Batman: A Death in the Family


By Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, George Pérez & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401225162 (HC)                        978-1-4012-3274-0 (TPB)

Modern comicbooks live or die on the strength of their “Special Event” publishing stunts but every so often such storylines can get away from editors and publishers and take on a life of its own. This usually does not end well for our favourite art form, as the way the greater world views the comics microcosm is seldom how we insiders and cognoscenti see it. Just check out the media frenzies that grew around the Death of Superman or Death of Captain America crossovers…

One of the most controversial comics tales of the last century saw an intriguing marketing attention-grabber go spectacularly off the rails – for all the wrong reasons – to become instantly notorious whilst simultaneously and sadly masking the real merits of the piece.

Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson, Robin, the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940): a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a greedy mob boss. The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still undergoes the odd tweaking to this day

The child Grayson fought beside Batman until 1970 when, as a sign of the turbulent times, he flew the nest, to become a Teen Wonder and college student. His invention as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with had inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed sidekicks and kid crusaders throughout the industry, and Grayson continued in similar vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious youth culture.

Robin even had his own solo series in Star Spangled Comics from 1947-1952, a solo spot in the back of Detective Comics from the end of the 1960s which he alternated and shared with Batgirl, and a starring feature in anthology utility comic Batman Family. During the 1980s the young warrior led the New Teen Titans, re-established a turbulent working relationship with Batman and reinvented himself as Nightwing. This of course left the post of Robin open…

After Grayson’s departure Batman worked alone until he caught a streetwise young urchin trying to steal the Batmobile’s tires. Debuting in Batman #357 (March 1983) this lost boy was Jason Todd, and eventually the little thug became the second Boy Wonder (#368, February 1984), with a short but stellar career, marred only by his impetuosity and tragic links to one of the Caped Crusader’s most unpredictable foes…

Todd had serious emotional problems that became increasingly apparent in the issues leading up to A Death in the Family wherein the street kid became more callous and brutal in response to the daily horrors he was being exposed to. When he caused the death of a vicious, abusive drug-dealer with diplomatic immunity, Todd entered a spiral that culminated in the first unforgettable story-arc collected in this volume (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions), collectively comprising Batman #426-429, and #440-442 as well as New Teen Titans #60-61 and material from Batman Annual #25.

As Batman #426 (December 1988) opens, Jason is acting ever more violently. Seemingly incapable of rudimentary caution, he is suspended by Batman who believes the boy has not adjusted to the death of his parents. Meanwhile, the Joker is again on the loose. But rather than his usual killing frenzy, the Clown Prince is after mere cash, as the financial disaster of “Reaganomics” has depleted his coffers – meaning he can’t afford his outrageous signature murder gimmicks…

Without purpose, Jason wanders the streets where he grew up. When he sees an old friend of his parents, she reveals a shocking secret. The woman who raised him was not his birth-mother…

She knows of a box of personal papers indicating three women, each of whom might be his true mother. Lost and emotionally volatile, Jason sets out to track them down…

His potential mother is either Lady Shiva, world’s deadliest assassin, Mossad agent Sharmin Rosen or Dr. Sheila Haywood, a famine relief worker in Ethiopia. As the lad bolts for the Middle East and a confrontation with destiny, he is unaware Batman is also in that troubled region, hot on the Joker’s trail as the Maniac of Mirth attempts to sell a stolen nuclear missile to any terrorist who can pay…

The estranged heroes accidentally reunite to foil the plot, and Jason crosses Rosen off his potential mom-list. As Batman offers to help Jason check the remaining candidates the fugitive Joker escapes to Ethiopia. After eliminating Shiva, who has been training terrorists in the deep desert, the heroes finally get to Jason’s true mother Sheila Haywood, unaware that she has been blackmailed into a deadly scam involving stolen relief supplies with the Clown Prince of Crime…

I’m not going to bother with the details of the voting fiasco that plagues all references to this tale: it’s all copiously detailed elsewhere (just Google and see) but suffice to say that to test then-new marketing tools a 1-900 number was established and – thanks to an advanced press campaign – readers were offered the chance to vote on whether Robin would live or die in the story. You can even see the original ad reproduced here…

Jason dies.

