’s discussion of corporations and magic sigils bears repeating here:

Corporate sigils are super-breeders. They attack unbranded imaginative space. They invade Red Square, they infest the cranky streets of Tibet, they etch themselves into hairstyles. They breed across clothing, turning people into advertising hoardings. They are a very powerful development in the history of sigil magic, which dates back to the first bison drawn on the first cave wall.

The logo or brand, like any sigil, is a condensation, a compressed, symbolic summoning up of the world of desire which the corporation intends to represent. The logo is the only visible sign of the corporate intelligence seething behind it. Walt Disney died long ago but his sigil, that familiar, cartoonish signature, persists, carrying its own vast weight of meanings, associations, nostalgia and significance. People are born and grow up to become Disney executives, mouthing jargon and the credo of a living corporate entity. Walt Disney the man is long dead and frozen (or so folkmyth would have it) but Disney, the immense invisible corporate egregore persists.

In that very same conversation on branding between Jason and Sasha, Jason takes off his mask to reveal that his hair had returned to its natural red color and that “Batman made me dye my hair to look more like Grayson.” The corporate Batman model had effectively “etched” itself into his hairstyle just like in Morrison’s “Pop Magic!” article. When Jason Todd was Robin, he was transformed by the brand, but now that he is the Red Hood, he is being transformed once more into what the Red Hood brand wants and needs.

So, how is the Red Hood a “condensation, a compressed, symbolic summoning up of the world of desire which the corporation intends to represent”?

Of course, on the surface level, the red hand symbol on Jason Todd’s calling cards could be a reference to the old saying “caught red-handed” – referring to when criminals are caught in the act. The Red Hood catches the villain Lightning Bug in the act of stealing money and he is promptly executed. But the card is also made to resemble that of the Red Hand of Ulster – a symbol of the O’Neil clan. Legend has it that two chieftains raced one another across a stretch of water and the first to reach the land on the other side would claim it for himself. Realizing the other chieftain would land first, O’Neil cut off his own hand and flung onto the land thereby inheriting it for himself. Today, the red hand is used as an emblem of North Ireland.

The phrase “vengeance arms against his red right hand” is from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s spoken by the demon Belial in reference to God’s vengeance against Hell if they went to war (Belial and other demons appear later in Batman and Robin when Dr. Hurt returns). Furthermore, Christ sits at the right hand of God and therefore, the red right hand could very well be a representation of Christ the Redeemer, or more than likely in the case of Jason Todd, the Antichrist. If we consider Batman to be God the father and Dick Grayson is Jesus Christ the Savior, then Jason could very well be the Anti-Christ (of course, Damian is Bruce’s real son, but he is hardly Christ-like especially when he is revealed to have sold his soul to the devil in Batman #666 where he battles the Anti-christ).

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also have a song called “Red Right Hand” where the lyrics tell of, “ a tall handsome man in a dusty black coat with a red right hand.” The character in the song has the ability to get you whatever you want but the last verse seems to echo the idea of Jason Todd and his corporate sigils,

You’ll see him in your nightmares,

you’ll see him in your dreams

He’ll appear out of nowhere but

he ain’t what he seems

You’ll see him in your head,

on the TV screen

And hey buddy, I’m warning

you to turn it off

He’s a ghost, he’s a god,

he’s a man, he’s a guru

You’re one microscopic cog

in his catastrophic plan

Designed and directed by

his red right hand

The song captures the mystery of the Red Hood while building a certain mystique around his plans. The repetition of where one would see him is a perfect example of corporate branding and how it infects people. Also, it’s actually a perfect song to act as a soundtrack to the Red Hood story arc.

Children play the game “Red Hands” (also known as “slap hands” or “hot hands”) where one player puts his hands above the other’s and the bottom player is supposed to quickly slap the other’s hands. The Red Hood is perhaps considering his competition with Batman nothing more than a game.

Finally, the red hand is given an ironic meaning when considering that since 2002, every February 12 has been “Red Hand Day” which is a “world wide initiative to stop child soldiers.” Like Professor Pyg and his transformation of Dollotrons, Red Hood’s interactions with Scarlet are meant to mirror Dick and Damian’s partnership. While Dick and Damian bond over rainy stakeout (where Dick informs Damian that a hood can easily become a blindfold which echoes how blind Jason Todd is to anything but his mission), the Red Hood explains that Scarlet was chosen because of her twisted mask of a face. “You give the brand that genuine Nu-freak chic these try-hard Gotham wannabes just can’t muster.” Proof that all he ever cared about was the brand itself. The marketing associated with the Red Hood matters above Scarlet’s emotional and physical scars. She only matters because she improves the brand especially with the double meaning of the word “Scar” representing her appearance and her red costume.

