I’ll start with this: I’m coming into this article knowing that there’s no point in me writing it. I know that. I was talking to WWAC’s Claire on Twitter about exactly this sort of thing—about the point of writing out opinions when there’s nothing to be done about them, about whether they’re productive, but supposedly people’s personal hangups are interesting, so I’m sharing mine:
Damian Wayne should not exist.
I don’t mean this in a continuity sort of way. I’m not suggesting that there’s some big plot hole in the Batcanon that no one but me has noticed. What I mean is that I’d rather he’d never come about at all. Not because he’s not an amusing or even interesting character—he is. I fell in love with Damian in the three-issue “War of the Robins” arc after he put a crowbar in Jason Todd’s bed. I have a panel of Damian mocking Dick Grayson in the pre-52 Batman and Robin book as my Twitter icon. Needless to say, I have a penchant for sassmasters, especially those in miniature form—but the fact still remains that canon was and is better without him.
I’ll start with the big issue for me, which is repetitive storytelling. Morrison has admitted that Damian was born to die. What’s more, many major critics and other astute readers have noticed that the cyclical nature of things was a big feature of his seven-year run. I’ve come across the opinion more than once—and it’s an opinion I agree with—that Morrison’s run was an attempt to condense the entire Batman canon into one unified narrative. With this in mind, it’s pretty easy to view the death of Damian Wayne as either a stand-in for or a cycle of the death of Jason Todd.
Morrison has been asked about this and he effectively brushes the whole thing off in an interview with CBR. He states that the significant difference is that Damian was designed to die, whereas Jason wasn’t—not really a satisfactory explanation to me. The idea of his-death-is different-because-I-did-it-on-purpose, however, gives some weight to the “canon condensation theory,” in that he may have wanted to repeat Jason but actually give the character’s death some overall meaning in his streamlined version of Batman. For the purposes of this particular discussion, though, the most interesting line in that interview is this:
I didn’t want to do Jason Todd again…[and] leave Batman an emotional [sic] cripple.
Of course, a little less than two years later, we can look back and see that this is exactly what happened.
There are some who might see Damian’s death and the resultant fall out as an homage to Jason. There are others still who might disregard the repeat entirely as it is inevitable that there will be some sidekicks lost in the battle for justice. No making omelettes without breaking eggs. These things, I suppose, are fair to a certain degree, but what I can’t get over is that next to nothing was different about Damian’s death. After he was gone, every issue that chronicled Bruce’s grief and outrage rang just a little bit hollow to me because we had been here before. It was Jason, it was A Death in the Family all over again. In fact, this very same extensive and violent grieving process back in 1988 was actually how we got Tim Drake as the third Robin in the 1989 arc A Lonely Place of Dying. Tim saw that Batman was becoming more aggressive and ruthless towards criminals and, realizing it was a result of losing Jason, decided to take the mantle up and give Batman a Robin once more. However, it doesn’t end there. Even while Bruce is training Tim, he’s always thinking about how not to make the same mistakes he made with Jason. What’s more, in the iconic Knightfall arc, we see Bruce exposed to Scarecrow’s tear gas, causing him to see his greatest fear: Jason’s death. As a result, he almost beats Joker to death, screaming Jason’s name.
The specifics of the grieving process have been different, certainly, but the spirit of it remained pretty much the same. While it makes sense for a father to grieve for his child after he’s died, it was a poor narrative choice to retread nearly identical emotional ground. It is in no way interesting to me to rehash an old story when there are other new stories to be told.
Of course, you may say that this is a matter of timing. Younger fans may not know about Jason’s death because it was before their time. A Death of the Family happened in 1988, the year before I was born. I could definitely consider it as “before my time” and certainly did before my interest in comics (in fact, I only read A Death in the Family two or so years ago.) On the other hand, Jason’s return as Red Hood is a relatively recent event. He was resurrected in 2005 in the Under the Red Hood arc and then had a six-issue miniseries in 2010 to coincide with the animated release of that arc, making the conditions and fallout of his death pretty current. You could argue that if I hadn’t read either A Death in the Family or Under the Red Hood, the repetition wouldn’t irritate me quite so much, that I did it to myself in a way, but I think if a story is in print or has been reprinted, it’s fair game. You can’t really treat something as “required un-reading.” Creative choices should be made with publishing choices in mind.
