Reading "Death in the Family," Chapter One
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Written by Jim Starlin. Pencils by Jim Aparo. Edited by Dennis O'Neil.
Published in 1988 by DC Comics.
“It took me weeks to track down the kiddie porn ring’s main warehouse…”
Holy shit. That’s where we’re starting off? First words of text, right at the top of the page. I didn’t remember comic books acknowledging the existence of this evil, much less sending superheroes to fight it.
There’s no delving here, just fight where Robin runs in all gung-ho to fight a group of generic thugs. They could have been involved in any illegal dealing, but the writers chose that one. Suggests right from the start that, even though the art-style is traditional four-color inking--not the grim-dark of, say Sin City, which Frank Miller won’t introduce for another 3 years--still there is real ugliness in this fictional world.
Batman: I think I’ve made a terrible mistake, Alfred. The kid’s losing it. He dived into those thugs like someone looking to die… I may have started Jason as Robin before he had a chance to come to grips with his parents’ deaths.
Whoa. This is not a statement I’m used to expecting from Batman. So many post-Time-Burton depictions illustrate the Caped Crusader being driven by an almost-reckless anger, even lacking self-awareness at times. But here, Bruce says, “I may have fucked up,” but also that grieving over loss in a healthy way requires time. Who knew he would show this kind of respect for mental health needs.
But also, I think he’s being too hard on himself here. Crime-fighting kind of was his grieving mechanism, and his only experience in sharing that mechanism with another, Dick Grayson, appeared to be a roaring success. He couldn’t know it might not help Jason.
Batman: Jason’s going off active duty immediately…
Jason: You can’t be serious about this?
Batman: I most definitely am. You’re in no shape emotionally to be on the streets.
Again, whoa. Hypocritical (“Do as I say, not as I do…”) or understandably protective (”Please don’t suffer like I suffered…”), it’s hard to say. I’m a little reminded of how he tells Dick Grayson not to pursue the man who killed his parents in the Robin’s Reckoning episodes of Batman: the Animated Series, and maybe that drew from this exchange.
Batman: I haven’t made this decision capriciously, Jason.
So, Bruce Wayne uses SAT vocabulary words in regular conversation? Must be that private school background.
Batman: A person’s got to have his head screwed on right for this kind of work. You’re hurting, kid. You’ve got a lot of anger and pain inside of you. It’s going to take time for you to get rid of it.
Jason: You’re one to talk!
Here it looks like Jason calling out Batman on hypocrisy. However, I think this may also be presenting a Batman who has dealt with his emotional issues and now achieved some internal peace, meaning that he does not fight crime in Gotham City because he is constantly tormented within but because there is still work he feels the need to do.
This story came out before Tim Burton’s film gave us the constantly overcast Gotham and emphasized Batman’s grief in ways previous screen adaptations certainly did not, and before Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: a Serious House on Serious Earth went hard with the “Batman may be just as messed up as his villains” theme. However, it is after Batman: The Killing Joke highlighted him and Joker both being “crazy,” each responding differently to the “one bad day” that sent each over the edge.
“For years, I’ve tried to talk Arkham Asylum into tightening up its security…”
Once again, Joker has escaped, and Batman’s comment on it reveals why he has to continue to fight crime, because the Gotham City is completely inept at incarcerating or rehabilitating criminals. One has to wonder if they even try.
In our reality, many citizens look at criminals as sub-human and just doing want to think about their existence. “Lock them up and throw away the key.” That isn’t trying to solve the problem either, just ignoring it.
I think this line not only stands out because it's an ugly fact of Batman's world, but I think it's thematic for what is going on in this story. This is about neglect, the kind of neglect that comes when it may superficially look like practical matters are being taken care of, but proper care is not being given.
Externally, Jason Todd seems like he's in a good spot, as ward of Bruce Wayne, financially secure, and successfully fighting crime as Robin. But internally, his emotional needs aren't being met, which is not all Batman's responsibility. Just like Arkham ignores his pleas to take better precautions with its inmates, Jason ignores his pleas to slow down and be willing to work on himself.
Batman: (to Commissioner Gordon) Everyone’s going to want a piece of the Joker, after what he did to Barbara
Oh, shit, so this is right after The Killing Joke, which released that same year. That means that DC ended the careers of two members of the Bat-Family, Batgirl and Robin, in the same damn year, and they used the same villain to do so.
Got to say, kind of feels like Joker is being over-utilized. There are lots of villains in Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Why does the same damn guy get tapped to deliver Batman a personal loss?
Joker: In here’s something I was saving to break up the boredom of a rainy afternoon. My very own cruise missile! ...I planned to fire it at City Hall someday. But I guess I’ll have to sell it to some Arab terrorists instead. It’s the only way I can think of to safely replenish my sorely depleted funds.
And here is Joker’s big plot for this story--he wants money, and he’s reaching out to the Middle East to get some. I don’t think the villain of this story needed to be Joker. Couldn’t most Batman villains become a weapons dealer? Penguin comes to mind, maybe Two-Face, although Two-Face killed Jason Todd’s dad. I don’t know if it would be overkill or poetic to bring him back.
And, like child pornography, here Batman’s comic book world acknowledges a real-world problem of our own, violence in the Middle East.
“Jason’s into his third hour of walking, trying to let off steam... My guess is he will end up in somewhere in his old neighborhood… Crime Alley.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Jason is from Crime Alley? The place where Bruce’s parents were killed in that mugging? Well, damn. Yeah, not only does that kid have a lot of stuff to work with from his troubled background, but he has to represent something to Batman that the previous Robin couldn’t. I wonder if there are aspects of that Batman himself didn’t fully process.
Jason: So, what do I do now? Take what I have to Bruce to ask for his help? No way!
This story is a tragedy in the classical sense, a cautionary tale about the dangers of pride and how it can reduce the life circumstances of someone who was in a very good place at the start, meant to evoke pathos in the audience and grant us catharsis.
It is not as lyrical or evocative as some Batman stories, but it is a solid damn story.
And with the set-up we receive about Jason needing to work on himself and process grief, it would have been really damn interesting, in some alternate universe, to get to read that story, one where, instead of ignoring Batman's advice and diving into his own destruction, Jason Todd accepts that he needs to process grief and works on that.