In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate every Sunday of April to celebrating the character?
Story Title: “A Death in the Family”
Published: September 1988 to November 1988
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Jim Aparo
Having been a regular part of Batman’s adventures since his debut, Dick Grayson eventually grew from a “Boy Wonder” and into a “Teen Wonder” as part of the Teen Titans; to continue the Batman and Robin dynamic, writer Gerry Conway and artist Bob Newton created Jason Todd to, quite literally, fill Grayson’s boots as the new Robin. Originally having a background and personality that was almost an exact copy of Grayson’s, Jason’s backstory and demeanour were dramatically altered by writer Jim Starlin following the Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman, et al, 1985 to 1986). Now a rebellious, impulsive brat from the streets with a volatile temper, readers came to dislike the new Robin and it was writer Jim Starlin who first proposed the idea of killing the character off. Dennis O’Neil decided to run a telephone campaign where the fans themselves would decide whether Jason lived or died following a brutal encounter with the Joker. Starlin and artist Jim Aparo crafted the story and produced two potential outcomes, one where Jason lived and one where he died but, despite some controversy, the results were heavily in favour of the young Robin’s demise. Jason’s death was a pivotal moment in Batman’s career; he kept a monument in the Batcave as a constant reminder of his greatest failure, mentally and physically struggled with the boy’s death even after Tim Drake took on the Robin mantle, and for fifteen years Jason was one of only a handful of comic cook characters whose death actually stuck.
A Death in the Family begins by immediately emphasising that the dynamic between Batman and Robin has gotten a bit out of whack lately thanks to Jason’s reckless and impulsive attitude. After spending three weeks tracking down a kiddie-porn ring and cutting Commissioner Jim Gordon and the Gotham City police department in on the bust, Jason decides to go off script and attack the thugs head-on. Once they have subduing the pornographers, Batman chews Jason out since not only did his actions mean that Gordon missed out on the bust but they also lead to him (as in Jason) almost being shot in the back.
Although enraged at the time, Batman is left stunned at Jason’s cavalier attitude towards their job and, once back at Wayne Manor, confides in his butler and long-time confidante, Alfred Pennyworth, about Jason’s recent chaotic actions. Alfred suggests that Jason is still struggling to come to terms with the deaths of his parents and that being Robin is probably not the most productive way to work through his grief, a suggestion that Bruce begrudgingly agrees with. Jason, however, is angered at them talking about him behind his back and even more outraged when Bruce grounds him from being Robin and tries to get him to talk about his parents. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Batman is called out to Arkham Asylum (during the day, no less), where Gordon informs him that the Joker was able to get into the janitor’s storage room, mix up a version of his lethal laughing gas, kill a bunch of guards, and escape. Both Batman and Gordon are determined to use every resource available to track Joker down after he crippled Gordon’s niece, Barbara, in Batman: The Killing Joke (Moore, et al, 1988). Joker, however, is fully aware of the heat hanging over him and has a big plan to dismantle a cruise missile he has stored away in a warehouse and sell it off to terrorists and buy his way into politics.
Still fuming, Jason wanders around Gotham City and ends up at his old home near Crime Alley. This provides the story with the perfect opportunity to recap how Jason’s mother, Catherine, died of a “disease” when he was young and his father, two-bit criminal Willis Todd, ended up being murdered by his boss, Harvey Dent/Two-Face, leaving Jason in the care of an orphanage. Quite coincidentally, Mrs. Walker, a friend of Catherine’s, recognises Jason and provides him with a box of his personal effects, much to his stunned amazement. However, when looking through these documents, he discovers that Catherine wasn’t his real mother; thanks to the Batcave, Jason narrows down his mother’s true identity to one of three people and, believing that neither Bruce or Alfred would approve or support his endeavour, steals Bruce’s credit cards and heads out to track his true mother down. Although obviously wishing to chase after Jason, Batman is forced to continue tracking down the Joker after discovering the madman’s plot; this leads him to Lebanon, but he is constantly one step behind the Harlequin of Hate. Thankfully, though, Batman’s investigation and Jason’s search for his mother align when they come across each other in Beirut. Despite being angered at the boy’s impulsive actions, Batman is pleased to be working alongside his young partner once more and, together, the two are able to disrupt the Joker’s sale of his missile, something made all the easier when the missile explodes on its launcher and takes the Joker’s money with it. On the downside, the Joker escapes and Sharmin Rosen, an Israeli agent who helps the Dynamic Duo, turns out to not have ever sired a child, though Batman vows to help Jason track down the other two names on his list.
