The Evolution of the Red Hood

Classic Batman baddie Red Hood has evolved over the years since his first appearance in the '50s to his latest appearance on Gotham...

I have to admit that I’m fairly new to comics. Well, that’s not entirely true, but before I went off to college (all those years ago — but not really) I never identified as a “comic book lover.”

Sometimes, on a writerly walk into town, I would visit the local comic book store and stare at the racks. Where could I possibly start if most of the major new books were extravagantly numbered at issue #600-something? Batman, for example, was deep into its Grant Morrison era — one that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone who hasn’t read a fair amount of Bat-stories — so that was out of the question. 

Although I’d kept up with the proper Bat-mythos through the internet and the occasional book here and there (I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books way before I picked up any other Bat-book), I’d never properly invested any time into a run. That all changed in 2013, a month after I graduated with my B.A., when I decided to pick up the first issue of “Zero Year,” Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s re-imagined origin story for Batman. This would prove to be a perfect jumping on point into the comic book world for me. 

So it’s by no accident that the Red Hood, one of the most dastardly and enigmatic members of Batman’s rogues gallery, quickly became one of my favorite villains. What drives this character who would eventually become the Joker — and much later, the resurrected Jason Todd (the second Robin)? The crime, the chase, the chaos he invokes in Gotham. While the Red Hood has evolved over the years, and his role (from criminal to vigilante) in the Bat-mythos has changed, his chaotic nature has always been at the forefront. 

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Since a little TV series called Gotham just introduced the Red Hood tonight, I thought it might be a very good time to explore how the character has changed over the years!

The Master Criminal – Detective Comics Vol. 1 #168 

I’ve already detailed the Red Hood’s origin story quite a bit in the past, so I won’t do that too much here. But in tracking his evolution in the Bat-mythos, one must start with the man who was destined to be the ying to Batman’s yang.

From his very first introduction, “The Man Behind the Red Hood,” you could almost call the character Batman’s very own Minister D, the villain in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”. In Poe’s story, the mysterious Minister D is C. Auguste Dupin’s archnemesis, able to match the great detective’s curnning and wit. Most interesting is Dupin’s familarity with D, whose only initial is quite the tip-off that they’re brothers, sharing the same abilities but on opposite sides of the coin. By the end of the story, one has the feeling that perhaps they’re destined to compete against each other forever. Much like the relationship between Batman and Red Hood.

Red Hood is the master criminal “who got away,” and years later, Batman is not convinced that the Red Hood is truly dead, after the Caped Crusader — in perhaps the second most familiar scene in the Bat-mythos, besides the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayner — pushed the guy into a vat of chemicals during a caper. But when the Red Hood reappears, it is only to reveal who he truly is: Batman’s own creation and the result of the madness the Dark Knight himself ushered in when he first put on the cowl. At least, that’s what the Joker would say.

The story has been told and re-told several times, whether it’s in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, or the very first Batman story in Detective Comics Vol. 1 #27 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (even though the Red Hood hadn’t technically been created yet), the man behind the Red Hood,who we lovingly know as “Jack,” has always been destined to fall into that vat of chemicals and become the Joker. It doesn’t matter if Jack is a lab worker who decided to steal from the Monarch Playing Card Company or a failed comedian who needs to provide for his family. He falls and he transforms into Batman’s evil counterpart.

We saw Tim Burton’s Batman play around with the Joker’s origin quite a bit, going the well-connected criminal route, as Jack Nicholson steps into the shoes of Mob enforcer Jack Napier for his signature fall into the vat at Axis Chemicals (which is “Ace Chemicals” in the comics — what a great name change by screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren). Jack isn’t the Red Hood in the film, but he’s no wuss, either, with enough echoes of the villain to make him a formidable opponent for Batman. He wants to take the big job from Mob boss Carl Grissom and his woman, too. And it’s only by “a little stroke of bad luck” that Jack ends up getting everything he ever wanted (and maybe some stuff he didnt, too), all while keeping a smile on his face. Jack’s fall into the vat doesn’t do much to lend a sympathetic eye to his character, since he’s also the reason Bruce’s parents are dead. It all goes back to that ying and yang that has developed between Batman and the Red Hood/Joker. 

