Batman: A Death in the Family

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"A Death in the Family"
Cover of Batman: A Death in the Family TPB. Art by Jim Aparo.
Publisher DC Comics
Publication date December 1988 – January 1989
Genre
Title(s) Batman #426-429
Main character(s)
Creative team
Writer(s) Jim Starlin
Penciller(s) Jim Aparo
Inker(s) Mike DeCarlo
Letterer(s) John Costanza
Colorist(s) Adrienne Roy

"A Death in the Family" is a Batman comic book story arc first published in the late 1980s which gave fans the ability to influence the story through voting with a 900 number. "A Death in the Family" ran in Batman #426-429, published in 1988-1989. The story was credited to Jim Starlin (script), Jim Aparo (pencil), Mike DeCarlo (ink), Adrienne Roy (color), and John Costanza (lettering). Covers were illustrated by Mike Mignola. The story is also collected as a trade paperback under the title Batman: A Death in the Family,[1] which has gone through multiple printings and is still available today.

Storyline[edit]

The story follows Jason Todd, the second Robin. In the beginning of the story, Jason and Bruce are in uniform hiding behind some crates while a mob plans. Then, out of the blue, an impatient Jason leaps out from behind the crates and attacks the criminals. When the struggle is over, Bruce asks him what he was doing and said one of these times he is going to get killed. Bruce then asks him if he thinks this is a game, and Jason replies "Yes, life is a game." Bruce therefore relieves him from duty and asks him about his parents. Jason resents this and storms out refusing to discuss the issue.

While walking through his old neighborhood, he meets Mrs. Walker, a friend of his parents, who gives him a box containing his father's old papers and other documents, including photos and articles relating to his family — a little water-damaged, due to a leak in Mrs. Walker's roof. Among them, Jason finds his birth certificate and a stunning surprise: the name of the mother has been almost blotted out, but the initial is "S", not "C" as in Catherine Todd, the woman Jason knew as "Mom".

He concludes that she was in fact a stepmother and resolves to find his biological one. Searching the box, he discovers his father's now out-of-date address book which gives the name of three women whose first name starts with "S", and he tracks their present whereabouts using the Batcomputer. However, all three are based in the Middle East and Africa. Jason therefore runs away from home to find them.

Meanwhile the Joker has escaped yet again from Arkham Asylum, leaving a trail of death behind him. Batman discovers that he has somehow obtained a nuclear weapon and will sell it to terrorists. He tracks him to civil war-torn Lebanon where he and Jason meet up. They foil an attempt by Arab terrorists to destroy Tel Aviv using a nuclear missile sold to them by the Joker. Sharmin Rosen, a Mossad agent who was at the scene, and whom Jason was tracking, denies ever giving birth in Gotham City.

Another of the suspected "mothers" is none other than Batman's old acquaintance Lady Shiva, whom they track down to a terrorist training camp. It is only with Robin's help that Batman overcomes her in a fight that proves almost fatal for him. When she proves uncooperative, they use a truth drug to get her to admit that she is not the mother.

They then go to Ethiopia and meet the third "suspect": Sheila Haywood, an aid worker. She proves to be the right one and she and Jason have an emotional reunion. However, unknown to Batman and Robin, the Joker is aware that Sheila had previously performed "illegal operations on teenage girls" in Gotham. After one resulted in the death of a teen, she was blacklisted as a medical practitioner. The Joker has used this information to blackmail Sheila into giving him the medical supplies her agency has in a nearby warehouse.

Not only is he denying the medical supplies to the starving in order to sell them on the black market, but the Joker also replaces them with his laughing gas which, once set off, will kill thousands of people.

Sheila herself has been embezzling from the aid agency and, as part of the cover-up, hands her own son (now in his Robin costume) over to the Joker. The Joker brutally beats him with a crowbar. Robin is soon lying unconscious in a puddle of blood, which the Joker casually remarks is "a bit messy". He then leaves him and Sheila in the warehouse with a time bomb.

Sheila and Robin try desperately to get out of the warehouse but are still inside as the bomb goes off. Batman arrives too late to save them and they die from their injuries.[2]

The bodies are taken back to Gotham for burial. Since none of their relatives can be found the only ones attending the service are Bruce Wayne and three friends, butler Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Gordon and his wheelchair-bound daughter Barbara, herself a victim of the Joker.

