Common cliché dictates that life has two certainties, and the same could convincingly be argued for comic book characters. While those of us outside of the world of prose and pencil have just death and taxes to count on, our four-colour brethren can be sure of a dynamic duo of determinations of their own; death and resurrection.
As any funnybook fanatic will tell you, comic book characters rarely stay six feet under for too long – evidently this is one of the perks of living in such crime-plagued cities as Gotham. The Big Two publishers have a laundry list as long as your arm of characters that have bitten the farm in a blaze of glory only to find themselves fighting fit and more strapping than ever upon their resurrection, including the Human Torch, Bucky Barnes, Captain America … even Superman himself.
Spider-Man’s supporting cast seem more fallible than most (ignoring the Lazarus-like qualities of the Osborn clan, status quo-shaking fatalities such as Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy, Marla Jameson and Jean DeWolff have stayed six feet under for many years), but elsewhere this eternal cycle of R.I.P-and-rebirth is known as Comic Book Death; the knowledge that in this world, sacrifice is tempered by the knowledge that people rarely stay dead.
No matter how cynical us regular readers find ourselves, the demise of a major character still makes headlines. Captain America’s assassination at the end of Marvel’s Civil War was spoiled in the press before the infamously-delayed comic hit the stands, Batman’s brief believed bereavement was huge news in 2008, and you couldn’t pick up a paper without reading about the passing of Peter Parker last year (that one was particularly troublesome for comic book fans, who had to explain the concept of the Ultimate universe to colleagues at the water cooler who really didn’t care and were just making conversation).
Such coverage really took flight in 1992, when national newspapers treated the Death of Superman as front page news. While those familiar with the industry always knew DC would never truly terminate their flagship character (though the mullet he sported on his inevitable return caught us all by surprise), your average citizen was not yet familiar with the phenomena of Comic Book Death. Jean Grey had been resurrected following a retcon of the Dark Phoenix saga at this stage, but for the most part dead wad dead; and undoubtedly DC’s most famous fatality was still worm food.
That casualty was of course Jason Todd, the second Robin. The codename that has kept the Grim Reaper busier than any other, you should be aware by now (um, spoilers if you’re not) that once again the Boy Wonder has found himself six feet under. With five different characters donning the costume and three of them ending up on the wrong end of a eulogy, Batman’s oath to never take a life probably needs some fine-tuning and clarification.
Yep, Robin is arguably the most prominent example of Comic Book Death (never more accurately encapsulated than in the ever-hilarious Daily Mash). Jason Todd, Stephanie Brown and now Damian Wayne have all met a sticky end whilst sporting a domino mask and cape (surprisingly never through pneumonia, despite the predilection for bare legs). The former two made their way back to the land of the living, so it’s no doubt only a matter of time until the latter joins them. Until then, let’s take a look at the lives and many deaths of the most celebrated sidekick of them all.
The most familiar Robin remains the original; tragic trapeze artist Dick Grayson, who was Introduced in 1940 (just twelve issues after Batman’s origin in Detective Comics issue 27). Robin was written into the series to soften up the Batman character, whose earliest appearances were pretty violent, and provide a younger anchor for child readers – all the while giving Batman someone to talk to, reducing the number of expositional monologues forced upon the character.
Robin’s origin story – the young circus performer lost his family to Tony Zucco, a money-extorting gangster responsible for the death of the rest of the Flying Grayson clan – made for the narrative thrust of many of the Dynamic Duo’s earliest adventures. Meanwhile Grayson made for an interesting parallel with Bruce Wayne; while they shared the mournful experience of losing their parents as children, Grayson dealt with his grief differently. While Batman became a brooding introvert, the Robin fought crime with a smile on his face, enjoying the adventure of costumed capers.
Grayson remained as Robin for longer than any other incarnation of the character, romping through four decades without any earth-shattering changes to the parameters of his publications. It was in the 1980s that Grayson really started to strike out on his own; first by leading the legendary Teen Titans run of Marv Wolfman and George Perez, and later acting as independent hero Nightwing following his separation from his father figure and mentor.
