Feb 20, 2020
Batman #428 “A Death in the Family” (part 3 of 4)
In part two of “Death in the Family”, the Joker blew up a warehouse with Jason Todd inside and DC left it up to us to decide if he would live or die. Part three opens with Batman stumbling through the wreckage of the warehouse, thinking of how foolish he had been to take on Jason as the new Boy Wonder. The following pages flash back to how they first met, when Todd stole the tires off the Batmobile. We see how he took the boy in and made him his ward, trained him, and made him his partner. He thinks back on how Jason discovered Two Face had murdered his father, and even though Todd hadn’t killed Harvey Dent, his rage went unabated. This led Jason on his quest to find his real mother.
After two strikes, the third was a success, and Jason’s natural mom Dr. Haywood is found by Batman in the rubble, dying. Sheila tells Batman that Joker planted the bomb and that Jason had thrown himself onto her to save her. Now I could be a jerk and point out how last issue ended with a massive conflagration, and as Batman stumbles through the wreckage, Jim Apara has seen fit to draw numerous images of smoldering wood. And yet somehow Sheila hasn’t died of the terrible concussive force of the TNT, or smoke inhalation, or the massive burns being trapped in that warehouse would have caused. Why is Sheila still alive? I suppose so Batman can be told Joker is responsible. But Batman would already know Joker was responsible. This scene is just melodramatic and unnecessary. Batman continues his search and finds Jason:
It’s hard to recall what I was thinking thirty years ago between issues of Batman, but I’m pretty sure I was certain they weren’t going to kill off Jason Todd. Death felt a lot more permanent back then, so the idea of them murdering Robin—especially seeing as he was a kid—seemed, well, unthinkable. And then… the unthinkable happened. This was not a dream, not an imaginary tale. Jason Todd was dead and he had died in such a way that there was no coming back. And I won’t lie, I found with Jason’s death I actually gave a damn about the character. Before Starlin, I viewed Jason Todd with indifference, but in Starlin’s hands the kid had grown insufferable. And somehow, Jims Aparo and Starlin made us (or me, at any rate) regret any ill will the character had accrued. It was a landmark moment in Batman’s history, and frankly I wondered where things could go from here. Robin was dead—could the Joker be the next to die as Batman sought revenge? Reading this comic, I felt anything was possible. I miss feeling like that.
Speaking of Joker, the scene cuts to a warehouse where our Clown Prince of Homicide has concluded his deal regarding the sale of the medical supplies he forced Haywood to make available. Things seem to be going fine when members of the Iranian Secret Service show up and ask Joker to meet with a representative in the other room. Joker ain’t impressed. Then he goes in and is rendered speechless.
And honest, so was I. Real people appearing in comics was pretty rare, and normally it was Americans like David Letterman or Ronald Reagan. But for a lot of people, seeing Ayatollah Khomeini pop up? A guy a lot of Americans viewed as the Antichrist? Yeah, that was a jaw-dropper. For those of you who don’t know who the Ayatollah Khomeini was, he deposed the Shah of Iran in a coup during the late ’70s, and instituted a repressive and brutal fundamentalist regime that exists to this day. So just when the reader got over the fact Jason Todd was dead at the hands of what was now DC’s most infamous supervillain, a real life supervillain shows up.
Back at the destroyed warehouse, Bruce has removed Jason’s costume so he can’t be identified as Robin, and he endures the numerous questions local authorities throw at him. The authorities, not knowing Joker’s involvement, are going to chalk it up to it being an accident. I’m not going to criticize the Ethiopian law enforcement community, but a recent incident had Batman stop a shipment because medical supplies had been swapped out with a toxic nerve gas. Any competent investigator would assume the supplies that were supposed to be with that convoy was stolen. Stolen from this warehouse, in fact. Also, I’m guessing any competent arson investigator would be able to tell a fire begun by TNT. And last but not least, a nearly naked corpse of a teenage boy was found; I can’t imagine any cop thinking that’s not suspicious. And these cops aren’t thinking the rich white American should be detained for questioning for a few weeks while they work out what the hell went on?
Bruce says he removed evidence, and how do you remove TNT residue? Jims Starlin and Aparo spent four pages on flashbacks as well as about a page of Sheila Haywood dying in melodramatic fashion when they should have used some of those showing Bruce dealing with the fallout of Jason’s death. This isn’t the first time Starlin’s done something like this; during the end of his Epic (And by “Epic” I mean the Marvel branch of comics, not that the run itself was epic. It had its great moments and bad) Dreadstar run he would waste page… after page… after page on flashbacks to bring readers up to speed, so if felt like a full third of the comic was devoted to telling longtime readers what we already knew. It’s all just a little too neat and tidy, and for a story where parts one and two received the double issue treatment, we’re now fast-forwarding through the aftermath of Jason’s terrible death.
