Batman: Under the Hood
Writer: Judd Winick
Artists: Doug Mahnke, Eric Battle, Shane Davis
NOTE: This discussion is spoiler heavy from the onset.
Edgar: If there is one thing you can almost always count on when it comes to important comic book characters, it’s that when a writer decides to kill him or her off, there is a remarkably high chance that they will return in some form some issues later, maybe even months or years laters. It just seems to be the way these books work for better or worse. How fitting then that, mere weeks after reading the controversial Death in the Family storyline we find ourselves discussing Under the Hood, an important story in Batman lore that raises Jason Todd from the dead in spectacular fashion (again, for good or ill). I feel like starting the conversation by asking a simple, if loaded, question to you James: Should Jason have stayed dead or not?
James: I think he should have stayed dead. No takebacks! It’s almost inevitable that these characters are going to come back, there’s too much money to be made to not bring these characters back. However, it cheapens the drama of death. If they can bring anyone back, then you don’t ever worry about the plight of a character because you know one day you’ll see them again. It also cheapens previous deaths that might have truly been dramatic at the time, but now hold little weight. I think we both knew going into Death in the Family that Jason Todd comes back, which made the whole affair feel a bit cheapened, at least to me. I’m curious, how do you feel about Jason coming back?
E: Frankly I don’t think I could put the argument about dead characters coming back to life much better than you just did there. In movie reviews we often fret about spoilers, what to reveal and what not to so as to not ruin the experience for others. The context in which you and me read Death in the Family was pretty strange now that I look back on it. As for Jason in this specific context, I think it has to be viewed in two ways. One is the commercial aspect to the comic book industry. In that regard, bringing him back feels cheap, no pun intended. The other was to understand it is how does it work as a piece of dramatic storyline. In that light I actually didn’t mind it all that much. His death, spoiled or not for us or other readers out there, still has serious repercussions on Batman/Bruce Wayne. Having Jason return, especially in the way he does, opens up a wound in Bruce that is, I think, interesting enough for it to be worth exploring. My feelings are mixed on the matter but I do see some of the positives. There’s a lot to say about Jason Todd here. I’d like to know where you stand on his moral compass in this story. He kills, albeit after allowing drug dealers to sell their product (although not to kids!). Is it too all over the map or did it fit the character?
J: As a vigilante with a far more ultimate sense of dishing out judgment to criminals, Jason’s return as Red Hood does serve as an interesting moral foil to Batman’s stance. I think a lot of what Jason is trying to prove to Bruce by being so extreme is that the only way to save Gotham is to amputate out the evil, to destroy the cancer of crime. I like that idea and when the comic runs that direction, but one detail that bugged me which was never explained is that there are constant references that Red Hood is running his own crew of criminals and I was never quite clear how they fit into any of this and what they actually did. That really annoyed me, especially given that the comic takes a lot of time to tell its story and I think it could have at least dedicated some time to addressing what exactly Red Hood’s gang did. What did you think of Jason’s methods?
E: You know, that’s a pretty good point concerning his gaining territory in Gotham’s underworld that I didn’t really think about while reading the book. Funny, they do allude to it a bit but never develop it much at all. It certainly ticks Black Mask off royally, but we never see how that works. About his methodology, Jason is pretty extreme here. I get the strategy and how it contrasts against Batman’s ideology. I think it works as character progression. I thought the part about not selling the drugs to kids was a bit silly. In a way I understand why the writer would add that bit. At the end of the day this is a Batman story and you might not want to get too extreme, but at the same time he’s brutally murdering a bunch people left and right so I’m not sure how the kids angle softens the blow in any shape or form. In addition to contrasting Batman’s moral code, Jason does spell out quite clearly another reason why he has done everything: a thirst for vengeance to kill the Joker. This leads to a pretty ‘out there’ climax where Batman is faced with a choice of killing The Joker or Jason, who is holding the former hostage. Was there any tension in that sequence for you and did you find it a fitting conclusion?
J: I definitely thought it was a fitting conclusion. It’s the showdown you know that has to come because of how it ties everything together and brings full circle the death of Jason Todd and what his whole crusade as Red Hood is about. He wants to prove something to Batman and forcing him to kill The Joker is his ultimate end-point. I didn’t feel any sense of dread in those final moments, I didn’t think anyone was in real danger of being killed, but it is one of the best moments in the story. I know we’ve dove into a lot of the meat of Red Hood and his agenda, but I’d like to backpedal a bit and ask you about Black Mask. I believe this is our first experience with him. What did you think of his character and storyline?