It was the latter that remains the characters most enterprising evolution. Contrastingly portrayed as either an amicable or acrimonious parting of the ways (depending on which side of the infamous Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot you read), Grayson’s graduation to independent idol was the start of a whole new era for the domino-masked do-gooder.
The post-Crisis Dick Grayson was of an altogether darker disposition. Though his origin as Robin remained largely untouched (this remained the case until DC’s next major reboot, 2011’s New 52 initiative – more on that later), the end of his tenure as the Boy Wonder ended in cloudier circumstances. However, this incarnation of Robin enjoyed a series of one-shots and mini-series’, including a Robin: Year One title that established a ferocious rivalry with perennial villain Two-Face before Nightwing earned a monthly title, and Grayson has even enjoyed a couple of tenures in the cape and cowl of Batman when Bruce Wayne has found himself incapacitated.
It’s Grayson’s Robin that also remains most recognisable from other media. It was Dick Grayson that donned the Robin costume in the Batman serials of the 40s, the famous TV show of the 60s and the astounding animated series of the 90s, and of course Chris O’Donnell brought him to the silver screen in Batman Forever. The character was provisionally scheduled to appear in Tim Burton’s movies, played by Marlon Wayans, dubbed The Kid and the subject of a major change in origin, but space could never be found in the scripts.
Despite all this, while Dick Grayson remains the most famous Robin, surely his successor hold the title of most infamous. Jason Todd, the second Robin, was the subject of the legendary and controversial Death in the Family storyline.
Todd was introduced in 1983, not long before the Crisis reboot. The initial origin of the character was more or less identical to that of Dick Grayson – Todd was an orphaned circus performer who he lost his parents to a member of Batman’s colourful rogues gallery (Killer Croc, who was introduced to the DC universe at roughly the same time). The pre-Crisis Jason Todd was a near carbon copy of Dick Grayson, full of gee-whizz pluck and wholesome values.
Unlike Grayson though, the post-Crisis reboot of the character was pretty drastic. Physically Todd was changed from a fresh-faced redhead to a hard-faced dark-haired youth, and his personality and origin underwent some substantial shifts. Jason Todd was now a hardened street urchin, the son of a petty crook father and junkie mother, who first came to Batman’s attention when he tried to steal the wheels of the Batmobile. Jason Todd was a cynical, hot-tempered, sneering teenager with a predilection for violence; the nightmare of every parent, biological or surrogate.
Put bluntly, Jason Todd was a pain in the Bat-Butt.
This change in direction for the Robin character was a brave move, but one that proved extremely unpopular with fans. The DC offices were flooded with complaints about the new Robin’s tendency to brutalise criminals, and there were even hints that Todd crossed Batman’s sacred line with regard to taking lives.
That’s not to say that Robin II was a one-dimensional thug, as there were a handful of nuances to the character. One of the most notable moments in Todd’s fledgling crime-fighting career came from a showdown with Two-Face, who had been ret-conned as the killer of his father. It seemed Todd had turned a corner when he swallowed back his rage and allowed the authorities to arrest Harvey Dent as opposed to taking matters of vengeance into his own hands.
The renaissance wasn’t to last though, and the relationship between master and pupil became ever more antagonistic – and the relationship between reader and character ever more divisive. DC were considering a way of boosting their sales and profile by giving fans an opportunity to have a say in the creative direction of the books they were buying, so Bat-editor Denny O’Neil seized upon an opportunity to remove Jason Todd from the role of Robin in an attention-grabbing fashion.
A Death in the Family took place over four issues in 1988 and 1989. The storyline involved Todd discovering that the woman he always believed to be his maternal parent (long since dead of a drug overdose) was in fact a stepmother, and thus set off on a global mission to find his biological life-giver. Perhaps if Jason Todd was still just another street kid this would have been a smooth and happy reunion, but where there’s a Batman there tends to be a Joker. Todd soon discovered that the Harlequin of Hate was blackmailing his dear old ma whilst orchestrating a nuclear terrorist plot.