The kid had increasingly become a poor fit in the series and this storyline galvanised a new direction with a darker, more driven Batman. The changes came almost immediately as Joker, after killing Jason in a chilling, unforgettably violent manner, becomes UN ambassador for Iran (later revised as the fully fictional Qurac – just in case) and – at the personal request of the Ayatollah himself – attempted to kill the entire UN General Assembly during his inaugural speech.

With echoes of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman then becomes a government watchdog tasked with stopping Batman from breaching diplomatic immunity as the vengeance-hungry Caped Crusader attempts to stop the Joker at any cost, leading to a spectacular yet chillingly inconclusive conclusion with the portents of dark days to come…

And here is the true injustice surrounding this tale: the death of Robin (who didn’t even stay dead) and the voting debacle took away from the real importance of this story – and perhaps deflected some real scrutiny and controversy. Starlin had crafted a clever and bold tale of real world politics and genuine issues which most readers didn’t even notice…

Terrorism Training Camps, Rogue States, African famines, black marketeering, charity relief fraud, Economic, Race and Class warfare, diplomatic skulduggery and nuclear smuggling all featured heavily, as did such notable hot-button topics as Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan’s Cruise Missile program, the Iran-Contra and Arms for Hostages scandals and the horrors of Ethiopian refugee camps.

Most importantly, it signalled a new and fearfully casual approach to violence and death in comicbooks.

This is a superbly readable tale, morally challenging and breathtakingly audacious – but it’s controversial in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. But don’t take my word for it: read it and see for yourself.

The saga is appended here by an afterword from Marv Wolfman, before the sequel he penned introduces the third kid to don the cape and pixie boots…

After Grayson’s departure and Jason’s death the shock and loss traumatised Batman. Forced to re-examine his own origins and methods, he becomes a far darker knight…

After a period of increasingly undisciplined encounters Batman is on the very edge of losing not just his focus but also his ethics and life: seemingly suicidal on his frequent forays into the Gotham nights. Interventions from his few remaining friends and associates prove ineffectual. Something drastic had to happen if the Dark Knight is to be salvaged.

Luckily there was an opening for a sidekick…

The second story arc here is a crossover tale originally running in Batman #440-442 and New Teen Titans #60-61 from October to December 1989. Plotted by Wolfman and George Pérez, scripted by Wolfman with the Batman chapters illustrated by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, and the Titans sections handled by Pérez, Tom Grummett & Bob McLeod, a new character enters the lives of the extended Batman Family; a remarkable child who will change the shape of the DC Universe.

‘Suspects’ sees Batman rapidly burning out, but not only his close confederates but also an enigmatic investigator and a mystery villain have noticed the deadly deterioration. However, as the criminal mastermind embroils the wildly unpredictable Two-Face in his scheme, the apparently benevolent voyeur is hunting for Dick Grayson: a mission successfully accomplished in second chapter, ‘Roots’.

The first Robin had become disenchanted with the adventurer’s life, quitting the New Teen Titans and returning to the circus where the happiest and most tragic days of his life occurred. Here he is confronted by a young boy who has deduced the secret identities of both Batman and Robin…

‘Parallel Lines’ then unravels the enigma of Tim Drake, who as a toddler was in the audience the night the Flying Graysons were murdered. Tim was an infant prodigy, and when, months later he saw new hero Robin perform the same acrobatic stunts as Dick Grayson, he instantly realises who the Boy Wonder must be – and thus, by extrapolation, the real identity of Batman.

A passionate fan, Drake followed the Dynamic Duo’s exploits for a decade: noting every case and detail. He knew when Jason Todd became Robin and was moved to act when his murder led to the Caped Crusader going catastrophically off the rails.

