Wednesday, November 12, 2008

batman: under the hood, vol. 2

The haphazard way I read the comics gives me more variety but also no doubt increases my confusion on a number of storylines. It would certainly have been better to read Batman: Under the Hood vol. 1 before trying vol.2 but I didn’t have that luxury. In the beginning, however, they helpfully explain that Batman has just exposed the identity of the Red Hood as that of ex-Robin Jason Todd (Robin number two if you’re counting) who was supposed to be dead. There’s a lot in this revelation, as Red Hood was the Joker’s original identity before (in DC Comics-verse) he fell into the Ace Chemicals vat and became the Joker. What fascinates me is that the DC readership were given the choice back when the storyline was current to kill off Jason or keep him alive. They obviously chose to kill him, and the only explanation I can come up with this perversity is that they wanted to see how Batman dealt with the death. (A bit like Adric dying in “Earthshock” I wonder?) This seems to be a different universe than Frank Miller’s, as in his version Jason Todd became a second Joker, though the object was the same for both versions: confound Batman.

The stories, taken from the pages of Batman comic, is less than two years old, so it’s fairly current. Judd Winick is the writer, lending continuity to the array of pencillers and inkers. Of these, I prefer Doug Mahke’s pencilling skills—simple, character-driven, nice chiaroscuro, excellent composition and arrangement of different-sized panels. Besides the Batman/Red Hood/Jason Todd dynamic, there is at least one more story to give urgency to the proceedings. This is the story of Black Mask, who has been slowly gaining momentum in other collections like “Face the Face.” It’s a bit hard for me to take Black Mask at, er, face-value, as his face has been burnt off in a fight with Batman, leaving him honestly looking like Erik the Phantom would. How he can be alive with no skin is another matter. Fortunately the writer compensates for this otherworldliness by giving him a sarcastic, no-nonsense, irascible personality that, despite myself, I find amusing. When told that Captain Nazi and Hyena (!) are the supervillains who are going to help rid him of Red Hood, he goes ballistic. Later he admits, “Hyena kind of looks like a girl from the back.” The third loony toon is Count Vertigo, and along with their version of Ras al Ghul who show up later, I feel a distinct finger of Marvel on this adventure . . .

As in “Face the Face,” the structure works really well, introducing us to the situation, giving us some action, then going into back story, then ending with the villain (Two-Face in that, Jason Todd in this) and what led him up to this point. Having gotten the attention of Black Mask and Batman, Jason blows up Gotham’s sister city of Blüdhaven where Nightwing (the original Robin, Dick Grayson) is assumed to be. (This Jason Todd guy, in all incarnations, seems to have a bitter streak of jealousy running through him!) He manipulates Black Mask into killing all his own men—for it’s been Red Hood’s raison d’être to get rid of criminals and crime-fighters in Gotham as he sees fit. And he’s got the Joker, the man who “killed” him, and what nettles him most is that Batman has still let everyone’s favorite psychopathic clown live.

The Joker’s written quite well here. He’s such a bastard but he has his trademark wit. JOKER: “Didn’t I kill you?” JASON: “We’ve been over this.” JOKER: “I know, but I like talking about it.” Unfortunately I really don’t like the way Shane Davis has drawn him. What this story is really tackling is, as the Joker says, the “$24,000 question,” one that was raised, ever-so-briefly, in The Dark Knight. Why won’t anyone kill the Joker? In a superb confrontation with Batman, we get to the bottom of it: JASON: “Bruce, I forgive you for not saving me . . . but why is he still alive?” BATMAN: “For years a day hasn’t gone by where I haven’t envisioned taking him and spending an entire month putting him through the most horrendous, mind-boggling forms of torture. All of it, building to an end, with him broken, butchered and maimed . . . pleading—screaming—in the worst kind of agony as he careens into a monstrous death.” JOKER: “Aw, y’see, I’ve thought about that too ...” BATMAN: “I want him dead—maybe more than I’ve ever wanted anything. But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place ... I’ll never come back.” Jason, however, has no such qualms and makes Batman choose who he’d rather have dead.

Under the Hood vol.2 makes the Joker mad north by northwest and Batman and Jason Daedalus and Icarus. As someone who’s been turned off by the Robin naff quality in the past, I have to admit Red Hood looks really bad-@$$. The leather biker jacket and the penchant for explosives plus a big jagged knife makes for a pretty solid anti-hero. In “The Return of Jason Todd” at the end of the collection, we finally find out how Jason managed not to die. Batman installed alarms on the coffin, he examined it and found no damage whatsoever, could find no evidence to support that Red Hood could be Jason. The explanation is sadly lacking in reality—it’s Superman’s intervention that brings him back to life. He next has to claw his way out of a coffin with bare hands, live on the streets for three years before Thalia, Ras al Ghul’s daughter, makes him her protégé and throws him into the Lazarus Pits, bribe the coffin maker, get the whole thing hushed up (similar to Grace’s boss destroying the Doctor’s x-rays in the TV movie).

Under the Hood vol. 2 has some good art, but mostly it’s the strong writing that makes it enjoyable.

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