Polygon’s written up another history piece not unlike this one about the ill-advised way DC went about crafting the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, in Batman’s 1988 storyline, A Death in the Family, resorting to a phone poll that could’ve easily been rigged by multi-votes, and not explaining to whoever the audience supposed was why a fictional character isn’t responsible for his/her actions. Some black and white art drafts turned up, providing more insight into what could’ve been, if everyone involved at the time had half a brain and recognized the writers have to be accountable, not the character. At the beginning, it also notes how, in the 15 years since his contrived return (because Earth-Prime Superboy struck the walls of reality circa Infinite Crisis), Jason’s been commoditized:
The last decade has been a renaissance for Jason Todd, the second character to fill the role of Robin, the world’s most famous superhero sidekick. He’s appeared in movies, TV shows, and video games, while even his comic book self became the leader of his own team of antiheroes. But it’ll be quite some time before Jason manages to eclipse the story he’s most famous for. […]
No doubt. But very interesting, isn’t it, how in the span of a decade or so, Jason’s suddenly been turning up in all these merchandise items. Why do I get the feeling Tim Drake, by contrast, is marginalized? I know Spoiler was practically barred from being turned into merchandise and animation so DC and WB wouldn’t have to pay residuals to Chuck Dixon. Even though I consider merchandise a poor substitute for the real deals, their approach is reprehensible when you consider why they could’ve done it.
A Death in the Family originally ran through Batman #426-429. In the first line of his postscript in the first collected edition of that story, Batman editor Denny O’Neil protested his own culpability in Robin’s death with one quote, “We didn’t kill the Boy Wonder. The readers did.”
Why would DC editorial leave the decision to kill a major character to readers? The answer is a mix of new technology and tradition. Staff at the company had been toying with the idea of using a then-cutting edge phone-polling system to allow DC readership real input on a story. “In effect,” O’Neil said in 1988, “extend our policy of heeding the opinions fans express in letters and conversations at conventions and comic shops.”
In a way, O’Neil was right…and the “fans” were wrong. Particularly when you consider some of those involved may not have been genuine comic readers, didn’t visit specialty stores, or they were poorly educated people who saw no value in a particular character, and thought participating in something so laden in darkness would be gleeful fun. It reminds me of what I’d read about reception of Danny Chase in New Teen Titans – reportedly so negative that Marv Wolfman tried to make improvements to any ill-advised character traits he’d applied, yet the audience allegedly refused to accept it, or, maybe more to the point, didn’t ask that the annoying personality be scrapped. After all, when Wolverine first debuted in the mid-70s, his personality wasn’t the most appealing, yet John Byrne and Chris Claremont, rather than throw him under the bus, made a convincing effort to improve upon what was first seen. And audiences actually accepted this. So why didn’t Marv Wolfman do the same? Or any of the writers on Batman who depicted Jason as a surly jerk? If memory serves, it was after a storyline where Jason seemingly led to the death of a rapist who’s father protected him through diplomatic immunity that the whole issue of whether to kill off Jason came up, and if that story served as the catalyst for such an ill-advised direction, it’s downright bizarre.
But it does strongly suggest something: if Wolverine had been created 15 years later than when he was, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. For now, history strongly suggests DC was so lacking faith in their ability to market and develop a story, they didn’t have what it takes to recognize why an irritating personality is not the best direction for a character supposed to be a hero, and neither is killing them off. Those “fans” who refused to insist on more positive characterzation, did a horrible disfavor to serial fiction as a result of their meddling.
But the poll couldn’t be just any question. It had to be one that DC editorial genuinely wanted reader input on, and — since each phone call would cost a reader all of 50 cents — it had to be one that fans genuinely cared about. Jason Todd was “the logical candidate,” O’Neil said.
This was not because O’Neil or any of the other Batman office staff disliked the character, but because their readership seemed so divided on him. Jason was something very familiar in our current age: The first rebooted version of an idea backed by 40 years of fan nostalgia.
No, it’s not exactly a case of division. Rather, a case of almost vehement refusal to recognize the difference between fiction and reality, and put the blame where it’s due, at the feet of the scriptwriters. How can “fans” be genuinely caring if they don’t know how to distinguish? If Doug Moench was the one behind the poor characterization, or Frank Miller, they should’ve been criticized, not Jason Todd. If any of those phone participants are still around 30 years later, I wonder how they feel now about leading to what could otherwise be considered embarrassments? And all this just because Jason, when he originally debuted, was such an obvious clone of Dick Grayson, save for the lighter-colored hair. Polygon’s writer continues with the weak viewpoint as she brings up the changes made to Jason pre-and-post-Crisis:
Fans were split on Jason, at least from what DC editorial could tell. Was he [a] new take on Robin that offered pathos, drama, and a challenge for Batman? Or was he an annoying pest, unfit to wear the mantle that Dick Grayson had made so legendary?
A better question would be why Jason now had such an annoyingly cynical persona? If he had a brighter, more likable personality a la Dick, would that have been more acceptable? Or at least a more polite dialect? Why doesn’t that matter?
As I looked the pages over and tried not to freak out too visibly, DC archivist Ben Le Clear told me a story of O’Neil — who had voted for Jason to live — and other DC staff hanging around the offices, biting their nails well into the final evening of the poll. Every few minutes, they’d call the special phone number that allowed them to check on the vote tally, and nail-bite some more.
I think it would’ve been preferable if they’d concocted a story where Jason dies of natural causes – or maybe in a plane crash – than to go through all that trouble that would’ve likely cost them extra money. What’s the use?
