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  • Writer's pictureJ. Griffin Hughes

Reading "Death in the Family," Chapter Two

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Continued from my reading of Chapter One.

“The northwestern Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. Before coming here, I check with Ralph Bundy, a friend of mine at the C.I.A.”

Here we have Batman out of Gotham City, and to facilitate that, he apparently has a friend in the CIA. And once he recovered the plane Joker stole to carry the nuclear missile, he hands it over to a group of black-masked Navy SEALs. Is this all clandestine, or does Batman have some sort of recognized role in the US military?

“The dead naval pilot in the cockpit confirms my suspicions. This is the Joker’s handiwork, all right.”

The panel shows a mustachioed man with a red dot in his forehead and blood dripping down his face. I do not remember direct depictions of death like this in the comic books I read when I was younger. I don’t remember corpses with eyes rolled back, and I don’t know if that was what I was reading or the haze of remembering childhood.

But how does a guy shot in the forehead tell Batman this was Joker? His dead expression isn’t contorted into a grin. There hasn’t been a playing card shoved into his pocket. And this goes back to me saying before that they could have used just any Batman villain to kill Jason Todd. There is nothing especially Joker-like about this caper.

“I wish I could track down the boy and bring him home myself. But this Joker business takes priority. Lives are at stake.”

There’s been a lot of commentary since about Bats/Bruce being a negligent father figure--pushing his young companions to the point of cruelty and always putting his crusade before their welfare. However, his conflicted priorities here make sense. Not only has Jason withdrawn from him, but he seems like he’s old enough to be expected to take care of himself and accept responsibility for his actions.

Also, Bruce pulls out a tiny radar dish to communicate with Alfred back in Gotham through an international radio signal, which must have seemed so high tech in the 1980s.

“Unlike Gotham’s hoods, these gunsels don’t know anything about the Batman.”

Batman’s detective skills amount to asking a taxi driver to take him to the bad part of town and punching machine-gun-carrying locals until they give him information. Not a particularly sophisticated technique. Feels like the writers are just trying to move the plot forward.

Also, love Batman using the term "gunsel," one I learned from Dashiel Hammet's The Maltese Falcon. It's one of those old-timey hard-boiled detective words, a reference to Batman's own 1940s crimefighter roots.

And then he crosses paths with Jason, tracking Sharmin Rosen, the first of the three women who might be his birth mother. Rosen is an Israeli agent undercover as the girl of arms dealer Peter Brando, which is the name Batman got from all the beatdowns he gave.

Being caught by his mentor, Jason naturally thinks Batman has been searching for him. But…

Bruce: The nuclear threat had to be dealt with first. You understand, don’t you?

Jason: Sure, Bruce… Nothing glamorous about hunting down a runaway.

Oh, damn! And while the priority is understandable, Jason’s hurt is as well, which is a real strength of this story. Although at odds with each other, both Batman and Robin are portrayed sympathetically.

"Batman: If we stay far enough back, even if they do spot our jet-powered hang-gliders, they’ll mistake us for birds."

This is something that’s always fun about these stories, the hero having the right gadget at the right time, and using it in a way that seems just a little outlandish and yet appears to have a practical benefit.

Joker: I’ve got the cash, so you are now the proud owners of a brand-new 1988 cruise missile!

Ok, Joker is apparently fluent in Farsi. Impressive. One of those random things to leave you guessing about his wild and mysterious background. Also, he’s kind of dressed down. No, three-piece suit with garish necktie. He’s dressed 80s casual, with a button-up green shirt tucked into blue jeans under a simple purple jacket, maybe Member’s Only. Maybe this is another way to bring the character and this caper more into our real world, and it honestly works.

Terrorist: <No one could have survived that barrage!>

Joker: He could.

Joker is understandably shocked to see Batman and Robin so far from Gotham City as they leap in to break up his arms deal. Love how he responds here with an unsmiling face after the terrorists fire upon the two of them--spoken in English so that this commentary on his long-time foe is really said to himself. I can hear Mark Hammill’s gravelly petulance as I read this.

“The boy’s angry cry has made him Brando’s target… Just as I’m sure he intended: At that range, Brando will cut robin clean in half. I’ll never reach him in time to stop Brando firing. No way to save him. No way!”

When one of the terrorists creeps up behind Batman, Sharmin Rosen breaks cover to shoot the terrorist down, protecting Batman. But Peter Brando sees it, and turns his gun on Sharmin. Naturally, that horrifies Robin, who can’t bear the thought of losing someone who might be his mother, so he attempts to jump in. Unfortunately, he is at a distance.

I like the fact that guns are dangerous. Robin’s costume is not bulletproof, and even if you are trained in disarming an opponent, that training does you no good if you are too far away. Robin is in real peril, and all Batman can do is watch, helpless, too far away from either to do any good.

Yes, “Batman” and “helpless” in the same sentence.

And here, we get a sense of the life-or-death odds of this story. This is foreshadowing. Batman braces for the possibility of watching Robin die, something I believe the writers emphasize in order to prepare the reader for this reality as well.

However, Rosen, standing right beside Brando and likely underestimated by him, pulls a judo maneuver that makes the shot fire wild and miss Robin, saving him. She seems like a smart and capable fighter whose heart is in the right place, a mother Jason would be proud to have, which is of course why she won’t be.

Joker: My money… All my lovely money… Burnt to a crisp… Whatever will I do now?

With Batman and Robin on the verge of victory, the lead terrorist enters the missile’s launch codes, wanting to send it off before they can stop him. But instead of launching, it explodes, not with a nuclear detonation, just a regular one, killing the terrorists and burning the cash Joker received from the sale

Apparently, it was Joker’s plan to double-cross those who bought from him, not necessarily because he didn’t want nuclear destruction, but just because betrayal is funny to him. However, he must have planned to be safely away--with his money--before this happened. No such luck. Once again broke, Joker makes his escape, as Batman, Robin, and Sharmin Rosen recover from the blast.

One of the beauties of Joker is how whiny he can be when he loses. Self-pity is so potent in narcissists, completely dismissing anything else in the world except how it pertains directly to them.

Batman: How’d your people tumble onto the Joker’s nuclear fire sale?

Rosen: Sorry, can’t say. That’s classified information. But I must thank you for the service you have done for my country.

Batman: Then how would you like to return the favor?

Rosen: If I can, how?

Robin: By answering a question or two.

Rosen: Such as?

Robin: Have you ever been to Gotham City? Ever had a baby there?

Rosen: Is this a survey or something?

Robin: Well, have you?

Rosen: No. Not in Gotham City. Why did you want to know something like that?

Batman: Sorry, can’t say. That’s classified information.

And now, Batman and Robin are working together to find Jason’s mother. He informs Bruce that the next two women on his list are Shiva Woosen, who is also in Beirut, and Sheila Haywood in Ethiopia.

Joker: One ticket to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, please.

To build anticipation, the last panel of this chapter’s final page shows Joker in disguise, with caucasian skin-tone make-up over his face and black hair dye--very much like what Jack Nicholson’s Joker occasionally used to look “normal”--wearing sunglasses and a gray three-piece suit. Not a hint of green or purple on him. And it does a damn good job of looking threatening, leading us into Chapter 3.

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