After a mock-assassination attempt on the mayor, Jason Todd is now the most famous bad guy in Gotham—and that’s saying something! It’s all part of the plan, though, and Jason has promised Bruce that the Red Hood will play by the rules and not kill anybody. But how long can he do things Batman’s way when someone as ruthless as Black Mask is involved?
Five automatic points for the opening page
I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to make Momma angry. Or even mildly displeased.
Our story opens in flashback as Jason recounts an experience at “Ma Gunn’s School for Wayward Boys,” home of the most amazingly awesome old lady with a gun that I’ve seen in at least the past five summers. As we transition to the present, Jason rescues Ma from an attempt on her life. Gunn implicates Black Mask, so Jason sets out to infiltrate his organization. As is usually the case, things don’t go as planned for the Red Hood, and his first mission puts him face-to-face with one of the Outlaws with whom he shares the cover.
Take another look at that opening spread. On its surface, it’s a smoking old lady with a machine gun, saying something hilarious while she budda-buddas some poor soul (which poor soul has most likely made her angry). On closer inspection, there are some delightful, if subtle, details that make a good image a great one. There’s a poster full of assault weapons on the wall to the left, there’s cracks and bullet holes in the wall and trim to the right, and there are shell casings spilling from Ma’s weapon as she fires. Her clothes are even somewhat interesting, with some simple earrings and a stylish neck piece near her collar. In short, the whole frame is accounted for in deliberate detail. And that’s just Dexter Soy’s pencils and inks! Veronica Gandini, whose colors I praised effusively two weeks ago, is back with the muted palette for this flashback scene, but—as before—she picks points of emphasis, lights them up with color, and transforms something ordinary into something rich and interesting. On this first page, it’s a cigar’s glowing tip, lending Ma more tough-girl credibility than her weapon; on subsequent pages, it’s Jason’s red hoodie, or Batman’s smoldering bullet-proof vest screaming for your attention in a sea of grays and other washed-out tones. I really hope these flashbacks continue to play a role in Lobdell’s scripts, because the art team—which performs admirably all-around—shines its brightest in these contexts.
I lead with the artwork because the book does, too, and because I think this approach is perhaps Lobdell’s (and/or editorial’s) greatest strength so far. Red Hood and the Outlaws has a rockstar team of artists, and giving them space to do their thing is having a marked impact on how I perceive the entire book.
It’s not just the flashbacks, either. With no disrespect to Lobdell, whose work here is a cut above most of his DC output, Soy is the best storyteller on this title. With a few exceptions (exceptions for which the script, not Soy, is to blame), you can ignore all of the text and have a really good sense of what’s happening here. And far from being merely informational, Soy’s layouts and panels are masterfully composed. It definitely helps that Lobdell never scripts him into a corner, but Soy’s prowess “behind the camera” is unquestionably the epicenter of this book’s impact.
Lobdell is better out of the spotlight
Let’s get this out of the way: everyone’s waiting for Scott Lobdell to fall on his face. That’s not an illogical expectation, given past experience, but I’m going to keep expecting good things until he falters. Maybe he’ll surprise all of you, maybe he won’t. But as I said last time, I’m content to enjoy what we’re getting while the getting’s good.
Having a strong group of artists on the team helps tremendously. The script doesn’t have to carry as much weight, and Lobdell lets Soy flex his muscles. But the art also helps cover up deficiencies in dialogue. There’s a restaurant scene early on, in which Black Mask and Ma discuss an offer he made that she can’t refuse. Her dialogue is quite good, but Mask’s doesn’t read nearly as well. It’s the sort of stuff that neither Lobdell nor his editor likely read out loud before sending to production. But like I said earlier, Soy’s storytelling is so rich, his scenes so well-composed, that I am only slightly distracted by the odd dialogue. The scene ends up having its necessary effect, even though Lobdell partly fails to play his role in it.
Let’s give credit where credit is due, though: Soy’s awesome talents require a script. Even when Lobdell’s detail work shows some cracks, it’s still his plot being brought to life by the artists. And what we have here is a compelling—if familiar—good-guy-infiltrates-bad-guy story that is thus far well-conceived by Lobdell and expertly executed by the rest of the creators. The writing isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be, as long as Soy and Gandini keep getting room to work and the overall narrative structure is sound.
Black Mask could be better
After all of that praise and positive thinking, I hate to bring things down, but alas! I must. Black Mask is one of my favorite villains. In my preferred Mask stories, he’s cast as a powerful, wealthy gangster with nice suits and no class. He has all of Cobblepot’s aspirations of control, but none of Cobblepot’s pretensions of civility. In this story, he’s written a bit more high-class, saying things like “relationships are ephemeral at best,” and “I am going to consolidate these myriad endeavors under my auspices.” I won’t pretend to be the most thorough Bat-historian (we’ve already got one of those), so I won’t go so far as to say “this isn’t the real Black Mask.” But he isn’t very much like the Black Mask I’ve read, or seen (I love him in the Under the Red Hood animated film), and when his dialogue contains more expensive words—like it does here—I think he loses a lot of his charm. Also, as a rare visual nitpick, while Soy draws it well, I’m not a fan of the metal-face look that Mask has had since The New 52. I prefer the more classic, skully aesthetic. Maybe Jason will crack him in the face before the arc is over and I’ll get what I want.
Also, me am not nervous about the past
It’s worth pointing out, before one of our beloved, very vocal readers points it out in the comments, that we have yet to encounter the promised Bizarro: a character whose one-trick dialogue is out-stupided by Scarface alone, even when written by those with a more impressive history than Lobdell. We’ll see soon enough how a title that is thus far serious and street-level will handle somebody as crackers as Bizarro, but for now, I’ll stick my fingers in my ears and pretend he isn’t on the cover.
In case you were wondering…
- Fay “Ma” Gunn first appeared in 1987’s Batman #408, “Did Robin Die Tonight?” by Max Collins, Chris Warner, Mike DeCarlo, the omnipresent Adrienne Roy, and Todd Klein.
- Artemis (of Bana-Mighdall) was introduced in 1994 in Wonder Woman #90, by William Messner-Loebs, Mike Deodato, Patricia Mulvihill, and John Costanza.
- You’re a Jason Todd fan.
- You liked the Rebirth one-shot two weeks ago and want to see where this is going.
- You want a look at some of the best artwork in DC’s lineup.
A decent script by Lobdell, brought to life by Soy and Gandini, Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 is a strong opener. Time will tell if this level of quality endures, but for now, it’s a fun book with artwork that demands repeat viewing. I’m still gladly recommending this title.