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There's been a long standing rule in comic books: Don't believe a character is dead unless you see the body. Now, it appears that rule will have to be amended further: Don't believe a character is dead EVEN IF you've seen the body.
Jason Todd, the second Robin, was dead. He was killed by The Joker as the result of an infamous fan phone vote stunt set up by DC in the 1980s that led to the superb A Death in the Family storyline. He was dead. There was no room for doubt. We saw him blown up; we saw his broken body; we saw him buried; we saw Batman grieving. Todd WAS dead.
Except it now turns out he wasn't. Through a rather laborious and unlikely sequence of events which I won't bother to relate here, Todd was resurrected. Unfortunately, his death and resurrection left him twisted, angry and bitter (well it would, wouldn't it?); determined to seek revenge against both his murderer and Batman whom he thinks betrayed him. The Lost Days follows the immediate aftermath of Todd's resurrection, when he is discovered by Ras Al Ghul's daughter Talia who seeks to use him for her own purposes.
Despite the slightly dodgy (and desperate?) grounds on which this story is based, it actually turns out to be a surprisingly good one that is really well told. Even though Batman scarcely appears (and only in flashback), the story feels like it belongs in the Batman world and adds something to his legend. Continuity with both on-going tales (Hush) and previous adventures (Batman's darker, more brutal approach following Todd's death, Tim Drake's "appointment" as Robin in A Lonely Place of Dying) is well handled and the storyline fits pretty seamlessly into known Batman timelines without causing too many major ripples.
It also fills in a few gaps. If you have read previous Batman graphic novels, such as Hush then Red Hood provides some much needed context. When I initially read Hush, I was rather confused as to some of the references in the book, how Hush had discovered Batman's true identity and how he knew that Jason Todd was walking the Earth again. Red Hood fills in those blanks, making sense of other storylines you might have read.
Of course, the downside to this is that if you have not read the relevant storylines then you might find yourself feeling somewhat mystified. The book assumes at least a passing familiarity with a number of previous storylines, past and present, including A Death in the Family, a Lonely Place of Dying, Hush and others. It also assumes that you know the past history of some of the characters, particularly Ras Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, and their relationship with the Batman. If that last paragraph makes no sense to you at all, then Red Hood would not be a good place to start reading Batman stories again, because you won't understand what is happening or why.
It's also a fascinating tale in its own right as we see Todd effectively develop from little more than a walking corpse than can do nothing more than defend itself through to a worthy Robin. It's an interesting character arc and for the most part, it's handled carefully. OK, occasionally, things happen a little fast - his transformation from zombie to intelligent, analytical detective is a little convenient, but at least the story never cheats. Even if this development is a little rapid, it is at least explained logically and is perfectly consistent with what we already know about elements of Batman's universe.
The storyline charting the progression of Red Hood shows what a confused and conflicted character Todd still is - something which is again consistent with previous iterations of the character. He constantly denies that his apprenticeship with Batman has shaped him in anyway, yet his fighting skills, detective skills and even his outlook reflect that of his mentor. The writers have done well drawing parallels with Bruce Wayne's own original path, having Todd train under a range of "experts" to learn additional skills that will help him in his mission. This both provides the storyline with some structure as an origin story, and highlights the ways in which Todd's anger still burns within him, making a far more ruthless and less forgiving person than Batman.
It's a shame that the story slightly fluffs the two major set-pieces it creates. The story sets Todd up as a character driven by a desire for vengeance on The Joker (who killed him) and Batman (who, he believes, betrayed him). The story provides him with two opportunities to get the drop on those characters and both fizzle out in a disappointing fashion. This is justified in a dissatisfying way which jars with the tone elsewhere in the story. It also fails to adequately explore Jason's conflicted nature and angst: his desire for revenge against his murderer and his one-time mentor set against his own moral code. This would have made the tale a little deeper and edgier and it's a real pity that the authors shy away from confronting these issues.
The artwork is really interesting in this novel, quite different from the images we are used to in standard Batman graphic novels. Reflecting their subject matter, pictures in Batman storylines are dark, gritty and realistic. As if to distinguish itself from mainstream Batman titles, Red Hood deliberately shies away from this. Instead, images are made up of much brighter colours and larger characters. Pictures are also simpler, lacking the complexity of traditional comic book artwork and adopting an almost manga-esque approach. At first I wasn't sure this worked but once you get used to it, it is actually very well-suited to the Red Hood tale. It gives it an identity unique in the Batman universe and helps to establish Red Hood as a character in his own right, not one who is dependent on Batman for his existence.
It's interesting that a number of different artists were responsible for various elements of the book. Whilst Pablo Raimondi is responsible for most of the artwork, different artists contribute to the six parts which make up this tale. Indeed, sometimes artwork is even shared out between different artists within a single part, so that one artist draws pages 1-9 and a different one takes over for the remaining pages.
You'd think that this would be a recipe for disaster, leading to an inconsistent look and feel, even within a single part. Yet, against the odds, it works. You can certainly spot where a new artist takes over, but the change doesn't jar. The change in artwork is subtle, but at the same time it's refreshing, adding a new sense of energy whilst remaining consistent with the look and feel established by the previous artist.
Despite only being released last year, Red Hood is not going to set you back a fortune. A new copy (paperback) costs around £15, whilst a second hand copy can be acquired for around £8. This is pretty good value for money. Red Hood is an enjoyable graphic novel that I can see myself reading again many times in the future, and it's one I'd definitely recommend for Batman fans who are familiar with recent developments in the Batman universe.
Red Hood: The Lost Days
Judd Winick & Pablo Raimondi
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012