The Fallout of Jason Todd’s Death

On this month’s Waiting on the Trade, we discussed Batman: A Death in the Family, the landmark story in which the Joker brutally murdered the second Robin, Jason Todd. In that episode, I argued that DC’s decision to let the Joker kill Robin bent the Batman mythos out of shape. The gravity of this specific moment in Bat-history warped what Batman, Robin, and Joker stories could be going forward – and not necessarily for the better.

To reinforce my point, today we’re taking a tour of the fallout of Jason Todd’s death. We’ll see the emotional wringer Jason’s death put Batman and his family through, and how that turmoil continues to impact Bat-books’ tone. We’ll examine how killing Robin pushed the Joker toward becoming the mythic-level mass murderer he’s become, and what sorts of stories that shift has precluded. And we’ll look at whether the idea of Batman having a Robin is now entirely nonsensical, or if DC has somehow managed to thread that particular narrative crowbar (I mean, needle).

Trauma, Tragedy, and Brutality Come to Gotham City

Now you might not believe this, but even in the best of times, the Batman is not an entirely well man. It turns out, it does take a certain amount of drive and madness to dress as a giant bat and fight crime. Even before killing Jason Todd, DC was beginning to acknowledge and incorporate this fact into grittier Batman stories. The Batman is solemn. He is driven. And, most importantly for this discussion, he is a bit of an emotional wreck, who never learned proper family and social skills.

So now imagine you killed the Batman’s son. It’s probably not going to make him more emotionally well, right? A man whose entire life is shaped by the deaths of his parents is fairly likely to take the death of his son, a death he arguably caused and could have prevented, pretty hard.

But surely Bruce wouldn’t yell at, punch out, and run off his other son when he came to offer his condolences. Surely even the grim, dark Batman wouldn’t be a dick to Dick Grayson?

Nope, reader, that’s exactly what happened. Not content with killing one Robin, DC decided to use Jason’s death to open up a rift between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. This scene, from New Titans 55, is the very start of a trend of Batman pushing his Bat-family away, because he can’t allow himself to have a family. With some fits, starts, and backtracks (yes, we’re certainly going to discuss Tim Drake) along the way, this trend continued apace and reached its climax in the early 2000s.

But before we can get to that, we need to discuss Batman punching the Joker in the face over and over again while yelling “JASON!” as loud as he can.

Pushing Batman As Grim As He Can Go

After having him kill Robin, DC gave the Joker a bit of a break, bringing him back roughly two years later in Batman 450. In that story, Batman and Jim Gordon both struggle with the decision of whether or not to kill the Clown Prince of Crime Crowbars, rather than again sending him to Arkham Asylum. Because Batman will never actually be allowed to kill the Joker, whether he should or not (he shouldn’t), this “struggle” has been a core part of nearly every Joker story since.

What has not been a part of every modern Joker story, however, is a scene in which Batman gets gassed with Scarecrow’s fear gas and, instead of getting scared, rides the high to beat the beejezus out of the Joker while screaming “JASON!” over and over. That particular plot development has happened only in Batman 496, as far as I’m aware.

While I do truly love this scene for going so hard, it certainly shows a Batman who (in this instance, under the influence of fear gas) is becoming more brutal. Again, in fits and starts, this brutality has become a mainstay of many modern Batman stories. The Batman is still kind to innocents, but he will pummel the heck out of any hardened criminal who even glances at him incorrectly. And he (and his readers) can feel justified in doing so, because he inhabits a world in which criminals killed Robin.

Batman 496 was part of Knightfall, the story in which Bane broke Batman’s back and, for a time, Jean-Paul Valley (aka Azrael) became Batman. Notably, Jean-Paul began killing criminals – a step DC took to see if audiences enjoyed a killer Batman. It turns out, while Bat-readers could accept the Joker killing Robin, they couldn’t accept Batman killing criminals. Bruce returned to take the cowl back from Jean-Paul in KnightsEnd, proving that there are at least some limits to how far you can bend the Bat-mythos before audiences will break.

