Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about A Death in the Family, Jason Todd, and their role in Batcanon. It’s generally agreed that Jason was a so-so Robin and that he’s much improved as Red Hood. However, I’m going to take that general agreement a step further and state that not only is Jason Todd the most interesting member of the Batfamily, his death also represents the emotional peak of Batman canon.
We’re going to approach that in reverse, though, so bear with me. To understand why this death is the most important event, we have to unpack why Batman became a superhero in the first place and how that has shaped his values.
To start with, Bruce has demonstrated a vested interest in the stability and happiness of children. It’s a theme that has continued throughout most iterations of Batman canon. Because of the events in Crime Alley and his traumatic childhood, he becomes determined to ensure that other children don’t suffer as he did. He adopts Dick Grayson after the loss of his family. He adopts Jason Todd after discovering he was living his life on the street. This is something that seems like a possible move for any superhero, given it falls under the “right thing.” I can certainly imagine The Flash or Wonder Woman adopting a kid in this situation, but it’s only Bruce who goes this far because of his personal history and trauma. We read his choices differently due to what he’s gone through. What immediately comes to mind is the second season finale of 2005 animated series Justice League Unlimited. I completely disavow the main push of what happens in that episode, but one of the things I value is the portrayal of Bruce.
In the episode, we encounter Ace of Clubs, a young villain whose psychic powers eventually become so strong that she can warp reality. She wreaks incredible havoc and the Justice League come together to try to stop her. However, it is soon revealed that she is on the verge of dying from a brain aneurysm and that the resulting psychic backlash would kill thousands. Bruce volunteers to use the special weapon designed to kill her and end the threat—and then, just sits with her and talks about how he understands what it’s like to have a childhood cut short, allowing her to die peacefully. As I said before, any superhero could have done what he did, but we read the whole situation differently given Bruce’s backstory. Losing children means more for him than it does other characters. Family is also an enormous part of Bruce’s emotional needs. You can go back to my other piece and have a look at my argument, but to paraphrase, Batman’s impetus for becoming a superhero was in large part to do with the loss of his family. In response, he’s not just become someone who fights crime but also someone who really needs to build a new family to replace the one that he lost in Crime Alley. It’s the reason why the Batfamily is the most famous and expansive compared to pretty much every other legacy character, DC or otherwise.
This is the point where we also have to consider the conflict between a desire to protect children and his need for partnership and family as Batman. I think we all have to agree that letting a minor become a superhero is significantly irresponsible. With the Superfamily, it’s easier to look the other way because they’re invulnerable. Supergirl and Superboy are incredibly hard to kill. They can certainly be hurt and that’s reason enough to stop them, but Robins can be (and are, as we all know) killed. Batman is, in no uncertain terms, constantly leading his partners into dangerous situations. You can argue that they choose to be there, but minors can’t really consent to something like that. We treat minors the way we do because they lack the rational capacity to make many important decisions for themselves—and I think the decision to fight crime falls under the ‘important decision’ umbrella.
I imagine that it’s incredibly hard for Batman to reconcile his need for companionship and family with his desire to keep children safe. We can certainly speculate on how he justifies that. For my part, I think he simply denies his need for family and instead puts his energy into training his sidekicks (and find it especially difficult to reconcile an emotional need over a rational truth)—though the ‘why’ doesn’t really matter. So long as you can accept that this conflict of desires is a problem—and a problem that Batman is likely aware of—I think you’ll still follow where I’m taking this.
With all these premises compounding upon one another—given his (1) concern for children (2) need for family, (3) awareness that he is putting a child in danger—consider how utterly devastating it would be for such a character to lose his child sidekick in the line of duty. Try to think of what outcome could possibly be worse for Bruce given his personal traumas. This is a fate worse than death for him. Even the death of one of his comrades or lovers couldn’t touch him as deeply as that kind of loss precisely because of who Bruce is.
We’re now some twenty-five years after the release of A Death in the Family, but there still hasn’t been a moment in Batman’s history that has been so crushing—and I don’t think there can be.
