The learning curve on this one is steep, but it breaks down like this, Scott Lobdell’s Red Hood and the Outlaws is just about the perfect book. And certainly miles ahead of the other New 52s.
Like some many things, this story starts with Freud. Specifically Freud’s theory of jokes and their relation to the unconscious. Imagine this, there’s a guy sitting at the bar. Up in front of him is a gorgeous bartender. She’s light, breezy, happy, radiates good vibes, she beams out a completely captivating Californian smile. It’s hard not to become involved in her presence. Involved in the way TS Eliot used the term.
As time passes, The Guy begins to notice that Our Barkeep lingers just that little bit more around him. She hovers just slightly, laughs just a little softer at his jokes. This is where things kick off, Freud reckons. Guy begins to get the idea that right about now, maybe Our Barkeep is a little more into him. Maybe, just maybe, as his focus narrowed on her, Guy allows himself to think, her focus narrowed him. Just maybe.
And then a plot twist. Another Guy shows up and Our Barkeep is clearly more into him. Her attraction is unmistakeable. It’ll come down to a fight, but Our Guy can take This Other Guy. Or can he? Neurosis sets in, Freud continues to hypothesize. And by then it’s only a matter of time. Slowly the inner mechanisms of Our Guy’s Ego wear down the primal aggression of his baser Id. What’s more, Our Guy recognizes that a similar process is underway in the Other Guy. So what does Our Guy do? He cracks a joke, gets the Other Guy to bond with him. And here’s the rub. The joke is at the expense of Our Barkeep.
Freud’s particularly vicious and it’s not hard to understand why feminists, or (y’know) thinking people find his thinking distasteful. The basic idea in Freud is that Boys bound (using jokes) only by incapacitating a vibrant female sexuality. And yet, Freud is ubiquitous. His “talking cure” was such a singular liberation compared to what came before that it’s hard to just dismiss him. So the work of dismantling Freud and articulating the useful from the abhorrent has become and intergenerational task. Perhaps we’ll never be done with it.
Freud is the first leg of Lobdell’s outright genius. I’m going to use that term once more, unapologetically. Outright genius. What Lobdell achieves is the radical inversion of Freud’s Joke Theory, but replaces it with a drama every bit as powerful.
In Lobdell’s Red Hood & the Outlaws, Our Barkeep, is a NextGen feminist. Rather than dismiss the mechanics of sexuality as male-articulated and male-controlled, Starfire (Our Barkeep) embraces them. She is the ultimate decision-maker here, choosing who to bed and who to discard. Rather than have her own sexuality crippled by male bonding, she presents herself as simultaneously non-threatening and dominant. And the twist? The Boys read he as a bimbo while her interior monologue reveals her complete disinterest in their sexual politics.
Starfire’s assertive feminism is reminiscent of Timothy Leary’s notion that to “properly discuss politics one should do so on all fours”. Starfire stands tall, both metaphorically and physically. She reasserts female sexuality and at the same time disables the sexual aggression of male bonding.
Thus far, Lobdell is interesting (perhaps even groundbreaking) but nowhere near genius. Overturning Freud is clever, but it might prove academic. What puts Lobdell over the bar to genius is how he uses this Freudian triangular structure between Kori’andar’s Starfire, Jason Todd’s Red Hood and Roy Harper’s Arsenal.
In short, Lobdell uses this inverted Freudian triangle to meditate on the post-militaristic condition existing after 9-11. How do conventional military forces engage and defeat non-con forces in asymmetrical warfare? Chances are they don’t, Lobdell seems to suggest. What’s called for is a post-structured military comprised of no troops and only elite forces. And yet, these ‘outlaw’ soldiers may never be able to reintegrate into regular society. This is the story Ralph Steadman was trying to tell about his lifelong friendship with Hunter S. Thompson in The Joke’s Over.
Lobdell’s Red Hood & the Outlaws is the story of these two deeply engaging dramas; of the reclamation of female sexuality, and the reclamation of the rule of law among nations. And, at a deeper, more meta level, the story of how both these stories are actually one drama.
Balancing all of these with solid action sequences, and intriguing plotlines involving high adventure, the New 52 doesn’t get better than this. With writing of this quality, Red Hood & the Outlaws expresses the best of the New 52; thematically this book engages the world outside comics, while within the industry, superheroes remains at the book’s core. Throw away everything else (but don’t really though) and Red Hood & the Outlaws should be the one you choose.