"Don't Mess With Killer Croc!" -- the Secret Origin of Jason Todd
Detective Comics #523-526, Batman #357-359 -- plus, Detective Comics #521, Batman #355 (1982-1983)
Written by Gerry Conway. Pencils by various.
Before Jason Todd was a street kid, who became the second Robin, was killed off by the Joker, came back as the Red Hood, and...and...well, whatever the heck he is these days -- before that, there was an earlier version of Jason Todd, introduced in DC's pre-Crisis continuity.
Scripter Gerry Conway had just finished a long, convoluted epic in Batman and Detective Comics -- honestly, one of my favourite comic book sagas (which I detail here). And, one suspects, Conway was kind of running on fumes by this point -- certainly compared to the previous epic, this is much, much shorter, and much simpler, saga lacking the multitude of plot threads that Conway had twisted around each other in the previous epic.
Yet it can still be a decent way to kill a few evenings.
For one thing, it first introduces villain Killer Croc -- though that introduction might have been overshadowed by the fact that the storyline also introduced us to Jason Todd. By this point the original Robin, Dick Grayson, though still around (and indeed, a major character in this arc) was an adult and no longer a mainstay of the Batman comics, and presumably the editorial view was it was time to give Batman a young Robin again. Strangely...Conway just rehashes the original Robin's origin, with Jason the son of trapeze aerialists who, over the course of the saga, get murdered as part of an extortion racket. One can't decide if that lack of originality was because, as I say, Conway was just marking time, or whether, in the name of maintaining a certain "iconism" to the legend, they wanted a consistent origin to Robin...even if they changed the name of his alter ego. Possibly, it was also because since the original Robin origin (back in the 1940s) was just a few pages long, Conway (and editor Len Wein) thought it'd be neat to essentially re-tell it...but this time gradually teased out over multiple issues.
Yet, if so -- the execution still seems a bit undeveloped. The whole Todds plot is a secondary thread to the Killer Croc aspect. The Todds don't really have much personality. Even stranger -- Jason himself is barely a presence (at least until the climactic chapter). So as a sophisticated, more developed version of the origin of Robin...it doesn't fully deliver.
Although the saga does show how nothing is really new. A subtext Conway is clearly playing with is that Batman is growing increasingly insular and grim, and needs a young, optimistic Robin at his side to keep him human. That's a theme that has been revisited (and practically beaten to death) in later years, particularly with the introduction of the third Robin (Tim Drake)...but Conway was there first.
This lacks the same ambition as Conway's preceding epic -- fewer sub-plots or characters to be juggled. Yet, as I say...it can still be a decent read. Partly -- backhanded as it may be to say -- I've read plenty of TPB collections of later, supposedly more sophisticated Bat-arcs...that are even less memorable. Partly, the appeal is the idea of the long form arc told through some shorter tales, making for both an epic...and also just a collection of adventures (as opposed to a single plot stretched over multiple chapters). So we get an opening tale of Batman tackling Frankenstein-like Solomon Grundy, followed by a two-parter where a new up-start mobster, The Squid, tries to make in-roads into Gotham. Throughout these Killer Croc is teased along, a shadowy, trench coated figure taking stock of the Gotham underworld. Eventually Croc makes his own play for underworld supremacy, and dominates the remaining issues of the story -- though even then, the extra-long finale also throws in Batman's entire rogues gallery for an Anniversary epic.
The plots can be a bit simple, or familiar -- even the idea of a new villain sweeping into town to declare himself the new king of the mobs is, well, so old in comics it has white whiskers.
Yet sometimes that familiarity is its appeal. As well, Conway delivers with effective, off-beat scenes. There is a genuine creepiness to the Solomon Grundy story, about small time hoods trying to use Grundy for their own ends...made all the more disturbing by the way the hoods' end takes place off the page. While the Squid's final scene is quirkily offbeat. And the scene where Croc, who had previously seemed a controlled, canny villain suddenly explodes into primal, insane rage in one scene, effectively takes both Batman -- and the reader -- by surprise.