Taking it upon himself to fix his broken heroes, Drake determines to convince the “retired” Grayson to became Robin once more – before Batman makes an inevitable, fatal mistake. It might all be too little too late, however, as in ‘Going Home!’, Two-Face makes his murderous move against a severely sub-par Gotham Guardian…

Concluding with a raft of explosive and highly entertaining surprises in ‘Rebirth’, this long-overlooked Bat-saga introduces the third Robin (who would get into costume only after years of training – and fan-teasing) whilst acknowledging both modern sentiments about child-endangerment and the classical roles of young heroes in heroic fiction. Perhaps a little slow and definitely a bit too sentimental in places, this is nevertheless an excellent, key Batman story, and one no fan should be unaware of.

This combined compilation offers also a full cover gallery by Mike Mignola & Pérez plus a lost treasure for fans and aficionados. Printed comics are produced with a long lead-in time so when the phone poll to determine Jason’s fate was launched, the editors had to prepare for both outcomes. Wrapping up proceedings here is the alternate final page by Aparo & DeCarlo depicting Robin’s survival to gratify the dreams of those who originally voted against what these days would have been agonisingly and inappropriately dubbed “R-exit”…

Potent, punchy and eminently readable, this is a bold Bat-treat well worth tracking down and devouring.
© 1988,1989, 2006, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Robin Archives volume 2


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Win Mortimer, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2625-1

Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson, Robin the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940), which introduced a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a mob boss.

The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still regularly undergoes tweaking to this day.

In the original comics continuity Grayson fought beside his mentor until 1970 when, as an indicator of those turbulent times, he flew the nest, becoming a Teen Wonder, college student and eventually leader of a team of fellow sidekicks and young justice seekers – the Teen Titans.

He graduated to his own solo spot in the back of Detective Comics from the end of the 1960s, alternating with Batgirl, and held a similar spot throughout the 1970s in Batman. The college-based wonder won a starring feature in the anthology comic Batman Family and a run of Giant Detective Comics Dollar Comics before becoming a star all over again in the 1980s as leader of the New Teen Titans, first in his original costumed identity and eventually in the reinvented guise of Nightwing. He even re-established a turbulent working relationship with his dark, driven and dangerous former senior partner.

Robin’s creation as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed kid crusaders and Grayson continues in similar innovative vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious contemporary youth culture… but his star potential was first realised much earlier in his eternally young career…

From 1947 to 1952, (issues #65-130) Robin, the Boy Wonder had a solo series – and cover spot – in Star Spangled Comics at a time when the Golden Age superhero boom was fading, its gaudy bravos gradually being replaced by more traditional heroes in genres such as crime, westerns and boys’ adventure stories.

The exploits herein contained blended in-continuity action capers with more youth-oriented fare, frequently reducing adults Batman, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon to minor roles or rendering them entirely absent, allowing the kid crusader to display not just his physical accomplishments but also his brains, ingenuity and guts.

This second sturdy deluxe hardback Archive Edition re-presents more tales from Star Spangled #86-105 (covering November 1948 to June 1950) recapturing the dash, verve and universal appeal of one of fantasy literature’s greatest youth icons – albeit with a greater role for Batman – and opens with a fascinating Foreword by Bill Schelly who adds a layer of historical perspective and canny insight to the capers to come.

Every beautiful cover is included – although most of the later ones feature colonial-era frontier sensation Tomahawk – and are lovingly rendered by Jim Mooney, Win Mortimer, Charles Paris, Bob Kane and Fred Ray.

Although unverified, writers Bill Finger, Don Cameron, David Vern Reed and Jack Schiff are considered by most comics historians to be the authors of the stories in this volume and I’m going to happily concur here with that assessment until informed otherwise. Easier to ascertain is Mooney as penciller of almost all and inker of the majority, with other pencil and penmen credited as relevant…

The action-packed relatively carefree high jinks commence with Star Spangled Comics #86 and ‘The Barton Brothers!’ (inked by Win Mortimer, who remained until #90) as the Boy Wonder took up the lone vengeance trail to hunt down a trio of killers whose crime spree culminated in gunning down the mighty Batman, after which racketeer Benny Broot discovered he was related to the aristocracy and patterned all his subsequent vicious predations on medieval themes as ‘The Sinister Baron!’