Blaming himself for Jason's death, a guilt-ridden Batman resolves to carry on alone. He even turns down Alfred's suggestion to involve Dick Grayson, his original partner.

The Joker himself, meanwhile, has met none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini, who offers him a position in the Iranian government. The Joker leaves a warehouse containing the dead bodies of his henchmen and an address which Batman easily finds: it is that of the United Nations building in New York.

While waiting outside the building, Batman meets Superman, who has been sent by the State Department. Superman tries to convince Batman to leave, and his evasive attitude and refusal to answer questions leads Batman to punch the Man of Steel across the jaw; the Caped Crusader's hand is nearly shattered. At this point the Joker turns up: he is to be Iran's representative at the UN.

Ralph Bundy, a CIA contact, tells Batman to keep away from the Joker since it could start a diplomatic incident, which the government would rather avoid. The Joker has diplomatic immunity and any crime he has committed has been swept under the carpet.

He is due to give a speech to the General Assembly and Bruce Wayne uses his high-level contacts in order to get in as an unofficial observer. The Joker appears dressed in Arab clothes and he and Wayne exchange glances. The Joker pauses as the two make eye contact, as if identifying Wayne as the Batman, only to laugh dismissively and go on his way.

The Joker then makes his speech claiming that he and the Iranians are treated with disrespect by the rest of the world. He announces that they will not take any more of such treatment and releases his deadly laughing gas over the Assembly.

However, a security guard breaks up the Joker's weapon and inhales all the gas, clearing the hall. It turns out to be Superman in disguise. He flies out of the building in order to find somewhere safe to get rid of the gas while Batman and the Joker fight it out.

The Joker gets out of the building and into a helicopter sent to him by his sponsors. Batman gets in and, during the fight that follows, one of the Joker's henchmen opens fire with a machine gun. The bullets fly everywhere, hitting everyone, including the Joker and the pilot, who loses control and crashes into the sea.

Superman saves Batman, who tells him to find the Joker's body. Unsurprisingly, the archcriminal's corpse is nowhere to be found. Batman laments that everything between him and the Joker ends that way: unresolved.

Significance[edit]

DC Comics and Batman editor Dennis O'Neil were already aware that Jason Todd had become unpopular with readers and decided to remove him from the Robin role. The question was how to do that. Seeking a new way to interact with fans, and perhaps inspired by references to a dead Jason in Frank Miller's non-canonical future history comic book miniseries, The Dark Knight Returns, the company set up two 1-900 number 50-cent hotlines giving callers the ability to vote for or against Jason's death. The call-in period started after publication of the issue in which Jason and his mother are trapped in the warehouse.

Over 10,000 votes were cast, with the final vote being 5,343 votes for Jason to die over 5,271 for him to live. DC published A Death in the Family to massive media attention, some of it critical. Over a decade later, in a Newsarama interview conducted alongside writer Judd Winick, O'Neil said: "I heard it was one guy, who programmed his computer to dial the thumbs down number every ninety seconds for eight hours, who made the difference."[3] If true, that would have amounted to over 200 votes (and 100 dollars), certainly enough to decide the count. There is no way to confirm that rumor, but it adds uncertainty to the question of whether the poll was an accurate measure of what fans wanted to happen to Jason Todd.

Other notable incidents in the story include Batman punching Superman and treating villains a lot more violently than usual. Aspects of his moral character even come into question. Although the Joker has been responsible for dozens if not hundreds of deaths, it is only now that Batman, for personal reasons, seriously considers crossing the line set by his moral code and killing his nemesis. "His insanity always got him a stay of execution," the character thinks. "But no more. Jason's dead." In a story set shortly after these events, Superman confronts Batman with the fact that he left the Joker to die in the helicopter crash at the conclusion, although Batman pointed out in response that it had already been unlikely that he would survive an escape attempt on his own and trying to save the Joker would have definitely killed them both.

The story touches on a number of contemporary political and social issues, such as the Lebanese Civil War, the Arab–Israeli conflict, the Ethiopia famine, corruption and the handling of rogue states. When he goes to Lebanon, Wayne uses a fake Northern Irish passport, the province being synonymous with terrorism at the time.

Although the plot point of the Joker getting hold of an actual nuclear missile is somewhat fantastic, the smuggling of nuclear material is an issue that has been taken seriously in recent years.

The Joker attributes his financial state to "Reaganomics", seemingly blaming then-president Ronald Reagan (though in fact it is because the authorities have stripped him of his assets due to his criminal nature).

