Batman #429 “A Death in the Family” (part 4 of 4)

We last saw our heroes, they were confronted by the Joker, now ambassador of Iran to the United Nations. The final part of our story opens with Batman and Superman in a dark room with CIA agent Ralph Bundy, who it seems is Jim Starlin’s favorite supporting character. I’m not kidding; if Ralph doesn’t appear in person in a comic, Bats can’t help dropping his name. Ralph gives Batman the lowdown, saying the State Department is in some sensitive negotiations and can’t afford any vigilantes doing their thing. Bats asks if it’s another arms for hostages deal, and I’m left wondering if Ralph will need a little lotion for that burn.

But before I turn the page, I do have to wonder what happened between issues. I’m imagining Supes had to restrain Bats in a sleeper hold to prevent him from insanely pouncing on Joker. Honestly, I would have liked to have seen that; Batman fans love the whole Bats-can-beat-Superman debate. Me? I love Batman, but unless Bruce has 1) Kryptonite and 2) the element of surprise, he’s boned.

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Batman’s response to Ralph’s declaration is stony silence, probably because he’s imagining the fifty-three ways he could kill the man, half of them involving his cigar and ashtray. Ralph brings up Joker’s diplomatic immunity, and Batman points out the only reason the maniac got the immunity is because he’s probably going to kill somebody; probably lots of somebodies. Ralph says they don’t have “hard evidence” of that. Since when did the CIA need “hard evidence” to do something ethically questionable in the interests of national security? Batman says this attitude is insane and Ralph doesn’t disagree, but that’s just the way it is. Batman says it’s not the way it is for him, and Bundy pulls his trump card.

Superman tells Batman that’s just the way it is, and Ralph leaves the men to work it out. Now alone, Clark tells Bruce he read over the telex about Jason’s death and asks if he had been the new Robin. On the face of it, that might sound like a stupid question but good reporters and detectives are supposed to collect facts before making guesses. Bruce confirms this, and Clark says he seemed like a nice kid. Bruce says Jason was “the best”. The best little annoying bastard, maybe.

Batman drops the bombshell that the Joker killed Jason, and says his proof is a deathbed statement from Jason’s mom. Supes says Joker is immune to prosecution, and Batman points out there’s a difference between the law and justice. Supes says Batman can’t put his thirst for vengeance above the nation’s best interests, and Batman tells the man to spare him his “boy scout sentimentality”. As Batman leaves, I can’t help but feel that the scene would have been more powerful if Batman had asked Superman if he would have felt the same way if Joker had killed Lois. Leaving Superman speechless with that little question would have made for a powerful close to the segment.

Back in his hotel room, Bruce pulls some strings to allow himself to get into the UN Building as an observer during Joker’s address. Bruce speculates this is going to be the final showdown between himself and Joker, and he wonders how he can hold the man responsible due to his insanity. Honestly, it’s an ethical question I personally have an issue with. If the Joker is incurable and if he constantly escapes the asylum to murder again… and again… and again… then Batman needs to either kill him or take on the job of incarcerating the maniac himself. The system is broken; if it worked, Batman wouldn’t exist.

Bruce thinks he’s not at a hundred percent and mentions his run-in with Deacon Blackfire, who was the antagonist in the prestige series Batman: The Cult, which was also written by Jim Starlin. If you haven’t read it, you honestly didn’t miss much. An immortal maniac takes over Gotham City, leaves corpses hanging from light poles, and you’re left wondering why one of Earth’s hundred superheroes isn’t doing anything about it. It’s one of those situations where you realize Batman really does work better in a world where few if any heroes exist. Bruce thinks maybe it’s best if Superman handles this, then he reminds himself that Joker killed Jason and we close out the scene with Batman’s costume laid out on the bed.

Over at the Iranian embassy, Joker’s being debriefed by his aide. It turns out Joker’s address will be at night to reduce the number of casualties he’s going to cause. It’s funny, but the State Department knows what the Joker’s going to do, the CIA is also aware, and the UN’s head of security is pretty damn sure there’s only one reason why you hire the world’s most effective serial killer. And yet everyone’s going along with this farce. In a world with backwards-talking sorcerers and super weapons capable of creating anything you can think of but that can’t affect anything yellow, this really does feel even more unbelievable. Joker bids farewell to Abdul. Oh, sorry, it’s Yassar. Because Joker can’t be bothered to remember the names of his lackeys because usually they’re dead within a few days of being hired. Joker is left alone with his sick and twisted thoughts, until he gets a late night visitor.

