February 14, 2010

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Batman: Under the Hood Volume 1 and 2

Written by Judd Winick
Illustrated by Doug Manhke, Tom Nguyen, Shane Davis, Eric Battle, and others
DC

I think at this point anyone who cares knows that with this series Judd Winick brought back one of the three "dead forever" characters in comic books, namely the Jason Todd Robin. Since then, we've seen Uncle Ben (sort of) and Bucky(for real, or as real as comics get) also make a return to the comics page, once and for all ending the idea of a character staying dead forever.

I've known the what--Jason Todd is back--for a long time, but never the how. I still don't fully understand the "why" and probably never will until I get to try my hand at writing a comic. But since I'm not in charge at DC, the only thing I can do is voice my opinion on the change in status, which honestly is quite positive, believe it or not.

We start near the end, with Batman fighting the Red Hood, fearing the truth. Just as we get the big reveal, Winick moves us back in time. The Red Hood starts getting a foothold on the Gotham underworld, eating up parts of Black Mask's territory while Bruce tries to put the pieces back together from the disaster that was his war games. I know nothing of what was done during that, but it just seems like bad times all around. While Bats tries to investigate without Oracle to help him, Dick shows up to talk about their partnership, setting up what is to come.

Eventually, they meet the Red Hood, and when Bats finally confronts him, he's not ready for the answer. There's a nice initial confrontation, and the end of Volume 1 leaves us wondering how Bruce will deal with the idea that his greatest failure has been undone...and yet has gone so very wrong.

Volume 2 is marred a bit by too many artists, a really bad habit that DC has. Winick takes Bruce through the process of trying to deal with Jason, while the former Robin digs his hooks further into the Gotham crime scene, killing some villains and making profit off the rest. It's the killing that Bruce can't handle--a temporary truce goes wrong when Jason starts offing the villains. In the end, he must confront his former student, who claims to have usurped the master. To do it, he's got to go through both Black Mask and the one who started this all--the Joker!

I really like the handling of Black Mask in Winick's hands. A fairly mediocre villain who I guess got a revamp when I wasn't paying attenion, he serves here as a great straight man for Jason and Bats to more or less ignore in their personal war, with Black Mask as collateral damage.

Winick did the one thing I thought was impossible--make it okay for Jason Todd to be back. He wasn't back for shock value or to pump up sales. There was a good story to be told by taking a teaser by Jeph Loeb and turning it into a year-long story arc. We get great dialog (always a strength of Winick), a good plot (he's definitely improving in this area) and Bat's history was respected and drawn on, rather than ignored.

There's a good ratio of fight scene to introspection, and his handling of the way the Bat-clan fights is spot-on, including the fact that Bruce would be able to spot a fighter trained the way he would fight. The crux of the problem between Jason and Bats (which you can probably guess but I'll leave unspoiled) is a question more than one comics fan has asked himself, and Winick gives a good, if logical, answer.

My only minor quibble is that the "new" Jason's origin story, which appeared in an annual, did not really impact on the main arc. That's a shame, given who's behind his return. I don't know if that was ever picked back up, but if not, it would be a good place to work a story angle. I'm so out of it when it comes to new DC stuff, I don't know what comes next. [Editor's note: I'm even further removed now than I was in 2007!] Still, this a great arc in an otherwise rather bland period for the Batbooks and well worth the read.