The story makes clear allusions to the Iran–Contra affair, including the Joker's sale of a cruise missile to Arab fighters with Israel as their target. Ayatollah Khomeini makes a brief but important appearance, appointing the Joker as a UN ambassador for Iran. (The Joker's appointment as an UN ambassador was later retconned to the fictional nation of Qurac). But the story's depiction of Persian (referred to, in that language, as farsi) as the language of Lebanon and Arabic as the language of Iran reveals how superficially it treated its Middle East setting.

Overall, the depiction of Batman in a rare emotional state, the murder of a well known superhero, and the phone-voting element have allowed A Death in the Family to remain a significant milestone in American comics.

This story strongly suggests that the Joker knows Batman's identity: Robin revealed his true identity to his mother while the Joker was close around. Robin's mask is already gone by the time he wakes up and tries to escape from the time bomb. Jason's death has been described on the telex (though attributed to an accident). The Joker tells Batman that "even a madman can add 2 plus 2...". Batman tells the Joker that Robin's real name was Jason. The Joker stares at Bruce Wayne and laughs maniacally. Bruce Wayne changes into Batman in front of the Joker and the entire assembly attending his speech at the United Nations Plaza. The Joker just wants to kill Batman along with countless other victims with a gun, instead of having a special death just for him (which could indicate he no longer feels as obsessed with him, now that he may or may not have just recently discovered his true identity).

IGN Comics ranked A Death in the Family #15 on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels.[4]

Jason Todd's legacy and return[edit]

The issue of Jason Todd's death was often raised over the years in the mainstream Batman stories, becoming almost as important a factor in his life as the death of his parents. It intensified Batman's feud with the Joker, making it even more personal. In the course of the Batman: Knightfall story arc, Batman is exposed to the Scarecrow's fear toxin, causing him to hallucinate about Jason's death. However, instead of fear, he reacts in rage, and brutally beats the Joker while screaming Jason's name. He often visits Jason's gravesite and raises his death as a factor in his reluctance to take on new sidekicks, such as Tim Drake (the third Robin and current Red Robin), Stephanie Brown (the fourth Robin, and third Batgirl), Cassandra Cain (the second Batgirl), and Damian Wayne (the fifth Robin). Jason is memorialized in the Batcave; his Robin costume is preserved under glass, along with the epitaph "A Good Soldier."[5]

In the Hush storyline, it was hinted that Todd is alive, as a young man who strongly resembles him is standing on his desecrated grave. However, in the end, Batman finds that it was Clayface mimicking the role. In the "Under the Hood" arc, it is revealed that it was Todd whom Batman had fought, but he then switched places with the shapeshifter in collaboration with the villains Hush, Riddler, and Talia al Ghul. Todd reveals himself to Batman as the murderous vigilante, the Red Hood. Jason cripples Black Mask's criminal organization in Gotham, and kidnaps the Joker and beats him with a crowbar in an abandoned building. During the ensuing struggle with Batman, Todd detonates the building, but he, Batman and the Joker survive.

The details of Todd's return are revealed in Batman Annual #25 and Red Hood: The Lost Years #1-6.

DC reaction[edit]

  • An uncolored alternate version of Batman #428 was created in the event that the readers voted to let Jason live. One famous panel is a variation on the iconic scene depicting Batman holding Jason's body in which a jubilant Batman exclaims "He's alive! Thank God!" (A variation of that panel would be used in the Batman Annual #25 story, "The Return of Jason Todd").
  • Denny O'Neil, editor of the Bat-comics at the time of Todd's death, stated on the back cover of A Death in the Family trade paperback: "It would be a really sleazy stunt to bring him back." However, O'Neil would later regret his decision.[6]
  • The death of Jason Todd was not the first or last time DC would ever kill Robin, although this was the first time Robin truly died. The image of Batman carrying a dead Robin has been used in previous issues, one particular story being "Robin Dies at Dawn". Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, though not in continuity, in fact predates "A Death in the Family" in depicting the death of Jason Todd (though the Joker had not been responsible), and the story "Fear for Sale" (Detective Comics #566) features Batman's concentration on the threat of Jason's death as a way of counteracting the Scarecrow's recklessness-inducing "fear-removal toxin". Since Jason Todd, DC would kill Stephanie Brown, the fourth Robin. However like Jason, she too would be resurrected, her death being retconned as a hoax that did not actually occur.
  • In the 2000 miniseries Joker's Last Laugh by Chuck Dixon, Jason Todd's name is mentioned by the Joker to Nightwing as a taunt for him to kill him.
  • In an issue of Batman & Robin, the Joker begins his murderous attempt once more to another Boy Wonder, Damian Wayne, by trying to win the boy's pity before he attacks him. However, the Boy Wonder anticipates that the Joker would try to kill him, and the Clown Prince of Crime receives a beating from Damian instead, who also uses a crowbar, mirroring what he did to Jason Todd.[7]
  • In an issue of The All-New Batman: The Brave And The Bold, a gathering of past, present and future Robins has Damian Wayne confronting Jason Todd as he tries to handle rescuing a dying Batman on his own. He attempts to bring Jason back by threatening to bring about his future in the here and now.