Batman has come to offer Joker a last chance to turn himself in and be readmitted to Arkham Asylum. Joker asks Bats what he’ll do if he doesn’t comply, and this raises a very good point that Christopher Nolan addressed in The Dark Knight; if the bad guys know Batman won’t kill them, how can he effectively threaten them? When violent criminals face off against the police, there’s the potential threat of terminal violence if the crooks don’t comply. I’m not saying Batman should become the Punisher, but I do think it would be maybe just a touch more realistic if the man did sometimes employ lethal force. Batman used to, way back in the Golden Age. Oh sure, he locked the KGBeast in that room and left him to die, but that was so… ambiguous.

Joker all but admits he killed Jason, and Batman realizes the maniac isn’t going to cooperate, but he does thank Joker for confirming his suspicions. Why does Batman need confirmation? Dr. Haywood flat out told him Joker did it; there were no other suspects. Bruce is starting to sound like Hamlet, always being unsure. And anyone who’s seen one of the twenty-odd adaptations of that story knows how well that uncertainty works out. Joker goes for a gun, but Batman… is gone.

The following night finds Bruce at the UN Building in his role as an observer. A nameless man in the row in front of Bruce points out that he’s picked a great night, and calls Joker addressing the delegates “far out”. I’m just trying to imagine anybody thinking how cool it would be for Ted Bundy or Charles Manson to address a crowd without being in restraints and surrounded by guards. I smell a Darwin Award candidate here. Then the moment arrives, and Joker makes his entrance.

Of all his crimes, none is worse than Joker’s cultural appropriation. As the Joker walks down the aisle, Bruce notes that he’s forgotten how many people the man’s killed over the years. I think if Joker knew that he’d be disappointed, because in the Dark Knight comic, he was sure Batman kept a tally. Me? I think Bruce would make a note of each failure.

Joker stops and stares at Bruce, and Bruce stares back, experiencing a sense of finality, and that one way or another this ends tonight. Joker takes the stage and stands behind the podium, and begins a monologue about how he and Khomeini just don’t get any respect (and I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard Rodney Dangerfield’s voice in their head just now), and how people see Iran as the home of the “terrorist zealot”. Well, Jim Starlin was pretty spot on there.

Joker continues, angrily ranting that the UN Assembly isn’t going to be able to kick Iran around any more, because…

…Joker whips off his robes to reveal a gas gun and tanks. So UN Ambassadors are immune from walking through metal detectors? They get to just waltz in without being checked for bombs or weapons? The security detail insist on a nighttime address, but they balk at a pat down? Bruce Batmans up but he doesn’t seem too worried. The reason why is the security guard standing next to Joker reaches out and crushes the gun, then incredibly sucks in all the poison gas. How is he able to do this? Because the guard is…

…Superman! Looking at this picture, I tend to wonder if somehow this was Robert Kirkman’s inspiration for Omni-Man.

Superman tells Batman the Joker’s all his, and I’m wondering how Clark is able to say this without all that toxic gas spilling out of his mouth. It’s an awkward scene, and I feel it would have been more effective if Starlin had Supes glance at Batman, they share a look, and then Clark races away with Bats inner monloguing that the man is flying away to dispose of the gas. Not only does it make more sense, but it would have been more powerful.

But the Joker has a plan B, and it involves bombs placed all throughout the room. Man, UN security people suck. People get blowed up real good, then Joker pulls his gun as Batman comes for him out of the smoke, and then innocent people get shot as Batman avoids the bullets. Joker is able to slip away in all the confusion and he reaches the roof, where a helicopter manned by Khomeini’s goons awaits. So the Ayatollah was going to welcome Joker back into his arms after killing a bunch of people? You’d think the man would have just written Joker off as a disposable asset, and an easily manipulated infidel, but apparently not. Joker boards the chopper and it flies away, but Batman manages to grab one of the landing skids and steal inside. One of the Iranians panics and pulls out a machine gun.

And I’m a little confused. Is Batman throwing himself in the way of the fire? Is he trying to save Joker’s life? Wouldn’t it have made more sense if Joker instead kicked Batman towards the gunman? Regardless, bullets go flying and the pilot is hit, and Batman realizes he has to jump out. He gives Joker one final look and bails. The chopper crashes into a warehouse along the river and explodes. Superman manages to snag a wounded Batman from the river, and Bruce insists Clark go look for Joker’s body. But no body is found, and the Joker’s fate is left up in the air. And… that’s it. That’s how the story ends. Jason’s dead, and the Joker’s got a sucking chest wound from an AK-47, fired at point blank range.