However, when they track down Shiva Woosan, they find that she has been kidnapped by Shite terrorists. Thankfully, Batman and Robin are able to infiltrate the Shite camp, where Shiva is revealed to be the deadly assassin and martial artist Lady Shiva and responsible for training the terrorists. A brutal fist-fight ensues between the Dark Knight and Shiva but Batman get the upper hand thanks to Jason choosing to help his mentor in subduing her. After destroying the camp, though, Jason is once again left disheartened when (after being subjected to sodium pentothal), Shiva reveals that has also never had a baby. This leaves Sheila Haywood, the last name on Jason’s list, who turns out to actually be Jason’s birth mother. While Jason is overjoyed to be reunited with his mother, he’s horrified when it turns out that she’s being blackmailed into helping the Joker get his hands on some medical supplies to help with his financial woes. This time, Jason does go to Bruce for help and Batman explicitly orders Jason to stay behind while he intercepts the supply trucks tainted by the Joker’s laughing gas. True to form, Jason doesn’t listen; he reveals his duel identity to his mother and she immediately sells him out to the Joker.
While Batman disrupts the Joker’s plot, he’s left relying on one of the supply trucks to get him back to Jason since he loses his little Bat-mini-copter. As a result, Jason is left entirely at the Joker’s mercy and subjected to a brutal beating; he smacks Jason with his pistol, kicks him in the face, has henchmen put a beating on him, and then beats him to a bloody pulp with a crowbar! Note that the Joker does not beat Jason to death with the crowbar; he “merely” bludgeons him into a broken, bloody mess. Indeed, Jason is still cognizant enough to free his mother when the Joker betrays her but the two are caught in a massive explosion when the bomb the Joker left in the warehouse with them explodes. Batman arrives just in time to witness the explosion and, despite hoping against hope and knowing better, is devastated to find that not only has Sheila perished in the blast but so has Jason. Again, while it is a bit unbelievable that Jason’s body isn’t strewn over the wreckage in bloody chunks, it is the bomb that killed Jason; not the crowbar! Anyway, Bruce immediately sets about coming up with a suitable cover story for how and why Sheila and Jason were there and laying him to rest. However, Bruce refuses Alfred’s offer to contact Dick Grayson to help track down the Joker but Batman’s desire to bring the Joker to justice for his actions are complicated by the arrival of Clark Kent/Superman. Although sympathetic to Bruce’s plight, Superman reveals that he has been explicitly asked by the State Department to stop Batman’s vendetta since the Joker has been made he new Iranian ambassador and has thus been granted diplomatic immunity from all prior crimes!
Unimpressed, Bruce ignores Superman’s warnings, and those of the United States government, and prepares for a final showdown. He (as Batman) makes one final attempt to appeal to the Joker’s decency and sanity but that obviously fails, and he spends a great deal of his inner monologue postulating on the mysterious connection between him and his enemy. Here, we learn that Bruce regrets not killing the Joker years ago, lamenting that he let Joker’s clear insanity stay his hand, but he can no longer justify allowing him to live any longer. Equal parts driven by rage and a moral obligation to spare the world (and other children) the Joker’s wrath, Bruce sets aside his usually strict moral code and commits himself to killing the Joker…or dying in the attempt. When Batman’s suspicions about the Joker’s true intentions at being a United Nations ambassador come to fruition, Superman is luckily on hand to put a stop to his attempt to gas everyone but, thanks to panic caused by his explosive back-up plan, the Clown Prince of Crime is able to escape to his helicopter on the roof. Batman, fuelled by a desire for revenge, pursues his enemy and, in the fracas, both are shot by one of the Joker’s henchman. Though Batman is only wounded, the Joker takes a slug in the chest and, with the helicopter in a death spiral, Batman bids his archenemy adieu and dives to safety. However, he remains unsatisfied when the helicopter crashes since he knows that no-one, not even Superman, will be able to recover a body to confirm the kill.
A Death in the Family is the quintessential Batman for me. Never mind your Frank Miller’s and Scott Snyder’s; I grew up with the likes of Jim Starlin and the simple, agile elegance of Jim Aparo. Although I’ve never been a fan of Batman’s blue-and-grey suit with yellow oval, it is still an iconic and timeless look for the character and Starlin’s characterisation of the Dark Knight is pretty much spot-on. Under his pen, he’s not just some grim, stoic avenger of the night; he’s a trusted ally of Jim Gordon’s, a respectable partner of the G.C.P.D., a stern (yet, crucially, fair) mentor, and a master detective. Indeed, as adept and skilled as Batman’s physical prowess was during this time (and in this story), it’s his intellect that is often given just as much time to shine, which really help to redefine the character as a more intellectual superhero.