E: Well, here’s another revelation that should have my Batman fanboy badge removed: I didn’t know the character existed until last year when tv spots for the most recent Batman Arkham game played on television…oops. I was glad to finally read a book featuring him. First of all, when it comes to villains, backstories and methods are one thing but for me personally a baddie has to look, well, bad ass. I love Black Mask’s aesthetic. The mask is excellent for its grotesqueness. As I understand it he is disfigured and I find it quite morbidly hilarious that he chooses to hide his horrid face underneath a nightmarish skull mask. Great touch. His attitude is easy to enjoy if you like your loud mouth psychotic gangsters. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but makes for some fun scenes when his temper flares, which is frequent. I guess his inclusion works insofar as it goes back to the point about Jason Todd assembling his own motley crew of gangsters to rival Black Mask. I just wish his exit was a bit more constructive. The story basically abandons him once he’s served his purpose. How about you, James?
J: I thought he was a super fun baddie. He knows he’s a big bad and sorta has fun with that persona. He plays it up a bit, but not in a way that is too hammy or feels too close to the Joker. He feels a bit more calculating and even-keeled, a bit more grounded to reality. A businessman. I also loved how Black Mask creates this three way tug with Red Hood and Batman. All three are fighting each other and there’s this sort of tenuous game of hoping the other two will duke it out while you gain a better position. I also wanted to talk about the handful of other baddies that make a brief appearance, what did you think of that terrible trio: Hyena, Vertigo and Captain Nazi?
E: Heh, I guess that was an okay section. When you’ve read all these stories featuring insane villains, it’s always a tall order to introduce new ones. What’s too far fetched? What balances the sense of menace and comic book feel? The issue featuring that trio of assassins is, in my opinion, a clear indication that this occurs in the collective DC universe where really fantastical things can happen (I’ve said before that I prefer books where Batman is not aligned with other DC material or at least it’s not alluded to). I mean, a hyena? Really? That sounds kind of silly even by Batman standards, but I will say that it produces some pretty cool jokes between Black Mask and Deathstroke who brings them to Gotham. Obviously I’d like to get your opinion on the matter, after which I’d like to talk about the other big crazy fight, the one involving Amazo. The floor is yours James.
J: I felt like the terrible trio was dipping into the reserves for baddies. It felt off-the-wall and goofy. I’d have much rather just seen them fight regular thugs. I thought the Amazo fight was more interesting. You’ve got Batman and Nightwing working as a team to take down an enemy that outstrips them in power and they have to use every trick in the book in a game to basically delay the baddie. That felt like a far more interesting fight. However, both fights stress something I liked about this comic: lots of gadgets are being used all the time. It’s fun to see a lot of the toys come out and it never felt like the toys were stretching feasibility. Although, Batman did seem to use explosives like crazy. I guess explosives pellets are the 21st century version of gas pellets. Did any of the tech stand out to you?
E: I can agree that the Amazo battle is more interesting. I haven’t brushed up my my Justice League knowledge so I wasn’t aware of a killer robot that is programmed with the abilities of the League’s members. That brought a lot of potential to the table but then the writers pull back by revealing that Amazo seems to be missing some of the notable features (I think Flash’s speed is one of them). That brought the excitement down a notch but overall the battle was okay nonetheless. On the topic of gadgets which do indeed play a major role in the book. In fact, they are in full force whenever Batman and the Red Hood face off against one another, the next point I feel we need to get to. There is a handful of intense encounters between teacher and former pupil. On a purely visceral and action-based level, how did those work for you?
J: They had some good fights for sure. I like that you see how Red Hood anticipates a lot of Batman’s actions. Batman doesn’t initially know whom he is and that gives Red Hood a big advantage when they first fight. It makes for intelligent, smart fights, one more about wits, which goes for a lot of the fights in this book. It did feel a bit repetitive by the last fight, but it wasn’t a major hinderance. That does get to one of my problems with the book: I think this story is way too long. Certain issues felt like filler (see the terrible trio), other times, a thread begins and goes nowhere (Mr. Freeze and Onyx show up so briefly they’re hardly worth discussing), I feel like there’s a solid 10-12 issue arc but it ends up getting stretched out into 15 standard issues and an annual issue. Did you think this story was overlong or am I alone in thinking the story runs on too long?
