Review: Red Hood and the Outlaws Vol. 1: Redemption trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 14, 2013

DC Comics released Red Hood and the Outlaws: Redemption, the first collection of writer Scott Lobdell's controversial New 52 series, with issue #6 placed before issue #1. With this change, DC would seem to try to mitigate some of the sharpest criticisms about Lobdell's series, namely his treatment of former (pre-New 52) Teen Titan Starfire; whether it works largely depends on how much faith each reader is willing grant Lobdell and his long-term plan for the series.

Immature and irreverent, Red Hood will not be a book for everyone, but it is an apt descendent of DC books like Judd Winick's Outsiders, and presents especially well Winick's pseudo-creation, the modern Red Hood Jason Todd.

[Review contains spoilers]

Red Hood's great controversy comes from a sexualized presentation of Starfire in the first issue, including when Starfire arbitrarily offers herself up for sex to (also former pre-New 52 Teen Titan) Arsenal Roy Harper. Based on the first issue alone, the audience would conclude Starfire also had sex with Jason Todd, making her essentially the sexual plaything of the Outlaw team's male members. That Starfire's sexual persona ruins her animated Teen Titans depiction isn't a fair condemnation given that her original characterization, as created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, greatly involved her sexuality; still, issue #1 of Red Hood does come off somewhat dirty.

Issue #6, however, takes place before issue #1, and it implies (though does not directly state) certain facts that mitigate the events of issue #1. First, Jason and Starfire don't ever have sex and it's strongly suggested that they're devoutly platonic friends -- that when Jason tells Roy that he'd had sex with Starfire, he lies. Second, in the sixth issue Lobdell preserves the idea that Starfire can intuit an individual's language through physical contact (something true of Wolfman and Perez's Starfire and even of the animated version), and Lobdell even enhances this to include Starfire gaining the person's "knowledge." With this, the reader could safely suspect that Starfire's abrupt propositioning of Roy may have more to do with investigating her new teammate than sexual gratuity per se, though Lobdell never addresses this outright one way or the other.

Wolfman and Perez's intended their sexually-liberated Starfire as a thematic foil to their emotionally-repressed Raven, among other things. In any other context, a buxom alien who just so happens to require physical contact to learn about her surroundings would seem obviously more sexual fantasy than character. Lobdell's story stands just on the line between Wolfman and Perez's precedent and objectification; both interpretations seem valid, though in moving the sixth issue flashback to the beginning of the book -- the only New 52 collection in which DC has presented the issues out of order -- the collection itself would seem to argue for the more indulgent interpretation.

Redemption succeeds largely on the strength of Lobdell's presentation of Jason Todd. Formerly the whiny sidekick no one liked, Jason reemerged under Judd Winick's pen as the Red Hood, a tough renegade Robin who contrasted well with the noble Dark Knight. Grant Morrison's deranged Red Hood didn't fit quite right, and Lobdell returns to Winick's interpretation. Lobdell's Jason is slightly younger, even a bit socially awkward, until he puts on the hood and starts firing bullets. This counterpoint -- as well as Jason's friendship with Starfire and his inane banter with pal Roy Harper -- makes Jason easy to like. He's genuinely surprised when a stewardess gives him her number (unlike, the audience will agree, Nightwing Dick Grayson), and then when Jason starts to call the stewardess and hangs up so as not to involve her in his troubled life, the reader genuinely feels for him.

Outlaws is also exceptionally readable in that it positions itself in a unique space overlapping a number of genres. There's a number of "realistic" heists here of the kind to be found in a standard action comic, with break-ins, break-outs, fantastic disguises, and so on. But Redemption turns quickly to focus on Jason's "ninja" training and wars between various secret societies, evoking stories like Dennis O'Neil's Manhunter or Ra's al Ghul tales (not coincidentally, given the specter of al Ghul hovering in the book's background). There's even a (somewhat abrupt) bit of standard superheroics when a rogue monster attacks Starfire.

All of this further evokes Winick's Outsiders, a book equally at home in high politics or evil supervillain stories. What was true for Outsiders and is also true for Outlaws (and, as well, Wolfman and Perez's Teen Titans) is that the team is made of such diverse personalities with such diverse backgrounds that they work in nearly every story -- and moreover, that the book's emphasis is not truly on the plot at all, but rather on the characters and their interactions with one another.

Winick's Outsiders, too, pushed the sexual boundaries of what was ordinarily comfortable in DC's mostly-platonic super-teams. Lobdell has a ways to go, however, before his Starfire is as well-rounded as Winick's Grace such that Starfire's sexual gratuities don't seem so forced.

Those who will not like Outlaws even more so than Starfire fans will be ardent fans of Arsenal (nee Speedy and Red Arrow) Roy Harper. Roy faced his share of character insults even before Outlaws when pre-New 52 his daughter Lian was killed, his arm was severed, and he returned to using heroin; given all that, his groan-worthy quips and general dimwittedness in Outlaws ought be relief, though it won't be. Indeed Outlaws forgets Roy's pre-New 52 years of leading the Titans himself or his Justice League membership in favor of making him the punchline of all of Outlaws's jokes.