What followed is familiar to anyone with a passing interest in comics. DC ended the third issue of the tale with a cliffhanger, and two premium-rate phone numbers for fans to call and cast a vote as to whether Jason Todd should live or die. It’s astounding to us that Simon Cowell has never aped this murderous business model for the X-Factor.
A total of 10,614 votes were cast, with the results favouring Todd meeting his maker – just. A mere 72 votes swing the vote. One of the most iconic images in Batman history followed.
Controversy dogged the decision to kill off Jason Todd. While he wasn’t technically the first Robin to bite the bullet – the Earth-Two version of Dick Grayson’s Robin bought the farm during Crisis on Infinite Earths – this was a major event for a world unfamiliar with the concept of Comic Book Death. O’Neil claimed that it “would be a pretty sleazy move to bring [Jason Todd] back”, giving the impression that this was a permanent change to the world of Batman.
Rather than curiously musing over the events of the book, the mainstream press instead criticised DC, accusing them of cynically courting controversy and profiteering. Rumours also circulated that the publishers had already made up their minds to kill off the character regardless of the poll result, with O’Neil later admitting that the result was skewed by over a hundred votes in favour of killing the character being cast from one number, programmed to redial every ninety seconds. Perhaps this suggests that the character of Jason Todd wasn’t quite as unpopular as we were led to believe, though the phone bill ran up by that voter suggests he must have really hated him.
The events of A Death in the Family were notable for a number of reasons, not least the darkness of the story. With references to American foreign policy, friction between Batman and other DC characters and a suggestion that Bruce would be prepared to break his vow and end the Joker’s reign of terror by terminating his life, A Death in the Family was very firmly a story of its time; an era of an industry revolutionised by The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen a few years earlier. These four issues continued Batman’s revolution from Caped Crusader to Dark Knight, taking him further away from the comics code-approved light and frothy stories of the previous decades. The Joker beating Todd to death with a crowbar was also one of the most visceral crimes committed by the character, confirming his steady ascent into terrifying psychosis that had been building since his return to the printed page in 1975.
The murder of Jason Todd had a huge impact on the DC universe – and character of Batman – for many years to follow. For quite some time Todd was held up as the exception that proved the rule of Comic Book Death, the events of A Death in the Family haunted Bruce Wayne, who created a shrine to Jason Todd in the Batcave and frequently thought back to his great failure.
Todd stayed dead until 2003, when Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee brought him back in their celebrated Hush storyline. While this appearance was revealed by to be an impersonating Clayface, Todd officially returned to the DC Universe following 2005’s Infinite Crisis mini-series thanks to some reality-altering shenanigans from Superboy. This took the form of a dimension-bending punch that would have significant further repercussions later in DC continuity – and this article.
Furious at Batman for not avenging his death and putting an end to The Joker, Todd took on a villainous identity as the famous Red Hood and sought revenge on his one-time mentor. This storyline is superbly adapted (albeit with an agreeably simplified resurrection) in one of the finest DC Animated Universe movies, Under the Red Hood, if such things float your boat.
Todd was one of the most interesting characters in the DC universe for a few years following his return, enduring frequent run-ins with Batman and his supporting cast. Todd regularly changed identity and code name, and straddled the line between murderous villain and anti-hero for some time. Post-New 52, Todd is semi-reformed (though still no stranger to the use of excessive violence) and, operating under his Red Hood persona, has been cautiously accepted back into the Bat-family.
Back in 1989 however, Batman was left without a sidekick, a state of affairs that could never endure. Just seven issues after Jason Todd shuffled off the mortal coil the seeds were sown for the arrival of the third Robin with a flashback to the night Dick Grayson’s parents were killed. It transpired that a fascinated child named Timothy Drake was in the audience that night, a child who would grow up to hone detective skills sharper even than Bruce Wayne’s.
