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As far as reading experiences go, Red Hood and the Outlaws is never an easy one. At least, it isn’t for me. It continually ping-pings me between story elements I really get into and others I just find ill-suited for the characters. This issue is definitely no exception. It’s more like the standard.
The plot of this issue sees Suzie Su, a Hong Kong crimelord with a grudge, forcing a showdown with Red Hood in Gotham City. Starfire and Arsenal back up Red Hood’s play as he tries to get in and out of Gotham to handle this before being drawn into any drama with You-Know-Who. It’s a simple plot that really suits the book, which is something I can’t usually praise this series on. No ancient evils, no mysticism, a bare minimum of aliens. It’s Jason Todd, Gotham City and a crazy gang boss. Yes. This is the stuff.
Unfortunately, this just wouldn’t be Red Hood and the Outlaws if it was 100% the right stuff. Even though the story of this issue really shouldn’t have anything to do with it, Jason’s history with the All-Caste is a factor in the beginning of the issue where he explains his history with Suzie Su. I know Lobdell is still in love with his All-Caste concept, but seriously, he needs to let it go. The All-Caste and the Untitled are an anchor around this book’s neck. Together, they make for a generic fantasy concept that is completely out of place for these characters, most especially a grounded Bat-character like Jason Todd.
The All-Caste business is especially annoying in this issue despite how little it actually comes up See, I’ve been able to overlook the All-Caste somewhat because Jason had a lot of teachers during his lost years. The All-Caste was just one of them, and they can’t all be winners. Lobdell is making it difficult to frame it that way, though. He emphasizes the All-Caste as not just a source of learning for Jason but THE source. With the way Jason describes his history, it’s like Talia al Ghul and everything established in his Lost Years limited series never happened, being replaced entirely by the All-Caste. …No. That’s awful. That completely misses the point of Jason’s lost years. Even overlooking how lame and mismatched the All-Caste is, Jason’s not supposed to have learned his skills from one source. He’s supposed to have gone on his own Batman-esque journey to become the Red Hood. That means learning from many, many teachers and putting those skills together himself. You know… the self-made man thing? It’s not supposed to be the “made by an ancient cult of mystic assassins” thing.
Fortunately, this issue quickly moves on from that nonsense and focuses on a subject matter that fits the series a whole lot better. There’s a ganglord looking for revenge on Red Hood, and she takes hostages to force the confrontation. Red Hood has no qualms about giving it to her with Arsenal and Starfire joining him. It’s actually a pretty basic plot, but that’s all this book needs to let the characters shine.
The real story here paints Red Hood and Suzie Su as kindred spirits. Because he didn’t finish her off before, Suzie has arguably been given a second chance at life. Now, she chooses to dedicate it to a path of anger and violence. Lobdell may not be too subtle around comparing it to Jason Todd’s own situation, but it works. The payoff to it is especially great. Jason is entirely self-aware of the similarities and even gives her a chance to reconsider doing what he’s done. When she doesn’t, he does exactly what someone would have to do to him to make him stop. It’s an awesome character moment. One of the things so great about Judd Winick’s take on Jason that other writers seemed to overlook was how self-aware he actually is. He understands his decisions. He knows what they ultimately mean for him.
Lobdell takes this opportunity to tie in Red Hood and the Outlaws to Teen Titans, and in doing so, dramatically recharacterizes the relationship between Jason Todd and Tim Drake. It’s a change that I think I like. Jason and Dick Grayson are already oil and water because of how they are the opposites of each other in so many ways. Because of that, it’s probably more interesting for Tim to have a more complex relationship with Jason rather than just being in the same boat as Dick.
Arsenal and Starfire aren’t the focus of this issue but do get some nice moments to themselves. I think this issue is the first to really show just how much both fall in line with Jason’s tactics. It’s honestly not surprising how willing Starfire is to kill given where she comes from and what she’s endured. Roy’s willingness is a little more surprising, though. I think Lobdell will have to do more to earn it from him.
While all this character stuff is pretty good, the setup for it all is definitely on the weak side. It just doesn’t make sense. Suzie Su draws Red Hood in by taking a hospital’s children’s ward hostage and giving him two hours to show up. This happens in Gotham City. What? To begin with, her time table doesn’t even make sense. If Red Hood didn’t have access to Crux’s ship, he wouldn’t have even been able to show up that day much less within two hours. There was no reason for Suzie to expect this could work. Secondly, this happens in Gotham City! Even with the events of Night of the Owls about to kick off, it’s really hard to believe that none of the Batman family would respond to this insane crisis before Jason could get there.
Kenneth Rocafort’s art is as good as ever. You actually have to hand it to the art team on this book. Rocafort and Blond have kept up when most other DC art teams have either needed fill-ins, rushed the quality of their work or both. The art here has remained pretty consistent. I mean, it isn’t perfect. I will, once again, say how much I have the face Rocafort draws on Red Hood’s helmet. It looks dumb. It will not grow on me. Go away. Aside from that, Rocafort seems to have made a continuity mistake in the flashback with Jason and Tim. In it, Jason wears his current Red Hood outfit. Didn’t issue six make a point of showing he got his Bat-themed suit from Starfire? This scene explicitly takes place before he winds up on the island for her, so why is he wearing it?
This issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws confirms what I’ve been saying about the series for a few months now. It gets better the more the story focuses on the characters. It gets dragged down whenever it focuses on the plot. Lobdell has a great cast of characters and nails a really compelling dynamic between them. But his ongoing plot about a secret society and an ancient evil sticks out like a sore thumb in this dynamic. I look forward to the upcoming tie-in with Night of the Owls, because it should mean a break from the All-Caste. It’s also a return for Jason Todd to the part of the DC Universe he belongs.