Part of the effectiveness is the collection of artists -- most working within a relatively realist style. Gene Colan, paired with inker Tony DeZuniga, draws the Solomon Grundy tale...perhaps explaining some of its spooky mood. Don Newton, paired with inker Alfredo Alcala, does his usual nice work on the two part Squid tale...and they truly excel themselves in terms of storytelling and mood on the climactic/anniversary issue. Superman mainstay Curt Swan drops by for a rare stab at a solo Batman comic...Swan's bright, straightforward style might seem an odd fit for the broody dark knight, but is enjoyable as a change of pace. Dan Jurgens draws a couple of issues and, I'll admit, struck me as the weakest contributor here. I'm just not a fan of Jurgens...though he's a perfectly decent artist, also working within a realist style that I usually like. But often his figures can seem a bit stiff, his storytelling only adequate (though does offer some nice sequences, such as page 8 in Detective Comics #525).
The saga climaxes with the 56 page Detective Comics #526 -- the 500th anniversary (of Batman's appearance in Detective Comics). And honestly -- it's worth a read just on its own! Conway nicely marrys the idea of a self-contained anniversary plot (Batman's rogues gallery team up to kill him, resulting in a series of inconsequential, but enjoyable, battles -- with Batman allied with Talia, Catwoman, and Batgirl, as well as Robin) while still climaxing the Killer Croc plot, as it leads to a showdown with Croc. Jason, finally, is given some personality, and there are some effective, emotional scenes underneath the glib super heroing, including building to a genuinely suspenseful showdown. Newton and Alcala really deliver the goods, the story set during one dark night. It would be Conway's final issue with the character, and it's a strong swan song, both as an adventure...and re-setting the mythos, with Jason Todd being officially welcomed into the Wayne Manor family.
(Trivia note: Doug Moench basically recycled the premise -- also too good effect -- for Batman #400, in which Batman's rogues team up against him on a rainy night...with Batman allied with Talia, Catwoman, and Robin!)
Now part of the trick in my "They Ain't TPB" theme is not just to highlight uncollected story arcs -- but to genuinely put on an imaginary editors hat and contemplate how I might put together a collection. The obvious story here runs from Detective #523 to Detective #526 (and the concurrent Batman issues #357-359 -- the two Bat-titles essentially treated as one series in those days), but part way through this arc we have some domestic scenes with Bruce Wayne and Vicky Vale that kind of arise out of nowhere, as Vicky had barely appeared in the previous issues. So I would suggest starting off the collection with the two part tale from Detective #521 & Batman #355 for a number of reasons. One: it better lays the groundwork for the subsequent Vicky scenes, so that they arise more organically in this story (making the saga a "graphic novel"), As well: it's a good tale. If some of the plotting in the main Jason/Croc story can seem a bit trite, this two-part tale is Conway being a bit more off-beat, as it involves Catwoman coming after Batman and Vicky -- not as a "super villain", but as a troubled, jealous woman teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. As such, it's not about a "bad guy", but a story that plays with richer emotional themes. But thirdly...it deliberately lays the groundwork for Jason's introduction, as there's a scene where Dick remarks that Bruce is becoming grimmer, and needs a humanizing influence. Often when editors put together collections, too often there's a feeling they really aren't looking beyond the obvious, to focus on what the story (and themes) are about. But if you're going to assemble a bunch of issues together into a collection -- a "graphic novel" -- it makes sense to think of them in terms of telling a story where most of the needed aspects, in terms not just of plot, but even themes and motivation, are included -- hence why I suggest including that story, even though it's not technically part of the Croc/Jason arc, might nonetheless enhance the arc.
This Killer Croc/Jason Todd saga isn't quite a classic -- despite introducing both characters to the Bat-myth. But it is an enjoyable saga, with some memorable moments, moody art, and just a nice sense of an unfolding story (involving the new baddie in town) without feeling like it's just a minor story stretched out over multiple issues (as is so often the case today with multi-issue sagas). Sure, being such a fan of Conway's Boss Thorne epic, I'm pre-disposed to like it -- a chance to read another Conway/Batman epic, but this one a little shorter, a little more digestible. But it's solid enough to warrant an "honourable" mention.