Before I finish reading the issue I’ll be wonder on what Johanna Blakley makes of a specific Alicia Keys music video. But for right now, at the opening, Red Hood & the Outlaws rings out with the signature-spectacular we’ve come to expect from writer Scott Lobdell and artist Kenneth Rocafort.
The opening of “Take Me Down to Paradise City, Where the Seas Run Red and the Girls are Pretty”, sees Jason Todd, the titular Red Hood claw his way up from the lower decks of a sinking submarine. His famous Red Hood is cracked, he’s palpably at the end of his tether. Below him, some post-Cold War, neo-Soviet, James-Bond-for-hire-villain pontificates about death and manhood and togetherness. Will Jason Todd be the final victim of this anonymous thug? Absolutely not. A turn of the page is also a turnaround of the situation. Jason shoots the thug in the face. Then, a quick-witted lament about how the thug would have been able to avoid a confrontation with the Red Hood had he smuggled coke into Miami, just like everyone else, instead of attempting to smuggle in nuclear weapons.
It’s the nail that stands out, that gets hammered down. Of course the lament was not at all meant for Dmitri Steel-Jaw (or whatever sinister name the thug had chosen), but for Jason himself. This wrestling down inner demons is the emotional core of this issue, and of the title’s first storyarc which elegantly concludes in this book. Six months ago, during the pages of the first issue, we read the kinetic salvation of how Jason Todd rescues Roy Harper (another “screw-up” former kid sidekick) from execution at the hands of an interim Mid-Eastern regime. Kori, the alien princess, Starfire, was air-support and heavy firepower to this misadventure. In those pages a team, a family was born. Issue #6 describes the “missing” chapter in the formation of this family–how Starfire and the Red Hood met, and it plays out about a month prior to first issue.
“If Only…”, that immortal regret. But particularly in Jason’s case, that idea of the high price of exceptionalism, is what echos through the next scene and all throughout the rest of the book. The Jason who wakes up, the Jason tended to by Princess Kori, is all kinds of broken. Not only the physical wounds courtesy of Steel-Jaw the Soviet, but Jason’s weakened physical condition seems to have opened the door for the emotional demons to resurface.
What if, as a child your exceptional nature is seen clearly by, arguably, the most exceptional human being on the planet–Batman, a human so exceptional he is the equal of superhumans? But what if he fails? What if he cannot provide a context for that exceptional talent he senses in you to become an excellence equal to his own? And what if, even worse than anything, he fails at a crucial moment to rescue you from the hands of his greatest nemesis, the Joker? What if you die and are then resurrected by supernatural energies? How would your fear and your hatred, your anger and your anguish manifest?
At this point, the narrative structure of “Take Me Down…” slides into a very recognizable, perhaps even formulaic pattern. Starfire “heals” the Red Hood, by falling in love with him (Jason is tied into Kori’s past in the most beguiling of ways). It’s a beautiful Caribbean island, all the pain goes away. You know the story. By the time the book’s final panel rolls in, when Jason reads on “The Edge Report” that Roy Harper, the fallen superhero Arsenal, is about to be executed by the Interim Government of Qurac, you know it’s time to rejoin civilization. And you know the results will be explosive.
Just A Quick Aside, But It Underlines My Next Point: “The Edge Report” is obviously a low-IP facsimile of “The Drudge Report”, but the name also conjures up African-American media mogul, Morgan Edge from the pages of Superman. In just a single panel, by referencing real-world media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and by suggesting that a ground-up project like “The Drudge Report” can only be convincingly asserted by a multinational news conglomerate, Scott and Kenneth return us to focus of this book–that in a post-911 condition, the site of war is always the self, and even what we thought would be our next mainstream mass-medium is already in a state of dissolution.
But if Scott deploys recognizable genre, he does so to distinguish Red Hood & the Outlaws from derivative works, rather than to collapse into being one. The “being healed on tropical island by a beautiful princess” is a genre etched deep into the Western psyche, one that goes back to Darwin and Captain Kidd. We understand it intimately. And it’s from the shared, unthinking understanding, that Scott and Kenneth evolve the art of this book.
