A brief history lesson, for context:
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal classic Batman: Year One, which redefined and updated Batman’s origin story, was published in single issues over Batman #404 to #407, in 1987. Grayson, you might recall, abdicated the role of Robin in 1983, after which Batman got an assist from a brand new Boy Wonder, named Jason Todd. Prior to Year One, and the Crisis on Infinite Earths event which precipitated it, ginger-haired Jay Todd’s background was nearly identical to Dick Grayson’s: he was an orphaned circus acrobat, whose parents were murdered by circus freak show act Killer Croc. When modern continuity resumed after Year One, however, it was determined that Jason Todd’s origin, like Batman’s own, should be revisited. Thus, Batman #408 featured a brand new introduction to the second Boy Wonder.
That issue is the third issue featured in the collection, Batman: Second Chances. The first two are Batman #402 and #403, the last issues of the title before Year One changed everything, which serves well to draw attention to the puzzling aspects of Second Chances as a whole. See, those first two issues are written by a skilled writer named Max Allan Collins, who today is probably best known as the writer of the Road to Perdition graphic novels, the first of which was adapted by Sam Mendes into an incredible film starring Tom Hanks. This Batman story, a straightforward two issue arc that has Batman and Robin tracking down an ex-cop who has delusions of being Batman himself, doesn’t really warrant comparison to Collins’ noir-ish graphic novels, but it’s nevertheless well-crafted, a worthy successor to the Dennis O’Neill and Neal Adams-era. Puzzlingly, however, Collins returns to write the title with #408, writing in very much the same style as his previous arc, evidently unfazed by the Miller/Mazzucchelli issues in between.
Thus, it’s a little hard to know what to make of Second Chances: it’s confusing (if enjoyable) without context, but is a little disappointing with it. As such, I’m going to take it for what it is, pour myself a beer, and talk about the Boy Wonder which it sort-of introduces to the Batman mythos. Jason Todd is inextricably associated with the color red: depending upon who you ask or when you encounter him in continuity, it’s his natural hair color; colorist Adrienne Roy dresses him in red, even in plainclothes, consistently throughout Second Chances; and much, much later, he will adopt the identity of the Red Hood. The only style of beer appropriate to pair with a Jason Todd story, then, is a rousse, or red ale. Chronique, a red ale from Quebec brewery Le Trèfle Noir, is a good match for Second Chances in more than just color, though. Like Max Allan Collins and his rotating cast of artists, Chronique is a beer more beholden to tradition than to catering to modern tastes.
Modern red ales are usually a little more malt-forward, with pronounced caramel notes and usually a fairly subtle hop presence. Le Trèfle Noir bills Chronique as “brewed in the English tradition,” which is one way of saying it’s bitter. English hops (like Fuggles, East Kent Goldings, and the like), tend to impart more bitterness than aroma, and are much earthier than their citrusy New World counterparts. These are the flavors that are most pronounced in Chronique, and while it isn’t unenjoyable, it isn’t the style as one might expect it to be today. In much the same way, Second Chances owes nothing to Year One. It’s expansive roster of artists, including such luminaries as Denys Cowan, Dick Giordano, Dave Cockrum, and Norm Breyfogle, owe much more to the influence of Neal Adams than to David Mazzucchelli’s more cinematic sensibilities. Adrienne Roy’s color palettes, too, are not the same subdued tans and grays of Mazzuchelli’s Gotham, instead applying the bright neons of the Silver Age.
Simply describing the story in broad strokes, it sounds like it could be suitably Miller-ish: visiting Crime Alley on the anniversary of his parents’ murder, Batman returns to the Batmobile to find a kid boosting the tires. He realizes that, without guidance and supervision, this boy is likely to grow up a criminal. But then, Collins gives the plot a weird Silver Age twist, as Batman enrolls Jason Todd in Ma Gunn’s School for Boys, which purports to be a school designed to reform the wayward youth of the Crime Alley neighborhood. However, the matronly Ma Gunn is actually training these boys as criminals. While it is absolutely delightful to have a grandmotherly old woman spouting ridiculous super-villain dialogue, it is also exceedingly silly.
This tone carries on throughout. In Jason’s first actual outing as Robin, the Dynamic Duo is on the trail of Two-Face, whose gimmicky crimes take them to a baseball game, where Batman and Dent trade quips worthy of the Batman: The Brave & The Bold cartoon: “Strike three, Two-Face. You’re out!” “Excuse me . . . I have a man to bat!” (In fact, I inadvertently found myself reading all Batman’s lines in Diedrich Bader’s voice.) In true Silver Age fashion, the Two-Face plot even resolves with Robin facing off against the villain on a ridiculous over-sized set piece – in this case, a giant roulette wheel. Even when Collins steps away and Jo Duffy writes an issue, things stay pretty silly, with a plot lifted right out of Scooby-Doo, as a museum exhibit of artifacts from feudal Japan appears to be haunted. As for Jason Todd himself, the text repeatedly tells us he’s a tough kid, but does very little beyond that to actually write him as a notably different character from the past Robin.
After Jo Duffy’s delightful romp, Jim Starlin steps in to write an issue, drawn by Jim Aparo. This is the team which best defined and best utilized Jason Todd going forward, but strangely, in Starlin & Aparo’s first issue in Second Chances (Batman #414, entitled “Victims”), Robin doesn’t even make an appearance. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the strongest issue in the book, and the first one which starts to show the influence of Year One: it’s a short and grim story of Batman investigating the murder of a social worker, demonstrating Starlin’s firm understanding of what makes Batman tick. Starlin & Aparo contribute another two issues to Second Chances – one is a tie-in issue to a forgettable crossover event called Millennium while the last details the first meeting Nightwing and the new Boy Wonder. Of course, this meeting was later replaced by Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon’s Nightwing: Year One, but Starlin & Aparo’s take is not without merit. Really, its only flaw is a plot point inherited from Max Allan Collins – Batman #408 unceremoniously ditched Dick Grayson, having benched him after he was injured by the Joker, and then simply never acknowledged him thereafter. Starlin addresses this in Batman #416, with Grayson, now Nightwing, returning to Gotham and taking Batman to task for replacing him and seemingly forgetting about him. While hindsight gives Beatty & Dixon’s version the benefit of some greater thematic meatiness, there is a lot I like about Starlin’s take, and Aparo paces the dialogue heavy issue beautifully. The scene in which Bruce admits to having replaced Grayson so quickly because he missed him is downright heartbreaking in Aparo’s skilled hands. Not only does the Bruce-Dick dynamic get a nice treatment, but the issue also establishes a more supportive relationship and brotherly camaraderie between Nightwing and Robin.
Then, Max Allan Collins returns to close out the book, with a story drawn by Norm Breyfogle, in which the Penguin falls in love with a fellow bird-enthusiast named Dovina Partridge. It’s cute and silly, and wholly entertaining if entirely inconsequential, but leaves one feeling much the same at the conclusion as at the start: entertained, but feeling that this was not entirely the story you were looking for. Just as someone who picks up a Chronique red ale might be off-put by the pronounced bitterness at first sip, Second Chances will likely bewilder readers looking for the post-Year One origin of the notorious “bad boy” Robin. But expectations don’t determine actual quality. In the case of both Second Chances and Chronique, if one simply comes to enjoy them as they are instead of what is expected, I’m sure they’ll find themselves satisfied.