Years passed without incident, until Tim Drake watched Batman and Robin take down The Penguin – with the Boy Wonder performing a particularly acrobatic manoeuvre last seen performed in a big top by the Flying Grayson’s. ID-ing Robin as Dick Grayson, Drake then deduced that his partner could only be Bruce Wayne due to the relationship between the young acrobat and the billionaire, and convinced the bereaved Batman to train him as the third Robin.
Drake proved to be an immeasurably more popular in the role than Jason Todd, remaining in the post for some twenty years and earning a monthly Robin title for the first time in DC’s history – as well as playing a prominent role in the relaunched Teen Titans. Drake featured heavily in such memorable storylines of the 1990s and 2000s as the Knightfall saga and the epic No Man’s Land. It wasn’t all plain sailing though; Tim Drake endured an extremely antagonistic relationship with Jason Todd following his resurrection, with the latter harbouring serious resentment at the young man for taking on ‘his’ identity, would never form a bond of friendship with his eventual successor, Damian Wayne, and briefly resigned his post following a host of personal traumas (as we’ll soon learn).
It was the events of Grant Morrison’s seminal Batman R.I.P that marked the end of Tim Drake’s run as Robin. With Batman presumed dead and the rest of the DC universe mourning the loss of Gotham’s protector, Drake clung firm to his belief that Bruce Wayne was alive and well. Adopting the new identity of Red Robin, Drake sought the Bat through space and time – a new identity he held onto for the New 52 relaunch, albeit with an altered origin.
The deductions of Tim Drake are now accredited to Dick Grayson, used to create a new origin for Nightwing (Dick recognises a facial expression of Batman’s as identical to one he witnessed on that of Bruce Wayne, approaching him in the same way that Drake did). Meanwhile a muddled set of contradictions throughout the Teen Titans and Batman monthly titles make it unclear as to whether Tim Drake was ever actually Robin in this new continuity; some accounts make reference to his adventures as the character, while others suggest Drake took on the identity of Red Robin immediately out of respect for the memory of Jason Todd.
Moving back to the history of pre-New 52 Robin III though, and there were certain essential boxes to check upon his conception. The obligatory run-in with Two-Face came early in his costumed career when Drake rescued Batman and Nightwing from the dastardly DA’s clutches, and naturally tragedy was linked to the young man’s parents. In this instance the senior Drake’s were poisoned by the hateful Haitian Obeah Man, and act that killed his mother and left his father crippled and in a coma.
This eventually led to the introduction of a fourth Robin, an episode that is frequently overlooked in the character’s history; the brief tenure of Stephanie Brown, Drake’s one-time girlfriend, in the role. Brown, daughter of villain The Cluemaster, began her crime-fighting career as The Spoiler. When not bellowing that Snape killed Dumbeldore and that Bruce Willis was a ghost all along from the rooftops of Gotham, Brown Spoiled the criminal plots of her father and his criminal cohorts, developing a taste for the vigilante lifestyle.
Brown became a regular guest star in various Bat-titles (as well as teaming with other DC stalwarts such as Green Arrow), and quickly became a love interest for Tim Drake. Brown’s storylines didn’t tend to shy away from controversy, not least a teen pregnancy that ended in adoption and an attempted rape in her childhood. A succession of personal tragedies in Tim Drake’s life, including the eventual murder of his father by Flash foe Captain Boomerang, left Drake depressed and unwilling to continue as Robin, with Brown plugging the gap for a spell.
Alas, Stephanie Brown was about as successful at Robin as Winona Ryder. Her tenure was cut short by Batman when she disobeyed a direct order, and in a misguided attempt at making amends while operating as an independent agent, she managed to spark a Gotham-wide gang war. A result of this was Brown’s kidnap and torture at the hands of the terrifying gangster Black Mask. Brown eventually died of her wounds inflicted during this mishap, leaving Tim Drake free to step back into the role of Robin (and to enjoy a unique status as the only incarnation never to lose his life in the line of duty).