At this point, in the mid-1990s, the Batman office launched into a series of successive mega-events, building on The Death of Superman and Knightfall‘s success. Thus, KnightsEnd was followed up with Contagion which was followed up with Legacy which was followed up with Cataclysm which was followed up with No Man’s Land which was followed up with Officer Down which was followed up with Bruce Wayne: Murderer and Fugitive. Stunt after stunt after stunt, in which big, serious events impacted Batman in a way “no story had before!” All of these stunts, of course, can trace their lineage back to that big, always more impactful stunt from 1988, the death of Jason Todd.

While there are certainly artifacts to touch upon in each of these events, the most pertinent to our discussion is Bruce Wayne: Murderer and Fugitive. In this story, Bruce Wayne is (you guessed it) accused of murder. Rather than attempt to clear his name (partially because the case against him looks pretty bad; even some of his allies thought Bruce might have done it), Batman decides to shed the identity of Bruce Wayne. Again, not the actions of a sane man, put further into perspective by this scene, in which Nightwing asks Batman who he’s the adopted son of, if Bruce Wayne doesn’t exist.

Notably, Batman doesn’t answer. Because in his mind at that point, he doesn’t have a son. He doesn’t have a family. He’s instead chosen to cut himself off from all these people who might get hurt as collateral damage in his war on crime. Just as, in this story, his murdered girlfriend Vesper Fairchild did. And just as, in A Death in the Family, Jason did.

Thankfully, others are able to reach Batman and pull him out of this grief spiral. This point, however, at the mid-point of Bruce Wayne: Murderer and Fugitive is likely the closest that Batman, a superhero who has had a sidekick nearly since he was created, came to cutting the entire Bat-family out of his life.

The Return of Jason Todd

The above makes a solid case, I think, for how Jason Todd’s death started the ball rolling on a giant heap of trauma, darkness, and brutality that may have otherwise never entered Batman comics. So now, how about we examine what happens when Jason Todd shows up again, alive. Will that change anything?

DC teased readers with this possibility several times before finally pulling the trigger on it. Most notably, various Clayfaces impersonated Jason in stories like The Mud Pack and Hush. “Jason’s” appearance in Hush, however, caused enough of a fan uproar that DC decided it was time. In Batman 641, 17 years after his death, Jason Todd returned.

This return … actually didn’t change much of anything. The story, called Under the Red Hood, is fairly good. It explores all the things you’d expect a story in which Jason Todd comes back to life would explore. But it didn’t retroactively make Batman’s world any less dangerous, and it didn’t resolve any of the grief or trauma he’d experienced. For the purposes of our discussion, Jason Todd’s return actually amounts to a pile of not-very-much, with some added (semi-repetitive) arguments about whether Batman should kill criminals sprinkled on top for good measure.


Here, we’ll diverge a bit to talk about how killing Jason Todd changed the Joker’s character and overall narrative function into something much larger than he previously was. But before we do that, we need to take a look at one last bit of Batman’s story, which shows just how wildly the death of Jason Todd skewed the Bat-mythos’ direction. In Batman 682 and 683, Grant Morrison and Lee Garbett show us Batman trapped in a machine that Darkseid’s minions are using to create Batman clones. As part of this story, Batman relives his own history. From Jason’s death onward, things get noticeably bleaker – so much so that when Darkseid’s minions imprint Batman’s recent exploits upon the clones’ minds, the clones claw out their own eyes and then die from stress.


Comics, they’re for kids!

From Crime Clown to the Literal Devil: A Joker Story

After A Death in the Family, the Joker returned a changed villain. You could see DC recognized this change, and as a result, they weren’t exactly sure what to do with the Harlequin of Hate Hitting Children. That, I think, is why in the Joker’s first reappearance, he isn’t exactly himself. He barely gets a chance to do anything of note before being ushered off to Arkham Asylum. Also, the story takes a moment to drop a shred of doubt in both Batman and Jim Gordon’s minds, that the real Joker (there were multiple in the story) may not have been the one who killed Jason Todd. (He was.)