In other media[edit]

Batman: Under the Red Hood[edit]

Jason's death, as depicted in Batman: Under the Red Hood.

The story is adapted in the first minutes of the DC Animated Original Movie Batman: Under the Red Hood. Like in the comics the Joker abducts Jason Todd to an abandoned warehouse atop a hill (in Sarajevo rather than Ethiopia) and mercilessly beats Todd with a crowbar. He later departs and leaves him locked-in with a time bomb. Batman arrives at the top of the hill, just as the bomb explodes. Batman searches the wreckage, and discovers Jason’s lifeless body. The story deviates from the original source as it is later revealed that the Joker was hired by Ra's al Ghul as a distraction for his latest scheme. When the Joker kills Jason, Ra's feels responsible and tries to make amends by resurrecting Jason in the Lazarus Pit.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold[edit]

The storyline is referenced by Bat-Mite in the episode "Emperor Joker!" when he breaks the fourth wall to Batman and shows him his personal "shrine", a museum-like place referencing several Batman storylines including "The Joker's Utility Belt" and "The Laughing Fish". There is a statue displaying the iconic image of Batman holding Jason's body at which Bat-Mite references the "A Death in the Family" saga. He implies that he voted to have them kill Robin. Batman shows no emotion or reaction to the mention of Jason since Dick Grayson was the one and only Robin in his universe.

JLA/Avengers[edit]

The storyline is also referenced twice in the DC Comics/Marvel Comics crossover series JLA/Avengers. The first reference comes in the second issue, in which after Batman takes Captain America to the Batcave to investigate the cause of the war between the Justice League of America of Batman's native world and the Avengers of Captain America's native world, when Captain America sees the Robin shrine in the Batcave, he asks Batman if the shrine symbolizes a memorial to a partner that he lost; Batman answers yes, but then decides to get straight to the main objective. Later, in issue 3, the Grandmaster reveals the true realities of the two worlds before they were merged, and the loss of Robin is included among those truths.

Teen Titans Go![edit]

The story is implied in the "Sidekick" episode of Teen Titans Go!. When Robin is called away from Titans Tower on the West Coast to house-sit the Batcave in Gotham City on the East Coast, his starstruck fellow Titans tag along. On a shelf in the background, positioned beside a framed photograph of Batman with a young Robin, a crowbar and an urn marked "Robin II" are displayed. This deviates slightly from the actual story arc, as Jason Todd (the second Robin) was actually buried, rather than cremated.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Manning, Matthew K.; Dolan, Hannah, ed. (2010). "1980s". DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle. Dorling Kindersley. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-7566-6742-9. "Written by Jim Starlin, with art by Jim Aparo and haunting covers by Mike Mignola, 'A Death in the Family' proved a best seller with readers in both single-issue and trade paperback form." 
  2. ^ Beatty, Scott (2008), "Batman", in Dougall, Alastair, The DC Comics Encyclopedia, London: Dorling Kindersley, pp. 40–44, ISBN 0-7566-4119-5 
  3. ^ [1]"Robin II," Titans Tower
  4. ^ The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels, Hilary Goldstein, IGN, June 13, 2005
  5. ^ This exhibit was actually first seen in The Dark Knight Returns, published approximately three years before "A Death in the Family". The epitaph is a quote from Bruce Wayne in DKR: "I will never forget Jason. He was a good soldier. He honored me. But the war goes on."
  6. ^ "If I had to do it again, I would certainly have kept my mouth shut." -- Dennis O'Neil, Who Killed Robin? An Interactive Whodunit, from DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels
  7. ^ Batman and Robin #13 (Jul. 2010)