Near the end of issue 5, the Red Hood captures Batman and Robin after shooting Dick Grayson in the chest. In the next issue, he advertises on television and the internet for people to call a hotline and after a certain number of calls, he would reveal their secret identities. Of course, Dick and Damian are set free, but once they suit up again, the Batman symbol is revealed to have been shot off of the suit. The find that the Red Hood and Scarlet are being beaten by an assassin known as the Flamingo.

After all of the corporate branding and symbolism, Dick and Jason are battling for their lives against someone far more fierce than them. As Scarlet leaps on Flamingo’s back, her cries of “Let the punishment fit the crime” seem hollow as Flamingo easily defeats her. Still, the Red Hood is able to defeat the assassin while saying his catchphrase proving that even through the worst, good marketing will always win.

Finally, Jason admits what everyone knew all along. “I tried really hard to be what Batman wanted me to be . . . which was you.” But he doesn’t leave until he shakes Dick’s faith by saying, “He’s still dead because of something you can never admit! You just couldn’t stand the fact that you were always gonna be in his shadow!”

And despite the confidence Dick gained after battling Professor Pyg, Jason’s words shook him to the core. Only a true foil could do the damage to Dick’s psyche that Jason was able to do because only a true foil can tell what the hero is thinking.

It’s worth noting that Jason Todd’s redesigned costume looks remarkably similar to a villain that Morrison created for his Animal Man run by the name of the Red Mask. A user on Comic Vine’s forums noticed this and once it was pointed out, fans on the forums decried the reuse of the costume saying,

Morrison ripped off one of his earlier characters from Animal Man, the Red Mask of Death. He had a lame ass red skull on his chest and red dome helmet and all his weaponry was red.  He was old, out of shape, bald, and suicidal. He had a death touch which I would guess Morrison meant to, but never got around to using the phrase “Vengeances Arms Again His Red Right Hand”. Basically, every idea Morrison had for Jason was just recycled. Substitute Mask being tired of being a loser supervillain with Jason’ inferiority complex and you’ve got the same shtick.

It’s a mistake to think that just because the characters share a visual link that Morrison has somehow ripped himself off. As Tim Callahan writes in Grant Morrison: The Early Years, this story is about “one character that didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, and while that may not be a mind-blowing idea, insignificance is a recurring theme in much of Morrison’s work” (77). The Red Mask is a victim of circumstance with an origin not unlike Animal Man’s, but having the power of a death touch made him into a villain because fate brought him to that point.

Jason Todd is a villain because he chooses to be. Though he was ruthlessly and mercilessly beaten by the Joker, he was resurrected and chose to be a villain. He had the option to return to being a hero but he didn’t do it. This will be further echoed when Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and continues to be Batman. So, while he may look like Red Mask and they may be somewhat similiar, it is simply ignorant and foolish to state that Morrison is rehashing the same ideas. He is simply exploring the freedom and power of choice.

Dick Grayson’s confrontations with Jason Todd work so well because they are so multi-faceted. At the surface level, they are competitive brothers who hate one another. But just underneath that lies a rich metaphor for corporate branding  and heroism that would sow the seeds for Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc later.

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website and the co-creator of the crime comic . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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Also by Cody Walker:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison\'s Batman


Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

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1 Comment

  1. Cody,

    Great series here! I find fans of Batman all-too-often malign Robin, so it’s good to see him get a little time in the spotlight. I’m a little hesitant to award as much credit to Dick Grayson as Phil Jimenez (which seemed a little too grandiose for my liking), but I do think he plays a foundational role in the Batman mythos. It’s well worth pointing out the dichotomy between Dick and Jason, as you do, as it also serves as a sort of parallel between Isaac / Ishmael from the book of Genesis. One son is favored with the blessing of the father–in this case, Batman–while the other is essentially cast off with conflict arising between the two (though in this instance, Dick would be the “first born” despite his natural pairing with the biblical Isaac). Jason Todd, being the cast off Ishmael, returns from the dead / wilderness a much more hardened warrior–one who seems to stand opposed to his father and brother. Though there is reconciliation between the two tribes, it’s an uneasy one borne out by the continued conflict today between the two peoples. So too is there a tentative truce with the two Robins, as you point out, but the hostility is never displaced. Clearly, it’s an arc that is played out throughout literature and culture for thousands of years and is certainly present here.

    We might have killed Jason Todd off (count me as one who made the call!-), but I do think this is one instance where bringing a character back from the dead worked quite well to help us better understand Dick Grayson and see him progress as a character. Further, I think it reinforces the notion that Bruce Wayne’s crusade, over the years, transcended his own need for vengeance.

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