Debriefing #26: ‘A Death in the Family’

batman-deathinthefamily

Batman: A Death in the Family
Writer: Jim Starlin
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Mike DeCarlo
Letterer: John Costanza
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Covers: Mike Mignola

Edgar: Few stories in the entire Batman cannon can claim to have historic significance for the main protagonist and the world he lives in. Some stories are great, some are memorable, but only a select few share tales that shake the foundations of Batman and what he does to the extent that Jim Starlin’s Death in the Family does. Even back in the day when the issues were being published, the buzz surrounding this major event-type story caught a feverish pitch amongst Batman readers. We’ll get into specifics as we go along I’m sure, but to get us started I’d like to know if you felt that the pivotal death, the leadup, the demise, and the aftermath carried as significant a weight for you as comic book lore claims.

James: There’s a lot to unpack in that question. The short answer is no. I hate to start off with such a blunt answer, but this story rubbed me the wrong way from start to finish. I can see the historical impact, I can imagine how much of an event it could have been, but within both the context of the story and the knowledge of where we go from here, it doesn’t work for me. It’s a bummer because I want to like this story, I want to feel the impact, but I never could. I always found myself struggling with some barrier to get into this comic. Do you feel the same way or did The Death in the Family make an impression on you?

E: It’s funny. I do this movie podcast for another website and one of the criticisms I bring up for certain type of movie I have trouble with is that they try to do too much. They have a lot of ideas percolating, some of them quite interesting (at least potentially) but they don’t all come together to make a whole that feels natural. I think I have to share a similar criticism to this particular book. I have a feeling I liked it more than you, although maybe not by much. That said, Starlin is trying to work with a lot of issues in this storyline: Jason’s antagonistic relationship with Bruce, Jason’s past, the search for his real mother (which is prolonged by having not one, not two, but three candidates lined up) and juxtaposed against all of this we are given a globe trotting story that touches upon several of the geo-political hot button issues of the late 1980s that concerned the United States…with the Joker somehow involved. It’s a LOT to handle and it feels a little discombobulated, a little wonky on its legs. I’m wondering, were you familiar with some of the geo-political issues used as plot points in this book and how do they work for you as plot points in a Batman story?

deathinthefamily-somekindofjoke

J: I’m somewhat familiar with the Iran-US hostage crisis and that it set the climate of that relationship ever since. On the one hand, in a pre-911 era, it is interesting to see Batman tackle a story that deals with terrorism. On the other hand, like you said, this book is trying to do way too much and it feels like the story fails to develop these ideas into anything interest. They’re quick ways to ramp up conflict. They fail to contextualize the struggle since it comes to down Batman and Robin hunting down The Joker as usual. Perhaps the only moment that felt like it took any sort of interest in the setting is when we discover Lady Shiva is training the terrorist. Other than that, it felt scatterbrained, like someone defied the story with broad, sweeping strokes. Along those lines, what did you think of both the terrorist conflict as well as Jason Todd trotting the globe in search of his biological mother?

 E: I can’t say I cared that much for the terrorism element, less for the fact that it was a part of the story and more for how it was integrated. It goes back to what you just argued: it’s all in broad strokes, there is very little that gets specific and when it does, like having the bloody Ayatollah show up for one scene, it actually feels too cartoonish. I think if they had done a better job handling the Middle Eastern aspect, which in my opinion would have meant not having the Joker as the villain, it might have worked a bit better for me. As for Jason Todd’s quest to find his real mother, I wasn’t sure what to make of it mainly because I’m not familiar enough with Jason Todd the character. To be painfully honest, I’m struggling to remember another storyline I’ve read where he was the current Robin, which speaks to what sort of holes I have in my Batman catalogue I guess. As a story, I think it’s a good idea as it mirrors a bit of what Bruce went through (and still is) only that in Jason’s case there is a hope that he can actually see a parent again, something Bruce may never have the pleasure of experiencing. It was nice to see Bruce help Jason a bit with that mission. James, where do you stand in this regard?

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J: I dug the idea, but the execution was poor. Like you mentioned earlier, the fact there are three candidates makes it too much. I think if he knew who is his biological mother and simply had to find her, we could better define and build that relationship. Instead, it becomes this drawn-out quest that could have been much shorter. I also had a problem with where the story went from there. I didn’t mind Joker blackmailing her necessarily, but the fact that she then turns on her newly discovered son seemed cold and out of left field. I don’t think most mothers would do that. Maybe Lady Shiva would. Anyway, I also found it annoying how Batman and Robin on diverging quests end up in the same area. It felt contrived. Starlin is trying to pack too much story into these few issues. I think this story would have been much better set in Gotham, drop the terrorists, and make it about some crime syndicate. Speaking of packing too much into these issues, what did you think about the recaps that open each issue?

