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Who is Jason Todd? That’s always the question, isn’t it? In one sense, he is the product of the Bat and the Clown—the good and evil forces that have so profoundly shaped his life. And yet beneath his formative experiences, Jason has always been his own man. Whether as Robin or Red Hood, he has always defied easy categorization, sloppily walking the thin line between justice and vengeance. Red Hood and the Outlaws: Rebirth #1 is Jason’s story; the Outlaws take a beat as writer Scott Lobdell brings new readers up to speed on his leading man and sets the stage for the rebirth of Jason and his team of misfits and outcasts.

Don’t be scared

For experienced readers, seeing Scott Lobdell’s name attached to a project is a likely point of concern. His work on this same title in The New 52, as well as stints on Superman and Teen Titans were divisive at best, and there’s a sense in our reviews and comments sections here at Batman News that a Lobdell book is a guaranteed failure. That’s quite a reputation to lay aside when reading or reviewing this issue, but I went into this with an open mind and a reservoir of good will for Lobdell. I would encourage you to do the same, and I hope that this review makes it a little easier.

This was markedly better than I was expecting, and I don’t mean “I was expecting rotten and got bad,” either. I genuinely enjoyed reading and looking at (more on that later) this book, and while it would be naïve to say that Lobdell has turned the corner this early, I am at least interested to see where he goes with it. I may get burned later, but we’ve got a good start here, and as the saying goes, you shouldn’t borrow grief.

Showing instead of telling

There is quite a bit of telling here, but it is (mostly) the sort that makes sense, as Jason spends much of the issue narrating a montage of his past experiences with Batman and his enemies. For the most part, though, Lobdell lets dialogue be dialogue, and his characters lack the chatty self-awareness that brings down much of his prior work. We learn (or for many of us, relearn) a lot about Jason and Batman—not because they explicitly state those things about themselves, but rather because their dialogue and actions expose enough about their character for us to draw our own conclusions. Even if those conclusions provide no new information, there’s something satisfying about observing this sort of natural revelation, especially when it makes a familiar character feel familiar. Batman would probably not articulate his care and concern for Jason with words, at least not very eloquently; but Batman buying a sandwich for the would-be thief lets us in without breaking character. And as an aside, it’s pretty sweet seeing Batsy tear into a grinder, too.

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We do fall back into Lobdell’s old pattern, at least for a little while, near the end of the story. Perhaps for lack of space or some other limitation, we get spoon-fed the narrative backdrop for the whole series (or at least the first arc) by Batman and the Hood. To make matters worse, the Jason we get in this scene is the whiny, entitled jerk that we’ve too often scene since his ascension from the grave. The scene is mercifully short, and it doesn’t put too much of a ding in the unexpected polish shown by Lobdell earlier in the book, but for those who’ve been burned by the author before, this may spawn a familiar discomfort.

Seeing Red

I had the pleasure of experiencing Dexter Soy’s work back at the beginning of my tenure here at Batman News while reviewing Batman Arkham Knight: Genesis #6, which is also a Jason Todd story. Soy’s style is realistic enough to be interpreted seriously, but he takes enough license with facial detail and anatomy that he can get away with some quirks that would stick out in a more photo-realistic context. For me, his thin, angular lines are reminiscent of something stylistically Japanese, similar in silhouette to recent DC films from WB Animation.  His facial detail is very good even at its worst, and most of the time it’s simply outstanding. So much of the storytelling success of the flashbacks can be credited to Soy’s excellent expressions (and to Lobdell giving the artist room to do his job).

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As much as I love Soy’s work, the real star of the show is colorist Veronica Gandini, most especially in her palette for the flashbacks. Throughout these scenes—which take up a significant chunk of the book—everything is gray or washed out, with two exceptions: the red of Jason’s clothing, and the green of Joker’s hair. We know the story is about Jason because of the voiceovers, but Gandini sets him up as this bold red mark on a shadowy, murky past. It helps us focus on him, sure, but it also makes him the one out-of-place element on the page (the social outcast made a visual outcast), at least until the Joker’s green hair, eyebrows, and iris violently intrude on the gloom (an intrusion that puts the Clown Prince in a place of utmost prominence in Jason’s past).

The artwork in the present-day scenes has the disadvantage of following such exquisite flashbacks, but it is still very good on its own. Soy is a capable director, expertly framing the action and sparingly—but very effectively—breaking up the action with full-page spreads. Jason is perpetually in Bruce’s shadow, and Soy makes a point of placing Batman higher on the visual plane than Red Hood at almost every turn. Two of these scenes are full-pagers, one in the past and one in the present, with Jason on the ground before his enormous mentor, a perfect aesthetic representation of the student’s lingering feelings of inferiority in relation to the master. Gandini’s work here is likewise excellent, even as it is more balanced and less stylized than it was in the flashback sequences.

As a full package, the artwork in Red Hood and the Outlaws: Rebirth #1 is some of my favorite in the Rebirth line, and that’s saying something. Here’s hoping both Soy and Gandini remain—they were equally essential to this issue’s success.

Random bits

  • I love Soy’s Batmobile. If you don’t, you’re wrong.
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  • Without spoiling the details, Jason’s current assignment seems an awful lot like Dick’s current assignment, which seems an awful lot like Dick’s previous assignment. Are we going to get a Red Hood theme song?
  • It’s a small detail, but I really, really like how Jason has his own “cave.” I have very little exposure to most of the Red Hood canon, so this might not be new to everyone, but I like it—especially how he has his own trophies.
  • Again, don’t want to spoil if you’re going to read this, but the final page is pretty great. It’s a nicely-worded, succinct summary of what this whole book is going to be about. May Lobdell never forget the focus he establishes here—this book can be great if he keeps it front-and-center.
  • For all of the praise I give Soy above, I hate his Bat-ears. I realize there’s no accounting for taste, and it’s his artistic choice to make, but me no likey.
  • Soy needs to draw the Joker pretty much every time the Joker needs to be drawn. His Mr. J is fantastic.
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Recommended if…

  • You want a fresh take on the origin of Red Hood.
  • You’re willing to give Lobdell a clean start, and you can look past his past problems and enjoy what is genuinely good here.
  • You enjoy first-rate artwork.

Overall

Forget what you know about Scott Lobdell, at least for now. We all gave DC another chance with Rebirth, and they haven’t disappointed. With Red Hood and the Outlaws: Rebirth #1, Lobdell shows himself worth of his own fresh start. Maybe it’s more hands-on editorial, maybe it’s more effort from Lobdell himself, or maybe it’s a fluke and we’ll be back to business-as-usual in short order—there are, after all, some small echoes of past failures here. Whatever may come next, this issue is worth your time, and I for one will remain cautiously optimistic that there’s more good in store. And with a team like Soy and Gandini bringing this vision to life, a truly reborn Lobdell could end up creating the surprise hit of DC Rebirth.

SCORE: 7.5/10