Batman #426 “A Death in the Family” (part 1 of 4)
DC Comics post-Crisis on Infinite Earths was a weird time. Initially, me and everybody I know who read that epic considered it one of the best stories ever printed. George Perez’s art was top notch as usual, and the story was so huge in scope that it eclipsed everything published beforehand. We had never seen anything like it before, what with all those alternate Earths being combined with the prime one, the introduction of “new” characters like Blue Beetle, the death of Barry Allen (and bear in mind, back then heroes undying was not nearly as common as it’s become now; with Wally West taking on the mantle, it really did feel like Barry was perma-dead for reals), and the likes of Wonder Woman and Superman getting hard reboots.
But the changes didn’t end there. Batman: Year One rewrote the Dark Knight’s origin, and then Batman: The New Adventures #408 presented another rewriting of history where Dick Grayson was shot by the Joker and Batman fired him. Of course, Dick would then go on to become Nightwing, but this retcon did fly in the face of what Marv Wolfman had written in The New Teen Titans. This wouldn’t be the end of all the headaches introduced in the post-Crisis world. With Dick’s dismissal, we would see the advent of a new Robin, Jason Todd.
Jason had been appearing in comics for years before this, with his origin having been essentially a cut and paste job; he was an acrobat and his parents had been killed. The only difference was Jason’s hair was blonde and he dyed it black when he went out as Robin. So in retrospect, when we heard Jason’s origin was getting a rewrite it was generally viewed positively. Especially when one saw the cover of Batman: The New Adventures #408.
Jason was now an orphan living on his own, and Batman had placed him in the care of “Fae Gunn” who had kids steal for her. Jason instead turned on Fae and helped Batman take her down. Bruce then took Jason under his wing. All of this was fine… until you kind of realize that this wasn’t a story set in the past; Jason Todd had just now joined Batman, wiping out years of stories. And some of them were quite good. Alan Davis had a stellar run on Detective Comics, and those were pretty much flushed down the drain. So that was strike one against the new status quo.
Strike two was writer Jim Starlin turning Jason Todd into a miserable, unlikeable little bastard. Jason wasn’t the good-natured kid from before, but now a moody punk who hadn’t gotten over his mother’s death and being abandoned by his dad. Personally, I despised him, and missed the Jason Todd from before, whose optimism and naivete proved a good counterpoint to Batman’s grim nature. Then in 1988, writer/editor Denny O’Neil thought that maybe it might be interesting if fans had a say in the creative process. A plan was put into motion where a story would be written, and people could phone in to determine the outcome. Thus was born “A Death in the Family”.
Our story opens with that classic staple of Batman stories, a crime taking place in a warehouse. And the crime? A “kiddie porn” ring. Eww. I mean that not just in regards to the subject matter, but how calling it “kiddie porn” just cheapens it. I really can’t imagine Batman calling it that. A grizzled vice cop after twenty years of seeing the worst in humanity? Sure. But Batman? No. Bats is standing pat, waiting for police backup, but Robin, well…
…he’s got plans of his own. With the new, “improved” Jason Todd mucking things up, all Batman can do is wade in behind him. The not-so-Dynamic Duo lay out a warehouse full of child pornographers, and Jim Aparo’s art is still pretty top notch; he can deliver some great action sequences. Still, I wonder if anybody told him Robin is supposed to be thirteen, because he’s drawn like he’s at least three years older than that. Batman chews out Jason, asking him if he thinks this is a game, and Todd responds with a smirk that “All life’s a game.” God, Bruce, just slap the taste out of this punk’s mouth.
Back home at stately Wayne Manor, Bruce confides in Alfred that maybe he made a mistake in turning Jason into the next Robin before he came to terms with his parents’ deaths. Alfred admits he caught the boy crying while looked at an old photo of his mom, and that being Robin isn’t exactly conductive to the healing process. Okay, the problem I have here is that in an earlier issue, Bruce spent six months training Jason. Six months is a long time. You’d think that during that period, Jason would have come to terms with his mom’s death. As for his dad, Two-Face killed him relatively recently, but even so, I would think this would have already been resolved. Nevertheless, Bruce decides taking Jason off the streets is the best thing to do, but Jason overhears the conversation and doesn’t take the news of being benched well.
Meanwhile, Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum. In other news, water’s wet. He got into the janitor’s closet and used the chemicals inside to whip up some version of his laughing gas, leaving eight dead in his wake. Arkham must have a stellar medical program to keep getting new hirees, or they must hire homeless people. Commissioner Gordon alerts the Justice League and the Titans, and Batman says everybody will want the Joker after what he did to Gordon’s daughter Barbara. I’m not sure, but this might be the first time The Killing Joke was established as being canon; honestly, for a while me and others felt it was just a one-off taking place in an alternate continuity.
