Written by Jim Starlin. Art by Jim Aparo. Inked by Mike DeCarlo. Coloured by Adrienne Roy. Lettered by John Costanza. Edited by Denny O’Neil.
When looking back at Batman’s publishing history, the mid-late 80s were a treasure trove of comic book stories. Under Denny O’Neil’s editorial guidance, the various Batman comics went from strength-to-strength with classics such as Year One, Dark Knight Returns, and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. But in this quality-heavy period, there is one comic that stands out amongst the rest.
Published in late-1988, A Death In The Family (Batman #426-429) made a name for itself by putting the life of a major character in the hands of the readers. The result, would receive mainstream attention and is still talked about today. It’s even getting an animated adaptation later this week.
A quick warning before we proceed – there will be spoilers. That being said, considering A Death In The Family’s age and infamy, many of the details of this story are now common knowledge. If you don’t want anything spoiled, go read the comic and then come back and read this.
A Death In The Family kicks off with two unrelated stories that will later intermingle.
The first is Robin (in this case, the second Robin, Jason Todd) discovering that his biological mother is still alive. Through some detective work, he discovers three possible candidates and makes his way to the Middle East to find out which one is his mother.
The other thread revolves around The Joker. He’s broken out of Arkham Asylum yet again. Although, this time around, he finds that the Gotham Police have seized most of his assets. Crime on Joker’s scale is expensive, but he’s got an idea. He just happens to have a cruise missile on hand is willing to sell it to Middle Eastern terrorists so he can go on funding his elaborate crimes.
It’s kind of bizarre that The Joker happens to have a cruise missile. It’s a detail that’s kind of glossed over to progress the story. Just go with it, as it’s not the strangest leap in logic revolving around the character in this story. (He’ll eventually become a United Nations representative for Iran.)
This is where the threads collide with Batman and Jason running into each other abroad and deciding to join forces to help each other’s missions. Unfortunately for Jason, this will become a deadly consequence.
I alluded to it earlier, at this point in the story, DC Comics put Robin’s life in the hands of the readers. Appearing on the back of Batman #427 was the above advertisement, which prompted readers to call a specific telephone to cast a vote. Readers could either let Robin live or die.
As revealed in the back of Batman #429, there were just over 10,000 votes cast over 36 hours and resulted in a narrow margin. With 72 votes the difference (5,343 votes in favour vs 5,271 against), readers voted Robin to die at the hands of The Joker.
Why would readers want to see a teenager die? The second Robin had been around since 1983, but his attitude was revamped after Crisis On Infinite Earths. He became more abrasive, hot-headed, and many fans didn’t like him because of it. So when this came around, many were happy to see him gone.
Talking on a featurette for the Batman: Under The Red Hood DVD, O’Neil would mention that the results were skewed by a single individual:
“I heard it was a lawyer who was using a Macintosh and lived in California—I obviously don’t have hard information on this, but I heard someone out there programmed his computer to dial it every couple of minutes, and since there was only about 65 votes that made the difference, if that story is true, that guy, that guy killed Jason Todd!”
While that claim has always been an urban legend in comics history, some credence has been given it. O’Neil revealed in the back of Batman #429 that votes for Robin’s survival were up by 38 with only 15 minutes remaining.
With the results in, DC Comics went ahead and did the deed, which started with a crowbar attack and ended with an explosion. The crowbar attack, while much of it off-panel, is vicious. Readers only see the first blow connect, but the way that the subsequent six panels are drawn create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
When the hotlines were announced, many readers were sceptical that DC would actually go through with it. Heroes are put in life and death situations all the time and always pulled through. So when the death actually happened, there was a sense of shock among readers. While major character deaths are commonplace today and could be argued that they’re overdone, to kill a character in 1988 was a big deal.
In the letters page of Batman #430, appropriately titled “Bat-Signals”, O’Neil mentions that the Bat-Office was “thoroughly bombarded” with comments from readers. Of the letter that were published, there were mixed opinions. (It’s common practice for a letters page to print a range of views.)
The unpopularity of the character really shined through in the letters with many readers happy to see him gone. Some of these seemed to be Dick Grayson fans who thought that there shouldn’t be any other Robin while others were expressed their general dislike for Jason in general.
Others were sad to see him gone. One writer argued that Batman needed a Robin to give him a touch of humanity. Another had voters regret, going as far as to apologise for voting to kill him.
The story also received plenty of mainstream attention, with it being discussed Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek.
While the death of a Robin via a hotline vote can be seen as a gimmick, it quickly became a cornerstone of Batman lore. It certainly wasn’t a flash in the pan event, with long-term ramifications in the Batman comics.
For years to come, Jason’s death was a source of grief for Batman. It would weigh heavy on his heart, having the thoughts that there was more he could’ve done antagonise him. It also meant that the well-trodden path that was Bruce Wayne’s parent’s death could take a back seat for a while.
Jason wouldn’t be the last Robin. As part of the A Lonely Place Of Dying storyline, Tim Drake would be introduced and would take up the mantle. For many generations of readers, Tim is their Robin, and he would get over with fans as much as Dick Grayson had before him.
As for Jason, in true comic book fashion, he would eventually return in 2004-2006’s Under The Red Hood. This repositioned him as an antihero and gave the Bat-family a harder-edged character in their ranks. Readers seem to have engaged in this take as he has starred in his own comic book series for the better part of a decade.
Whether you think the hotline gimmick was justifiable or not, you cannot deny that it cemented A Death In The Family as one of the classic Batman stories. It has transcended the mainstream attention that it received at the time, with people still talking about today.