RETRO REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family

Jim Starlin (Writer), Jim Aparo (Art), Mike DeCarlo (Art)
Publisher: DC Comics
Published: December 1988 – January 1989

You have got to feel sorry for Jason Todd.  Originally conceived as an acrobatic replacement to Dick Grayson, he wasn’t very popular.  Ok, he started out ok, but then fans started to state they wanted to see Batman alone. They said that Batman didn’t need a Robin. It didn’t help, that at the time Batman was going through a bit of a decline.  Detective Comics was losing readers and was again on a list of books to be cancelled.  You know what happened next.  Frank Miller helped show a possible end for Batman and a very definite beginning.  The DC universe went through a Crisis and Jason’s origin was altered.  Now he was just street punk, who had tried to boost the wheels from the Batmobile.  Batman saw something in the lad and raised him to be the next Robin.

Jason’s Robin also changed.  No longer the carbon copy Dick, he became a proto-Damian Wayne, arguing with Batman and bringing his own form of justice.

At the beginning of the story, we see Robin grounded for disobeying Batman.  In what is a well-timed death1coincidence, the kind that only exists in comics, Jason gets some family information, leading him on an African safari hunt for his Mom and wherever that may lead.  However, the Joker is also Africa bound, with a number of schemes to get rich so he can get back to being top dog in Gotham.

Written by Jim Starlin, there is enough threat and fear of dread that helps to overcome some of the glaring plot holes in the story.  At times it seems that Bruce is not bothered about trying to keep a low profile.  Bruce Wayne and the Batman in Africa at the same time?  There is also the coincidences.  All three potential mother’s happen to be in Africa, as does the Joker and a nuclear bomb. Still, Starlin carries the promise of demise all the way to chapter three where the unthinkable happens.  It is at this point that you need to remember that Starlin may not have wanted to kill Robin.  It was in fact the readership, thanks to a 900 number that decided his fate.  Starlin does a great job of moving past that particular point and continues to deliver some of the strongest part of the whole story.  There is an obvious point to make in the last chapter, Batman says “who killed Jason”.  Has he just given away his secret identity?  It’s inevitable that the ending has to have a did he or didn’t he survive element, which would help set Batman on a more destructive path until the idea of Robin would get another run out.

death2Art wise the book looks great.  Jim Aparo is one of my favourite artists.  I grew up on his Brave and the Bold books and looking at his work never bores me.  Granted his style is based on Neal Adams and Irv Novick and would potentially inspire artists like Alan Davis.  Aparo’s line work is clean with a fluid motion that helps move Batman through the story.  The overall look may seem a tad 70’s, look at Gordon’s tie for an example, but I really don’t have any problem with it.  In my book, Aparo is one of the top 5 Batman artists of all time and his work here doesn’t disappoint with images that have become some of the most referenced. Aparo’s work is so strong, that it doesn’t need words to convey the emotion of Batman. Speaking of the art, I can’t fail to mention the excellent Mike Mignola covers.death6

Looking back at the story I am a little confused.  It seems that The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Rises seems to attract the strongest criticism. One for its treatment of women, the other the logical conclusion of the a vigilante left to his own destructive ends.  It goes without notice the flagrant acceptance of having a boy beaten to death.  Newer readers will no doubt point out to the Under the Red Hood as a story that couldn’t have happened without DoF.  Would we even bat an eyelid to this story if it was printed today?

death 4I would have to say no.  It wasn’t that long ago that Damian was killed by a clone of himself.  I guess that nowadays we accept that comic book deaths don’t last.  Back then Batman editor Denny O’Neil stated that it was Jason that had died, not Robin and in time this proved correct with the introduction of Tim Drake.  So where does this story fit in the Batman mythos? Does Jason’s return negate the emotional impact this story had the first time you read it?

I am old school.  I would have preferred that Jason remain dead, to act as a reminder of how vicious the Joker can be.  The Joker is a bad guy who does bad things.  It kind of takes away the edge if the people he kills return to life.  This story, for the most part, works at what it sets out to do.  Read it, enjoy it but recognize that even after all this time, the Joker didn’t kill Jason Todd, we did!

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