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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