I'm really working my way through the classic Batman titles here! Not long after The Killing Joke, I read through a large trade paperback that collects A Death In the Family along with the follow-up-ish story A Lonely Place of Dying. The former is the more famous work, a four-issue run considered a classic for many reasons, so we'll start there.
A Death In the Family is best known for featuring the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. He took over the mantle of Robin after Batman caught him trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile -- an origin story which I read a version of in Nightwing: Year One -- filling the role after the first Robin, Dick Grayson, left Batman's side to lead the Teen Titans and eventually take on his new persona as Nightwing.
The storyline was met with a fair amount of criticism due to an interactive aspect in its release. DC Comics allowed fans to vote on whether Robin would live or die by dialing a 900 number (this storyline was published in late 1988 and early 1989 ... so taking a vote via Twitter hashtags wasn't really an option). A total of 10,614 votes were cast, with fans voting for Todd to die by the slim margin of 5,343 to 5,271. This close margin was heavily impacted by one fan who rigged votes for Todd to die, with DC saying (over a decade later) that this one person voted enough times that he swung the vote.
Though the final call was very close, the entire vote was inspired in the first place by the fact that readers hadn't reacted well to Jason Todd as the new Robin. This story does show quite a bit of Todd's more grating character traits, like his seemingly unfounded and undefined recklessness. I will say it's probable that Todd's recklessness made more sense at the time -- when readers had ongoing Batman / Detective Comics series for a reference point -- but in this standalone story, it's somewhat shoehorned into the plot. I don't know that I would have called the 900 number to vote for Todd's death, but I don't know that I would have paid 50 cents to save him either.
Death begins with Batman and Robin staking out a mob deal. Robin dives into the action and starts throwing punches before Batman is ready to strike, showing front and center how reckless he's become and how willing he is to take matters into his own hands. This is the last straw for Batman, who has seen Robin throw caution to the wind too many times; he responds by placing Todd on a leave of absence, or something along those lines, which doesn't sit well with the young Robin.
Fast forwarding a bit, Todd uncovers some evidence that his dead mother was not, in fact, his biological mother. He tracks down three women who might be his real mom -- all of whom are overseas in the Middle East or Africa -- so he runs away from home to try and track them down. Meanwhile, Batman is consumed by trying to locate the recently escaped Joker, who has obtained a nuclear missile and plans to sell it to terrorists in the Middle East. Another reminder that this story was published in 1988!
Batman and Robin find each other in Beirut, ultimately teaming up to stop the Joker in his attempt to sell and launch the missile; in the process, they rule out the first woman who Todd suspected might be his mother. That business being handled, they rule out the second suspected mom, who is an old acquaintance of Batman currently making a living training terrorists. She kinda beats the crap out of Batman for a little bit and is a badass fighter. Throughout this arc, Batman is hopeful that his helping Robin will mend their relationship enough for Jason to remain in the care of Bruce Wayne and Alfred at Wayne Manor.
The dynamic duo heads to Ethiopia, where they do finally locate Todd's mother -- Dr. Sheila Haywood -- but it turns out she's being blackmailed by the Joker. He wants to obtain several truckloads of medical supplies from her warehouse, sell them for a profit on the black market, and replace them with his deadly laughing gas to kill tons of innocent people. Because he is the Joker and is insane, lest you need an explanation for his motive. Batman and Robin begin to work together on this, but they have to split up and Batman asks Robin to wait for him before trying to take on the Joker. Predictably, Jason Todd's restlessness gets the better of him again, and he winds up face-to-face with a maniacal Joker who nearly beats him to death with a crowbar. He ultimately leaves Robin and Dr. Haywood to die in a warehouse with a bomb set to explode. While they nearly escape before it goes off, Robin winds up taking the bulk of the damage as the warehouse crumbles around them. Batman comes back to find the smoldering bomb site and begins searching for survivors.
He finds Dr. Haywood, who dies in his arms, but Robin is dead by the time he gets spotted. Batman brings the body back to Gotham for a small funeral, then gets back on the Joker's trail. The Joker has spent the intervening time becoming Iran's representative to the United Nations -- a plot point which I did not, in fact, just make up right now -- and he has a plan to kill the entire UN general assembly. This is stopped primarily by Superman (hi, I guess), with Batman ultimately bringing him down in a helicopter in a river outside New York. The Joker's body is never found, and Batman laments that nothing ever gets resolved in battles between him and his primary nemesis.
Although the circumstances of this plot are pretty loopy in some spots, it's easy enough to see why Death is considered an essential Batman story. Aside from its huge impacts on the Batman universe and its continuity, it also serves an important role in revealing parts of Batman's psychological makeup. There are clear breaks in the fabric that define what Batman cares about versus what Bruce Wayne cares about; while Wayne probably would have gone after Todd and convinced him to stay in the safety of his home, Batman's primary motive was to track down the Joker and foil his plans.
This back-and-forth almost always winds up with Batman winning. As the next book I'll read explores further, the relationship between Batman and Bruce Wayne often seems like the former is calling all the shots, while the latter is, at times and for lack of a better word, trapped. While Death doesn't go too far down that road, this psychological game is an intriguing one for the folks who like to get a little more than action with their Batman stories -- and we all know that all the best Batman tales have much more than action.