Gordon says he can’t see the Joker being on the loose for long, seeing as every law enforcement agency in the country is going to make him their number one priority. What, like he’s not a number one priority whenever he’s loose? Hell, if I was president and had confirmation Joker was in Gotham, I’d be tempted to carpet-bomb the city just to be sure I got him. And what’s the Clown Prince of Crime up to? Why, he’s planning a vacation. Joker tells his minion (probably the only one he hasn’t killed) that he’s broke and needs to make a sale. Fortunately, he has a sweet piece of merchandise.
Joker says that maybe everything that’s happened is for the best, because he’s been thinking of a new career: international politics.
Meanwhile, Sulky McSulkface AKA Jason Todd walks three hours and winds up in Crime Alley. So… unless he called a cab, this means downtown Gotham is a mere 9-10 miles from Wayne Manor. Did Alfred drive him to town to have his one-man pity parade? Whatever. We get a little exposition as he thinks about how his mom and dad died, with her in a hospital and him at the hands of Two-Face. He wanders in front of his old apartment complex and an old friend of his mother just so happens to poke her head out and spot him. A little convenient, but okay. It seems Mrs. Walker managed to save some of Jason’s mom’s stuff before the landlord sold off everything, and soon Jason’s walking off with a box full of old photographs and personal papers. Eh, kind of a stretch. This would have made more sense if maybe Bruce or Alfred had been tracking down this stuff over the past six months for Jason and he came across it in the Batcave. I mean, this issue is already over forty pages, so they could have shaved off a couple pages here.
Cut to Batman punching his way through the underworld, and finding a Joker associate named Gaspar. But he punches him too hard and knocks him out. However, Gaspar has a passport and a visa for Lebanon. Batman discovers Joker’s other henchmen have faded away like smoke from Gotham. And then we’re back with the Sulkin’ of Swing, Jason Todd, who goes through his mom’s stuff and discovers his birth certificate. The name is water damaged, but it’s obviously not his mom’s name on the document. And if Catherine Todd isn’t his mom, he wonders, then who is? All Jason has to go on is his dad’s little black book, with three possible names. Which means it’s time to hack the Bat-computer. Jason’s only clue is that the his birth mother’s first name starts with an “S”, so he’s got three possibilities:
Wow, all three women just happen to be in roughly the same part of the world, too. Jason considers telling Bruce, but the brat makes the utterly moronic decision of going to investigate on his own. It turns out Bruce gave the kid a full set of credit cards, and soon Jason is flying to the Middle East. Uh, is it really that easy for a minor to buy a plane ticket and travel on his own? Nobody would question this? I know this is a world with magic and aliens and whatnot, but I’m just having all sorts of trouble buying this.
Meanwhile, the Joker has stolen a navy cargo plane and is using it to transport his cruise missile and launcher, claiming it won’t be missed until morning. Man, Jim Starlin is really making me suspend my disbelief this time out. Batman comes home from discovering Joker’s lair and finds out Jason has run away. So should he go after Joker and his nuke, or try to find Jason? Guess which one he chooses.
And now we’re on to chapter 2 of this story, where Batman fights terrorism. Bats finds the stolen cargo plane and cuts a deal with a friend in the CIA a chance to check it out before the Feds take possession of it back from Shiite extremists. Bats makes the SEAL team look useless and then leads them onto the plane, where he finds the Joker’s latest victim, the pilot.
The Joker’s handiwork? The man’s got a bullet in his forehead. This sounds more like Deadshot than Joker. There’s no irony in the murder, and no dark humor. The Joker didn’t even give the corpse a Sharpie goatee to go with his mustache. Batman returns to his vehicle, which is… a Range Rover? Car enthusiast Jeremy Clarkson would approve. Bruce calls home and Alfred informs him that Jason used his plastic to buy a flight to Israel. As Bruce drives off into the desert, he wonders what the hell Jason would be doing in that part of the world.
