Sunday, December 22, 2013

Batman: A Death in the Family

Title: Batman: A Death in the Family

Price: $3.95
Publisher/Year: DC, 1988
Artist: Jim Aparo
Writer: Jim Starlin
Collects: Batman #426-429

Rating: 4/5

There's a lot of baggage that comes with this story (which I hadn't read when it was originally published over a decade ago). It raised a lot of eyebrows among the general public as to just what sort of people were writing comics these days. This was not simply because those writers killed off a well-known supporting character (although the original -- better known -- Robin, Dick Grayson, remained unscathed) , or the fact that the character in question was a kid (entertainment in the murder of a minor?), or even the brutal manner in which he was killed. The controversy stemmed from the fact that DC left the decision as to whether Jason lived or died up to the fans who could phone in their votes. In other words, the Batman readership -- many, one assumes, kids -- were encouraged to decide whether a character lived or died. Not since the days of the Roman Coliseum had the world experienced such a questionable spectacle. And the fact that the person in question was a fictional character didn't tend to mute the disgust many felt toward DC Comics. Adding to the situation was the fact that the vote to kill Robin didn't pass by a huge margin -- a lot of fans actually voted to keep him alive.

As I said, there's a lot of ethical baggage that comes with this, but I'll put it aside (for the moment) and concentrate on the story as just that -- a story.

Surprisingly, this turns out to be a pretty decent read.

The first two issues of this four issue story were double-sized, meaning it's actually a solid, six-issue epic. Those double-sized issues are broken evenly into 22 page chapters and one can't help inferring that DC had originally planned it as six regular issues but, maybe feeling they couldn't sustain the publicity machine over six months (after all, the story was a publicity stunt) decided to make it four months.

The story has Jason Todd discovering that his birth mother is still alive and might be one of three women, all of who are currently living in various parts of the middle east and North Africa (absurd coincidences play a big part in the ensuing activities -- you either swallow them, or you might as well not read the book). Meanwhile, Batman is hot on the trail of the Joker who is also winging his way to the middle east (I warned you about coincidences). The story is, therefore, comprised of a few smaller stories -- their quests for the first two women lead Batman and Robin into adventure and intrigue involving terrorists, but also turn out to be wild goose chases. Ultimately, you know the third time will turn out to be the charm. But because all stories take place in, roughly, the same geographical area, and the Joker weaves in and out, the result is a story that has the feel of a single epic, while being comprised of three or four smaller stories. Along the way, Superman even crops up in a supporting part for an issue or two.

Part of the saga's strength is the removal from Batman's usual Gotham City stomping grounds. The middle eastern setting adds a fresh ambience to the saga, and there's a clear attempt to imbue the series with a grittier, real-world edge, as the Joker eschews his usual comic book activities of jewel heists and the like in favor of branching into the world of terrorism, or hijacking famine relief supplies he figures he can sell on the black market. As the saga moves into its climax, global politics become central to the story, leading to a showdown at the U.N. Though I wasn't as comfortable with the idea of Batman breaking up a kiddie porn ring at the beginning (nothing graphic, of course).

Writer Jim Starlin tells the story well, with a good blend of mood, introspection, and action. The only other Bat-tale I'd read by him from that period -- The Cult -- had left me disappointed, but this is decently written, with good characterization and dialogue. Jim Aparo, a guy who will no doubt go down in comic book history as one of the definitive Bat-artists, acquits himself quite nicely. Aparo is right at home, and his style is dynamic and comprehensible -- there's nary a picture or scene anywhere that you need to read twice to figure out what's going on. His teaming with inker Mike DeCarlo works very well. I had previously had my reservations about Aparo's looser style from the period, and felt DeCarlo's rigid, geometric inks weren't the most appropriate for him. I don't know if I've mellowed, or whether this is just better work, but the art is particularly strong -- curiously, DeCarlo's inks don't even look like DeCarlo's usual style. There's also a touch of the influence of comic strip legend, Milton Caniff, that I'd never recognized in Aparo's art before (though I realize it was there all along).

Of course, just because this is trying for an edgy realism doesn't mean it altogether succeeds. There's some simplistic plot progression and lapses in credibility -- even silliness (I mean, just what did the Iranians intend in the climax?). And one gets the feeling Starlin probably didn't do a whole lot of research on the region, or his topics. There's an intriguing plot twist late in the saga, involving Diplomatic Immunity, but it pushes credibility. But then, comics have also (I believe) misunderstood the legal definition of Insanity for many, many years, so legal technicalities are not something you should learn from a Batman comic. There I go, referring to "comics" again, as if it's the only medium with such problems, when in fact all of my above criticisms could be applied to many a respected movie or novel, as well.

Set in the Arab world, peopled by terrorists, it could slide into offensive clich├ęs, but (maybe because of innocent Arab taxi drivers and hotel clerks) you don't really come away feeling Starlin is trying to paint all Arabs as bad guys...any more than the Joker and his goons represent all Americans. At the same time, the portrayal of Iranians later in the story as just cardboard, illogical villains certainly seams xenophobic (whatever one may think about the Iranian government, then or now). And when Batman at one point refers to an Iranian generically as an Arab, Starlin seems to be blurring the distinction between a government...and a race.

Another qualm is that once Jason learns he has a "real" (read biological) mother, the way he just seems to forget about his dead mother -- the woman who raised him -- seems cold and insensitive.

Emotionally, the story doesn't really succeed as well as it should. Granted, I wasn't that familiar with Jason Todd, so his death didn't strike a personal chord with me. But although Jason's death, part way through, sends a vengeful Batman after the Joker, comic writers like Starlin seem more comfortable with emotions like anger or revenge, rather than the more powerful, and heart-wrenching emotion of...grief (O.K., now I do mean to single out comics writers). Neither Batman, nor Alfred, really act like they've lost a member of their family. Though, ironically, given that Jason was killed precisely because a lot of fans didn't like him, I didn't find him an unsympathetic character here.

But, despite its short comings, despite my moral qualms and my cynicism, A Death on the Family turns out to be a highly readable saga -- one that boasts some atypical, even complex plotting and plot turns. Compared to some other "stunt" stories (The Death of Superman, for one), this holds up as a story, regardless of its mythos shaking significance. I even thoroughly enjoyed the old fashioned, pre-computer, single tone coloring. I like modern comics with their rich, shaded palates, but sometimes they can be a bit cluttered and overwhelming.

That's the story considered apart from the ethical questions. Considered with the ethical question, it remains a highly questionable excercise, as does the excessively brutal manner in which Robin was killed -- comics, too often, have become a mediumm of excess. And it's made all the more distasteful by the way DC Comics (here represented by a closing editorial by Bat-editor Denny O'Neil) constantly refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of their detractors' views, and refuse to accept responsibility ("it wasn't our fault, blame the fans"). Though one can sympathize with O'Neil, who acted as front man on the whole enterprise, but has repeatedly claimed he voted to keep Robin alive! Adding insult to injury is a quote on the back from O'Neil saying it would be "sleazy" to bring back the character. Though Jason remains deceased, DC and O'Neil conjured up yet another Robin (Tim Drake) just a few issues later.

Originally published as one of those economical TPBs DC used to put out on conventional newsprint paper for a fantastically modest price, it has since been re-issued as a more conventional TPB...with an appropriately inflated price tag.

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