We can start with the horror that comes when a child of any age dies. Across cultures, I think most societies accept that it is a real loss when a child dies as compared to an adult. There is a loss of potential and a violation of innocence that comes with the death of a young person. And yet, once again, for Bruce, this is taken to a new level. As I said earlier, because of his own traumatic childhood, he is particularly committed to keeping children safe and would likely have an incredibly strong reaction to the death of a child.
However, the death of Jason is, before anything, the death of his son. The loss of a child is devastating and I really think that no one has put it better than Théoden King: “No parent should have to bury their child.” That alone should be enough to make his loss the worst that Batman has ever suffered. However, Jason’s death also forces both Batman and the reader to relive his own trauma, which adds yet another dimension of awful.
A Death in the Family begins with Bruce trying to get Jason to engage with his anger and actually discuss the deaths of his, Jason’s, parents. Jason discovers that his birth mother is alive somewhere in Beirut and goes on a quest to find her. Bruce eventually joins him, likely because he sees similarity with his own, albeit emotional, quest to restore his own family. By the next issue, they track her down in Ethiopia and Jason discovers that she is somehow involved with the Joker. While Batman is away, Jason tries to warn her how dangerous Joker is and ends up being betrayed. Joker then beats Jason to a pulp with a crowbar and leaves his body in a tent. The reader thinks he’s dead. It turns out he is still alive but only barely; he uses the last of his strength to try to save his mother, who has been tied up in a tent with an explosive—and fails. The bomb goes off just as Batman arrives at the scene.
I was not kidding when I said that fans should be ashamed that they voted for this. Even re-reading it for this piece, I’m thinking again about how incredibly cruel this all is. It’s horrible for Jason, who gives his life in a futile attempt to save his mother. And in the issue that follows, the one with the famous scene of Batman carrying Robin’s body out of the rubble, it is horrible for Bruce. Once again he has lost his family and once again he’s that eight-year-old boy who has absolutely no control. The sense of familial loss could be repeated with a romantic partner, as close partners become near family, but I think the fact that Bruce and Jason have a parent-child relationship and that it was a parent-child relationship that was severed in Crime Alley makes Jason’s death hit Bruce squarely where it hurts.
The final piece, however, is Bruce’s knowledge that he placed Jason in this situation. Against his better judgment and due to his own emotional needs, he put a child in danger—something he knows can never really be forgiven or justified. Some writers have explained Jason’s death by noting how foolhardy he was, that he had disobeyed orders, or even that he just wasn’t quite as talented as Dick Grayson. The road was certainly rockier with Jason, in no small part due to the constant comparisons to Dick.
Still, I have to put the responsibility on the adult in the situation. Bruce’s ego allows him to blame himself for a lot of things, but this one he’s not wrong about. As much as he can blame Joker for his cruelty, or even berate himself for not training Jason as effectively as he trained Dick, in the end, Jason should not have been out on the streets fighting crime. He should not have ever come into contact with Joker. Bruce pretends that he is an unfeeling machine, that he thrives on being alone, but it’s precisely because he couldn’t stand to be alone that he led a child into danger. He has to face not just the fact that he’s responsible for Jason’s death, but also that he is as human as they come, which is its own horror.
All of this is what leads me to say that killing a Robin is the absolutely worst thing you could possibly do to Bruce Wayne. Other superheroes have lost child sidekicks before, but none of those deaths really seemed or seem to have the deep emotional resonance that this one did. A Death in the Family presented an event that specifically targeted who Bruce is both as a hero and as a person. It can’t get worse than that. Whether Jim Starlin knew it or not, in 1989 he’d written the definition of Batman’s worst nightmare—a canonical peak.
Of course, peaks don’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. With a given emotional peak where we see a character pushed to the limit, we can start to make some more definitive statements about who Batman is. We have a fixed point that can serve as a measuring stick for other events. I think it guarantees, for example, that Batman really never will kill. Under the Red Hood is an exploration of, among other things, why Joker is still alive after killing Jason. If you follow everything I’ve said up to now, then you can see that Jason’s death was an absolute crossroads and Bruce’s ultimate test. And, despite everything, Joker lived to see another day.