The island isn’t the only landscape, Kori’s crashed Tamaran battlecruiser is another. In Kenneth’s masterful hands, scenes of abundant nature bleed gently, seamlessly into scenes of broken-down technology. Both landscapes (lush panoramas unseen in comicbooks since the days of Eisner) are each in their own ways, dark metaphors for the lead characters themselves. The easy-access of the tropical island genre allows you to realize that this issue is as much Lord of the Flies as it is The Blue Lagoon.
This is where Johanna Blakley comes in. Not because I suspect that she, like Jason Todd a few panels after his initial exploration of the alien spaceship, might be prepping hyper-advanced off-world weaponry against a lush tropical background (a beautiful visual statement rendered by Kenneth Rocafort). But because Johanna gave perhaps the clearest, most erudite, most incisive discussion on the high price of being a high-IP culture a few years back at TED.
Scott’s exploitation (there really is no better word for it) of the low-IP genre of “healing on the tropical island” to knit together a Blue Lagoon-style drama of fertility with a Lord of the Flies-style barbarism drama is genius beyond expectation.
And it’s here where I recall a recent Alicia Keys music video, where the same dynamics played out. “Unthinkable”, where an inter-racial romance is played out by two lovers over successive decades. By the 90s already it seems that outright racism has slipped into a more deceptive classism/culturalism. But the video always returns to an Alicia, dressed in the high fashion of 2010, against a lush tropical background. Read against Johanna’s TEDtalk, the low-IP of the fashion industry allows for an abundance the equal of nature’s abundance. It’s a trifling thought, but it returns to vast, accessible complexity of “Take Me Down…”
If the issue isn’t enough by now, it transcends itself with the next scene, where Jason Todd equates healing (both he and Kori need to be healed in different, interesting ways, but for both that healing can be found in sexual congress) with the teaching. “You don’t pick your teachers”, Jason says in soliloquy. And suddenly it all comes crashing through.
Not just the inverted Freudian sexual power dynamics where Jason not Kori is the object of sexual desire, and where Kori makes a fetish of Jason by dressing him as her missing lover. Not only the radical reframing of the Batman-Jason-Todd-(as-kid-sidekick-Robin) relationship which seems to tacitly confront Wertham’s notion that that relationship was sexual in nature. Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, is denounced here generations later for the atavistic thinking it is, and yet, elegantly without Scott ever referencing the book itself of its author.
Not only because of all of these points, but because that idea of “teacher” evokes a debate that has lingered for millennia. “Give a man a fish”, Confucius preached, “and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and feed him for life”. The adage is so seductive that it makes us want to believe. And yet, this saying is steeped in a power dynamics of hurt and pain and suffering. Either you’re the person who needs to eat, and not only do you go hungry throughout the saying, but you become victim of an aggressive presence from outside yourself that is bent on “educate” you. Or you’re trapped in perpetually being the outsider who must enact the redemption of “teaching to fish”.
I think about this and I think about Jason Todd and the Batman. Jason Todd, who was, as Shakespeare put it “untimely ripped” from his own evolutionary path, to fight in the Batman’s War On Crime. The pain and the anguish go deeper than being (albeit unwittingly, at the time) left to die at the hands of the Joker. The pain goes directly to an outside force snatching you from your own destiny.
In contradistinction to this master-slave vision of the teacher-student relationship Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, suggests that “Managing a large organization, is like cooking a small fish”. A sublime reorientation. Here the “victim” of a lack of knowledge (the person unaware of how to manage a large organization) is also the “victor” in possession of knowledge (that same person who already knows you cook a small fish by not stirring too much, lest the fish break). The problem, and its solution, are both situated within the self.
And isn’t that evocative of a medium that simultaneously throws both art and prose at you and demands you synthesize them into a coherent story all by yourself? There you are, powerless again, trapped in medium that you cannot fathom. You understand what you read at the moment, a picture that is part of a larger sequence, a caption or maybe some dialogue that is also part of some larger sequence. And yet, the story is completely fractionated. But with each segment you continue to read, your hope grows that, not yet but soon, you yourself will have read enough to defractionate the story being told.
That building of capacity, that stirring of hope that you yourself can eventually work yourself free of the ropes that hold you back, is the true art of comics. And that Scott is able to carve out a character like Jason Todd, a character that is evocative of exactly the same dilemma, is testament to a talent without measure, and a gift to us all. And all this, in a comicbook that you’ll read today, and toss tomorrow.
Welcome to popular culture.