27 July 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXXII: DC Comics Classics Library: Batman: A Death in the Family

Comic hardcover, 271 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1988-89)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2016
DC Comics Classics Library: Batman: A Death in the Family

Writers: Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman
Layouts and Co-Plotter: George Pérez
Pencillers: Jim Aparo, Tom Grummett
Inkers: Mike DeCarlo, Bob McLeod

Year Twelve, November - Year Thirteen, June
One of the results of the continuity-driven nature of superhero comics is that there are a number of comics known better for what happened in them than how it happened. A Death in the Family is one of those stories. Chronicling the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd (who's only been in the role for two years, poor fellow), A Death in the Family is just not a good story. It lurches along weirdly and depends on coincidence way too much, and even for a superhero comic, it's contrived: the idea that Iran would appoint the Joker its UN ambassador is untenable, a completely bizarre merging of comic goofiness with real-world politics that is tonally misjudged.

But let's start at the beginning with this one. A Death in the Family seems to have been originally designed as a six-issue story but released as a four-part one, as its first and second issues both consist of two 22-page chapters. The first has Jason acting particularly like a jerk, and Batman benching him as a result. Their relationship hasn't particularly been consistent in the Jason stories I've read: Jason is very bloodthirsty in the the beginning of Second Chances, pretty chummy with Batman later on in the same book (except for learning that Batman hid who killed his father from him), and they got along perfectly in Ten Nights of the Beast and The Cult. But now Jason is a jerk again, and Batman doesn't handle it well at all.

Your hero, ladies and gentlemen!; or, Don't you think kids who are little bit snotty deserve to be brutally murdered?
from Batman vol. 1 #426 (script by Jim Starlin, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

I really don't get why this approach was taken. A character's last story should show them at their best, to make you really regret it when they're gone; for all their flaws, later DC shock killings like Identity Crisis and Countdown to Infinite Crisis got this exactly right, sending Sue Dibny and Blue Beetle out on career highs. This story should show Jason Todd as his heroic best as Robin. But A Death in the Family, bizarrely, wants to make you glad he's dead.

Batman discovers that the Joker is trying to sell a cruise missile to terrorists in Lebanon at the exact same time Jason realizes that the woman he thought was his mother actually isn't, and that a woman who might be his birth mother is-- completely coincidentally-- also in Lebanon. So while Batman shuns his runaway sidekick to chase the Joker (apparently there's no one Batman can ask for help; if only he wasn't always such a jerk to Nightwing), the two end up in the same place anyway and team up.

After the way Batman behaves in this one, I was kind of rooting for Lady Shiva.
from Batman vol. 1 #427 (script by Jim Starlin, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

That turns out to be a false lead on Jason's mother, so soon they're chasing down another potential candidate, who's-- completely coincidentally-- also in Lebanon: to my shock it's Shiva Woosan, better known as Sandra Woo-san or Lady Shiva. I first came to know her as a recurring character in Birds of Prey, usually an enemy but occasionally a reluctant ally, with an especially complicated relationship with Black Canary. At this point in DC history, though, she was a much less prolific character; I think this was her first appearance not scripted by Dennis O'Neil, who had originated her in Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, and gone on to use her in The Question as well as a Detective Comics/Green Arrow/Question crossover called "Fables." So it was weird to see her used here, when she was much more obscure. Through a truth drug, Batman and Robin discover she's not Jason's mother, and in fact, she says that she's never been a mother at all, which is pretty amusing given that she would later be revealed as the mother of the second Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, who must have been born at this point.

Not even Batman's truth serum can account for the power of retcon.
from Batman vol. 1 #427 (script by Jim Starlin, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

Anyway, Batman and Robin follow up their final lead, which leads them to Ethiopia (for some reason all three of Jason's potential moms are vaguely close to one another). She turns out to be a doctor who is-- completely coincidentally-- being blackmailed by the Joker in some wacky scheme of his. Jason dies when he and Batman try to stop this, and it's just completely underwhelming. Batman losing a kid should hit you like a ton of bricks, but this... doesn't. Batman doesn't seem mournful, or angry; it's just an excuse to act like a big jerk again (this time to Superman). Part of the blame has to rest, I'm afraid, with Jim Aparo, who despite being an excellent artist is just not the right artist for this story: imagine Bernie Wrightson doing this again. Aparo's square-jawed, heroic lines are just not right for the dark macabre tone this story calls for. (Adrienne Roy's colors don't really fit, either.)

The Joker is always taking off his make-up (or hiding his skin condition under other make-up?) throughout this story, which just feels... wrong to me. Batman can be unmasked, but the Joker never should be, not even as a disguise.
from Batman vol. 1 #427 (script by Jim Starlin, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

The last chapter is just odd, focusing on Batman's attempts to stop Ambassador Joker from poisoning the United Nations. Nothing about any of this feels particularly Joker-ish to me; he's just a loon with wacky plans. The end of the story fails to have any emotional resonance; it feels like Starlin's attempt to ape what Alan Moore did in The Killing Joke: "That's the way things always end with the Joker and me. Unresolved." Moore and Brian Bolland turned that never-ending struggle into something striking; here, it feels lame for the Joker to kill Batman's (ostensible) best friend and for Batman to declare their relationship will never change. Like, did you love Jason so little, Bruce?

Thankfully, the DC Comics Classics Library edition of A Death in the Family also contains A Lonely Place of Dying, a Batman/New Titans crossover that's co-plotted by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, scripted by Wolfman, and has art by Tom Grummett & Bob McLeod (from breakdowns by Pérez) and Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo. That's a lot of hands, but it really works: just as The Cult showed how Starlin did better work when not paired with Aparo, this hows how Aparo does better work when not paired by Starlin. Wolfman's emotional melodrama is much better suited to Aparo's strengths as an illustrator.

The basic premise of A Lonely Place of Dying is that a kid named Tim Drake has noticed that Robin is dead and that Batman is sad. Tim was at the circus the night the Flying Graysons died, and he later recognized a move Robin made as one Dick Grayson made, letting him put together Robin's and thus Batman's secret identity. But Tim knows Batman needs a Robin, and tracks down Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson to convince them of this, trying to persuade Dick to give up his Nightwing identity and return to being Robin. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson goes back to the circus in a way not particularly consistent with Nightwing: Year One, and Two-Face, who apparently got sane at some point, is sliding into insanity once again.

It's a fun story: Tim's desire to make Batman happy makes him the reader stand-in that Dick Grayson was but Jason Todd never managed, and it's no surprise-- in a good way-- when he becomes the new Robin at the end of the story. The story deals with Bruce's grief over Jason's death much more effectively than A Death in the Family did, with Bruce throwing himself deeper and deeper into Batman in unhealthy ways.

This was probably my favorite issue in the book. Great use of structure from both writer and artists.
from Batman vol. 1 #441 (script by Marv Wolfman, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

Like Robin: Year One and Second Chances/Nightwing:Year One, Two-Face is for some reason the test of a new Robin; one of the real highlights of this story is an issue where Two-Face and Batman each wants to trap the other, and in their efforts to think like one another, end up overthinking their plans. Wolfman and his art team do some great stuff with the parallels between the two characters. Two-Face, more than any other Batman villain, is a tragic figure, and Wolfman captures that very well here as he slides back into his old ways.

from Batman vol. 1 #442 (script by Marv Wolfman, art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo)

By the end, Tim Drake is the new Robin, and we're well out of the early days of Batman now, if we weren't a long time ago. Still, this journey isn't quite done: there are a couple gaps left to fill...

Next Week: Now that Robin's dead, so is Batman, in The Many Deaths of the Batman!

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