Red Hood and the Outlaws #23: fathers, sons, and some remarkable storytelling
There isn’t much to the plot in Red Hood and the Outlaws #23. Other than some present-day framing, the issue is devoted to several letters from Red Hood Jason Todd’s father, Willis, with short, (largely) visual vignettes corresponding to each letter. Months ago, I might have criticized writer Scott Lobdell for further prolonging the conclusion to the larger story he’s been telling, but I (happily) gave that up a long time ago—Lobdell is showing us that there’s more to his characters than the immediate conflict. And while this particular flashback will surely have particular significance in the issues to come, it works whether or not you follow along regularly.
Why? What makes this issue so special? What makes it stand out in a series that is already one of the top few books published by DC each month? It is something familiar, but different—something unsurprising but nevertheless very affecting.
Pain is stronger in isolation
RHATO is a book sustained by the heart Lobdell brings to it every issue. Over the course of twenty-two issues, we’ve fallen in love with a historically-goofy Superman clone, an Amazon reject, and—perhaps the greatest conquest of all—a former Robin who has long come across as too entitled by his own pain. We have seen this team get put through the ringer, and we are sure to see worse in the issues to come, but they have never had to go it alone. Even when Bizarro was keeping secrets, his friends pursued him. When Artemis had to face her hurtful past, she did it with the support of Jason and Bizarro.
Here, though, Lobdell gives us something different. As Jason kneels on the floor by the fire, reading letters from his father—letters which were kept from him for many years—he is utterly and totally alone. Even Penguin later leaves him with his grief, refusing Jason the company of conflict, electing to let him live and suffer rather than instruct his sniper to kill the young Outlaw.
Of course, the isolation is irrelevant if we can’t connect with Jason’s pain. But Lobdell nails it here, too. As a father and a son, this story wrecked me—a father who so often feels like he fails his children, a son who found out too late that his dad actually cared about something other than his own mess.
Lobdell writes Willis Todd with nuance and consistency, and penciler Trevor Hairsine, inker Ryan Winn, and colorist Rain Beredo are right there with him. Lobdell portrays Willis as a follower—someone unable or unwilling to take charge, someone reactionary—one to whom things happen rather than one who makes things happen. Hairsine’s layouts constantly reinforce this. The first full page of flashback begins with a close up on Willis’s face, eyes down and looking off the page to the left. The next page depicts a tense family moment when Jason’s mom first brought Willis home to meet her parents, and he stands there with his hands in his hoodie, looking down, while she is animated and reading her folks the riot act. This is how it is for pretty much the entire book—Willis Todd in the background, eyes averted away from responsibility or inked to obscurity by Winn, or in the foreground when it’s too late and the consequences of his lack of authority have already been realized.
The hopelessness of it all is made visceral by Beredo, who does far less rendering, and uses much less saturation, in the flashbacks than he does in the present-day tussles with Penguin and his men. There is far less light in Willis’s story than in Jason’s, even in the daytime—a poetic truth given visual acuity by Beredo.
Taylor Esposito is as dazzling as ever with his SFX, but there are some subtle, powerful moments in the lettering, as well. We interviewed Taylor on the Comics Now podcast a few months back, and one of the things we talked about was how balloon placement can enhance a panel—how it can subtly reinforce the message or situation in a given scene. At the time, we were discussing a particular page in RHATO #15, in which Bizarro’s balloons gravitate toward a computer screen as his dialogue evidences higher intelligence and mental clarity, but then veer off away from the computer when his mind slips.
Here in #23, there a few spots like that, where Esposito’s placement accomplishes a bit more than staying out of the way of the artwork and guiding the eye along the page. Take these two panels here:
Notice the box that bridges the main panel and the inset. Esposito could have made it thinner and taller. Maybe that wouldn’t have been the best choice aesthetically, or maybe it would have been okay. Regardless, the bridge serves a higher function. Willis writes to Jason, “one day you’ll see love alone don’t fix anything,” and that text literally connects to the inset panel, where—in the present day—Jason is coming to terms with two hard truths: that his father’s absence in his life was a lot more complex than he’d previously thought—that Willis had actually loved Jason; and, that love alone don’t fix anything. That sentiment is the thematic bridge between the flashback and the present, and the physical placement of the letters and caption box are a physical bridge underscoring the theme.
Here’s another excellent example:
Here we see Jason wrestling with the same emotions. He can’t just hate his father wholesale like he used to. But it hurts too much to love him back, so he tries to cling to his old feelings. Lobdell already does a great job gradually weakening Jason’s cry, lightening the punctuation, adding the uncertainty of the ellipsis, and removing “care” from the final, weakened protest. But now look at the balloons—not the words inside, which Esposito nicely sets in increasingly “weakened” type as the message loses its oomph—but the placement of the balloons themselves. The topmost—the one with the most resistance—is most closely aligned with Jason’s head, which is looking to the sky—away from the reality of the empty coffin, yes, but even more in avoidance of the truth about his relationship with his father. As we move through the balloons, we get lower, finishing with the weak “I don’t” aimed between Jason’s outstretched arms. And so here, too, the placement of the lettering elements underscores the work being done with the thematic and artistic elements, making the story a more cohesive—and therefore much richer—experience than it would be otherwise. The whole thing would still be impressive without these sorts of harmonies, but their inclusion elevates what is already great and makes it especially remarkable.
A personal story gets more personal
Red Hood and the Outlaws was already one of favorite books to read each month. The creators have consistently brought heart, humor, and high-quality artwork. But in this, the series’s most heart-wrenchingly personal issue yet, writer and artists come together with a particular synergy that elevates the book above even its usual heights. If you aren’t reading Red Hood—even if you don’t think you will in the future—you owe it to yourself to check this issue out. It is truly special.