Since that story, however, DC and various writers have embraced the fact that the Joker is “the villain who killed Robin.” (Tim Drake’s second solo miniseries, in particular, makes a huge deal about this.) And that status, for better or worse, has elevated the Joker to a plane and gravity that other Bat-villains will never (and arguably should never) reach. Now, 9 times out of 10 , when the Joker shows up, that appearance has to be an “event.” And because long-running superhero comics feel the need to continually escalate characters and situations, each Joker “event” has to be more dramatic, impactful, and terrifying than the last.

Which begs the question: How do you top killing a Robin?

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

The real answer is that you don’t. The Joker hasn’t done anything quite so character-defining and character-shifting as killing Robin since 1988. But other writers have tried to go bigger and made their own impact on the character as a result.

Off the top of my head (and hopefully in chronological order) there is:

  • The end of No Man’s Land, in which the Joker serves as Team Batman’s final boss before their retaking of Gotham. In this appearance, the Joker shoots up Huntress, kills Jim Gordon’s wife, and gets shot in the leg (by Gordon) for his trouble.
  • Joker: Last Laugh, a linewide crossover in which nearly every villain in the DCU gets Jokerized. Because, if people like the Joker so much, why not make all the villains like him?
  • Emperor Joker, in which the Joker steals fifth-dimensional imp Mister Mxyzptlk’s power and reshapes all of reality to his whim. (Turns out, he still can’t get rid of Batman.)
  • Gotham Central: Soft Targets, a lower-stakes story in which the Joker is still essentially a supernatural bogeyman, when viewed from the perspective of the Gotham City Police Department. (This story informs much of the Joker’s appearance in The Dark Knight movie.)
  • All of author Scott Snyder’s Joker stories, which see the Joker break apart Batman’s family, reveal he’s always known Batman’s secret identity, and take over all of Gotham City, parading the Batcave’s T-Rex through Gotham in the process. In this story, the Joker also claims to be immortal (using manipulated photographs and documents). Because the Joker is now so demonstrably, demonically evil, most of Gotham (including Jim Gordon for at least a moment) believes him.
  • James Tynion IV’s Joker War, in which Joker takes over Wayne Enterprises (because, again, he has always known Batman’s identity) and uses Batman’s gear to lay siege to and take over the city (just six years after he did so in Snyder’s stories). In this story, the Joker is often referred to as “the Devil.”

All these writers built off (and built up) the Joker’s nearly-mythological status as Batman’s archenemy. And that mythology, while stemming from the Joker’s dramatic first appearance in Batman 1, is now most notably rooted in the fact that he’s the villain that did what no other villain has done: He killed a Robin.

(Or at least, what no other villain had done until 2005. But more on that in a bit.)

How Do You Justify A Small-Scale Joker Story?

That is not to say that no small-scale, low-stakes Joker stories followed A Death in the Family. One notable and enjoyable example of a “he’s just a murder clown” Joker story is Slayride, a single-issue story in Detective Comics 826. In that issue, the Joker kidnaps and takes Tim Drake (Robin III) for a ride around Gotham City at Christmas. It’s a clever story, and it pretty much holds up until you factor in that the last time the Joker had a Robin at his mercy, he just beat that kid in the head with a crowbar and blew him up, quick as you please.

To make these sort of Joker stories seem even remotely possible, in both the past and present, writer Grant Morrison felt they had to devise the concept of supersanity – a condition that allows the Joker’s mind and personality to be especially fluid and changeable depending on the time and circumstances surrounding him. (In all fairness, this is a fantastic, in-character way to explain the Joker’s changeability.) Thus, canonically, the Joker can now be whatever writers want him to be. And still, most of them choose to make the character into Gotham City’s (or the entire DCU’s) Satan.