We’re talking lung penetration here, people. If the Joker bailed into the river, then he’s still only got one functioning lung. And if he landed on the dock, he’s got serious physical trauma on top of that. And somehow we’re supposed to believe he lived through this. You know what should have happened, whether Jason lived or died? The Joker should have bought it. Yes, you heard me. Joker should have died right here. The character had run its course, there was nothing more they could do with him. He should have been retired the way Marvel retired the Green Goblin (and yes, I think them bringing back Norman Osborn was one of the worst creative decisions Marvel ever made).

Setting aside the fact that ultimately, neither Jason or the Joker died, “A Death in the Family” at the time was pretty powerful stuff. Oh sure, the fact that there was no body pretty much telegraphed the fact that Joker wasn’t dead, but Jason was. I honestly felt that the kid was gone for good, especially since his death was referenced in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. And how did Jason return? Superboy Prime punched holes in reality and Jason was resurrected. Which is just about the dumbest damn way to bring a character back. I’ve never been a fan of the Red Hood in any incarnation, and his very existence fills me with nerdish ire.

Does “A Death in the Family” stand the test of time? Nope, not at all. The years, as well as various writers and editors, have not been kind to this story. On top of that, my re-reading it after all these decades made me realize just how, well, sub-par Stalin’s writing is. There’s a lot of melodrama where people are talking, when just a look should suffice. There are too many coincidences in the early parts in order to set up the tale, and frankly, I think it’s far below Jim’s stellar work on projects like Dreadstar (well, early Dreadstar, anyway) and Warlock. Jim Aparo’s art is fantastic, especially when inked by Mike DeCarlo, so at least that part aged well. Despite that, I honestly can’t give this story a recommendation. Avoid it and read “The Long Halloween” or something.

Tag: Batman: A Death in the Family

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  • Murry Chang

    “I do think it would be maybe just a touch more realistic if the man did sometimes employ lethal force.”
    Batman kills the hell out of guys. Even leaving out the Nolan and Burton movies(especially the Burton movies), beating normal guys until they lose conscienceless is going to kill a bunch of people in the long run. Normal people can literally be killed by one single punch to the head.

    • Kradeiz

      This was something that the original Watchmen did pretty well. The “heroes” were doing the same punches and kicks as usual superheroes but the aftermath was far more graphic and bloody. It wasn’t cleaned up or glorified.

      • Murry Chang

        Good point.

  • Michael Weyer

    They’ve touched on the whole “why doesn’t he kill the Joker” thing constantly. Especially when Jason returned and the talk of him and Bruce sums it all up:

    Jason: “I’m not talking about a killing spree, I’m not talking about wiping out crooks. It’s just him, it’s just one.”
    Batman: “It always starts with just one.”

    The idea is that Batman is terrified that if he crosses that line, just once, he won’t be able to stop and he becomes the Punisher. I know, it’s not a logical belief but…come on, the guy dresses like a bat, it’s obvious his reasoning on things is flawed. Plus, it turns him into the very thing he hates and he can’t disgrace his parent’s memory like that. It may seem a cop-out but it also speaks a lot to Batman’s morals and characters that he can’t cross that line even for a monster like the Joker.

    • GreenLuthor

      Which, honestly, would be fine… except that he knows Joker is going to be sent back to Arkham, where he’ll escape just like he’s done hundreds of times before. And when he does, he’s going to kill people. Probably lots of people. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands. Just like he always does. By not killing Joker (or any of his other serial mass murderer enemies), Batman’s knowingly allowing an untold number of innocent people to be killed. Even if he’s afraid of taking it too far… wouldn’t he still be saving far more people (most of whom wouldn’t be criminals)?

      (And as I typed this, I had a random realization: Batman is a human Trolley Problem, isn’t he?)

      • Jose Bencomo

        The problem is, once you start acknowledging jails can’t keep criminals in Comic Book Land, you also have to acknowledge killing villains dead either. Chop the Joker to bits, burn the pieces and send the ashes in a rocket to the Sun and yet the next writer after you will either bring him back or retcon your story away.

        • Jose Bencomo

          Sorry, I mean “killing villains doesn’t keep them dead either”.

  • Xander

    Honestly, Batman should go the Punisher 2099 route: build his own prison down in the Batcave. Of course, Punisher held people he wasn’t sure if they deserved death or not until he got enough evidence to execute them. Still, I imagine Batman could have something a little more secure than Arkham.

    • GreenLuthor

      Then again, “something a little more secure than Arkham” isn’t a high bar to clear. A cardboard box duct taped closed is more secure than Arkham.

      (The number one argument for “Batman could do more good using Bruce Wayne’s money to improve Gotham than by beating up individual criminals”: Bruce could easily afford to found a new mental institution for the city. One with actual doctors and medications, and with actual security. A place that would actually treat all the mentally ill criminals in Gotham, or at least keep them from escaping. Let’s face it, Arkham is utter crap in that regard, but there’s no reason another hospital can’t be built to serve Gotham, which would help far more than Bruce being Batman. But then, of course, there’d be no story really.)