It’s because of all this that Jason Todd, not as Robin but instead as Red Hood, is the most important and most interesting member of the Batfamily. He is the embodiment of Bruce’s failures and a reminder of his imperfections—because Bruce really failed Jason at almost every level possible. Under the Hood is an amazing resurrection story, but my favorite Jason story is actually a different one but by the same writer, Judd Winick: the 2011 “Streets Run Red” arc of Batman and Robin. In it, we understand that Jason’s trauma actually began long before his death. Working with Bruce means constantly being told you’re not good enough; that’s kind of his M.O. However, with Jason, he took it to the next level.
I’ll demonstrate this with a seemingly unrelated fact: did you know that Jason Todd is actually a redhead? He’s drawn with black hair pretty frequently but if you go back to Jason’s first appearance, back in 1983, he was a cute little redhead. Want to take a guess why he’s got black hair in most of his appearances? That’s right: Bruce made him dye his hair so he would look like Dick. Full disclosure: in Jason’s first appearance, he does this of his own volition in order to fool a criminal. Still, because of how nicely it fits in with the overall comparison-to-Dick narrative, Winick’s explanation feels a little more canonical to me than the 1983 reasoning. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Bruce would do for the sake of “the mission” without fully realizing how traumatic it could be. Even if you go with the original explanation, it still reads as coercion to me. In general, Robins have always tried to prove their worth to Batman, to show that they’re good enough. As a result, they do things to try to please him just as any child tries to please a parent. If Bruce never explicitly asked Jason to keep dyeing his hair, but didn’t tell him to stop I can only imagine that, as a child, Jason felt almost compelled to keep going.
By my reckoning, Bruce made this young kid erase himself, made him try to look like Dick and be Dick—and then, when he died, almost immediately replaced him with someone new. (Seriously, A Death in the Family ended in January 1989 and by October of the same year, in A Lonely Place of Dying, Batman had a new Robin.) And then, on top of that, from Jason’s perspective and the perspective of many readers, Batman didn’t have the decency to kill the person responsible for killing him.
There’s no way around it—Bruce messed Jason up. I think this is the reason that he turns a blind eye to his use of guns as Red Hood. He would never accept it from Dick, Tim, Steph, or Damian. But Jason? Bruce realizes he did unknowable damage there and, to a certain point, realizes that it’s no longer his place to judge him. Instead, all he can do is try to guide and control. Their relationship is complex in ways that none of the other Robins can even begin to touch, which is what makes it so fantastic to me.
Still, even with Jason as my forever-fave, I hate the idea of Batman stories peaking in 1988. I know they obviously didn’t—emotional devastation is hardly the only way to write a good story—but in a way, they also kind of did. As I said in my other piece, that notion brings up questions about the duty not to retread canonic emotional ground and how reasonable that becomes as time goes on. After all, I’ve just suggested that the best character and the worst event have already happened. If we have really hit a wall here, then where might we go? I actually think like situations such as these are great arguments for the return of true death in comics—incredibly paradoxical, I know, given my demonstrated love for Red Hood.
There are still a number of facets of Bruce-Wayne-as-Batman that have yet to be examined in their proper depth. I’m still waiting for DC to hire me so I can write a comic about Bruce’s supposed ownership of Gotham City, about the racial climate of Gotham and how that relates to vigilantism, about the ethics of violent crime fighting tactics. And yet, I do wonder if there will come a time when Batman can truly be someone else. We had Dick as Batman for a time—with the knowledge that Bruce would eventually be back because, again, comics. But what if he weren’t? What would happen if, one day at DC Comics, a mandate went out that said: from now on, the dead stay dead? What would comics look like if we were allowed to discover a new Batman’s new emotional peak? What would it mean if we could read comics the way we watch Game of Thrones? It could be amazing.
There’s something about comics, about storytelling in general actually, that speaks to an attempt to be timeless. We all want to write stories that will last forever, that people will look back on and enjoy no matter when they read them. But I don’t necessarily think that means letting a character live forever is the equation for a timeless story—especially when we run into possible roadblocks like this one.