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Sidenote: For more on this, you really ought to check out David Crow’s brilliant analysis of Batman ’89.

The Vigilante – Batman Vol. 1 #635

Ah, it would take a pretty long while to really get into Jason Todd and his motivations for putting on the Red Hood in his twisted fight against crime. Here’s the gist: Jason was the second Robin, a street-smart kid who Bruce decided to train as a partner. Unfortunately, Jason was a tad uncooperative once it came time to fight crime, and got himself blown up by the Joker in Jim Aparo and Jim Starlin’s “Death in the Family.” 

Moving on: Jason, whose death was a HUGE deal for the DC universe and the fan base, was resurrected 17 years after his death by Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke in “Under the Hood” in 2005. Actually, his return was alluded to in 2003 during the “Hush” storyline, although it was actually Clayface trying to get under Bruce’s skin during their fight. But they later retconned that so that it WAS actually Jason Todd fighting Bruce, but then he switched places with Clayface at the end of the fight…ahem. Moving on. 

Jason really is a nightmare version of Batman, a concept that isn’t new in the Bat-mythos. We’ve seen guys like the Reaper fulfill the role of dude who was pushed just a little too far in his fight against crime, creating a much more violent parallel to Batman. People end up getting murdered when these guys show up to the scene of a crime instead of the Dark Knight. Jason Todd is the answer to the question: what if Batman decided to kill the Joker once and for all?

Driven by his thirst revenge, and the tutelage of supervillain Hush, Jason returns to Gotham City to exact revenge against the Joker. And what better way to do that than to don the maniac’s former criminal alter-ego? Yes, Jason’s obsession with the Joker, which is not unlike Batman’s, pushes him way past the line, as he begins killing evil-doers on his path for vengeance. 

Red Hood II’s purpose is to show what happens when a vigilante decides to fight evil with more evil. What would Gotham City look like without the Joker? Not much better under the protection of Jason Todd. Just check out some of his pretty awful antics in Batman and Robin Vol. 1.

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The Terrorist – Batman Vol. 2 #0

When Red Hood One appeared for the first time in the pages of the New 52, it was obvious something was different. Yes, Red Hood was up to his usual capers, but this time he had a gang with him. One could argue that this version of the character more closely fulfills the role of terrorist that the Joker would later bask in. The violence in the first section of “Zero Year” is almost mindless, for the sheer enjoyment of it. Or perhaps there is some kind of twisted ideal behind the Red Hood’s war against a city that has already bowed to his will. 

The man that would be Joker, under Snyder’s pen and Capullo’s pencils, is an unknowable creature, unidentified, and a violent agent of chaos who — unlike any other potrayal — has already shown his true colors to the world. While the earliest version of the character is cunning and has a taste for a successful plot, Red Hood One only seems to care about the body count, blowing up buildings at will, kidnapping, murdering. To Red Hood One, Gotham is just one big exploding playground. This version of the Red Hood doesn’t need much transformation to become the clown-themed madman who would haunt Batman for the rest of his life. 

Red Hood One owns Gotham at the start of “Zero Year,” and Bruce, who has decided to pursue the vigilante business, has made the gang and its vicious leader his first case. Snyder wrote the ultimate evolution of the character, an evolution that through the years was told, retold, made legend, and brought to the mainstream. It’s perhaps the oldest story in the Bat-mythos — the way this universe formed:

Bruce created Batman to combat Red Hood, and in doing so, pushed the villain to fulfill his destiny as something much bigger. Red Hood One, who leads countless henchmen into Ace Chemicals in his latest crime, willingly throws himself into a vat of chemicals, a smile on his face on the way down. The hero and villain helped each other evolve into symbols of terror to be feared by those who oppose them. It’s full circle for these characters.

John Saavedra has not yet decided on a proper origin story for his eventual alter-ego. Follow him on Twitter!

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