So Bruce Batmans up and doesn’t find Joker’s other warehouse until the following night, along with the smiling, rotting corpses of the psychopath’s henchmen. He hopes to find a clue to Joker’s whereabouts or his future plans…
Well, somebody’s feeling cocky. Batman takes Jason and Haywood home and buries them beside each other, and the only people to show for the funeral are Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Barbara. After the funeral, Alfred asks Bruce if he should call Dick, and Bruce tells him no, because from now on, he goes it alone. And let me take a moment here to say that’s how it should have been. Barbara/Batgirl is a paraplegic, Jason Todd is dead, Dick Grayson as Robin got shot (and I might add, Joker was responsible for all three incidents). People close to Bruce Wayne and Batman get hurt. At this point, there should have been no more Robins. Period. Yes, I get it, there has to be a Robin due to copyright issues. And there’s merchandising to consider. But from a literary standpoint, Bruce Wayne should have decided no one else needs to die or be maimed in his war on crime. Or if he was going to have help, it should have been from experienced adults who shared his hunger for justice. That being said, that’s how I feel now. But honestly? After a year or so, DC without a Robin did feel a little, well, weird, and so when Tim Drake came along I was kind of glad.
Anyway, back to the story. In his cave, Batman ponders the clue Joker left him. 42nd and 1st in Gotham City has a deli, drugstore, newsstand, and department store, so none of that sounds like places Joker might want to stage a crime even at his zaniest. Likewise, Metropolis doesn’t have much going on at 42nd and 1st either. But in New York, 42nd and 1st is where the United Nation building is. Batman heads to NYC, expecting to find the Joker. What he gets is something else.
Batman is shocked at Superman’s arrival and wonders what brings Big Blue to the Big Apple. Supes explains the State Department sent him because they figured Batman would show up once he heard the news. But Batman hasn’t heard the news of how the Iranians have a new ambassador, and like all ambassadors, he has diplomatic immunity; any crimes he committed before or during his stint get a free pass. And the State Department feels they have to honor said diplomatic immunity. Batman points out Iran didn’t exactly respect American diplomats when they took over the US embassy years ago, but Supes doesn’t rise to the bait, simply insisting anything Batman does could cause an international incident.
Batman asks who the ambassador is, but Supes is proving evasive, so Bats loses his cool and punches Supes, almost breaking his hand on the Jaw of Steel. Superman wonders what’s gotten into Batman, but before he can find out, the new ambassador’s car rolls up to the curb. Supes warns Batman not to do anything stupid, and as the ambassador steps out of the car Bruce can’t believe what he’s seeing.
And that’s the image part three ends on, and… yeah, a lot to unpack here. Perhaps some might have noticed I had cut back on the satire here, because between Jason’s death and a cameo from the most hated person by Americans since Jimmy Carter (okay, there, found a little bit of satire), there isn’t much at all satirical in this issue. So was using the Ayatollah Khomeini in this story in bad taste? God, I don’t know. There’s a reason why Marvel and DC created fictional countries, so they can avoid things like this. But at the same time, isn’t using a fictional country when real evil people like Khomeini exist a kind of cowardice? Perhaps sometimes comics should be shining a spotlight on actual despots, reminding us that they exist. And maybe when there’s push-back from foreign governments or terrorist organizations, we need to have the moral courage to stand our ground and not give in to pressure from them.
I know it’s easy for me to say that, because my life isn’t at risk, and there aren’t billions of dollars on the line. All the same, when I see people, institutions, and companies cave in to satisfy the whims of tyrannies, I can’t help but feel evil gains another inch and morality erodes. So yeah, maybe using the tyrant of Iran might have been in bad taste, but all the same I can appreciate DC’s sentiments, which is that as bad as their fictional Joker might be, he pales in comparison to real-world monsters and we need to be reminded they’re still around.
As for the rest of the story, I still have to wonder why Sheila’s body was intact despite all the reasons I mentioned for her not being so, and double goes for Robin. Batman should have found a charred corpse. I suppose the reason why editor Denny O’Neil didn’t want to go that route was he didn’t want there to be any doubt whatsoever that Jason Todd was in fact dead, so there had to be a recognizable body. Considering the violence of the explosion and subsequent fire, I would love to know how Jason was to have survived had readers voted for him to live. Would he have possibly found a way to get through that locked door? Perhaps Sheila Haywood would have thrown herself on him rather than the other way around? If someone knows how Jason was to have survived, I’d love to hear it.
I would say of the three issues this is both the best and the worst. Shorter than the previous two, the Jims waste a lot of pages talking about the past when they should have been fleshing out the present. That being said, they do an excellent job creating landmark storytelling as well as throwing us a massive curve ball with Khomeini’s cameo. At day’s end, the staff’s job is to create exciting, compelling storytelling, and while I wasn’t crazy about some of it, in the end it certainly is memorable. Next time, the finale to this epic tale!