E: That was very strange, I must admit, and redundant. I’m trying to think of another book we’ve read where the recaps take up this as many panels and dialogue boxes as they do here. I know in other books sometimes at the start of the next issue Batman or someone will be thinking in a dialogue box about what we read previously, but it’s usually short and sweet. Here the writer and artists take up a lot of time to recap what we already know and it was annoying after a while. It’s weird but I get the sense that this is just another symptom of the fact that there wasn’t really a plan other than that the publishers wanted to retire Jason Todd from being Robin. I did a little bit of research and that basically was the impetus to write this story. A lot of what happens and how it happens is sloppy. All that matters is that DC gets the readers to the real selling point: the death of Robin. A point I’d like to address, one that’s not literally in the book, is how the decision to kill Jason Todd came to be. Did you know the history of how this happened and if so what are your thoughts on the whole ordeal?

J: I know that it was basically set up where the readers of the comics were supposed to vote to decide whether or not to kill off the character. At the time, a lot of people didn’t like Jason Todd as the new Robin, so they decide to put his fate in the hands of the fans. Legend has it that the decision to kill him came down to a really close vote and it ultimately swung against him. I have a hard time that a big publisher like DC would leave the fate of a character up to the fans. My critical side says it was a way to do something novel to get fans reading and invested in the story by giving them the illusion of agency. Knowing that, I think also tainted my perspective on the book some. It felt too gimmicky. How do you feel about it?

deathinthefamily-phonecallE: Let’s be clear: it’s fan fiction. There are countless number of web sites on the internet where avid fans of Batman, Spider-Man, James Bond and whomever can write up their own little stories in which Robin dies, or the Ghostbusters turn into ghosts, or Superman is gay or whatever. I don’t need fans deciding what a publisher should do with a story. On the one hand fans should be listened to. For starters, the publishers need to be respectful of its readership and second, if they aren’t, fans will stop buying books and said publisher will stop making money. But to put the life of an important character, or any character for that matter, in the hands of fans who can, on a whim, decide to have said character offed? That’s patently ridiculous. Now I know my analogy to fan fiction sites is a little iffy because people didn’t have the internet back in those days but I still can’t get behind this decision. DC hires writers they feel are talented enough to write good stories that the fans should theoretically appreciate. Let them do their work. Continuing on the ‘too much’ train, I guess we should talk a bit about a major supporting player in the latter half: Superman. What in heaven’s name is he doing here James?

J: Oh wow, I actually forgot he was in this story until you just mentioned it. It was strange how he shows up to keep Batman reigned in after Jason’s death. He’s strangely absent during the part of the story where there’s a missing nuclear bomb that could have started a war. When was Superman then? It seems to be a pattern in Batman stories for Superman to show up to try to talk down Batman and that’s pretty much all he does here. It sorta makes sense in the context of the story, but it’s yet another element that gets thrown into this mix that feels a bit odd and out of place. At least in other stories we get some teases that Superman is in the background. Here he just pops in to give Bruce a talk. What’s your take on The Man of Steel?

deathinthefamily-jokeriran

E: I’m on the fence to be honest. He does end up being important in thwarting the Joker gas attack (I like the bit where Batman admits to being impressed) but other than that his inclusion is a little superficial. Why doesn’t Dick Grayson talk him out of it? Why doesn’t Commissioner Gordon? I don’t know why it has to be Superman. It also gets back to my earlier complaint of the whole book being discombobulated. The second half feels somewhat removed from the first. The first half had a reasonably interesting take on Jason Todd and now we have to deal with Joker as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations along with Superman hanging around. I didn’t get the sense that it had enough to do with what came before. I’m really hung up on this whole notion of Joker as Iran’s representative. The only word my mind conjures up is ‘Huh?’. That and ‘Whaaa?’. The Joker has had zany plans before and we all love them, but this was another head of state using the Joker in zany capacity which made it feel really weird. Where do you stand on that topic?

J: This felt tacky to me. The story is grounding itself in real-world, geopolitical conflict that culminates in making America’s enemy take on The Joker as an ambassador so he can try to kill the entire UN. I mean we saw something kinda similar in ‘66 Batman film, but at least there the camp factor was cranked way up in that story. This story is told with such gravitas, especially in the wake of a major character’s death, that it feels in bad taste. I wished that we had an issue where Bruce has to deal with the aftermath of Jason Todd’s death and the funeral and going back to Gotham defeated. Instead, he gets another shot at The Joker, but it’s not truly victorious and it feels like it takes away from the emotional impact the story wanted with this gaudy final set-piece. We’ve talked around it a lot so far but I think it’s time to tackle it: what did you think of the actual death of Jason Todd in terms of presentation and depiction?

