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Batman: A Death in the Family

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. Later on today, I’ll be taking a look at the animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood, so I thought I might take a look at one of the stories which inspired it.

A Death in the Family holds something of a sacred spot in the line-up of classic Batman stories. It was the moment that Batman failed – and he failed monumentally. The image of Batman cradling a bloody and bruised Robin in his arms is almost iconic, recognisable to any pop culture aficionado. However, the story itself really isn’t anything too spectacular – it’s as if writer Jim Starlin was trying to combine the adventurous take on Batman from the seventies with the more grim-and-gritty crusader of the late eighties, with a frankly inexplicable desire to dabble in global politics. Frankly, despite the power of the rich imagery provided by Jim Aparo, the story is more than just a little bit weak, and certainly not strong enough to support the label of “classic” that is applied so frequently to the story.

Batman will be carrying this with him for quite some time...

I suppose that it had to happen eventually. Batman had to lose a Robin. As Batman’s world got increasingly dark in the eighties and into the nineties, the yellow and red and green of his child sidekick stood in even greater contrast to the shadows falling over the comic book. If you were going to make the Caped Crusader’s world an edgier and more dangerous one, the teenage sidekick seems obviously out of place. If Batman is truly fighting an unending “war on crime”, as some of the darker portrayals claim, then doesn’t that make Robin a child soldier rather than a faithful companion?

Furthermore, asking a kid to dress up and fight crime with you isn’t exactly a particularly responsible decision from a heroic character – there are any number of horrible consequences which may come down the line. The bright and cheerful narratives of the sixties protected Batman from ever having to worry about that, but by the time Reagan had come to power, it was time to question these assumptions. Batman puts children into the line of fire every day. What happens if – even only once – he makes the wrong decision? What if one dies? Surely it’s his fault, then?

The Joker lowers the bar for Bat-villains everywhere...

Jason Todd was the second character to carry the name Robin, and one of the most easily forgotten outside of comic book circles. Dick Grayson has had the most break-out success in other forms of media, featuring as Robin in the sixties Batman! live action show, the animated DC universe and Batman Forever (and Batman & Robin) among countless other appearances. He got to graduate to being Batman in Grant Morrison’s superb Batman & Robin, and – if you asked a random person on the street for the secret identity of Robin – most people would name Dick Grayson as the Boy Wonder.

Even the modern Robin, Tim Drake, has had a hint of breakout success. Tim has been the first Robin to consistently carry his own stand-alone book and was even featured in The New Batman Adventures, the relaunched version of Batman: The Animated Series. To put this in context, aside from the animated feature Batman: Under the Red Hood, the only appearance of Jason Todd outside comic books was in a cameo in a dream in the animated Teen Titans.

Batman becomes a wreck after the loss...

When Grayson left the role of Robin to strike out on his own – becoming the hero Nightwing and moving slightly away from the Batman family – editors at DC comics were quick to replace him. It was the eighties, so the replacement was called upon to be quite a bit different from he pleasant Grayson. Jason Todd was a rebellious teenage ruffian who was introduced stealing the wheels off the Batmobile. Rather than growing up in a loving and idyllic environment like Dick (who grew up in a circus), Jason was a product of Crime Alley – the same location that had claimed Bruce’s parents all those years ago. When Todd became Robin, he was arrogant and headstrong, never afraid to make his own decisions or question authority. You couldn’t have asked for a sharper contrast with his direct predecessor.

Perhaps that is why Todd never caught on as Robin. Fans took an immediate dislike to the character. Perhaps prompted by a panel in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which implies that Jason’s death led to Bruce’s retirement, the powers that be decided that Robin would be killed off. In fact, in a move which was probably quite ahead of its time (for better or worse) DC asked audience members to “vote” via telephone on whether Todd would live or die.

The Joker finds being at the UN a gas...

This is the background to the story, and it’s certainly rich. In fact, the event has become one of “the” moments for Batman as a character – with many subsequent writers suggesting that the loss of Jason Todd is second only to the death of Bruce’s parents in the tragic life of Batman. It’s a stunning moment of failure for a hero who has at times seemed almost infallible. For that reason alone, it’s worthy of note.

However, the story itself isn’t great. Writer Jim Starlin litters his tale with references and allusions to any number of classic Batman stories, clearly trying to create the sensation that they were all cut from the same cloth. We have a few references to the Alan Moore classic, The Killing Joke, as we catch up with a Joker who has provoked the wraith of law enforcement (“they was pretty ticked off at what ya did to Gordon’s daughter, boss,” one henchman observes). We get all manner of allusions to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the other classic eighties Batman story (for example, the notion of Superman as Reagan’s stooge – “the president has asked this gentleman to keep you in line,” a CIA agent explains).