Robin went AWOL in defiance of his mentor to clear the father of a schoolmate in ‘The Man Batman Refused to Help!’ but his good intentions in clearing the obviously framed felon almost upset a cunning plan to catch the real culprit, after which SSC #89 saw ingenious hoods get hold of ‘The Batman’s Utility Belt!’ and start selling customised knock-offs until the Dynamic Duo crushed the racket.

The murder of a geologist sent the partners in peril out west in #90 to solve ‘The Mystery of Rancho Fear!’, going undercover as itinerant cowboys to deal with a gang of extremely contemporary claim-jumpers whilst, with Mooney now handling all the art-chores, issue #91 found the Boy Wonder instigating a perplexing puzzle to stump his senior partner in ‘A Birthday for Batman!’

It would have all been the perfect gift if not for the genuine gangsters who stumbled upon the anniversary antics…

The crimebusting kid played only a minor role in #92’s ‘Movie Hero No. 1’ wherein Batman surreptitiously replaced and eventually redeemed an action film actor who was a secret coward, but resumed star status in ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx!’ when a mute, masked mastermind seemingly murdered the Dark Knight and supplanted Gotham’s criminal top dog Red Mask.

Entertainment motifs abounded in those days and Star Spangled Comics #94 heralded ‘The End of Batman’ when the Dynamic Duo stumbled on a film company crating movie masterpieces tailored to the unique tastes and needs of America’s underworld after which greed and terror gripped the streets when a crook employed an ancient artefact to apparently transform objects – and even the Boy Wonder – to coldly glittering gold in #95’s ‘The Man with the Midas Touch!’

An indication of changing times and tastes came with the September 1949 Star Spangled as Fred Ray’s Tomahawk took over the cover-spot from #96 onwards whilst inside, Robin’s solo tale ‘The Boy Who Could Invent Miracles!’ was pencilled by Sheldon Moldoff with Mooney inking.

The story saw the kid crusader working alone whilst Batman recovered from gunshot wounds, encountering a well-meaning bright spark whose brilliantly conceived conceptions revolutionised the world – but almost exposed the masked avenger’s secret identity…

First seen in Star Spangled Comics #70, The Clock was an anonymous criminal time-and-motion expert who became the closest thing to an Archenemy Robin had. ‘The Man Who Stole Time!’ returned yet again in #97 (with Mooney back on full art), determined to publicly humiliate and crush his juvenile nemesis through a series of suitably-themed crimes… but with the same degree of success as always…

In #98 a classmate of Dick Grayson’s briefly became ‘Robin’s Rival!’ after devising a method of travelling on phone lines as Wireboy. Sadly his ingenuity was far in excess of his fighting ability or common sense and he was wisely convinced to retire, after which gambling gangster Sam Ferris broke jail and turned his obsession with turning circles into a campaign of ‘Crime on Wheels!’ until Robin set him straight again…

SSC #100 offered a powerfully moving tale as the Boy Wonder gave shelter to ‘The Killer-Dog of Gotham City!’ and proved that valiant Duke could shake off his criminal master’s training to become a boon to society.

In #101 High School elections were being elaborately suborned by ‘The Campaign Crooks!’ with a bizarre scheme to make an illicit buck from students, whilst in #102 ‘The Boy with Criminal Ears!’ developed super-hearing: making his life hell and ultimately bringing him to the attention of sadistic thugs with an eye to the main chance…

Star Spangled Comics #103 saw the introduction of ‘Roberta the Girl Wonder!’ as class polymath Mary Wills decided to follow her heart and try to catch the ideal boyfriend by becoming his crime-fighting rival, whilst #104’s ‘Born to Skate’ revealed how classmate Tommy Wells’ freewheeling passion led Robin to a gang using a roller-skate factory to mask crimes as varied as smuggling, kidnapping and murder…

The wholesome all-ages action ends with a rewarding tale blending model-making and malfeasance as a guilt-wracked Robin comes to the aid of a police pilot who had been crippled – and worse – whilst assisting on a case.

