Batman #427 “A Death in the Family” (part 2 of 4)

Last time, in a story jam-packed full of coincidences, Jason Todd, the least popular Robin, discovered his dead mom was not his biological mom. He went on a quest to find her and he and Batman wound up in the same part of the world where they failed to stop a guy from launching a nuke that Joker sold him. Fortunately, the nuke was broken, and Joker escaped while the first of Jason’s three suspected moms turned out to be a dead end. Bats and Jason were then bound for Lebanon, with the disguised Joker heading for Ethiopia.

We pick up in the Bekkaa Valley in Lebanon, which Jim Starlin tells us is the heart of Shiite terrorist activity. I gotta say, I’m a little torn, in that I’m not sure using real world terrorism is entirely in good taste. I mean, try to imagine using ISIS in a comic book story today and see how well that goes over.

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So Batman and Jason are stalking a terrorist on guard duty, and Bats takes him out with a drugged dart. As he drags the unconscious man over to Jason, we start getting some exposition about what’s been going on, and we catch up with when Bruce and Jason found out where the second woman on their Suspect Mom List, Shivah Woosan is, just as Bruce called up his CIA buddy Ralph Bundy. I wonder if Ralph throws the fact that he’s Batman’s source in people’s faces. “Oh sorry, Phil, but Batman’s on the phone and he needs my help. Can we pick this up again later? Thanks, just close the door on your way out.”

Ralph tells Bruce where Shivah Woosan is staying, but when he and Jason get to her hotel they find out she’s been abducted. A montage of ass whuppin’ follows…

…which gives Batman a lead on where to find Shiva, which brings us back to the beginning of the comic. As Batman and Robin find guards to knock out and steal clothes from in order to infiltrate the camp of Shiva’s captors, we cut to a famine relief camp just outside Magdala, Ethiopia. A man with a suspiciously long face pulls up and asks for Doctor Sheila Haywood, and I’m now wondering if the Joker’s mug is a physical deformation or just Jim Aparo making a stylistic choice? Then again, from what I remember, everyone from George Perez to Jose Louis Garcia Lopez drew the character the same way…

…so maybe it was a company-wide mandate to give him cartoonishly odd features no matter how gritty the story.

Joker finds Dr. Haywood’s tent, and apparently he’s on a first name basis with her. Sheila recognizes him instantly despite the blackened hair and beige face. He alludes to a sordid past in Gotham where she used to perform “illegal operations on teenage girls”. So, using Shiite terrorists and calling them such in your comic is okay, but the word “abortion” isn’t? Joker notes Sheila’s new bosses probably don’t know about her past, and in order for things to stay that way, he needs a half-dozen truckloads of medical supplies to buy his silence.

Back at the terrorist valley, Batman and Robin stealthily make their way through the camp and about twenty bad guys. Batman thinks the way he and Jason are taking down these clowns is too easy. The last conscious guard tells the pair that Shiva is in the center tent, and the pair remove their disguises. The tent’s empty, and Batman explains that he thinks this is a training camp and the guys they just took out are noobs. Bats also figures out who the trainer is, but before he can tell Jason, the kid gets knocked out. Bats turns around…

It turns out Shiva Woosan is Lady Shiva, world-renowned assassin and apparently also a terrorist trainer. She explains she’s only been at it for three days, so her gang wasn’t exactly operating up to her standards, but Batman and Robin’s attack on the dweebs was pretty informative. Batman explains they aren’t here to fight, and they just have some questions, but Shiva’s not in a talking mood. She wants to see who’s the better fighter, since Batman does have a reputation as the world’s greatest martial artist.

Batman makes the mistake of underestimating Shiva and she almost takes his head off with a kick. He’s able to disarm her, but it’s mostly like the nunchucks were just slowing her down. Batman notices she hits like Ra’s al Ghul, and moves as fast as the Sensei, and I like the little name dropping going on here. He realizes his only hope to finish the fight quickly is to get in close and out-muscle her, and I appreciate how well Starlin plays up just how badass Shiva is through the way Batman inner monologues about her.

