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Retcon Retrospective #4: Batman: A Death in the Family

Written by: Ron Bricker


ImageForget the death of Superman. We all knew he was going to come back, even the creators knew it. "It was just the next Superman story". And, as we all know, it blew up into a media frenzy. The single most important death in comics, I think, aside from maybe Ben Parker, is the death of Batman's second Robin, Jason Todd. Written by Jim Starlin in the late 80's, "A Death in the Family" was a four issue arc that would have lasting effects on Batman's world for the rest of his life, or at least until writer Judd Winnick had to go and resurrect him and ruin it. No matter.

Jason Todd's death made an impact for many reasons, some within the Batman world and some in the greater world of the comics industry itself. His death was unique in that it was the readers, not the writers, not the editors, who killed him. At the end of the third issue of the storyline, there was a phone number to call (no text message voting in these days), and yes, it cost money – to vote on if you wanted Todd to live or die. And you guessed it – readers wanted him dead. This marks the first time that readers had a real say in what happened to their favorite (or not so favorite) characters. But why such the disdain for Jason Todd? What did he ever do?

Todd took the mantle of Robin from the fan favorite Dick Grayson after Dick parted ways with the Batman to become Nightwing, a vigilante of his own design. Jason Todd's story started with trouble from the very start. Orphaned, Bats caught him trying to steal the wheels off of the Batmobile to sell for cash, and Bruce, as he so often does, saw himself in this little boy's eyes, and took him under his (bat)wing as his protege. Except, things were different this time around. Jason was more defiant than Dick, more violent, and more angry. He was a quick learner, but generally fought without thinking as though he had some sort of deathwish.

 

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Where "A Death in the Family" picks up, Bruce decides that he has made a mistake with Jason, not allowing him enough time to grieve for his dead parents, and thus never letting him be at peace with what happened to him. Jason has used being Robin as a release for his anger, as his grieving method, whereas Bruce and Dick had ample time to come to terms with their new lives. As such, Bruce dictates that Jason is to stop being Robin until he has come to terms with his loss. Hotheaded Jason of course runs off like the baby he was (is), and ultimately stumbles upon some life changing news.

His mother is still alive! It seems that his actual birth mother is still alive and well, and is one of three women scattered across the world. What ensues is a parallel plot between Jason on a search for his mother in the Middle East and Batman chasing the Joker to the same location as he attempts to sell a nuclear warhead to terrorists. Lo and behold, (dun dun dunnnn) it's the same case!

What it boils down to is a betrayal of the worst kind, and, yet again, the Joker is at the forefront. Although it was indeed Jason who ran into this situation without thinking, it was still Joker who brutally beat this Robin to death with a crowbar. For a comic that was still very silver-age like, Todd's death was brutal, all the while Joker is cracking jokes and laughing. It's one of the most intense moments in Batman lore, and it is significant for many different reasons.

As I stated, the cliffhanger ended with Jason beaten down and Joker escaping, and the entire warehouse they were in exploding. Then it came down to a vote. It wasn't as though it was a landslide, but what does it say about what readers want to see when they vote an iconic figure into death? Granted, it was a NEW version of him, but still! And what of Tim Drake? Tim is the newest and current Robin, and fans adore him. What was so bad about Jason Todd that he was sentenced to a death as brutal as this one? Yes, he was a brat, and yes, perhaps he replaced Dick a little too quickly.

 

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Personally, I think it all comes down to the fans knowing where a good story lies. Jason Todd, until he was ridiculously resurrected, was Batman's greatest failure. The death of a Robin is like a father allowing his own son to be killed. And with all of the lives that Bruce has endangered in his crusade, adding another body to that least, particularly one so close to him, could drive any man to the brink. I think that way back when, the voters most certainly could have realized this fact and voted as such. Who really knows?

We've seen threads of his guilt weaved into such stories as Jeph Loeb's "Hush" arc,  and it was so effective that those moments where we all thought Jason Todd had been resurrected, as a villain, vindictive of Bruce for failing him, we were astonished. Alas, it was all a ruse, but remember how pissed you were when he did actually come back, and in one of the weakest resurrections ever? It's only because, if he really HAD to come back, there should have been so much more done with him. In all, he's back now and we're stuck with him being a prick to everyone. Rightfully so, I suppose, but let's at least get him in the hands of some competent writers to bring to life what he could be. After all, Bucky Barnes was a character that should never have been resurrected, yet in Captain America we've been provided with a great story that gives the character a reason for being alive again.

Again, I digress. The focus here is on " A Death in the Family". I'll admit it's not the easiest read or even the most pretty. Batman disguised like a terrorist is just silly. But, this four issue arc should be remembered for many reasons, mostly adding a whole new layer to Batman's mythos. That he, in fact, is not perfect, and Jason Todd is the best example of that. Add to this the reader vote factor, a revolutionary idea for mainstream comics, and of course the new level of villainy the Joker was brought to, and you have one of the most fascinating Batman stories you will ever find.

Author: Ron Bricker

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