Red in the Face

by shathley Q

17 October 2011

In Red Hood & the Outlaws #2, released this Wednesday, creators Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort explore the elusive idea of genius, but not without reconstructing a populist users-guide for the concept itself. Download your PopMatters exclusive preview here.

If Beethoven was ever red in the face, it was most likely the result of a backhand from his father. Beethoven Senior would beat his young son for a reason unimaginable in our time—the lack of greatness. Senior believed, deeply believed, that his young son was every bit the equal of Mozart who enthralled and delighted the courts of Europe less than a generation earlier. All that was required for the young Beethoven to equal and eventually surpass Mozart was the proper encouragement. Physical encouragement as far as Senior was concerned.

But Mozart had demonstrated his musical talent as early as age seven. So here was Beethoven Senior, claiming his 12 year old son was in fact nine, pleading the aristocracy of Europe to listen. And in his private time beating his son into genius.

The pettiness and mediocrity and myopia of Senior illustrates at least one point clearly—that genius has always been a problem. In our time, the problem of genius is slightly reversed. We’ve awoken in an age when genius is über-fashionable; it’s not the scarcity of genius that drives society, but its overabundance. It’s strange then, that in “Shot through the heart and who’s to blame?”, issue two of Red Hood & the Outlaws, creators Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort choose to tackle the problem of genius not only from our own historical perspective of overabundance, but from the point of view of scarcity as well.

If you do anything with “Shot through the heart and who’s to blame?”, read it in one sitting. Don’t bother rereading “I fought the law and kicked its butt” (Lobdell and Rocafort’s first outing with Red Hood & the Outlaws). Issue two elegantly fills in the backstory demanded by Jason Todd’s secret conversation with Essence in the first issue, and the mystery of why Jason’s trip to the secret super-civilization on the “highest peak in the Himalayas” should haunt him so much.

It’s a really simple tale actually that could probably be told in half a dozen words. Jason was still murdered by the Joker, ending his time as the second Robin. And Jason was still resurrected by a Lazarus Pit, the arcane technology of the Immortal Demon, Ra’s al Ghul. But this time it was Talia, Ra’s’ daughter, who risked her father’s anger by resurrecting Jason. And Talia who secretly conducted Jason to the Well of the All-Caste where his training would begin in earnest.

It’s actually something said by Ducra, the strange, little Yoda-with-fangs mentor that heads the All-Caste, that cues us in to what Jason Todd truly represents. “The thought of leaving him to the rest of the world—of leaving the world at the mercy of him—is unacceptable”. Jason Todd is a great genius, with the potential for incredible destruction or rescue on a global scale.

Once you’ve read this, it’s time to move on to rereading that final scene in issue one. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you Ducra”, Jason pleads amid a field of corpses, “I’m sorry you sent me away. I’m sorry I let you”.

A month ago it hardly made sense. It was just a clever in joke. Shame and guilt made the Red Hood red in the face. Now it’s something completely different. One month later and that scene is revealed in its full emotional weight. There’s genuine culpability here. Which implies agency on Jason Todd’s part. There’s genuine guilt.

And the clever idea of the Red Hood being red in the face, that’s perhaps the greatest clue to Jason Todd’s training. There’s every reason to believe that Jason cannot be shepherded to the Better Destiny of being a rescuer on a global scale. Instead Ducra settles for the secondary position of ensuring that Jason not become a global tyrant. And how is this achieved? By enabling Jason Todd to experience shame, guilt, and the invariable self-recrimination.

Ducra’s teaching methodology, her notion that she can craft Jason into a master assassin even while he is out cold begins to read as an unflinching commentary on our attitude to genius. Become sufficiently adept as a teacher and the idea of genius is easy enough to install in others, not unlike installing software. And yet, there is Jason Todd, singular in his capacity to damage or save the world.

Lobdell’s refusal to offer a clear position on the nature of genius (is it nature or nurture?) clearly signals a third position. That whatever we already understand about the character of genius, we have yet more to learn. It is this position that not only inspires a cautionary kind of hopefulness, but a redeems scientific discovery as the act of popular culture.

This act is only bolstered by Lobdell’s decision to lean back during the arguably more tedious part of the story (Jason’s first encounter with Ducra and the All-Caste) and allow Rocafort’s magnificent visuals to lead the storytelling.

If anything, Lobdell’s work has more in common with the genius of John Reed, author of Snowball’s Chance who in the scope of a single novel, disaccumulated the decades of neoconservative rust that gathered around Orwell’s once populist Animal Farm.

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