Jason wakes up and experiences a moment of hesitation as he wonders what to do: help Batman, or the person who might be his mother? He picks his foster dad, and the pair quickly take Shiva out, but she still doesn’t go down easy. It’s a great little fight and shows how well Jim Aparo can choreograph action, I also like how Starlin has Shiva lose but she still looks strong even in defeat. As Robin zip-ties his possible mom, Bats blows up the terrorist munitions dump. Shiva wakes up and Batman asks her if she ever had a baby. Shiva’s response is that she’s “dropped litters in every part of the globe”. Batman, realizing Shiva is a perennial smart-ass, reveals he’s brought along something to deal with her attitude.

Ah yes, sodium pentothol, the so-called “truth serum”. There was a time when people thought this stuff was impossible to beat, and a miracle drug nobody could resist. If only it was really that effective. But this is a comic book, and some slight suspension of disbelief is warranted, I suppose. Batman feels like dirt for using the drug, and I’m not really sure why. I mean, he spent the night beating the hell out of numerous thugs to get the information he needed, so how is that any more or less immoral than drugging someone? In fact, between say, waterboarding and drugging, I would say drugging seems the more humane way to extract information.

Shiva admits that she never had a kid and the heroes stick around until the stuff wears off, because that’s what good heroes do. Batman says since training terrorists isn’t illegal in Lebanon (and it’s hard to believe I live in a world where that sentence applied to not only Batman’s universe, but mine as well) he can’t arrest her, so he’s letting her go. However, he’s leaving her zip-tied because by the time she’s free, he and Robin will be far away, because that’s what smart heroes do. Robin’s bummed, but Batman points out Shiva would have made a lousy mom. So that just leaves Dr. Haywood.

The next chapter finds our heroes in Ethiopia, and Bruce notes how horrific the famine is, and that he’ll write another check when he gets home. So we can talk about terrorists in Lebanon, and famine in Ethiopia, but abortions are taboo? Moving on, the pair find Dr. Haywood’s tent and she recognizes Bruce Wayne right away, and Bruce introduces her to Jason Todd:

Wow, what an awkward handling of a potentially powerful scene. “Mother”? Really? I think it could have been so much more powerful had there been no words; let the images tell the story, because there’s a fine line between drama and melodrama.

Bruce leaves the pair alone and Dr. Haywood explains that she fell in love with Jason’s dad and she was involved in a botched operation. I’m assuming it was an illegal abortion, but Haywood doesn’t elaborate. Well, it was probably a teenage girl, so maybe it was a rhinoplasty gone wrong? She went to the UK to get her medical degree while Jason’s dad brought up Jason, and he wound up falling in love with Catherine Johnson in the interim. Haywood decided not to contest custody of Jason, and I can understand that, but I do find it unconscionable she didn’t at least keep tabs on her son. I’m not talking about becoming a part of his life, but at the very least wouldn’t she have at least made sure he was all right? Nope, she just utterly forgot about him. It’s like that movie The Parent Trap where both parents utterly forget they have two kids and never think after maybe a few years that hey, maybe my daughter might want to get to know her sister?

But Jason’s too happy to have a mom again to worry about that. Haywood says she has to excuse herself for a bit since she has some work that needs her attention and scoots Jason out of the tent. Jason wanders around and wonders what might be so important, when he spots a familiar someone.

Jason instantly recognizes the Joker, which tells me that yes, that chin must indeed be some sort of physical abnormality that sticks out wherever he goes. So how did Joker get it? Did he have it before he got his chemical bath and his strange appearance contributed to his mental breakdown? Or did he have himself surgically altered to look more weird? Or do members of the Bat-Family have some sort of unerring “Joker sense”? You decide, because we never find out.

Jason eavesdrops outside the tent and hears how Joker was able to blackmail his mom, and when they head out in Joker’s jeep, Jason hijacks a motorcycle to go after them. I’m a little torn here. Bruce is nowhere in sight and it’s a desert, meaning the jeep could wind up almost anywhere, so losing sight of it means losing sight of both his mom and the Joker. As much as I’d love to rag on Jason’s impetuousness, I could just as easily see Nightwing pulling the same stunt.