All of which is to say, killing Robin altered the Joker’s character irrevocably – and it made certain stories with the character nearly impossible to tell. No longer can the Joker simply rob a series of banks in a comedic way, hoping to fund some sort of payoff joke at the end of the story. No longer can he even interact with any of Batman’s sidekicks without the fear of death being the story’s primary concern. The Joker is now and always will be Batman’s Ultimate Nemesis And That’s All Thank You – because he was the first to kill one of Batman’s partners.

Should Robin Exist After Jason Todd?

It took DC a relatively long time to introduce another Robin into Batman’s life. While Tim Drake, the teenager destined to become the third Robin, first appeared in August 1989, he did not become Robin until December 1990. That’s two years and change after Jason Todd’s death. Apparently, Bat-editor Denny O’Neil took this approach on purpose, both to give audiences time to warm up to Drake (as they hadn’t to Todd) and to make it apparent that Batman took Jason’s death seriously. This slow-burn approach worked; most fans loved (and still love) Tim Drake. And they were willing to accept that though the last Robin had been brutally murdered, the idea of Batman and Robin still worked.

Still, at the start of Tim’s career, the role of Robin functioned a bit differently than it had previously. For one thing, the Robin costume itself got a major redesign. No longer could Robin wear pixie boots, green briefs, and no pants. Instead, Tim wore a suit that looked more like something a colorful, not-quite-taking-this-seriously-enough ninja would wear:

This suit has gone on to be the template for most Robin suits going forward, as well as retroactive redesigns of what Dick Grayson and Jason Todd’s suits would have looked like if Batman comics had started in the 1980s instead of the 1940s.

At the same time, Tim operated in much more of a support, crowd control, and logistical assistance capacity than previous Robins. He could and often did engage minor criminals, and he assisted in rescue operations and detective work (which he was very good at, partially thanks to his magical ability to understand those com-poo-turs kids were always going on about). But Tim was strictly forbidden from taking on major Bat-baddies – which made his eventual solo outing against the Joker an even bigger deal than it already would have been.

This confrontation was, of course, inevitable, given how the previous Robin’s career had ended. Taking on the Joker and living would have been enough of a coup for Tim. Instead, Tim defeated the Joker handily, just before Batman returned from the excursion he’d been on.

Eventually, Tim proved capable and popular enough to spin off into his own solo Robin series (the first of its kind), where he took on a variety of baddies. And over time, he became an equal to both Batman and Nightwing, largely quelling any outstanding concerns about the appropriateness of putting him out in the field. Robin, it seemed, may not just be a role DC gave to children they intended to kill.

One Dead Robin Deserves Another (Two)

So of course, DC killed the next two Robins.

The first of these, Tim Drake’s sometimes-girlfriend Stephanie Brown, would never have been Robin if Batman stories held to any sort of internal logic. But, DC wanted a stunt death with which to cap off Batman: War Games, and Editor-in-Chief Dan DiDio thought killing Stephanie would be more impactful if she briefly became Robin first. (I wonder what could have given him that idea.) While Stephanie did not stay dead (in fact, she retroactively never died), her death at the hands of Black Mask was just as brutal as Jason Todd’s at the hands of the Joker. As a result, Batman forbade all his allies except Nightwing from operating in Gotham, because he deemed the vigilante life too dangerous.

Eventually, however, Tim Drake returned to both the role of Robin and Batman’s side. And he remained there until Batman himself “died,” within Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis. New Batman Dick Grayson chose to hand the role of Robin off to Bruce’s raised-by-assassins son, Damian Wayne, to help guide him toward becoming a better person. Tim moved on to the role of Red Robin and (among other things) began searching for Bruce Wayne (who eventually turned up).

