Even if you have no interest in Avengers: Endgame, you’ve been hearing about Avengers: Endgame. Jim Starlin, who created Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet, is no stranger to making news. In 1988, he was writing Batman when DC Comics ran a 900-number vote to determine whether Robin (Jason Todd) should die. And because we’re bad people, we voted for a fictional child to be brutally murdered.
I think there’s another timeline where Robin was saved by the voters, and as little as I care about Jason Todd, I think that’s a better world. Killing Robin by popular vote led us to our 2019 nerd world of gatekeepers and ComicsGate and social media pissing contests and people threatening critics who don’t like the things that they do. I say this as a nerd, but as soon as they let nerds get a say in something, everything went to hell.
This week, our three-part series covering Jim Starlin’s Batman work focuses on A Death in the Family, a volume reprinting Batman 426-429, 440-442, and New Teen Titans 60-61. The back cover claims it also includes the follow-up story from Batman Annual 25, but it most assuredly does not. That is not much of a loss, but it’s still weird that the cover copy is out and out wrong. It’s also worth noting that the second batch of Batman issues plus the Titans stuff is a separate story called “A Lonely Place of Dying” that introduces the Tim Drake Robin. It’s written by Marv Wolfman, which is throwing off our Starlin-fest, but what can you do?
“A Death in the Family” is drawn by Jim Aparo, which is the best thing it has going for it. I know last week I really found some Starlin gems, but this arc is not great. The premise is that Jason Todd, who recently murdered a man (apparently), starts acting out so Batman benches him. Jason finds his birth certificate and discovers that the woman he thought was his mother actually wasn’t. His mother is somebody with the name “S(illegible smudge”. He comes up with three candidates, all of whom are in the Middle East or Africa, and one of them is Lady Shiva. They don’t make as big a deal of that as they should. They also act like genetics aren’t a thing and the Asian woman is just as likely to be Jason’s mother as the white women. I mean, props on being colorblind, but maybe deprioritize checking in with the assassin who is also a different ethnicity than you are until you’ve taken a good look at the ladies who look like you and don’t do murders.
Meanwhile, Batman is in the Middle East because the Joker is trying to sell a cruise missile for quick cash. I will say this is an era of Joker that I really like. He’s the dangerous psychopath we know today but we’re not being hit over the head with it at all times. He’s unpredictable and murderous, but he doesn’t have to talk in a different font to get the point across. That said, it’s a pretty ridiculous coincidence that takes Batman and Robin out of Gotham City separately only to meet up on the other side of the world. And the real problem is that after the Crisis reboot, Jason was written as pretty unsympathetic, when he was written at all. It’s tough to make him the emotional focus of the story, and it’s not really successful here.
There’s a thing Starlin does in this arc that makes me crazy. It’s narrated by Batman, but Batman is an omniscient narrator. He has first person captions that tell us about things he wasn’t there to witness, like what Jason is doing when he sneaks away from Wayne Manor. Additionally, Batman is obsessed with how long people will be out after he hits them. At one point, he assures the reader that somebody will be unconscious for five hours. That’s not a thing. If you’re unconscious for five hours, that’s the first five hours of you being dead. But honestly, both of those things are very 1980s, when narration was weird and everybody had to be the toughest.
Eventually, after winning a surprisingly easy battle with #2 Mom Candidate Lady Shiva, Batman and Robin go after Mom #3, who the Joker finds first. You know, because there weren’t enough coincidences in this story. Joker beats Jason with a crowbar and then blows him up, and that’s when the readers got their say. Part three of the arc finds Batman sifting through rubble, watching Jason’s birth mother die, and then finding Jason’s body. (The collection also contains the alternative page Aparo drew where he lives.) It’s kind of surprising to really look at the last issue and a half and realize there are maybe two changes to the art and some dialogue alterations to make them fit the “Jason is alive” result. There’s a double funeral for Jason and his mother, but they could white out a casket. Jason was shown as badly injured enough that he’s be in critical condition and out for as long as needed. Tweak some dialogue so Batman wants revenge for the Joker maiming Robin rather than killing him, and you’re all set.
So here’s the wild part of this story. Batman is obviously intent on going after the Joker once everybody is back in America. Then Superman shows up to give his condolences and warn Batman that Iran has a new ambassador to the U.N. and this person has diplomatic immunity so he can’t do anything about it, and of course it’s the Joker. And I feel like there’s something either racist or jingoistic about that, and it makes me feel bad. I mean, the Ayatollah Khomeini actually appears on panel to offer Joker the job.
And it’s getting weirder because the Joker, immune from all prosecution, decides to kill the U.N. with poison gas. I’m pretty sure diplomatic immunity doesn’t work that way, but nobody needs my notes thirty-one years later. Luckily, Superman and Batman are there in disguise, so Superman inhales the poison while Batman chases the Joker. There’s a fight and Joker seemingly dies in a helicopter crash, but they can’t find his body. It’s a convenient way to get around the diplomatic immunity which was then ignored for years until Chuck Dixon brought it back in the early 2000s in Birds of Prey.
The Joker stuff is fun but dumb, which is the saving grace. The rest of the story is not fun and still dumb. I realize it ‘s an editorially mandated event and there are some good moments, but it’s not great. It’s on the low end of the key Batman events to be sure. In fact, if Robin had lived, this story would be largely forgotten other than the Joker as ambassador angle. It would show up in lists of Weird Batman Stories and that would be it.
The second half of the book gives us “A Lonely Place of Dying”, a Batman / Teen Titans crossover where the Titans don’t really contribute. This story is notable for introducing Tim Drake, the next Robin. I somehow had not read these issues before, and they’re weird. Tim Drake’s identity is hidden for the first several parts and there’s not even an indication that he’s a young teenager. He narrates the story as a guy who’s obsessed with Dick Grayson and has figured out all of Batman’s secrets. Unfortunately, when he explains how he figured out who Batman really is, it’s such a clear trail that you have to wonder why nobody else has worked it out. There are things you have to ignore in order to make the reality work, and calling them out without adding anything just leaves a broken toy.
Still, it begins with a “Dick Grayson solving circus murders” story that I really like. Meanwhile, a mystery villain is planning something and there are so many clues that you’ll figure out it’s Two-Face immediately. Beyond that, it’s a really good Two-Face story and has a fantastic sequence where Batman and Two-Face are both trying to work out their next move and it’s very funny the way they come up with and dismiss the same possibilities. I also really enjoy that Two-Face’s plan is almost unraveled when he hears of an event with more connections to the number two and he almost abandons everything. It all turns into a pretty clever story that has Batman and Nightwing teaming up and Tim becoming Robin because “Batman needs a Robin”. It’s messy as an introduction for Tim, but it’s a good Batman/Nightwing team-up and a really good Two-Face story. This is the much better half of the collection, frankly.
Next week, we wrap up Starlin’s Batman career with Batman: The Cult, a miniseries I remember enjoying when I was a teenager and maybe haven’t read since then. Let’s see how it holds up! I mean, it’s definitely going to be better than “A Death in the Family”.