Review: Red Hood and the Outlaws Vol. 4: League of Assassins trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Red Hood and the Outlaws is an underdog book about a group of underdogs, and I'm not really surprised DC Comics keeps giving it second changes, through "DC You" and into "Rebirth." The concept is sound (filling a space in the DC Universe previously held by books like Outsiders and Secret Six), and Scott Lobdell, I thought, wrote Red Hood, Arsenal, and Starfire well in this book's beginnings. Though indeed there were questionable choices in how the book handled Starfire especially, I think some of this book's worse reputation came from confusing the unseriousness of the characters (especially Arsenal, which was largely an act) with the book itself. In depicting a group of troubled superheroes with no one but one another, Lobdell succeeded.

Red Hood and the Outlaws Vol. 4: League of Assassins is the first volume absent both Lobdell and original artist Kenneth Rocafort, now with James Tynion and Julius Gopez. Tynion has going for the book a strong understanding of the relationship between the Outlaws, and a storyline that authentically puts that to the test. At the same time, this long storyline gets overcomplicated, with lots of mystic gobbledegook, and Tynion gets wrong some of what Lobdell established earlier.

But also tellingly, Tynion's best issue here is the one not drawn by Gopez. Though there's nothing egregiously wrong, the book's art is routinely inked too darkly and the characters' appearances are inconsistent from one issue to the next. This looks like a generic superhero book, far especially from Rocafort, and it might be another reason Red Hood and the Outlaws doesn't get its respect.

[Review contains spoilers]

From the outset, Tynion's League of Assassins is a story about Arsenal Roy Harper trying to keep the Outlaws together after a traumatized, amnesic Red Hood Jason Todd departs, and Tynion's got that heart of the story right. Roy acts desperately, almost pathetically, but he's meant to be a pathetic figure, recognizing rightly that Jason and Starfire Koriand'r's friendship is the best thing in his life. Outlaws is a story of co-dependence; the characters are great for one another because they're so bad for one another. Tynion smartly develops a plot that puts Jason, Roy, and Kori on three different sides of a war, momentarily pitted against one another, and that's an excellent dynamic four volumes into their time together.

Tynion also does well in establishing two other important relationships for Roy Harper. In the uncertain rollout of the New 52, what time Roy spent with Green Arrow wasn't quite clear. It's been expanded on a bit in flashback late in the Green Arrow series, but here Tynion has them on the page together perhaps for the first time and writes their dysfunctional dynamic well (I also like Tynion's invention of the "Roybots" security). Second, Tynion pits Roy against Cheshire, the mother of his child in other continuities; I thought Tynion portrayed Cheshire as too flip in the beginning, but she evens out and we see hints of what she and Roy might actually see in one another before the book is through.

I give Tynion credit for a long story (eight issues and an annual) and indeed it actually continues on into the next book. The book doesn't even feel decompressed -- I don't mind a long story one can sink their teeth into -- as that Tynion's motivations for the characters comes off strained. There's a bounty out to kill the Outlaws, which we learn was set by the mystic group the Untitled, ultimately for no good reason than to "keep [the characters] on [their] feet," which is nonsense if the Untitled needed the Outlaws alive. Meanwhile the League of Assassins mean to recruit Jason to lead them even despite his amnesia and for reasons never wholly clear. And various characters -- the rival organization All-Caste's Ducra and Essence, and Ra's al Ghul -- have different plans, revealed and not, that contribute to the book's central jumble.

Further, Lobdell had established that a seeming war between the Untitled and the All-Caste had actually been started by the character Essence within the All-Caste; Tynion reverses this and makes the war really the Untitled's fault. Again, it's a lot of mystic back-and-forth, but the result is that Tynion takes something that had nuance and wasn't what it seemed, and instead makes it very plain without shades of gray. To be sure, this was one mystic group too many even under Lobdell, unlikely to be seen or heard from again in the DC Universe, but I'd have preferred that Tynion built on what Lobdell established (which admittedly he does to a great extent) than to change it.

Tynion cleverly accommodates the book's tie-in with the Batman: Zero Year storyline, leading into a flashback just before that issue. The tie-in issue, with art by Constantine's Jeremy Haun, is among the strongest in the book and also better than most Zero Year tie-ins in that Tynion actually delves into Zero Year's Red Hood mystery, maybe suggesting a thing or two. Notably, we can now say that Jason Todd was a "Red Hood" before he ever encountered the Joker; though not explicit, we kind of understand why Jason chose that moniker now. We also see some of Jason and Talia al Ghul's relationship and why Talia might have brought Jason back from the dead. This whole book needs more Talia, frankly; I guess Talia is dead when this book is set, but her death isn't remarked on clearly enough for the audience to understand what's at stake for the League of Assassins and Ra's al Ghul as regards what plans Talia has in motion.

Red Hood and the Outlaws Vol. 4: League of Assassins offers a glimpse of this title not written by Scott Lobdell, and the fact that it's more or less viable suggests good things for the characters going forward. The fact that Lobdell gets the title back in a few volumes, and keeps it through "DC You" and into the new "Rebirth" iteration, is just icing on the cake. This is not Red Hood and the Outlaws at its best, but even so it demonstrates the complex characters that have kept the title going as long as it has.

[Includes original covers and "WTF" gatefold cover image]
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4 comments:

  1. Okay, the fact that you were able to use gobbledegook in a review means you just won the whole freakin' week :D

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    1. I'm surprised that's the first time! :)

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  2. I always found this series to be incredibly overrated. It never felt like the writer ever had any sort of direction for these characters, he just threw stuff at the wall, and then pivoted depending on audience reaction. And the constant exposition gets really grating. Yes, we can see that Red Hood's pointing a gun at Superman. We don't need every character to say that Red Hood's pointing a gun at Superman.

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  3. I thought of Red Hood and the Outlaws as something of a pallet cleanser after reading a few heavier dramatic titles. It always had at least semi decent story lines and it had flawed characters that helped each other grow because they needed someone else to lean on.

    While not being top level writing, all writers of the series (there are 3, I almost forgot Will Pfeifer who wrote a few issues that are printed in volume 5) make sure that it's the characters you care about even if the story gets a small dip in quality.

    And while I'm not going to spoil anything of future volumes, I want to address your comment about it looking good for DC You. They completely changed the tone in the Red Hood/Arsenal title, more in the art than in the writing, it really feels like some bad editorial decisions being forced on it. It does get better and when the story reaches Robin War this seems to be completely gone. The Starfire title was something I couldn't read, the first issue was something my girlfriend enjoys (who is in her early 20s) and seems to have the humor of some of the "high school" shows she watches on youth channels.

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