Batman: A Death In The Family by Jim Starlin – Graphic Novel Review [Shadowhawk]

03 Batman Death In The Family

Shadowhawk reviews the classic 4-issue arc (Batman #426-429) that marked the death of a key Bat-verse character.

“One of the most disappointing comics I’ve read to date, marked with a lack of emotional impact and too much filler.” ~The Founding Fields

A Death In The Family is a story that I’ve wanted to read ever since I saw the animated film Batman: Under The Red Hood. The prologue in the movie showed how the Joker killed Jason Todd, the second Robin, and how Ras al’Ghul was mixed up in all of it. For me, that is one of the most significant and emotional moments in the animated versions of Batman. The entire film is pretty darn good, and the way it was all written really made me want to go read the full context of the events in the prologue and what led to Joker’s most notorious moment in comics history. This is why A Death In The Family was high on my list of graphic novels to read for the reading poll I did last month, and why I was excited when it came out on top in the poll. When I picked it up early this week, I went in with pretty high expectations, particularly since I liked the work that Jim Starlin did on the Thanos/Infinity books for Marvel.

When I was done, I was extremely disappointed with the whole arc, and it left a rather bad taste. The key cause was that, for me, Jason Todd’s death lacked any strong emotional effect. Jason Todd died, and that was it. It was as if Joker had just killed off a random side character, rather than someone as important as the second Robin. And the complete silliness of the fourth issue in the arc destroyed what little emotional attachment I’d formed with the climax of the third issue.

I’m not all that familiar with the history of Jason Todd since I never read the comics. For me, its been either Dick Grayson or Tim Drake as Robin, other than what I saw in Batman: Under The Red Hood, which I just watched in full while writing this review, of course. Jason’s character is so much different than what I saw in Dick, and that is yet another reason why I wanted to read this book so much. In the movie, Batman and Alfred talk quite a bit about Jason’s impetuous nature, and a lot of that can be seen here in the comics. Jason is brash and impatient and overzealous.

And that is what gets him in trouble with Batman at the start of #426 as the arc begins. Since Jason has, according to Bruce and Alfred, not been able to come to terms with the loss of his parents as yet, and he has been overly aggressive on patrol recently, the decision is made for him to take a break until he gets his head in the right place and has adjusted. Jason of course disagrees, and leaves Wayne Manor to cool himself, eventually finding himself back in the area where his family used to live. After finding himself in possession of an old box of his family’s possessions through the kindness of an old neighbour, he discovers that Catherine Todd wasn’t his real mother, and that the one who is, just might be alive. At the same time, the Joker breaks out of Arkham (the most pointless prison/asylym anywhere since the villains rarely stay there long before breaking out in one way or another), and decides to leave America for other troubled parts of the world, specifically, he goes to Lebanon.

That is the chain of events that starts everything off. Jason is looking for his real mother and ends up in Beirut. While on Joker’s trail, Batman too ends up in Beirut. Together, the two take on the clown again and again until they all end up in Ethiopia, where Jason is first tortured and then killed by Joker.

There are some good bits in the arc, such as the whole “Jason looking for his real mother” plot, and Joker’s decision to leave America all together for fresher pastures. The interplay between Batman and Jason is also the highlight of the entire arc. There is even a particular scene in which Batman actually punches Superman, and that entire sequence with the dialogue between the two if some of the best in the entire arc.

But it is all marred by the fact that there some factual errors in the novel, for one thing. The Arab setting of the arc is treated very superficially and inaccurately. The official language of Lebanon is NOT Farsi (which almost reads as Forsi because of the stylistic lettering), it is Arabic, albeit a slightly local dialect of it. In one of the panels in #426, Bruce is called “effendi” by a cab driver, contextually denoting “sir”. It is accurate in as far as the fact that the form of address is of Turkish origin and was/is used in Lebanon as a family surname. This is not something that 99.99% of the readers would have been able to pick out, but as someone who has lived in Dubai for the last 11-12 years, it does make a difference. Starlin later uses the word to denote friend or, even dude, for #428, and this jars even more. “Habibi” would have been a far better word to use in that context. On top of that, it is just damn weird to read Joker use the word anyway. Its just not his… style. Finally, while not a factual error but an irritating bit of dialogue, a rather significant real-world character in the comic refers to Joker as Monsieur Joker. I had no idea that Joker was French! So much non-English dialogue weirdness in the comics.