As part of his rehabilitation the Junior Manhunter devises high-tech models for Bill Cooper’s aviation club but when ‘The Disappearing Batplanes!’ are purloined by cunning air pirates the scene is set for a terrifying aerial showdown…

Beautifully illustrated, wittily scripted and captivatingly addictive, these rousingly traditional superhero escapades are a perfect antidote to teen-angst and the strident, overblown, self-absorbed whining of contemporary comicbook kids.

Fast-paced, infinitely inventive and ferociously fun, here are superb yarns no young-at-heart Fights ‘n’ Tights fan will want to miss…
© 1948, 1949, 1950, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Robin Archives volume 1


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Win Mortimer, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0415-0

Robin the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940), created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson and introduced a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a mob boss. The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still regularly undergoes tweaking to this day.

In the comics continuity Grayson fought beside Batman until 1970 when, as an indicator of those turbulent times, he flew the nest, becoming a Teen Wonder college student and eventually leader of a team of fellow sidekicks and young justice seeker – the Teen Titans.

He graduated to his own featured solo spot in the back of Detective Comics from the end of the 1960s, which he alternated and shared with Batgirl, and held a similar spot throughout the 1970s in Batman and won a starring feature in the anthology comic Batman Family and the run of Giant Detective Comics Dollar Comics. During the 1980s he led the New Teen Titans, first in his original costumed identity but eventually in the reinvented guise of Nightwing, re-establishing a turbulent working relationship with his mentor Batman.

His creation as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with has inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed kid crusaders, and Grayson continues in similar innovative vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership ofAmerica’s increasingly rebellious contemporary youth culture… but his star potential was first realised much earlier in his halcyon career…

From 1947 to 1952, (issues #65-130) Robin the Boy Wonder had his own solo series and regular cover spot in Star Spangled Comics at a time when the first superhero boom was fading to be replaced by more traditional genres such as crime, westerns and boys’ adventure stories. The stories blended in-continuity action capers with more youth-oriented fare with adults Batman and Alfred reduced to minor roles or entirely absent, allowing the kid crusader to display not just his physical skills but also his brains, ingenuity and guts.

This stellar deluxe hardback Archive compilation gathers together the first 21 tales from Star Spangled #65-85 covering February 1947 to October 1948, recapturing the bold, verve and universal appeal of one of fantasy literature’s greatest youth icons, opening with a fascinating Foreword by Roy Thomas, who discusses the origins and merits of boy heroes and the history of the venerable anthology title before offering some insightful guesses as to the identity of the generally un-named writers of the Robin strip.

Although almost universally unrecorded, most historians consider Batman co-creator Bill Finger to be the author of most if not all of the stories in this volume and I’m going to happily concur here with that assessment until informed otherwise…

Star Spangled Comics #65 started the ball rolling with ‘The Teen-Age Terrors’ illustrated by regular artist Win Mortimer (with the inking misattributed to Charles Paris) in which the Caped Crusaders’ faithful butler happens across an unknown trophy and is regaled with Dick’s tale of the time he infiltrated a Reform School to discover who inside was releasing the incarcerated kids to commit crimes on the outside…

That tale segues seamlessly into ‘The No-Face Crimes’ wherein the Boy Wonder acted as stand-in to a timid young movie star targeted by a ruthless killer, whilst #67 revealed ‘The Case of the Boy Wonders’ which saw our hero as part of a trio of boy geniuses kidnapped for the craziest of reasons…

An outrageously flamboyant killing in #68 resulted in the pre-teen titan shipping out on a schooner as a cabin and spending ‘Four Days Before the Mast’ to catch the murderer, after which modern terror took hold when Robin was the only one capable of tracking down ‘The Stolen Atom Bomb’ in a bombastically explosive contemporary spy thriller.