E: I feel this is our conversations about Knightfall all over again even though the writers don’t prolong things as much in this case here. Still, I can’t argue too much against your point. I don’t know why Mr. Freeze is here. I don’t know why Batman goes to Star City to chat with Green Arrow. I don’t know why he goes to Metropolis to chat with Superman. Sure those characters returned from the grave but even so, I’m sure there was a way to work around that stuff. Continuing on the point about the book being rather long, imagine my surprise when, after nearly 400 pages, we don’t get a proper conclusion. Whaaaa?!?!? What did you think about that?
J: Yeaaa, the ending was such a letdown. It build to this big moment and then things literally fall apart and we’re left with no notion of what the aftermath is. I do dig a bold ending that leaves us right at that moment of climax, but here it feels like it cheats us out of a complete arc. It abruptly brings the plot to its natural conclusion, but it doesn’t feel satisfying. It’s rather baffling. I’m both interested in your thoughts as well as the explanation of Jason Todd’s resurrection.
E: The ending is a joke (ha! it has the Joker too!). Seriously, I haven’t the faintest clue what that was about. You hit the nail on the head about there lacking a sense of conclusion. Like you, I can take bold, I can take a counter-intuitive ending…provided it adds something to the story. I’m not even kidding when it feels like they ‘ended’ Under the Hood in such a way as to get avid readers to buy the next issue. Look, I don’t write for DC, I don’t edit their books, I don’t publish them so in the grander scheme of things no one cares what I say but: YOU CAN’T END A 400 PAGE STORY LIKE THAT! Ugh. Jason’s resurrection? The explanation? What explanation? Sarcastically, I don’t know what explanation you’re talking about, James. I’m asking you, what was the explanation (and I’ve read the book!)?
J: Oh man, you don’t know the explanation? Well, I guess I’ll take a shot in the dark and try to make sense of it. I’m guessing somehow Superman goes back in time and saves Jason somehow but that doesn’t happen in this universe but somehow the universe re-correct or desyncs or something and Jason ends up coming back to life somehow. Yea, the explanation is basically incoherent nonsense. I did like the notion of Talia using the Lazarus pit on him to bring back Jason’s memories since (of course) he has amnesia when he comes back to life. Honestly, they could have just gone with the League of Shadows stealing the body and throwing him in the pit and I would have at least gone with it. This explanation feels like they’re just toying with the readers. This “explanation” left a bad taste in my mouth about the whole affair, especially after that ending. It’s a shame, too, because the book has its merits.
E: There’s another little tidbit that I’d like to tackle. Not a major complaint, mind you, but something I found a little curious. Under the Hood ties itself to another book we’ve discussed for Debriefs a while ago: Hush. I honestly don’t know what to think of that. I’m still undecided as to whether I like that or not. In one respect I can and sometimes really do appreciate linking various stories together through cool details. On the flip side this felt like a bit of good old retroactive-fitting, which I’m less a fan of. James?
J: It makes sense to tie it back into that story, but, once again, I’m not a huge fan of going back and tinkering with some of these older stories after the fact to recontextualize them. I’m not a fan of Hush, so it didn’t bug me that they messed with that, but it didn’t add any value to this story or Hush for me. It’s not obtrusive to the story, but it doesn’t add any more dramatic value to it for me. However, I do see why the writers might have wanted to clarify whether or not that was actually Jason Todd for superfans. For me, I honestly didn’t care either way.
E: Under the Hood has moments of great material. As I argued above, I do like the dramatic value in having Jason Todd return from the dead to taunt Batman, not to mention that the way he goes about it does make decent sense. There is a cool fight scene or two which is always a must in a Batman book. It isn’t all bad by any means. That said, where the book does falter it does so in…spectacular fashion? I mean, there are some decisions here that are simply head scratching to be honest. I do like the idea of a villain posing as someone called the Red Hood. Nice colour too. James, if you’re a villain taunting Batman (before he kicks the crap out of you), what colour is your hood?
J: Black, the color of death!
E: Hmm, sexy. I’ve partial to white with yellow polka dots. It’s a fashion statement.