Like all other artistic mediums, comics often reflect the world around them – and Batman, having been around for more than 60 years, has undergone more stylistic changes than most.
When Bob Kane first came up with the character in 1939, the original Batman was a pulp hero, not a million miles away from the Shadow. By the 1960s, the Caped Crusader had changed and the camp hi-jinks of the hit television show was matched by the comic strip, which was becoming increasingly childish.
The four part series, A Death In The Family, which was written by Jim Starlin and saw the death of the second Robin – Jason Todd – was the ultimate 80s epic. It was brasher than Top Gun, louder than Hulk Hogan and more implausible than The A-Team. If couldn’t have been more 80s if it was wearing shoulder pads.
Looking back, the original concept behind this story was a brave one. Batman was rapidly approaching his 40th birthday and editors at DC wanted to test the water with fans to see if they wanted the Dark Knight to retain his crime-fighting partner or go it alone for his anniversary.
Half way through this epic, readers would be given a simple choice. Dial one number and Robin lives, dial another and he dies. In the 36 hours that the telephone lines were open, DC received a total of 10,614 calls. A total of 5,271 readers wanted Robin to live, but 5,343 wanted him out. So it was hasta la vista, Robin.
Of course, entitling your story ‘A Death In The Family’ probably didn’t help Jason Todd’s chances much. His unhinged and wholly unsympathetic character didn’t do him many favours, either. The dice really were loaded from the start and the odds really didn’t look good.
The plot was pretty hard to swallow. Robin learns that he was adopted and one of three women could be his real mother. All three are, rather conveniently, working in the Middle East, so he goes off to discover the truth. Before you can say ‘Reagan’s America’, Batman discovers that the Joker has got himself a nuclear weapon and is all out in the Middle East, trying to sell it.
With hindsight, the Joker should have waited 20 years and flogged it on eBay, but that would not have made a very good story. After beating up several of the locals and ruling out two of the women on Todd’s list, the dynamic duo discover an aid worker in Africa, Dr Sheila Haywood, is Robin’s real mum. But, what do you know? Dr Haywood is an old pal of the Joker. It really is a small world, isn’t it? And she betrays Robin, with fatal consequences.
The third issue, which handled Batman/Bruce Wayne’s reaction to Robin’s murder is well done. For once, the terrible consequences of the super hero lifestyle are handled well and you get a taste of Bruce Wayne’s grief.
But the wheels do come off the train in spectacular style when the Joker is appointed as Iran’s ambassador to the UN – I told you this was the 80s. At the time, Iran and the US were mortal enemies, but even so, this bit of flag-waving takes some stomaching.
The other problem is that while Batman clearly wants revenge, DC obviously can’t afford to kill off their most popular villain, so the ending is rather fudged with an injured Joker disappearing to fight another day, while Batman looks slightly miffed.
A Death In The Family now feels like an unashamedly retro read. Like eating a Wispa bar or a Roger Moore Bond movie, it can be filed under ‘guilty pleasures’. It might not be as ground-breaking as Year One or Son Of The Demon, which also were 80s classics, but it’s an entertaining romp.