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Looking back at Jason Todd’s forgotten, red-headed beginnings with his creator Gerry Conway

Writer Gerry Conway breaks down the creation of the second Robin, Jason Todd.

Jason Todd suits up (art by Don Newton)
Image credit: DC Comics

The life of a young acrobat was shattered when his parents were murdered by a gangster. The orphan was then taken in by Bruce Wayne. After a period of training, the orphan took on the name Robin, and began fighting crime alongside Batman. You might be reading this and think we’re talking about Dick Grayson, but this is actually the original origin for Jason Todd, the second Robin.

When Jason Todd was first introduced in 1983's Batman #357, he didn’t have the familiar street kid background that we know today. The original version of Jason was a circus acrobat, much like Dick Grayson. He also had a Cousin Oliver style bowl cut and red hair. After the reality altering events of the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, continuity shifted and Jason was given a new origin.

The Boy Wonder went on to be killed by the Joker in the controversial 'Death in the Family' storyline. He was later brought back as an anti-hero known as the Red Hood in the 2005 storyline Under the Hood. Now Jason Todd is one of the most showcased members of the Bat-Family, appearing in numerous projects like the video game Gotham Knights and the HBO Max series Titans. But before all that, Jason Todd was a spunky circus acrobat with red hair.

Gerry Conway helped create Jason Todd along with artist Don Newton. Conway is a legendary comics writer who is known for killing Gwen Stacy, and creating characters like Firestorm and the Punisher. Popverse had a chance to chat with Conway during Dragon Con 2022, where the legendary writer recalled the circumstances that led to Jason Todd’s creation.

Bruce Wayne offers to adopt Jason Todd (art by Don Newton)
Image credit: DC Comics

Popverse: Did the idea of Jason Todd predate the idea of a new Robin, or did you introduce him to be a new Robin?

Gerry Conway: He was introduced to be a new Robin. The notion was to come up with a younger Robin to replace Dick Grayson. The Batman I grew up with was Batman and Robin, so for me the duo was a core part of my Batman fandom. To continue that relationship with Dick Grayson as he was at that point just didn't seem practical. For creative reasons he was too old, and for production reasons, in that he was the main lead of another title, The New Teen Titans. His story was driving a lot of the stories of the book. So writing Dick Grayson out was the primary motive. And then replacing him with a young Robin is something that I wanted to do for myself as a creator.

And at that point Dick Grayson had been Robin for four decades. Was DC resistant to the idea?

No, actually DC was happy to do it. Because again, New Teen Titans was at that point their best-selling book. Dick Grayson was so much a part of it, that keeping him in Batman was becoming difficult. This was a solution that appealed to all of us as a way out.

And with the development of Jason Todd, was there a journey to get there? Did you initially have other ideas about who this character would be?

No, not particularly. I mean, I knew that I wanted there to be parallels between him and Dick Grayson, because I wanted Dick to be the one who basically brought him into the Bat-Family. The parallels between Jason's story as I developed it, and Dick's backstory were intentional in that it gave Dick an emotional connection to Jason. It was probably for the best when after [Crisis on Infinite Earths that] they rebooted to separate them a bit more.

The original Jason Todd costume
Image credit: DC Comics

Jason eventually dyes his hair after you leave the book. Did you give him red hair to give him his own look? Were you planning on keeping him as a redhead?

Yes, the intention was that he was a redhead. I like redheads, what can I say?

It set him apart from Dick Grayson a little more. Had you stayed on what would you have done with him? You basically completed the origin and then left the title not long after.

I think I probably would have done a fairly conventional version of the character. I don't think it would have been as interesting as the Jason Todd that appeared after the Crisis reboot. And his relationship with Batman wouldn't have been as contentious. In that regard, I think they really improved the character when they rebranded him.

The Joker faces Killer Croc (art by Don Newton)
Image credit: DC Comics

While writing Jason's origin you also brought in another new creation, Killer Croc.

Killer Croc was answering some questions I had set for myself as a writer. 'How can I get Batman into the most inconvenient place for Batman to be Batman?' That was, in my view, the sewers. This is a guy whose main superpowers are his Batmobile and his bat-rope, and swinging around from rooftops similar to Spider-Man. So you take a character like that and put him underground, he's at a disadvantage.

I wanted to create a character similar to the kinds of strange deformed characters of Batman's past, you know, rather than some of the more sequel villainy type characters. I mean his original rogues gallery were people like the Joker and Two-Face, and they were kind of derivatives of Dick Tracy villains. And so Croc, being a guy with a bad skin condition basically, was my version of a Dick Tracy villain, which had always appealed to me.

I never thought of it that way, but he was totally a Dick Tracy villain!

He's a crime boss with a bad skin condition. It's basically his thing.

I live in Tampa, so I appreciated the fact that he came from Tampa.

Even though he wasn't an alligator.

I mean, now he is. They've basically forgotten he was supposed to be a human.

That was because of the cartoon. The cartoon is really what made the character a phenomenon. Because it changed him from just being a guy with a skin condition to being this partial monster. And that makes it even more visually interesting.

Jason Todd discovers that Killer Croc murdered his parents (art by Don Newton)
Image credit: DC Comics

This Killer Croc and Jason Todd stuff culminates into one of my favorite issues of all time, Detective Comics #526. Any memories of writing that pivotal issue?

I was privileged to get the opportunity to do the 200th Justice League issue, and Detective Comics #526. These were wonderful opportunities to revisit the material that I loved as a kid growing up. My initial introduction to Batman was actually to the Batman Annuals. The early first and second Batman Annuals, which heavily represented the work of Dick's Sprang from the late '40s and early '50s. You know, the giant typewriters and the street level villains, you know, as I say, those kind of Dick Tracy villains. Getting to do the anniversary story gave me the chance to just jump into all of that. And I was working with Don Newton, who was capable of doing that kind of dark mysterious 50s take.

When you see Jason Todd on a show like Titans, when you see what he's become, how do you feel about the legacy of being his co-creator?

I think it’s terrific that something that I did decades ago still has relevance today. I would appreciate it if DC would acknowledge that I was the co-creator, because they claim it’s a derivative character. I mean, they’re all derivative characters. I’m just flattered that these characters have a life of their own, it’s great.

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Joshua Lapin-Bertone avatar
Joshua Lapin-Bertone: Joshua is a pop culture writer specializing in comic book media. His work has appeared on the official DC Comics website, the DC Universe subscription service, HBO Max promotional videos, the Batman Universe fansite, and more. In between traveling around the country to cover various comic conventions, Joshua resides in Florida where he binges superhero television and reads obscure comics from yesteryear.
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