Lobdell positions Roy as the Outlaws' conscience and, every so often, their heart, but Lobdell couches this in so many unfunny moments -- meant to be unfunny, but unfunny nonetheless -- that Roy's wisdom doesn't come through as strongly as his stupidity. Obviously Lobdell has Roy on an arc toward maturity -- like how the immature Flash Wally West and Beast Boy Gar Logan both matured -- but there's a danger the audience won't care about Lobdell's Roy long enough to see him get there.

Red Hood and the Outlaws: Redemption, again, won't be for everyone, and indeed its lack of reverence especially for its characters earlier lives will turn off some. But Red Hood is at its core a buddy comedy, with all the dopiness that buddy comedies entail -- and one uniquely positioned to tell a greater variety of stories than many other DC New 52 titles. Purists might find linking Wolfman and Perez's Teen Titans with Scott Lobdell's Red Hood and the Outlaws revolting, but Red Hood may increasingly become the site of Titans-type character studies as the series continues.

[Includes full covers, sketches by series artist Kenneth Rocafort]

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3 comments:

  1. One thing I really appreciate about your reviews is your fairness coming into the books. With this book, it was would have been easy (and maybe even justifiable) to dismiss it outright purely on the basis of the first issue, but you really attempted to give an honest assessment of Red Hood and that's commendable.

    Unfortunately, I just couldn't enjoy this trade even after I forgave Lobdell for the Starfire sequence. For me, Redemption's biggest sin is that it's bland. The concept behind the series has some promise, but for whatever reason, the execution is lacking. Personally, I'd place it alongside the first volumes of Firestorm, Red Lanterns, and Green Arrow: not awful, but mediocre and uninspired.

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  2. Thanks for this review. It's keenly observed and analyzed. It seems clear that DC wanted Red Hood and the Outlaws to be provocative from the start, and the internal question was how far it had to go. See-through bikini? Not that far. But sex talk—sure, that's what the target readers want! Eventually, you find, that talk turns out to be empty, and Jason and Roy are just two lonely guys still trying to catch up to Dick Grayson.

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  3. Thanks all. Perhaps foolishly, I tend to think that no writer's primary intention is to offend their readers -- unless, of course, the writer is writing something where their intention *is* to offend their readers, but that's somewhat rare in comics. So I go at it from that perspective -- if Lobdell wasn't trying to trash Starfire, what was he trying to do? What caused that to fail? And if there were other successes, what were they? There's plenty of talk about various books' problems -- that's the purview of the "dailies," if you will. A site like Collected Editions which is not always (but sometimes!) immediate has to cover different ground, like this.

    Scott, I agree with the "bland" label for all the books you mentioned -- except Red Hood. For me, I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to see this wasn't just an espionage book, or just a "fight Gotham villains" book, but rather -- like Outsiders and the original New Teen Titans -- it would cover a range, from street level to cosmic, from weird monsters to ghost ninjas. For me, the range was one of the immediate selling points of the book; just my take on it.

    JL -- (Enjoy your site BTW). If it turns out Lobdell wasn't just having Starfire shill for sex and instead she wanted some information from Roy (which isn't necessarily clear yet), then we'll have an instance where a writer legitimately withheld information from the reader for story purposes, but the story-without-the-withheld-knowledge was so controversial that it overshadowed the later reveal. Which, I've said before, is a danger that writers of serial fiction like this face, that maybe a novelist doesn't. Even if it's a fake-out, though, I don't necessarily let Lobdell off the hook -- if the reader doesn't react the way the writer wants them to, the writer needed to construct the scene differently.

    It would be interesting if Lobdell's story was a meta-commentary on reader sexual appetites in comics, like Kyle Higgins's Deathstroke was a commentary on New 52 violence -- if it turned out that Lobdell seemed to use sex in the first issue of Red Hood and everyone said "the New 52 is too sexualized" and then instead the point is really that Jason and Roy are really psuedo-impotent stand-ins for Dick Grayson, that's interesting. Whether that's the point remains to be seen; whether that point needed to be made or Starfire needed to sacrificed on the altar of that point are both worthy of discussion.

    At the same time, despite that Lobdell one way or the other still makes Starfire seem a little sleezy, if I'm not mistaken Dick Grayson has slept his way around the entirety of the DC Universe and Starfire has slept with ... Dick Grayson. As Greg Rucka discussed regarding Wonder Woman, there is a sense of unfair purity there among the fans -- Dick Grayson can be a heartthrob, but Starfire for Dick Grayson's only. Though Lobdell may have gone about it the wrong way, he probably did the Starfire character a favor in finally giving her a new dance partner.

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