(As an aside: if you haven’t read A Death in the Family, you should. It is crushing and you will be ashamed that fans actually voted for it to happen. If you haven’t watched Under the Red Hood, you should. I don’t particularly care for Jason as Robin but I adore him as a Red Hood. I’d argue that Jason Todd is the most important character in the Batfamily and that his death is the most important event in Batcanon–but that’s another opinion piece for another day.)
This all brings up great questions that I can’t answer—or rather, that I can’t answer without grounding myself in the fact that these are merely the things I value in a story. Is it reasonable to demand that comics writers and editors not repeat old storylines when the history of many of these legacy characters spans some seventy years? Is there a statute of limitations for these things? How much has to be different in order for a story to move from repeat to homage? Who is the anticipated audience for a given issue/storyline? Do they expect us to know Batcanon like Chris Sims does or is it enough that we watched The Dark Knight a few times and liked the cartoon?
Questions, questions, and more questions, but I have to move on.
There’s one other argument against my point that I have yet to touch on and that’s because it ties in with why specifically I think it would be better had he never happened. I’m aware that my complaint above only suggests that it would have been better if Damian had never died, or at least, that it would have been better if he had somehow died in a different way. If he never dies, then we’re all good, right?
For me, not so much.
I think many would respond to my suggestion that there is nothing different between Damian’s death and Jason’s by pointing out that Damian is his “actual” son, that he’s grieving for his child as much as he’s grieving for his partner. I also think that this is likely how the editors, other writers, and namely Grant Morrison justified the narrative repeat. What he says in interviews only barely holds water, and even if readers don’t know about Jason, the writers almost certainly do.
I’ll say now that I lied earlier. I claimed that the repetitive storytelling was the biggest issue, but this right here? This is the cardinal sin. It really riles me up that the repetition hinged on the fact that Damian is his birth son and that somehow makes this whole thing new and worse. At a very basic level, it riles me up because I don’t like the idea of valuing birth children over adopted ones. But the real reason it gets to me has to do with what I believe about Batman and what the Batfamily means to him.
I’ll start with Superman and work backwards. He and Batman have been and always will be fantastic mirrors for one another. Supergirl is incredible and after I read Teen Titans, Superboy became an insta-fave. Krypto is adorable and Steel is a great addition to canon for a number of reasons—but Clark doesn’t need them like Bruce needs his partners. Clark grew up with a family. He can do his job solo because he has people to come back to when the job is done. Because Clark is his real persona and Superman is just an identity, it’s fine for him to do his heroing alone. If you turn that same lens on Bruce and consider his real self to be Batman while Bruce Wayne is just an act, then of course the development of his hero family makes perfect sense.
It is important to me that Bruce’s family has been built out of people who aren’t related to him, out of people who have forced their way into his life and bonded with him. There is an incredible beauty in the fact that this person who lost his only family as a child has constructed such a strong one in his adult life. Bruce talks a lot about being a loner type, about trusting no one, but he has the biggest and most prominent family of any DC or Marvel hero because his entire schtick is dealing with what he lost.
Is it interesting that we now have a birth child who doesn’t know his father as well as his adopted siblings? Sure. Is that aspect explored in the comics? Yes, to some degree, whether directly or indirectly. But that narrative choice is too high a price when I face the fact Damian’s existence mars, or at the very least dilutes, the overall beauty of Batman’s found family, his way of dealing with what’s been lost.
As I said before, I like Damian. And when I see him standing next to Bruce, I see a lot of really interesting conflicts and concepts to be explored. He’s not a character without value. But then, I think of Bruce surrounded by his partners, by Alfred, by Barbara Gordon, by Dick, by Cassandra Cain. With this image, I’m reminded that love transcends blood and birth, that someone will be there for you even when they don’t have to be, and that you can build a family even if you didn’t have one of your own.
In the end, that message matters more to me than anything that Damian can or does represent, but as I said at the start, I know my words mean nothing at this point in the game. It’s done, Damian is here—and I must deal with what’s been lost.