      • mamba

        The main doctors are Hugo Strange, Harley Quinn, and Johnathan Crane. I think it’s just too corrupt to be salvaged, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

  • Kradeiz

    “As Batman leaves, I can’t help but feel that the scene would have been more powerful if Batman had asked Superman if he would have felt the same way if Joker had killed Lois.”

    It would also have had greater context decades later when Injustice came out and that was the inciting incident that led to Superman taking over the world. (Which I know is dumb, but well, context is context, I guess.)

    Oh, btw you refer to Jim Starlin as “Stalin” in the last paragraph.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Now if you had come up with a good explanation why we used “Stalin” you’d get a no-prize. :)

      • Kradeiz

        I tried to think of a joke involving dictators but nothing really clicked for me. 🤷‍♂️

    • Thanks to Injustice we know that if the Joker killed Lois then Superman would’ve taken over the world.

      Plus one of the Armageddon: 2001 stories.

      On the other hand, Kingdom Come says Superman would be pissed off if someone else offed Joker. Of course, Joker murdered everyone at the Daily Planet in that story. Maybe Clark had a grudge against Jimmy.

  • Kradeiz

    I’m okay with Batman killing the Joker but I think if he does they need to examine Gotham’s accountability for it and not lay it all on him. Batman constantly stops Joker and brings him in, only for the justice system to toss him into Arkham where he inevitably escapes and kills again. Lather, rinse, repeat. It isn’t right that Batman should be forced to bloody his hands to stop him, but if he does, the people have no right to condemn him at that point.

    • windleopard

      Gotham’s corruption is frequently acknowledged. It’s why Batman exists in the first place.

      • Kradeiz

        That makes sense in the case of villains like Penguin, Black Mask, and the various mob bosses, but why the Joker? He’s a complete wild card who rarely bribes to get his way (and the few times he does, the bribees usually wind up dead) and is all about random chaos and cruelty rather than personal gain. What advantage do corrupt police and politicians get from not stopping him?

        • Xander

          The only thing I can think of is that with the Joker on the streets, they keep a certain level of fear in the population so that their corrupted law and order is still preferable to the Joker.

          I could mention something about American politics here, but best not to go there beyond an oblique reference.

  • GreenLuthor

    I honestly can’t figure out what Khomeini’s plan in all this was supposed to be; there really doesn’t seem to be anything beyond “Joker and Khomeini are both insane and evil” at work. I mean… he makes Joker Iran’s UN ambassador. In that capacity, Joker attempts to murder everyone in the Assembly. So… what then? Even if Joker had succeeded, what’s the purpose? Iran just killed representatives from pretty much every other country in the world. It’s not like Iran could attempt to claim Joker wasn’t acting on Khomeini’s behalf. If you hire a mass murderer who isn’t even a citizen of your own country to be your UN ambassador, and they proceed to commit mass murder… who’s going to believe said mass murder wasn’t your entire goal?

    (And, honestly, even without taking into account the bombs and Joker shooting people in his escape, just the very attempt would probably be seen as an act of war. Against basically every other nation on Earth. Unless the goal was to start a war between Iran and the rest of the world, what’s Khomeini trying to accomplish here? As it is, Khomeini’s facing a war crimes trial and execution. As is Joker. Really, by not killing Joker here, you have to wonder why Joker was never tried in international court… and they’re definitely not sending him to Arkham, that’s for sure.)

    So besides doing something insane and evil for the sake of being insane and evil, what even was the purpose behind all this? (And, y’know… why didn’t Iran get hit by retaliatory military actions basically immediately? It’s not like other nations would have their governments disrupted by the loss of UN ambassadors; the actual leaders of the countries are all still alive, and this isn’t something they’d ignore, even had Joker failed to kill anyone at all.)

  • we’re supposed to believe he lived through this.

    And escaped detection by Superman, who was on-scene within minutes at most.

    • Xander

      Some writers really don’t know how to use Superman, and it gets worse when Batman is supposed to be the main character. In his own book, Superman would have found the bombs and disarmed them without removing them so that the Joker wouldn’t realize something was up. He also would have found a way to disarm the gas gun so he wouldn’t have to be at the point it was necessary to inhale the gas.

      Instead, though, to give Batman something to do, he’s all “durp dur hur. oops fragile peoples breaky.”

  • PhysUnknown

    “When violent criminals face off against the police, there’s the
    potential threat of terminal violence if the crooks don’t comply.”

    I’m down with Batman refusing to kill, even in the case of the Joker, but how have the police never taken him out?

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