E: Huh, I didn’t even realize we hadn’t touched on the death itself. A sign of what we think of the story as a whole maybe? I have to admit it was terribly grisley. Coming to this story for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect really. I had heard of Jason’s death but I didn’t know how it happened apart from its depiction in one of the animated films, Under the Red Hood if I’m not mistaken. Even then, I had a gut feeling we’d get something different in the book. I was impressed by the brass balls the writers and artists showed. There’s blood, he and his mother look like garbage as they await the ticking time bomb to read zero, there is a real palpable sense of tension mixed with the utter realization that death is fast approaching. This probably sounds terrible but it’s arguably the highlight of the book. His mother’s a real–I won’t type the word, but let’s just say I didn’t warm to her very much. Even so, when people stare death in the face there is a bit of recognizable human fear that shows itself and I think the publishers did a solid job on that front. I’m ‘dying’ to read your thoughts on the matter.

 deathinthefamily-thedeath

J: Hehe. I’ll agree that it’s the highlight of the book. That does sound morbid, but the way it’s presented is a cut above everything else in the story. The way it’s framed as a series of images where The Joker brings the crowbar up and down without you seeing it hitting Jason Todd is a chilling start. Then seeing the grisly aftermath of the beating, feeling the tension as the bomb ticks down and the prospect of escape slowly begins to dwindle adds the final desperation until we get that shot of Batman seeing the explosion. It’s a fantastic bit of comic presentation. I wish the rest of the story could be of that calibre. And talking about the presentation, what do you think of the art in The Death of the Family?

E: Rather par for the course when it comes to these late 80s, early 90s American comic books. I find a lot of them tend to have a similar look about them. They go for some realism yet they have one foot planted in comic booky aesthetic. For example, Bruce and Jason looks fairly realistic but the Joker is a complete caricature. Actually, I should be more precise than that. The Joker with his usually make up looks like classic Joker. The Joker without makeup look like a deformed freak. I mean, seriously, that’s a hideous looking character. The guy should just remove his makeup with a face and head shape like that. All in all, I can’t say I was blown away. Like I just said, I feel a lot of these comics from major publishers of the era have this sort of style. I’ll just add this last point about the art: I’m not a fan of using the colour blue to distinguish strands of hair. That just looks so bizarre to me. I can’t really explain it… What did you think of the artwork?

J: I’m not a fan. Like you point out, The Joker looks deformed without the makeup and more in a “this is bad art” kind of way and less in a “this is cool, creepy art” way. The blue hair also bugged me. It’s out of place, especially since Batman’s costume is blue. The choice of colors feels weird and a bit nonsensical in some of these pages. I found myself a bit jarred by some of the choices. I did quite like the covers, though. The black with the semi-grotesque art created quite a mood of doom, but the art inside didn’t work for me. Any other issues you wanted to touch on?

deathinthefamily-issuecover

E: Just one last one. Before I get to that, I agree about the individual covers. They’re awesome. Then again, they’re also courtesy of Mike Mignola, the Hellboy artist, so I wasn’t surprised by their quality. A small detail I found pertinent is the distinction between Gotham City and New York city. I get the feeling that not all Batman stories make this distinction. In some ways I feel as though in the DC universe Metropolis is New York, I’ve heard the argument that Gotham is New York. In this book New York is New York. I’m a little confused on the matter. What are your general thoughts on DC inventing fictitious cities like Gotham and Metropolis but then pulling the rug under our feet by mentioning real American cities?

J: I like the idea of them being their own separate cities in the world instead of simply replacements for existing cities. That way we can have them visit real-world locations instead of having the creators make up facsimiles of real-world places. When we looked at those first Batman issues, he went to Paris a lot, even though the issues didn’t directly reference Paris stuff, it was cool that Paris was a part of that world like our own. I think that’s something DC comics in general could get better about so it’s nice to see that touch here.

E: It’s funny but I don’t mind the reference to real cities in other countries but when it comes to American cities I find DC’s geopolitics get a little muddled. It’s a minor point however. To wrap things up, Death in the Family’s reputation doesn’t feel all that earned to be honest. I get the sense that the mere fact that Jason Todd is murdered is its single selling point. Had the set-up and aftermath been of superior quality we’d certainly have a ground breaking story on our hands. As it stands, we have some interesting ideas, some curious allusions to real world politics, a terrific death scene but it’s covered in a lot of ‘meh’. So James, if you could have a comic book character killed off, which would it be?

J: Humm, such power. I’d probably kill of Iron Man, honestly, because people like him too much. I’m cruel like that.

E: Don’t ever change who you are.

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