For over three decades, there has been a very complicated and “fated” relationship between the characters Robin the Boy Wonder and the Joker. And this is a relationship that seems to hinge on one particular character: Jason Todd.
It all started in 1988 with a storyline in the comic book Batman called “A Death In The Family,” in which Robin was kidnapped by the Joker and graphically beaten by him with a crowbar.
It was an era which seemed to host a number of scenes of violence & death featuring beloved DC comic book characters (the death of The Flash & Supergirl in “Crisis,” the shooting of Batgirl, and the eventual temporary demise of Superman)—but the physical assault and eventual murder of Robin at the hands of the Joker seemed to hit a particularly sharp chord that would reverberate in the DC Universe for some time to come.
But it was literally what the fans seemed to have wanted, them being given a phone number they could call to vote whether Robin would live or die; obviously, they chose the latter.
The mass-media dutifully reported that Robin the Boy Wonder—faithful crime-fighting companion of Batman since the 1940s—was no more. The crucial detail most news outlets overlooked, however, is that technically, it wasn’t “the ” Robin who died. It wasn’t Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s good mannered and all-around well-adjusted young ward.
No, Grayson had earlier “retired” his Robin yellows, reds and greens to pursue a solo career as Nightwing. In 1983, a “new” Robin had been introduced: Jason Todd, rough-and-tumble street delinquent.
Unlike Grayson, Todd occasionally swore, defied Batman’s orders, and might have even killed a couple of bad-guys. Part of the motivating reason Batman continued to mentor him was because of a concern that if he didn’t, the boy would end up being a criminal.
Conveniently, Todd was, by the end of the Eighties, dead. Seemingly so, anyway. This would open the door to a far more “acceptable” Robin, the go-getting uber high-achieving Tim Drake (whose quite unbelievable origin story you can read here). The Todd Robin was seen as Batman’s “mistake”—a mistake not just for failing to save him, but perhaps for taking him under his wing to begin with.
Though Todd did get this nice tribute in the Batcave as a consolation prize (yay):
But the Joker was apparently not done with Robin yet. Oh, I’m not talking about that “Joker’s Wild” Robin II miniseries in 1991. No, I’m referring to the 2000 direct-to-video animated movie Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker. In the film, the Drake Robin—who is portrayed in the cartoon as just a child, younger than in the comics—gets kidnapped by the Joker, brainwashed, and turned into…
A creepy Joker “mini-me.”
It was a scene of primal trauma on the level of the death of Jason Todd, complete with insinuated unsavory additional elements (why did Joker have a toilet plunger in his torture arsenal for Drake?). The boy, though eventually rescued by Batman, clearly has extreme issues of PTSD to contend with for the rest of his life. Though he wasn’t killed like Todd, it is very much that same “trope”…not only that the Joker seemed to have a predilection for maiming Robins, but that this was ultimately “Batman’s shameful mistake.”
And it apparently was a mistake that would very concretely “haunt” Batman for some years to come, as in the mid-2000s it seemed Jason Todd was back—and very very pissed. And he decided to take on a very interesting identity, that of the Red Hood.
The Red Hood also being…the first alter-ego of the man who would eventually become The Joker.
Taking on the identity of your abuser? That’s kinda…sick, no? But it perfectly fit this entire sorry saga, that relied so much on the idea of trauma. By this point, the Joker’s assault of the Todd Robin had become a belovedly enshrined aspect of the fan-community, with countless fan-art depictions and cosplay reenactments. Why were people continuing to “replay” such a viscerally abusive and sad aspect of the Bat-mythos?
Perhaps for the same reason Todd became the Red Hood.
By the way, you may be asking, “how did Todd come back from the dead?” Well, Superboy Prime punching a hole in time apparently had something to do with it—but unless you’re a comic fan reading this, your eyes will no doubt glaze over at the bizarre further details of that particular resurrection.
After Todd was resurrected he was apparently an amnesiac vagrant for several years, eventually taken-in by Batman’s ex Talia—who trained (and…slept with?! JFC) the lad. She also restored his memory and health in her father’s magical “Lazarus Pit”—a dip in which also apparently made Todd mentally unstable.
So clearly, Jason Todd was one of the most screwed-over characters in the DC Universe…a near-orphaned young person who started out on the streets…only to get adopted by a millionaire and briefly turned into a superhero…only to get kidnapped, brutalized and killed (via fan hotline vote ) by the Joker…only to get quickly forgotten and replaced by Tim Drake…only to get too-hastily resurrected and ending up back on the streets…only to get taken advantage of (in several senses) and then subjected to a “treatment” that left him further psychologically damaged.
On top of all that, he chose an identity that is inextricably connected to that of his biggest abuser. And there is actually a legit psychological underpinning to that whole phenomenon, Sándor Ferenczi’s concept of “identification with the aggressor”:
Ferenczi introduced the concept and term, identification with the aggressor in his seminal “Confusion of Tongues” paper, in which he described how the abused child becomes transfixed and robbed of his senses. Having been traumatically overwhelmed, the child becomes hypnotically transfixed by the aggressor’s wishes and behavior, automatically identifying by mimicry rather than by a purposeful identification with the aggressor’s role. To expand upon Ferenczi’s observations, identification with the aggressor can be understood as a two-stage process. The first stage is automatic and initiated by trauma, but the second stage is defensive and purposeful.
Can we forgive Jason Todd for being a little pissed off at (uh, wanting to kill) Batman and the other past and present Robins?
The irony to all this is, of course, that though there have been several obligatory “Jason Todd gets revenge on The Joker” scenes in comics and other media, he clearly seems to be more transfixed on his resentment of Batman, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake. Is it possible that by directly facing Joker as the originator of his primal trauma, Todd would then have to face the fact that he’s chosen a Joker-linked identity himself?
Was it safer for Todd’s fragile sense of self to hate Batman more?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the fan theory that the Jared Leto Joker from the “Suicide Squad” movie was actually Jason Todd. Leto’s Joker seemed considerably younger than previous versions (we’ll ignore the fact that seemingly ageless Leto was in his early 40s when he filmed this), and…just strange (even by Joker standards!).
So the basic theory was that Todd (Leto) ended up in Arkham Asylum & was brainwashed by Harley Quinn to become “Joker 2.” “Clues” within the current DC Universe movie continuity supporting this theory included a Robin costume in the Batcave with Joker graffiti on it.
Bruce Wayne says in Batman v. Superman Dawn Of Justice, looking at the costume:
“Twenty years in Gotham… how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?”
Another clue cited is a tattoo of what looks like a bird on the Leto Joker, the bird possibly referring to “Robin”:
As well as small circular scars that match holes on the Robin suit in the Batcave:
Then there is just the tattoo “damaged” on Joker’s forehead…this is a very self-deprecating, “emo” thing that I just don’t think the Joker would do to himself…but that a messed-up Robin who turned into the Joker as part of some sick “tribute” might do.
But most compelling of all to some theorists is the “J” tattoo Jason Todd’s character has in the video game Batman: Arkham Knight…almost identical to the “teardrop” tattoo the Leto Joker sports:
Whatever the case may be with that theory, there is no denying that Jason Todd and his sad saga has been a source of endless fascination and speculation among some fans—and indeed, there have now been several comic book series featuring the character (as well as his appearance in the “Titans” TV show).
Not bad for a kid who the fanboys originally voted to die. And maybe that’s the irony of it…Todd had to become the Red Hood in order to finally get some respect.