Cut to Israel, as Robin sneaks into a military compound, and apparently Jim Starlin thinks computers are magical devices where you can find anything. Jason learns that Sharon Rosen is undercover in Beirut, and then we cut to Bruce in Beirut, and for those who don’t know, Beirut in the ’80s was a war zone, divided between Muslim and Christian factions. It’s a bad place to be an American, so Bruce’s passport says he’s from Northern Ireland. I would’ve gone with Canada myself, but maybe Bruce doesn’t know how to say “sorry”. Or “sore-y”. Bruce has a cabbie take him to the nastiest part of town and he Batmans up, then proceeds to indulge in a little of the old ultra-violence to get a lead on the nuke. Bats finally gets a name he can use: Peter Brando. Bruce KO’s his informant so the guy can’t warn Brando before he gets to his hotel. Meanwhile, Jason heads to the same hotel to look for Maybe-Mom #1, and guess who he runs into?
Starlin assures us this isn’t really a coincidence. You know, like all three women being within a few hundred miles of each other, or Jason just happening to run into one of his adoptive mom’s friends who just so happened to have kept his birth certificate. Nope, this time these two guys just happening to be in the same part of the city is no coincidence. Jason assumes Bruce came to find him and Bruce has to reluctantly (I’m sure) tell the kid that nope, he’s on the trail of a nuclear warhead. Jason is all sad that Bruce didn’t come looking for him, and I couldn’t really care less. I remember at this point Jason’s lousy attitude made me wish he was dead. But hey, more on that later. Bruce tries to tell Jason he’s being unfair, when the two spot someone.
Ohmahgersh, it’s the exact two people the heroes are looking for, and they’re together! What a coincidence! Bruce and Jason realize they have to team up, and they follow the pair into the desert. Bruce tells Jason to get into his Robin costume… and now I’m wondering how Jason got that thing through customs. I could see Bruce maybe knowing lots of tricks to sneak in his Bat-gear, but Jason’s still a newb. Screw it, it’s the least stupid thing about this story. The pair use Bat-gliders, and what a—wait for it—coincidence that Bruce brought a second one along. The Undynamic Duo fly through the night after their quarry until the pair reach a camp set up near the Israeli border. Brando approaches Joker’s main henchman, Rupert, and introduces Sharmin as being from New Jersey. He then pulls out a briefcase and says he’s got a million dollars on hand. It turns out he’s just in time, too.
Joker’s got a missile to sell, and hey, it looks like Joker can speak Arabic, too. How lucky for him. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Batman to have found an Arabic dictionary among Joker’s things at the asylum, and we were told he was butchering the language here? But no, he’s completely fluent. He’s sold the missile to an Arab for the million, which is a really cheap price for a nuke, right? I mean, I never tried buying one, but you’d think you could get $20-30 million for a cruise missile, easy. Joker would have to be crazy to let it go for a mil! Oh, right. Never mind.
The buyer wants to use the warhead right away, so Joker hands over the coordinates for Tel Aviv just like they agreed. You’re doing business with a famous lunatic and you’re going to trust he’s giving you accurate coordinates? What if he programs it to hit Beirut instead? But the man proves to be smart after all, as he pulls guns on the Joker and his people and insists he stay until the launch. Joker says this is all good, then realizes it’s all bad, as Batman and Robin crash the party. Arab terrorists and American thugs team up to take out Batman and Robin, but the pair prove to be too much for bad guys of any nationality or sociopolitical affiliation. And then Sharmin Rosen gets in on the action, but she’s caught by Brando. Robin cries out and charges the man, and Brando points his gun at Jason. Batman looks on helplessly, knowing he can’t stop what’s about to happen. Man, if only Batman had some sort of ranged weapon he could use, something that could knock a gun out Brando’s hand or smack him upside the head…
Fortunately, Sharmin is no “helpless” female to be rescued, and she judo-tosses Brando. Meanwhile, the buyer punches in the coordinates Joker gave him and Rupert tells the man to push the button. He does so, and the cruise missile… goes boom. It seems reconstructing a cruise missile is just a little bit harder than it seems. Joker escapes into the desert without his missile or the cash. Batman and Robin accept Sharmin’s thanks for helping her in preventing her country from getting nuked, although they didn’t really do anything; Joker’s incompetence saved the day. They ask her if she ever had a baby in Gotham City and she replies that she didn’t, so they part company. Jason tells Bruce he’s not giving up, and he’s heading to Ethiopia to find Shiva, the next potential mom on his list, and if she’s not his mother then he’ll track down Sheila Haywood. Bruce tells him that’s fine, but he’s tagging along. Meanwhile, what’s up with the Joker?
Wow, what a coincidence.
Man, at the time I thought “A Death in the Family” was awesome stuff. We had Batman taking on international bad guys, there was a quest, it had the Joker… but I see it hasn’t exactly aged well. If anything, Jason Todd comes across as more annoying, but maybe that’s because I grew into a bitter old man screaming at kids to get off my lawn. Maybe things will get better in part two?