Star Spangled Comics #70 introduced an arch-villain all his own as ‘Clocks of Doom’ saw the debut of an anonymous criminal time-and-motion expert forced into the limelight once his face was caught on film. The Clock’s desperate attempts to sabotage the movie Robin was consulting on inevitably led to hard time in this delightful romp (this one might possibly be scripted by Don Cameron)…

Chronal explorer Professor Carter Nichols succumbed to persistent pressure and sent Dick Grayson back to the dawn of history in #71’s ‘Perils of the Stone Age’ – a deliciously anachronistic cavemen and dinosaurs epic which saw Robin kick-start freedom and democracy, after which the Boy Wonder crashed the Batplane on a desert island and encountered a boatload of escaped Nazi submariners in ‘Robin Crusoe’ in a full-on thriller illustrated by Curt Swan & John Fischetti.

In #73 the so-very tractable Professor Nichols dispatched Dick to revolutionary France where Robin battled Count Cagliostro, ‘The Black Magician’, in a stirring saga drawn by Jack Burnley & Jim Mooney, after which the Timepiece Terror busted out of jail determined to have his revenge in ‘The Clock Strikes’, illustrated in full by Mooney who would soon become the series’ sole artist.

However Bob Kane & Charles Paris stepped in for the tense courtroom drama in #75 as ‘Dick Grayson for the Defense’ found the millionaire’s ward fighting for the rights of a schoolboy unjustly accused of theft, after which cunning career criminal The Fence came a cropper when he tried to steal 25 free bikes given as prizes to Gotham’s city’s best students in ‘A Bicycle Built for Loot’ (Finger & Mooney).

Prodigy and richest kid on Earth, Bert Beem was sheer hell to buy gifts for, but since the lad dreamed of being a detective, the offer of a large charitable donation secured the Boy Wonder’s cooperation in a little harmless role play. However when real bandits replaced the actors and Santa, ‘The Boy Who Wanted Robin for Christmas’ enjoyed the impromptu adventure of a lifetime…

Another rich kid was equally inspired in #78 and became the Boy Wonder of India, but soon needed the aid of the original when a Thuggee murder-cult tried to destroy ‘Rajah Robin’, whilst in ‘Zero Hour’ (illustrated by Mooney & John Giunta) The Clock struck one more with a spate of regularly-scheduled time crimes before Star Spangled #80 saw Dick Grayson become ‘The Boy Disc Jockey’, only to discover that the station was broadcasting clever instructions to commit robberies in its cryptically cunning commercials…

Robin was temporarily blinded in #81 whilst investigating the bizarre theft of guide dogs, but quickly adapted to his own canine companion and solved the mystery of ‘The Seeing-Eye Dog Crimes’, but had a far tougher time as a camp counsellor for ghetto kids after meeting ‘The Boy Who Hated Robin’. It took grit, determination and a couple of escaped convicts before the kids learned to adapt and accept…

A radio contest led to danger and death before one smart lad earned the prize for discovering who ‘Who is Mr. Mystery?’ in #83, after which Robin tried to discover the causes of juvenile delinquency by going undercover as a notorious new recruit to ‘The Third Street Gang’, and this initial outing ends on a spectacular high as the Boy Wonder sacrifices himself to save Batman and ends up marooned in the Arctic. Even whilst the distraught Caped Crusader is searching for his partner’s body, Robin has responded to the Call of the Wild, joined an Inuit tribe and captured a fugitive from American justice in #85’s ‘Peril at the Pole’

Beautifully illustrated, wittily scripted and captivatingly addictive, these stirring all-ages traditional superhero hi-jinks are a perfect antidote to teen-angst and the strident, overblown, self-absorbed whining of contemporary comicbook kids. Fast, furious and ferociously fun, these are superb tales no Fights ‘n’ Tights fan will want to miss…
© 1947, 1948, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.