Joker meets up with his convoy and they reach the warehouse where the medical supplies are kept. They’re swapping out boxes and Sheila wonders what’s in the new ones. Joker explains they’re full of enough lethal laughing gas to cover at least four acres, and that this is just his way of cutting down on world hunger. Thank God, I was starting to think Joker had gone sane and stopped doing psycho murder stuff. Jason does a very un-Jason like thing and races back to the camp to get Bruce. The pair return and see the deadly cargo is already on its way. The Range Rover can’t catch up, but Batman’s mini-copter can. Before he flies off, Bats makes Jason promise to stay put. Jason agrees. Hey, can you guess what Jason does? Can you? He spots his mom stepping outside for a smoke, so he confronts her and she’s reluctant to give up the goods, but then he reveals he’s Robin. Heywood seems convinced and leads Robin inside to show him something. What she shows him is:

By gawd, it’s a swerve! Dr. Heywood sells out her own son to the Joker, because she’s been dipping into charity funds, and if Joker gets caught then her crimes get exposed too. So that explains why she never checked in on Jason over the years; she’s a total bitch. Sheila wonders what they should do with the kid, and the Joker’s response is for him and his thugs to start beating the hell out of Jason in what is frankly one of the most disturbing sequences I’ve ever seen in comics. After the initial beatdown, Joker grabs a crowbar and even though the blows happen outside of the frame, the implications leave me uncomfortable even today. Heywood seems torn between indifference and horror, then goes back to indifference; it’s a sloppy three-panel sequence and I think what they should have done was pair up six expressions with the six narrow panels where you see the Joker laying down blows.

Back with Batman, he has a feeling things have gone south at the warehouse, but he hasn’t got time to worry about that, because the guards on the convoy mistake him for a bad guy and open fire on him, damaging his helicopter. Bats lands and takes the guards out as humanely as possible, then explains to the others here how lethal the cargo is and to let the army handle the disposal. He makes off with a truck and hightails it back to the warehouse.

Meanwhile, Joker experiences some post-brutality remorse when he realizes Batman might not take kindly to what he did to Robin. So it’s time to wipe out the evidence… and the witnesses.

The bomb is set for ten minutes, and Sheila realizes that dealing with the Joker always means you get cheated. Jason wakes up and looks a mess, and realizes he’s in no shape to dismantle the bomb and I can believe it. If he’s even the least bit concussed, he doesn’t have the brains to disarm it. Instead, he unties his mom so she can get away. Sheila then discovers she has a conscience, so she turns to help Jason get away. The pair stagger for the door, and they’re almost there as Batman tears across the desert. Sheila sets Robin down to open the door.
But it’s locked. The bomb explodes. And Batman…

…arrives too late.

Part two is a definite step above part one, although without the numerous clunky coincidences we would never have gotten to this point. The subject matter truly is disturbing, and honestly, I felt it was a little gratuitous. Why not have Joker plant the bomb and tie up Dr. Haywood, with Robin arriving to rescue her a little too late? What if Robin had been shot in the knee and left to bleed out at his mother’s feet? The crowbar attack just felt like gross sensationalism. But other than that, technically it was a well-illustrated, and for the most part, well-written comic.

After the last page, we get two 1-900 numbers you could dial to determine whether or not Jason lived or died. Calls cost fifty cents. Me, I didn’t call. The weird thing was, by this point I actually didn’t want Jason to die. Something about the way he had been written in this issue showed me that the character was salvageable. He was impetuous but also intelligent, and his heart was in the right place. It’s almost like at some point maybe Jim Starlin regretted dragging the character through the mud and made a last ditch attempt to turn Jason Todd into a sympathetic character. But as you might guess, it was too little, too late. Next time, we get the fallout from the fateful decision to place a character’s life in the public’s hands.

Tag: Batman: A Death in the Family

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