A Horrible Dream Where You’re Robin

Posted: July 20, 2010 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

22-year-old spoiler alerts ON!

So, you guys know the Joker once beat Robin near death with a crowbar and then blew him up inside a Red Cross tent, right?

And then Batman recovered the body, removed the shreds of his Robin costume and, as Bruce Wayne, lied about his death and held a funeral for him just to keep his identity secret, right?

That was a thing that actually happened. (Well, not “actually,” but you see where I’m coming from with this.)

Oh, also? The Joker wasn’t even trying to antagonize Batman. Robin just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had just found his birth mother, who through astounding twist of fate, had worked with the Joker decades previously. It was all just a horrible coincidence. A horrible coincidence where Batman, Robin, Robin’s birth mother, and the Joker were all in Ethiopia.

I mean, what are the odds?

And if you weren’t previously aware, the Joker was also appointed ambassador of Libya, which granted him diplomatic immunity.

It had been maybe 15 years since I last read “A Death in the Family,” the Batman story where the second Robin, Jason Todd, was killed (thanks to a 36-hour reader phone poll that resulted in a mere 72 votes in favor of his death).

Reading it again, the story plays like dream-logic. It might all make perfect sense while you’re asleep, but once you wake up, damned if you can follow the cause and effect.

It’s really hard to say if writer Jim Starlin intended it that way, or if he was just trying to patch a pre-decided idea together, but man, reading it now is a lot like trying to track a nightmare, where you’re Robin, and no matter what you do, you’re gonna get beaten by the Joker’s crowbar and blown to smithereens.

I mean, you’re all smart people. Try to come up with a narrative thread that logically connects these events:

  • Robin II is angry and reckless because hasn’t come to terms with the death of his parents
  • The Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum yet again
  • Robin II learns his mom wasn’t his birth mom and figures his real mom is one of three women in his dad’s address book
  • Their last known addresses are all in the Middle East
  • The Joker is strapped for cash and wants to sell a nuclear warhead to Libyan terrorists (why yes, the Joker does have a nuclear warhead, why do you ask?)
  • While hunting down the warhead, Batman runs into Robin II, who’s chasing a whole different line of investigation
  • Robin II’s mom-suspects are: an Israeli double-agent, the most dangerous lady martial artist of all time, and a corrupt doctor-without-borders, and checks them out one by one (spoiler: only one meeting includes an awesome fight scene)
  • The Joker happens to have previous dealings with the last mom-suspect, who might come in handy with his whole selling-off-a-nuclear-bomb scheme
  • The Joker, coming to visit last mom-suspect to discuss matters that still have nothing to do with Batman or Robin, finds Robin II in the same tent as the mom-suspect, beats him near death, and blows them both up, and finally
  • Batman can’t take revenge on the Joker because he’s now a Libyan ambassador and also SUPERMAN WON’T LET HIM.

Seriously. It’s like the worst Mad Libs ever. I have to give Starlin credit. This was some crazy-ass shit, but he somehow managed to tie it all together so that there was at least the appearance of cause and effect while reading, and the questions only started the instant I put the book down.

Which does make me wonder if I’ve been going about the writing process all wrong. (Of course I have.)

I suppose I’m just astonished that one of the most important moments in superhero comics – one that, arguably, set a template for the “Kill ‘em all and bring ‘em back if readers make a fuss” storytelling engine that has permeated DC Comics ever since – is such a barely-sensical story.

But then, even Denny O’Neil, the Batman editor at the time, seems baffled by what happened, essentially saying in the “Death in the Family” notes pages that it was just a story, and it hadn’t occurred to any of them at the time that it might be, y’know, catastrophically upsetting to some younger readers to see the Joker BEAT ROBIN TO DEATH WITH A CROWBAR.

On the upside, they clearly learned their lesson about thinking through the ramifications of a story. Which might be why O’Neill and Marv Wolfman worked so hard to make sure the third Robin, Tim Drake, was the most brilliantly-concocted new character of the last twenty years.

(To be continued, why not?)

  1. braak says:

    In another news, Lady Shiva’s first appearance was in Richard Dragon: Kung Fu Fighter, a comic with an evil-billionaire villain named Guano Cravat.

    How come you and I don’t have a comic book, yet?

  2. sebastian says:

    A Death in the Family was the first comic I ever read, which conditioned me to believe that at any time a main character can be randomly beaten to death during even the most mundane mission. It made for exciting comic reading when I was a kid.

    Also, iirc, one of the funnier things about the murder was that the Joker was pretty satisfied by just beating the shit out of Robin with a crowbar, and it’s not until someone mentions that Batman is going to be thermonuclear pissed that the Joker decides to blow Robin up to hide the evidence.

    So, in a way, isn’t Batman’s poor impulse control truly responsible for the death of Robin?

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    In Batman’s defense, the story starts with him realizing, “Whoa, I probably SHOULDN’T have put this kid I barely know who’s got serious anger issues into the role of a vigilante sidekick – wow, total brainfart on my part!”

    So, y’know. He tried.

    Not very HARD, since once they run into each other totally randomly, he doesn’t go “You disobeyed me AND stole my credit cards, you go home now!”

    Which, I’m pretty sure, is why “Ability to follow directions and stay out of direct danger” is one of Tim Drake’s primary characteristics when he first becomes Robin.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    Also, I think I have to take back the bit about Robin’s death starting the whole “Killing off super-hero loved ones” thing at DC – Black Manta killed Aquaman’s kid like 15 years earlier, and that is even harsher, because it’s fricking Black Manta.

  5. […] Now, I’m on record as being a pretty big Tim Drake fan, so you can imagine my annoyance that he’s been retroactively repositioned. And there is an argument to be made that Batman wouldn’t want him to use the “Robin” name in deference to the last kid who called himself that being beaten with a crowbar and blown up. […]

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