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.

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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!

Tag: Batman: A Death in the Family

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  • Michael Weyer

    Then Khomeini dies the very next year to automatically date this story. It was really bizarre and I think they were going for a “someone even crazier than Joker” idea but it was still wild.

    I do enjoy how scores of writers have acknowledged the fact that it took being killed for readers to actually care about Jason as a character. It made him much more notable for so long until they brought him back as Red Hood with that nasty attitude.

  • The_Shadow_Knows

    Maybe they planned to kill off Robin no matter how people voted? It’s not like anyone would know the difference.

    (There’s some precedent for this. The William Castle movie MR. SARDONICUS ends with a “punishment poll” where the audience in the theater supposedly decided whether the title character lived or died. He always died, and allegedly Castle didn’t even shoot an alternate ending.)

    • Michael Weyer

      Every DC editor claims it was played straight and they doubted fans would vote for death. Hard to tell how much of that is a line.

    • Thomas Stockel

      It’s an interesting theory but I feel DC did play it straight. People had to pay to phone those 1-900 numbers. If a person voted for Jason to live and the fix was in from the beginning then that would constitute fraud.

  • GreenLuthor

    The Khomeini thing is just… weird. It’s kind of hard to not think the thought process was “Joker is insane and evil, and Khomeini is insane and evil, of course they’d work together!”. Which just seems… I don’t know, kind of tone deaf. (Although in regards to shining a light on real-world despots… it probably doesn’t help that any modern Joker appearance is probably going to result in a higher body count than most third world dictatorships could accomplish…)

    The part about removing Jason’s costume is also pretty odd. Yeah, Batman wouldn’t want Jason to be in his Robin costume, but… did he strip the body naked? If he put different clothes on him, did no one wonder why the clothes weren’t also damaged in the explosion? Did he somehow get a change of clothes for Jason and then damage them himself? Sort of seems they didn’t put too much thought into that one. (The fact that the caption box has obviously different lettering would seem to point to that being a last-minute addition as well, though if it was changed to accommodate the poll results or if it was a hasty change because someone realized there was a huge plot hole there I couldn’t say.)

    (It’s also not the only spot in the issue where the lettering is obviously different. The exchange between Bruce and Alfred at the funeral is also noticeably different.)

    “Yes, I get it, there has to be a Robin due to copyright issues.” Technically, I think it would be for trademark reasons, but that’s probably just being pedantic. :P

    Starlin supposedly had scripted two (very similar, but for references to Jason being dead or just critically injured) versions of the story (which is probably the reason for the different lettering in some panels; parts that were identical could be lettered beforehand, but certain parts had to wait for the poll to finish). Also supposedly, Aparo had drawn a different page where Batman finds Jason alive (barely). (Although some people believe the page may have been made after the fact in response to “disprove” rumors that they were going to kill Jason regardless of the poll.) It was included in the story of Jason’s “resurrection” in Batman Annual #25 (2006), and also reprinted in the 2011 Death in the Family TPB. (Don’t get me started on how lazy and stupid that “resurrection” was…)

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/370a30d79338b01b5924b7ab145d2e3af3ce0d59ffe53c43f6f241700a688466.jpg

    • Michael Weyer

      It’s tricky because it’s been shown the Joker has some standards in terms of sheer evil.

      See the classic special where he finds out he’s been working for the Red Skull and his priceless line “I may be a criminal lunatic but I’m an American criminal lunatic!”

      • GreenLuthor

        True, although it also depends on the writer and the time period. Byrne’s 1940s Joker isn’t quite the same as, say, the Killing Joke Joker, or the Joker who cut off his own face and then wore it as a mask (or whatever the hell that was all about). (I mean, it’s pretty obvious Starlin wasn’t going for a Joker that would insist he’s an “American criminal lunatic” when he’s teaming up with Khomeini, at a time when Iran was one of the United States’ most prominent detractors.) (Khomeini was able to depose the Shah and take control in large part due to anti-American sentiment in Iran; the Shah was widely despised by Iranians, and the US was seen as having placed and kept him in power. Khomeini would probably be pretty high on the list of people that the “American criminal lunatic” Joker wouldn’t work with or for, I’d have to think.)

  • John

    I’m pretty sure that’s also not how diplomatic immunity works

    • Murry Chang

      That’s how it works in Lethal Weapon 2 so as far as I’m concerned that’s how it works in real life.

      • Xander

        That’s how it worked in Dilbert, too, when Dogbert became a diplomat in Elbonia.

        • Murry Chang

          So it’s decided then, that’s how diplomatic immunity works!

        • GreenLuthor

          I don’t think I want to trust anything involving politics that comes from Scott Adams…

          • Xander

            This was on the Dilbert cartoon. That was made before Adams went completely around the bend.

    • GreenLuthor

      Of course, Starlin also wrote the two issues that immediately preceded “Death in the Family” (#424-425), wherein Robin stops a rapist who turns out to be the son of an ambassador, and thus also gets away due to “diplomatic immunity”. (Batman and Robin then get proof of the son being possession of cocaine, so the US State Department can have him expelled. But Robin pays him a visit while waiting for the process to be completed, and Batman arrives in time to see the guy falling from his balcony. Robin claims “I spooked him. He slipped”, but Batman isn’t sure he believes him. This would be a sign of Jason Todd’s growing instability that led Batman to bench him in part 1 of “Death in the Family”… and may well have caused enough negative reaction to sway voters to the “kill Robin” side.)

      As to whether or not diplomatic immunity works that way… I’d have to go with “probably not”, but it’s a tricky question. I’d have to doubt it would cover past crimes, only crimes committed while the person was actually serving as an ambassador. But the list of things that foreign citizens covered under diplomatic immunity have gotten away with is pretty outrageous. Murder, vehicular assault, smuggling, espionage… diplomats have gotten away with a lot of things. Of course, the host country can have the person expelled back to their home country in those situations, and the home country can waive diplomatic immunity as they see fit (although they frequently don’t). And I don’t think the host countries are required to accept foreign representatives, though I doubt that option gets exercised much without cause. (However, the United States is something of a special case; while they may not have to accept ambassadors to the US itself, they’re not supposed to deny entry to ambassadors to the United Nations. Which, of course, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened – “sorry, you didn’t apply for the visa in time for us to get it all processed, and we can’t let you in without it” – but that’s not viewed favorably by the rest of the world.)

      (I know filing paperwork and other bureaucratic drudgery doesn’t make for the most compelling stories, but I kinda want to see the State Department receiving the paperwork from Iran requesting a diplomatic visa for someone who’s only known name is “The Joker”. State must desperately need something from Iran here…)

      So I’m thinking it’s not quite how diplomatic immunity works (especially the “can’t be arrested for past crimes” thing), but it may not be wholly inaccurate, either. (But I’m also not a lawyer, and certainly not one versed in international law.)

      • John

        past crimes aren’t covered under diplomatic immunity. And I doubt the UN would even accept Joker as the Iranian ambassador. I have to say, I read this story once as a kid, and I forgot how much was jammed into the story.

  • Xander

    Given how things turned out for Andy Kaufman when he ran a similar bit a few earlier on SNL, I’m not surprised how the vote turned out. Of course, Kaufman apparently did it as a riff on a bit he’d seen previously, and he also expected the vote to come out in his favor.

  • I sure hope the next issue gets into what Khomeini expects to get from this arrangement, because — far from seeming eeevil — it looks like both Joker and the Ayatollah are just trolling.