At this point, the New 52 happened, and its weird, rebooted, “superheroes have been around for only five years” timeline would have been a great excuse to jettison the baggage that came from ever having more than one Robin – especially dead ones. However, the Batman line and family proved popular enough to survive the New 52 reboot largely unchanged. Somehow, in the span of five years, Batman had gone through four Robins, one of whom had died and gotten better. (Stephanie was not confirmed to exist or not exist yet.)

Very quickly after that, Damian Wayne joined the dead Robins club. Killed by a savage clone of himself, which was created and unleashed by his mother Talia al Ghul, Damian’s death deeply affected and altered the Batman mythos … for roughly a year. Then, Damian was resurrected via comic book nonsense. With Jason, Stephanie, and Damian all back in action after having been killed, it seemed death was just a prerequisite for most modern Robins. (Tim Drake, meanwhile, continues to skate by unscathed, if you ignore the time he contracted a mild case of the plague.)

Killing Robin Is Not Even Shocking Anymore

Given all this, the death of a random Robin doesn’t mean much of anything anymore. Which may be why DC has felt the need to get more hardcore about who they injure and kill and how they do it.

While DC has repeatedly fallen just short of killing original Robin Dick Grayson, Tom King’s Batman run saw Nightwing shot in the head and stricken with amnesia, leaving him adrift and set apart from the Bat-family for real-world years. Near the end of that same run, DiDio apparently again stepped in and demanded a shock death, which is how Bane ended up killing Batman’s faithful butler Alfred – a death that has so far managed to stick.

All these beatings, shootings, and deaths stem directly from A Death in the Family. You don’t get the rest of them without the impact and success of the first. It’s arguable that if readers had voted for Jason Todd to live, Stephanie Brown, Damian Wayne, and Alfred Pennyworth also would not have died. (Though it’s also possible all or some of these characters would have been killed anyway – killing Robin is a story that’s too obvious to not have happened eventually, especially under DiDio.)

At this point, the question “should there be a Robin” is one that I, and I’d imagine at least some other readers, actually get hung up on every now and again. Which is wild, given how quick I am to dismiss arguments like “Batman should kill the Joker” or “Batman could do more good if he just spent money as Bruce Wayne.” All that most Robins do, it seems, is die and/or get critically injured to cause Batman emotional pain. Why, then, would Batman possibly conscience taking them into action by his side?

The answer, of course, is that Robin has existed since 1940, and the sidekick is an essential part of superhero mythology – especially Batman mythology. On most days, I’m able to accept this and continue reading about a character that, even more than Batman, might be my favorite character in comics. But still, I visibly wince when I see Nightwing fighting crime without headgear, because there’s just no excuse for doing that when you’ve literally been shot in the head. If it were up to me, I most definitely would have walked back every Robin except Dick Grayson at the start of the New 52 – if only to create a DC Universe in which Robin hadn’t died.

Killing the Boy Wonder Killed A Bit of Wonder, Too

I didn’t write this post to make any sort of point about how Jason Todd’s death “ruined Batman comics forever.” While I probably wouldn’t have killed the kid, I’m not sure you can say it wasn’t a good story decision. And you certainly can’t say it wasn’t a successful story, or that it led to subsequent successful stories. (Batman 432, a single-issue story that takes place almost directly after A Death in the Family, is a great issue that uses Jason’s death well.)

Killing Jason Todd did, however, fundamentally alter the Batman mythos and the types of stories writers felt they could or should tell with Batman, Robin, the Joker, and the rest of the citizens of Gotham City. While Batman’s world was already turning darker pre-Death in the Family, Jason’s death shifted the landscape of what Batman stories would be, and still are, for the next three decades and change. Now, it’s not even shocking to see a Robin die. The Joker takes over Gotham City and kills half the population every other Wednesday. And Batman is routinely ready to dismiss every member of his family, lest they get shot, maimed, and/or killed on his watch.

This is the Gotham City that Jason Todd’s death built. And while it’s often a compelling and interesting place, it’s certainly not as charming, carefree, or escapist as a world in which Robin had never died.

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