Review by Ian Keogh
A Death in the Family was the culmination of controversy and bloodlust among comic fans long before the advent of social media, or even message boards. In New Teen Titans Dick Grayson had graduated from Robin to Nightwing, leaving a vacancy for a young teenage sidekick to accompany Batman. DC created Jason Todd, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, belligerent and resentful, a deliberate contrast to the respectful Grayson. He wasn’t the sidekick a lot of fans wanted to see, and they made their feelings known, with the result being this story.
For many of his detractors, the final straw was when the gung-ho Robin was presumed to have executed a rapist who’d escaped justice, and the clamour grew for his replacement. A Death in the Family opens with Batman deciding Jason’s too reckless, suspending him from active duty for his own safety. It’s just as the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum. While Batman tracks him down, Jason sets about locating his real mother.
Even with distance, this remains a problematical story, with the phone poll DC instituted for fans to decide whether Robin should die not the only distasteful aspect. The Joker’s caustic dismissal of how he’d crippled Barbara Gordon is unnecessary, and the use of Ayatollah Khomeini an odd expression of real world USA’s political priorities of the era. Beyond that Jim Starlin’s plot takes too much for granted, with the Joker randomly having acquired a cruise missile, and then concluding it’s best used in the Middle East. There’s an unexpected betrayal that works, and Jim Aparo’s art renders the memory false, being less explicit than you might recall. It’s also nice to see Aparo in his pomp, his superlative storytelling, his graceful action scenes and his agile Batman. Overall, however, there have been many, many far better Batman graphic novels.
Whatever the background, whatever view you may have on how distasteful or justified Robin’s sensationalised demise was, there’s one undeniable aspect. A Death in the Family was a huge success, not just at the time, when sales of the comic increased immensely, but ever since with the story remaining in print in one form or another since 1988. For all of Starlin’s more acclaimed work, it’s unlikely any other project has put as much bread on his table over the years.
More recent editions of A Death in the Family have combined it with A Lonely Place of Dying, in which a new Robin is sourced. It’s a far better story, co-plotted by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, with Pérez and Aparo alternating on the art. It’s positive, not mired in controversy, and elevates the earlier content. The starting premise is that despite what happened to Jason, Batman needs Robin to keep on top of things, and Nightwing is no longer able to fulfil that role. The detective skills of all cast members are as necessary as their ability to fight their way out of a corner, and the writers keep the pages turning with a complex plot pointing out how Batman’s efficiency is deteriorating without Robin.
Dock a star from the rating if you’re going for an edition only featuring the title story.