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One of the best stories going in comics, and certainly one of the most popular, is the new series “Death of the Family,” which spans across all of the “Bat-books.” This story revolves around a faceless Joker who has returned more obsessed than ever with the Batman. His goal is seemingly to eliminate the Bat-family so that Batman will regain the focus, and identity, he had before these relationships were formed. Joker consistently refers to Batman as the king of his imagined kingdom where he himself is the jester. Some have proposed that the finale will include the death of Alfred Pennyworth, which along with the title, got me thinking about another storyline.
Because of “Death of the Family,” I was reminded of the series to which it is obviously making a reference – “A Death in the Family” which is famous for the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Having revisited this series from 1988-89, I realize now that it’s significance is far more important than just another comic book death. In fact, it should be included in the “must read” list for any Batman fan, right up there with The Dark Knight Returns (which forshadows Jason’s death) and The Killing Joke.
The first and most obvious reason that this is a must read is that it contains the death of a significant DC character, who of course has since been resurrected. The death of Robin, however, isn’t just significant because he was Batman’s sidekick, and thus really the first significant death of a character that arguably opened the door for killing off the likes of Superman, Captain America, and Spider-man. What makes this more significant is the manner in which this decision was made. For the cost of 50 cents, fans themselves could call a 900 number and vote whether Jason lived or died. Not only was this a brilliant marketing move, it was a daring display of respect for the readers’ opinions of a character who (perhaps unfairly) was unpopular.
I say “unfairly” because Jason Todd is one of comic’s more intriguing characters and I wondered at his unpopularity. In my opinion, the reason Jason Todd was so unpopular was that he did not fit into the costume he was wearing. Jason Todd was the last to don the version of the costume with the yellow cape, pixie shoes, and the green tights. The late 1980s birthed grittier characters like The Punisher and Ghost Rider and here was a character who underneath was just as tormented and angry but was sporting a costume that still said “Golly gee” and “Holy fill-in-the-blank, Batman!” This incongruity left fans either wanting Dick Grayson 2.0 or no Robin at all.
In “A Death in the Family” Robin loses his cool and prematurely attacks a mob of gangsters, risking his own life and Batman’s. While a reckless Robin with a death wish is an excellent character development, having that Robin in Underoos undercuts any darker tone applied to his internal characteristics. Comics are a visual medium. The visual message has to match the subtext. I point to the current popularity of Jason Todd as the Red Hood as evidence.
So, having fans vote on Robin’s fate was brilliant (although only brilliant because the fans were smart enough to vote for his demise). What an experience to have a say in a major event of popular culture! If I wasn’t twelve at the time, I would have voted (and have given poor Jason the thumbs down). By the way, the “death vote” won by merely 72 votes!
Besides being a major event in comic and popular culture history, what makes this a must-read is the story itself. If you can get past the pixie shoes, Jason Todd’s search for his birth mother is an engaging story. Not only do you have a character in search of a meaningful connection with his mother (deeply Freudian), but in doing so he is also searching for his identity. This fits perfectly. Jason Todd, as the second Robin, is not only dealing with a dual identity but also must deal with preconceived notions of who Robin is supposed to be. How he is supposed to behave. This series deals with all of these issues.
And there are other reasons, besides Jason’s death, that this series is a good read. First, the social and political issues it raises. While it takes a considerable effort to suspend one’s disbelief when the Joker steals a nuclear weapon, and later serves as Iran’s UN ambassador, we see terrorists as villains for one of the first times in comic history (something extremely common today). The story touches on the Lebanese Civil War, The Arab-Israeli conflict, famine and political corruption in Ethiopia, and allusions to the Iran-Contra scandal. The series also depicts a Batman who is very much human. The reader sees him in a rare emotional state which leads the reader to question the relevancy of Batman’s moral code. Apparently it’s acceptable for Joker to kill thousands of people, but once he kills someone Batman actually knows, he finally considers killing his nemisis.
I am not a fan of Robin. I understand his significance in the Batman mythos. He provides younger readers with an avenue to admire the stories and imagine themselves in his place. But really, younger readers no longer read Batman. This newest version, Batman’s son, Damian, is even less interesting than his three predecessors. I am somewhat intrigued by the development of the estranged father-son relationship. But, whether it’s because I, like the Joker, prefer a Batman who goes solo or because Robin will always be wearing pixie shoes in my mind, I feel he’s superfluous for the modern reader.
Alfred on the other hand is not. Alfred is Bruce’s confidant and surrogate father. He brings Batman back from the abyss on countless occasions. If Alfred dies in “Death of the Family,” that will be a far more significant death. Irreparable even. So let’s see what this new series has in store.
But to truly appreciate “Death of the Family” and really one of the most significant events in comic history, you should read “A Death in the Family.” Besides, Batman punches Superman in the face.