The story made quite a splash...

However, this isn’t either of those stories. This is a story where Batman has  “jet powered hang gliders” and a “mini-copter”, which he can smuggle into foreign countries without anyone batting an eyelid. At the same time, there is an attempt to tell a slightly darker story – for example, the story opens with Batman and Robin breaking up a “kiddie-porn ring” – while using wacky old-fashioned comic book storytelling devices like thought balloons.

“You can’t always get the job done and remain a hero in your own eyes,” Batman concedes at one stage, which sounds like an almost innocent expression of the dreary nihilism the character would randomly sprout during the comic books of the nineties. Maybe the line would seem appropriate if Batman was compromising himself in some manner of gritty way, but he’s using a science-fiction truth serum to get answers. In the same story the character doesn’t bat an eye at beating criminals to a pulp to get the right answer, but he won’t use a magically accurate truth serum because it crosses a moral line?

Batman sees everything go up in flames...

The plot is awkward, relying on a sequence of unholy contrivances to play out. Over the course of the novel, we are asked to accept that:

  • the three women who may be Jason Todd’s mother are all conveniently located within the same timezone
  • the Joker just so happens to be fleeing to that particular timezone and crosses paths with two of the three women who may be Jason’s mother
  • the woman who doesn’t end up meeting the Joker is actually the deadly supervillian Lady Shiva

This is made particular obvious by the fact that the narration attempts to excuse coincidences like Bruce and Jason bumping into each other in Lebanon. “There aren’t too many hiding places in Lebanon, so what happens next isn’t really that much of a coincidence,” he are assured, while the fact that both Batman and Robin are in the country at the same time in the first place is just considered good fortune.

However, what dates the story the most isn’t the rather weak storytelling, but the way that global politics are just shoehorned in there. It is possible to tell a politicised Batman story – just ask Frank Miller – but this isn’t it. It just seems like fairly cynical Iran-bashing, which has probably fallen out of favour in recent years. The idea that any country would allow the Joker to play diplomat (and that he would play along) is laughable. However, some of the lines given to Batman are just strange.

One aggressive (potential) mother...

Somehow I imagine Batman isn’t  a liberal campaigner for global peace – I can see that the character might acknowledge that brute force and political leverage should be used in order to maintain political equilibrium. He’s not an idealist, after all, and Miller wrote the character with a distinctively right-wing voice. (After all, isn’t this sort of vigilante justice more likely to come from a socially conservative individual, at the risk of playing on stereotypes?) However, the stoic Batman seems like the character least likely to wear his politics on his sleeve.

Even before he figures out that Iran is harbouring the Joker, Batman seems to be advocating invasion to Superman at the slightest broaching of the topic. When Superman suggests that America should respect Iran’s diplomatic sovereignty so that they might do the same, Batman retorts, “I didn’t know they ever did, or did you just forget how they took over our embassy a few years back.” It seems a very strong anti-Iranian vibe for Batman to have. When the CIA suggests that America is negotiating with the Iranian government, Batman sarcastically wonders if it’s “another arms for hostages deal?”

There's something funny about Iran's new ambassador...

It just doesn’t work – while Batman is undoubtedly a cynical individual, the story makes it seem like he would advocate wiping Iran off the map. And this is even before the Joker is announced as Iranian ambassador. It just doesn’t seem to fit – and it serves as something of a strange plot to throw in on top of Batman’s recent loss. I have to wonder what went on at that writers’ meeting – surely there’s enough drama in the premise that Batman’s sidekick has been murdered, without throwing in a whole range of amatuer hour eighties geo-politics on top of it?

The really sad part is that – although the series can paint the Iranians as unambiguously evil villains – the story can’t even use the word “abortion”. Jason’s real mother is working in Africa, after “performing illegal operations on teenage girls”, although the story is terrified of mentioning the “a-word”. It can offer a crude sketch of global politics, but is afraid to explicitly explain why a character is living in exile, when that root cause is a political hot button topic? It just stinks a bit of double-standards.

The Joker has Robin well and truly beaten...

A Death in the Family probably works far better as an idea than it does as an actual story. There’s a lot to think about in the loss of a sidekick, particularly to a hero as stoic as Batman. However, the execution can’t help but feel a bit awkward and out of place. It’s no wonder that many of the retellings gloss over the particulars of the event.

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