And, to get to the main point. Yes, the moment of Jason’s death left me cold. I had almost zero reaction to it other than, “Okay, what next?” There was no proper atmosphere to the death, no set up to hook you right in, no lasting legacy other than a really, really angry Batman.I asked myself if there had even been a point to the death. It was entirely dispassionate. For all that I cared, Detective Bullock might have died. Or Jimmy Olsen’s dog, if he ever had one. This was the biggest letdown of the entire arc.

All of which leads into the utter silliness of #429, in which we find out that this crazy lunatic is the new Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations. I mean… come on. I know comics have to have a bit of silly, but this was pushing the boundaries really far. And the Joker’s entire “plan” (not to be confused with Heath Ledger’s Joker’s plans in The Dark Knight) was even sillier. Not the best moment for Starlin, not by far. Given how extremely well he wrote Thanos and the entire script for the Infinity-arc comics, I was really surprised at the level of writing for this issue.

The art team for the 4-issues consisted of Mike Mignola as the cover artist, Jim Aparo as the penciller, Mike DeCarlo as inker, John Costanza as letterer and Adrienne Roy as colourist. Sadly, none of Mignola’s covers had an effect on me, defined by oddly proportioned heads and extremely simple (so it appeared) line-work. Aparo, DeCarlo and Roy’s work however was excellent. I found the long-face depiction of Joker to be a bit weird, not to mention Jason wearing nothing but reinforced green underwear as part of his uniform, but it was all fairly minor stuff. I think the interior art was definitely one of the better (possibly the best) things about the comics.

Overall, A Death of the Family has some good stuff to it, and in a lot of places it just doesn’t, and falls below par. Since I’ve read a fair few comics of that entire era, such as the Crisis on Infinite Earths mega-crossover, and a few He-Man comics from DC, in that context, this particular arc is just a blip on the radar, having prominence only for the facts that Jason’s death was voted on by readers, and because of the allusions to real world politics in the comic, such as “Reagonomics” and the not-so-subtle hints towards the Iran-Contra affair.

So, in the end, I wouldn’t really recommend reading the 4-issue arc unless you want the “original” context for Jason’s death and just want to be a completist in your reading. Simply put, there is nothing all that special about it.

Rating: 5.5/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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  • carlasertin

    Spot on! I mean you’d think a piece that’s this important and iconic would have a more profound effect… I also read it after watching Under the Red Hood, and I was thoroughly disappointed. I actually went red with the whole UN thing. I was actually embarrassed for them.

    And as a Lebanese, it was pretty funny to see the half-assed attempt at depicting the culture… Also, I didn’t like the whole Arab-terrorists-trying-to-bomb-Israel angle. I mean, they didn’t have to go there and I really don’t like those depictions as they so often mislead a public that is sadly misinformed about the Middle East.

    But honestly, I’m glad I read it, if only for the sake of having read it.

    • http://sonsofcorax.wordpress.com/ Shadowhawk

      I actually had a rather involved chat with Michael Alan Nelson (Supergirl, 28 Days Later, etc) and Lance Kreiter (VP of Licensing, Boom Studios) this weekend at my local con about this very topic. They had a good response to their presence at the show and I asked them what about setting some stories in Dubai. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and that ridiculous sandstorm came up too in the conversation. The danger is always there when you write about something you don’t know and you don’t bother to do research. Michael said that there was some possibility of a Supergirl story in the Middle East but he was a bit apprehensive about doing it for the sake of it, rather than something that grew out organically. In the case of A Death In The Family, Jim Starlin wrote it all for the heck of it.