On the whole, I wasn't as impressed with this story as I imagined I'd be. The timeframe puts it after Year One, but Batman's character wasn't yet as gritty as he'd later become; the artwork by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo sometimes feels slightly too cartoonish as a result, which contradicts the grimness of the plot. It's great as-is, but I can't help but daydream about a current version of this storyline that looks more like Long Halloween. Jim Starlin was tasked with the super-difficult situation of writing a story featuring a climactic plot point that could swing one of two drastically different ways, depending on the way readers voted; I felt the execution of said plot point could have been better, and likely would have been better if the story had been written traditionally.
It's definitely difficult to tell whether I'm diving into these books (specifically referring to Death and The Killing Joke) with expectations too high. Knowing their lore made me highly anticipate each, while I went into my favorite Batman books to date (The Long Halloween, Nöel) with much less hype. Those stories surprised and delighted me so much, though, that I know Batman comics as a whole haven't lost any luster for me just yet. And a wacky plot involving the U.N. isn't going to be the reason I start hesitating as I continue to read through more and more of these trades.
A Lonely Place of Dying serves as a transition between Dick Grayson / Jason Todd and the next Robin, Tim Drake. It certainly isn't a clean transition: Batman is extremely uninterested in finding a new partner as he's been taking Todd's death so personally. The result of this has been a more hasty and reckless Batman, one who isn't thinking his way through his missions as much as he is barreling through them with brute force (it would be fair to compare this to a more dramatic version of Todd's outbursts at the beginning of Death). Tim Drake, a young boy who had an encounter with Batman and Dick Grayson at a very young age, has pieced together enough clues to discover the real identities of Batman and both Robins; through this, he's figured out that Batman is acting different due to Todd's death, and determines that Batman needs a Robin in order to do his best work.
Drake tracks down Dick Grayson, who has recently left the Teen Titans for a spell, and convinces him to help Batman hunt down Two-Face. Grayson agrees, but he does this as Nightwing, and that Batman / Nightwing combo wind up in a tight spot after getting trapped by Two-Face. They're helped out by Drake -- who shows up wearing the Robin costume for his first face-to-face interaction with Batman -- and the three ultimately work together to take down Two-Face and leave him for the GCPD to find. The ordeal ends with Batman trepidatiously bringing Drake into the fold. He hasn't fully committed to making him the next Robin yet, but he's willing to train him and see how it goes.
In direct comparison to Death, I was really pleasantly surprised by this story arc. Drake is presented in a great light at first, and you can tell that DC was very careful about introducing a third person in the Robin costume. Writer Marv Wolfman is more than up to the task, weaving together a nice "origin story" for Drake -- who, unlike Grayson and Todd, still has his parents. He's lived a relatively normal life up until this point, in fact. He's a fun character, not as quick-witted as Grayson was early on, but more amusing than todd.
The five issues that combine to make A Lonely Place of Dying were published in separate titles originally. It was a crossover between Batman and New Titans, aimed at capitalizing on the high popularity of the latter title at the time. Part of the intrigue in this aspect is that we get two different artists trading issues back and forth throughout the run. Jim Aparo draws the Batman issues, while George Perez tackles the Titans installments. Perez also served as a sort of co-creator the whole way, ensuring editorial continuity, which seems beneficial in retrospect.
As interesting as Death is from the psychological angle, Dying is even more directly dependent on Batman's psyche for its plot. Drake's entire premise is based around the idea that Batman needs a Robin to be at his most effective. A Robin figure helps keep Batman grounded and more aware of the potential costs or consequences of his actions. Having a Robin helps keep him in check when he could otherwise too easily get lost in his desire to seek justice. The plot in Dying bears out this idea, ultimately concluding with Batman's own admission that he might indeed "need" a partner. It makes for an awesome and rewarding story, a thought-provoking tale throughout.
I will say that I don't view Batman's character as needing a partner. It's not so much that Batman goes it alone -- he can't do his job without the help of a rotational crew of characters, whether it's Alfred (the most regular ally), Lucius Fox, Robin, or even Catwoman, Superman or other figures from time to time. Everyone needs help sometimes. But the core idea that Batman simply isn't as good at his job without a Robin kind of bugs me -- it can be true here, but I won't accept it as being universally true in all Batman tales.
Concluding this very long post -- just a general update on my Batman-related plans in the immediate future. I've already read Blind Justice, which is a bit of a curveball, but I was totally impressed by it. I'm going to do Arkham Asylum and Robin: A Hero Reborn in the immediate future as well, as well as (most likely) The Cult. Then I'm going to take a bit of a break -- I'll be all caught up with all the books I've bought so far -- to read some novels and a few other comic titles. I'll probably return to Batman later on, around summertime or so, by getting right into Knightfall and the events that surround it.
Batman: A Death in the Family and Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying are available in a collected trade paperback edition via Amazon. The same collected edition is on Comixology as well, for digital readers. Clicking on, and purchasing from, the Amazon links on this site kicks back a small referral fee to me.