Jason Todd finally gets the origin he deserves in Batman: White Knight #7
Batman: White Knight #7 is out today, and with it comes the most interesting development in writer/artist Sean Murphy's limited Dark Knight saga. That's no small claim for a series that has given us a Joker-gone-sane, two Harleys, and purported ties between the Waynes and the Third Reich. An explanation is in order, and I'll give it, but, suffice it to say, I will be talking about a significant detail from White Knight #7, so if you're planning on reading it and don't want to be spoiled, turn back now.
Any time there's a fresh, out-of-continuity take on Batman, it's fun to wait and see what—if anything—makes its way into the main stories. While these takes typically live in their own sandboxes and explore things that just wouldn't fly in an ongoing series, they often speak back into the "real thing" with a clarity that can only be attained without the shackles of continuity.
If you're a Batman fan, then you know the basics of the Jason Todd story: a troubled kid becomes Robin, has a hard time following orders, and ends up dead at the hands of the Joker. Batman tortures himself—and the criminal element—until Jason one day returns, now the vengeful, lethal Red Hood. The details sometimes shift in the telling, but since the idea of Jason-as-Red-Hood first emerged, the basics have been the same: Jason feels wounded by Bruce's failure to make the Joker answer for his death, so he goes a bit nuts and makes Batman's life really difficult for a while.
Honestly, I've always felt that Jason came off as a whiny jerk—not across the board, but in the telling and retelling of his origin. After seeing characters like the Joker, Two-Face and the like, up-close, for years; and likewise seeing Batman refuse to kill them in retaliation for their crimes, Jason's indignation makes him seem like an entitled brat. That Bruce being Bruce would make him take on such a vengeful persona—it just doesn't resonate with me, and so I've always had a hard time taking him seriously. Some of the tie-in comics for 2015's Arkham Knight gave Jason a more relatable psychology, but the core problems remained for me.
Enter Sean Murphy's Batman: White Knight. As in the main continuity, Batman has had to carry the weight of Jason's death with him for many years. There is a fairly significant change mentioned early on—that Jason was actually the first Robin, and that Dick came later—but other than that, the little bit that we know squares up with prior stories: Jason fell into the hands of the Joker, who beat and tortured him before finally ending his life.
Or did he?
Here's where things get interesting. It turns out that, in the Murphyverse, Jason Todd did not die at the hands of the Joker. He was beaten and tortured, yes, but the Joker ultimately left him alive. Before parting ways, Joker got Batman's true identity out of the broken young Robin, who cursed the day he met Bruce Wayne and ran off into the world to disappear. Why would the Joker let him go? According to Napier, it was so that Batman would "feel the trauma of Jason's death, and...suffer even more when [he] learned the truth...that Jason Todd hated [Batman] so much that he made [Batman] think he was dead." Earlier, Napier explains that Jason stayed away from Bruce "because he was broken, not only by the Joker...but by [Batman], for making him into Robin in the first place."
In my mind, this is masterful character work by Murphy—fixing a character who has been broken for quite some time. Jason's entitled indignation always seemed like it was developed long after the idea of him becoming the Red Hood—as though someone pitched Jason Todd's return as a new, consolidating crime lord, and the great struggles he would have with the Bat-family, and it was only late in the game that one of the editors asked "why would he do this?" By contrast, Murphy seems to have started with the most fundamental question: how would Jason, broken by the Joker, respond? And his answer is, I think, right on the money: Jason would respond by dissolving his illusions about masked crime-fighting. He would see the absolute lunacy of Bruce putting children in masks and bringing them into battle against the most depraved psychos that walk the earth. Here is a motivation that makes sense. If Jason ever does return to this universe as the Red Hood, Murphy has created fertile ground for justifying that return. It wouldn't have to be about him, or at least not him alone. It could be about a much more profound, philosophical difference—and about setting free those poor souls recruited into Batman's war.
And if this is it—if this is all we'll ever hear or see of Jason Todd in the Murphyverse? I would argue that Jason is still a far more tragic, more sympathetic character here than he has ever been; that a cold shoulder cuts deeper than a blade; and that, for Batman, there are some things worse than a death in the family.