Still, that’s not to say that Batman doesn’t get his fair share of action in this story. Both he and Robin get more than enough chances to shine; Starlin is sure to characterise the two as being a well-oiled unit even when Jason’s explosive temperament causes him to go off the rails. Batman is depicted as being cool, calm, and collected even when facing multiple armed foes and having to account for Jason’s volatile nature. While the everyday, run of the mill goons Batman fights don’t pose that much of a challenge to him, the story still goes to lengths to emphasise the physical skill, co-ordination, and special awareness Batman has to do what he does and it thus makes even more of an impact when Lady Shiva is able to match him blow-for-blow and deal some decent damage to Batman. Indeed, while Batman is characterised as being a master at what he does, he is by no means infallible; not only does his rage drive him into a wholly justified murderous vendetta by the story’s end but he also suffers a few significant physical injuries, including a bullet wound to his arm.
Of course, a focal point to this story is Jason. While far from the insolent little prick he’s often characterised as being in flashbacks these days, Jason is still an emotionally-charged liability. He’s an angst-ridden teenager, one struggling to deal with the worst tragedy of his life and given free reign to unload his anger and resentment on Gotham’s underworld. While Dick was a daredevil and a risk-taker due to his background in the circus, Jason is just reckless and leaps into battle without a plan or a care for his own safety or the intricacies of Batman’s operation. Enraged at being shut out from his responsibilities as Robin, Jason finds renewed purpose in his search for his true mother; this helps mend the fences between him and Bruce, who of course sympathises with his young partner’s plight and genuinely wishes to help him in any way he can. Bruce agonises over having to pursue the Joker instead of Jason and this only adds to the grief and guilt he feels weighing upon him when he arrives all too late to save his headstrong partner from a gruesome fate.
This is an interesting story for the Joker; like Batman, Joker went through a period of time where he was either absent from DC Comics or significantly altered but his threat really ramped up after Dennis O’Neil came onto the main Batman book. Now a calculating, vindictive, and incredibly intelligent villain, the Joker’s usual madcap nature is supplanted by a desperate need to quickly build up his finances and assume a position of real power through a political career. This backfires on him when he is arrogant enough to think he can assemble and reassemble a cruise missile, costing him his cash in the process, but also drives him to spiking medical supplies and trying to gas the United Nations while being protected from reprisals by diplomatic immunity. It’s a story very much driven by the Joker’s psychopathic and callous ways but not necessarily overwhelmed by him; it remains a dramatic tale of Batman struggling to help his unpredictable partner that culminates in a showdown with the Joker rather than him becoming the sole focus of the story like in a lot of later Batman/Joker stories.
Of course, you can’t really talk about A Death in the Family without mentioning the brutal and sadistic torture and death of Jason Todd. One of the things I like about the story is that, as much of a little ass as Jason is, you can totally see where he’s coming from; he’s young, hurting, and lashing out in blind anger. His demeanour shifts from being reckless with his safety to trying to find his birth mother once he finds out that she’s still alive and there’s a definite sense that he just wants to have that gaping hole in his heart filled, which is again obviously something Batman can very much relate to. This is emphasised to the fullest when Jason, beaten and clearly dying, uses the last of his strength to try and save his mother from the blast that kills them despite the fact that she betrayed him to the Joker. In the end, he died every bit the hero Batman raised him to be and is fully deserving of Bruce’s adulation in death. Indeed, while Jason was talented and gifted, he wasn’t quite the all-rounder that Dick was and nowhere near the suitable protégé Tim Drake would prove to be and yet, in making the ultimate sacrifice, he gave himself to Bruce’s cause in a way beyond his other partners and it was fascinating seeing Bruce slowly self-destruct in subsequent stories because of his guilt over Jason’s death, and seeing the incident being brought up every so often to remind him of his greatest failure.
Have you ever read A Death in the Family? What did you think to DC’s decision to kill Jason off? Were you a fan of the character back then or did you think he was an annoying little brat who deserved what he got? What did you think to the characterisation of Batman during this time? Were you a fan of the Joker’s inclusion in this story, and did you like the wrinkle of Superman being brought in to keep Batman in check? Did you realise that Jason died by a bomb and not the crowbar? Whatever your thoughts on A Death in the Family, and Jason Todd, leave a comment below and stick around for more Robin content this month.