In the 36 hours they were open, DC’s hotlines received 10,614 calls (at a total cost of $5,307 to the readership), and the verdict proved editorial’s assumption right: Fans were divided on Jason Todd — he was murdered by a margin of only 72 votes. (In later years, O’Neil has said that while he has no hard proof, he heard that “one guy […] programmed his computer to dial the thumbs down number every 90 seconds for eight hours.”)
To think even the audience would spend so much money on a cheapskate option instead of calling for improved characterization. Even a “bland” nice-guy personality would be far better than one where the character is irritatingly written.
But Jason’s death was not forgotten nor immediately overturned. Rather, it became a central part of the psyche of Batman stories for over two decades. To anyone who asked why Batman was such a loner, such a disciplinarian to his partners, such a hardass about who got to play vigilante in Gotham City, readers pointed to the glass case in the Batcave that contained a child’s empty costume.
And maybe that was the problem: it wound up becoming a carry-over from the direction set by Miller’s Dark Knight Returns in 1986. Why not just quietly drop Jason into limbo, and when he came back, give him a better personality? Or even have him quit the Robin role and attend college, just like Dick? Speaking of which, at the end, regarding the alternate ending DC was allegedly willing to go by, it says:
With Jason in a coma and Batman still vowing to work alone, who’s to say the Dark Knight might not have entered into a lone wolf period all the same? O’Neil and his creative teams might have taken the opportunity to have Jason sit out for a while, let the audience cool off, and then let him earn his costume back. Maybe they would have done it less than a year later, with Jason wary and more obedient from that time he disobeyed Batman’s orders and nearly got him killed. Maybe he’d have tried to get Dick Grayson to return, only to don the Robin costume himself to save his mentors’ lives.
Well there’s something I can agree with coming from such an otherwise crummy site. The same could be said about Danny Chase. It would’ve been better to write him turning up at Titans Tower with an apology for his grating behavior, show he’s taken up a better path, and ask if he could resume membership in the Phantasm role he’d taken just before Wolfman sent him to the Great Reward in 1991? (IIRC, Danny at least died heroically while saving Raven’s world of Azarath, and that’s the silver lining.)
I looked at the comments for the article, and one said:
This was pretty much foretold in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns #2, where the tribute to Jason Todd (the glass case with his costume) first appears, several years prior to A Death in the Family.
I read these books when they first hit newsstands and comic shops, and also subscribed to the Comics Buyer’s Guide (a weekly newspaper originally published by Alan Light, then taken over by Krause Publications, edited by Don and Maggie Thompson). There was a debate at the time as to whether DC did this event solely to fulfill what was shown in DKR #2.
Also, (though admittedly I don’t remember what issue of CBG it appeared in, and I can’t find a reference to it online), I remember in an issue of CBG an article talking about Jim Starlin, and he had stated that Jason Todd was always meant to die. I recall it was Denny O’Neil who denied that claim, and Jim had left the book prior to making the claim so it’s possible Jim was saying that because he was pissed off or something.
And the appearance of this art could totally refute what Starlin claimed, but maybe not. Even if DC was actually intending for Todd to die, they would still need this backup material in case the voting went the other way.
But like everything else in life, there’s always more to the story…you just have to dig deeper to find it.
This just goes to show that fandom really hasn’t changed, but rather the technoligy. Everyone calling in to kill Jason Todd is the equivalent of a social media campaign to cancel something they don’t like. The same thing happened a few years before this when Saturday Night Live asked viewers to call in to vote weather or not they wanted Andy Kaufman to remain on the show. And, people voted him off. I still remember the shock on Eddie Murphy’s face when he announced it on air. Reminds me of the line from Peter Pan, “This has happened before and it will happen again.” Or something like that. It gives a lot of perspective.
As I’ve said before, I’m honestly skeptical this was real “fandom” responsible, but it sure does sound like an early example of what’s come to be known as “cancel culture”. Even if Tim Drake was a better scripted successor, what was done with Jason could still have been avoided, and the whole notion death is the only solution for a badly written character is cheap, narrow and dismal. One more commentor said:
It’s amusing to hear everyone spin the story now, years later, when at the time it was nothing more than a painfully obvious gimmick to generate bat-publicity in the midst of the British invasion. It was a joke at the time. Virtually no one cared. Like the “Death of Superman” nonsense a few years later, it was a calculated move to generate news stories about a comic book which had become increasingly irrelevant on store shelves. Which is why only ten thousand people voted, out of the million people who read comic books in the late 80s.
And no, fifty cents was not a large amount of money in 1988. That’s like $1 in 2020 money, and it was tacked onto your phone bill, you weren’t actually paying in cash.
It still wasn’t tasteful to participate in a such an awkward idea, and fans or not, I find it galling when publishers won’t make it clear to them the fictional characters they’re shepharding aren’t real people and any argument regarding poor scripting has to be done within that context. I think the publishers’ lack of courage to make proper distinctions could also explain all the nepotism at its peak today, with awful writers keeping cozy jobs no matter the merit or content of their stories. And when the modern audience does have what it takes to distinguish between characters and scripting, suddenly, the audience is in the wrong, not the publishers.
And that basically explains how we got to such a horrible situation in modern times, with famous creations and franchises brought down, because screwballs with no ability to make distinctions led to disaster years before, and publishers were too weak-willed to make a logical case. Rather than encourage their contributors to improve, they coddled them. This form of approach to freelancers simply isn’t good.
Originally published here.