Naturally Stephanie Brown didn’t stay dead for long. Controversy rumbled throughout her tenure that the characters introduction to the canon was a cynical tactic to shift units of a crossover storyline, and Batman seemed to be uncharacteristically indifferent to her passing – no seismic Jason Todd-esque changes to the status quo here.
Brown returned as Spoiler a few years after her demise, revealing that she had in fact faked her own death in a plot concocted with Gotham’s erstwhile doctor Leslie Thompkins to deter other young wannabe heroes. Brown went on to enjoy a brief run as Batgirl before the reboot (at which point she disappeared from DC continuity, yet to make an appearance in the retconned universe), continuing to interact with Tim Drake/ Red Robin and enduring the disapproval of Batman (with Dick Grayson under the cowl) and the latest Robin.
That latest – and as of the events of Batman Inc. #8, late – incarnation of the avian avenger was of course Damian Wayne, offspring of Bruce and Talia al Ghul. Though technically conceived by Mike Barr in 1987 in the controversial Birth of the Demon storyline (a tale – quickly disowned by DC – that saw Bruce and Talia sire a son who was seemingly given up for adoption at the book’s climax), Damian is more traditionally accepted as a Grant Morrison creation, mainly thanks to the Scottish wordsmith’s Batman and Son arc of 2006. It was Morrison that gave Damian a name, a character and a place in the DC Universe – which the author freely admits is down to the same kapow moment from Infinite Crisis that brought back Jason Todd.
For a long time, DC said Son of the Demon was out of continuity. Now it’s just kind of out of continuity. I didn’t actually read it before I started writing this. I messed up a lot of details, like Batman wasn’t drugged when he was having sex with Talia and it didn’t take place in the desert. I was relying on shaky memories. But now we have this new “Superboy punch” continuity. People still don’t realize how important that single punch was to cover everyone’s ass.
Wayne’s Robin has been an acclaimed addition to the Bat-family, providing a series of fascinating dynamics with different cast members. Fatherhood was not a challenge that Batman was prepared for, and Damian’s psychotic nature and questionable upbringing at the hands of his mother and the League of Shadows left their relationship as much a campaign of psychological warfare as any jostle with The Joker.
The relationship between father and son provided the thrust of the post-New 52 Batman and Robin book from Peter Tomassi, the first arc of which (Born to Kill) is well worth picking up in trade paperback form. Damian’s snarling, snarky nature also brought him into regular rivalry with Tim Drake, and his tenure as Robin to Dick Grayson’s Batman made for a riveting reversal of the usual roles. Grayson provided a chirpy, upbeat Batman, while Wayne brought the brooding darkness as Robin. That relationship inspired this exchange just before Damian’s demise in that aforementioned issue of Batman Inc.; a sequence of panels guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat of any regular reader.
Damian’s death itself came at the hands of his clone, The Heretic (clones in comic books will always be bad news). Such an action may sound like pure SF hokum, but rather it’s another commentary on the nature of the character and his parentage. It’s always been clear that Damian Wayne was a child with a mother and father at war, and Morrison has described his death as the nightmare of what happens when a parent takes their eye of their children. The aforementioned clone was created by Talia when she disowned her son after he chose the path of the angels under the tutelage of Bruce, so presumably these events with have seismic consequences on both characters.
While Wayne’s popularity makes the decision to kill him off slightly surprising, Morrison has form for this kind of caper – many of his characters have come to a sticky end at the pen of their creator. Call us cynical, but here at DragonDark we find it difficult to believe that we’ve seen the last of Damian Wayne. Morrison himself wrote a scene in 2007 which saw Damian don an inherited cape and cowl in the future from his deceased father (though this was before the New 52, and could be considered part of a different DC universe) and said in a recent interview “you can never say never in a comic book . . . Batman will ultimately always have a partner”.
Meanwhile, the effect the latest demise of the A-list sidekick has on the main DC universe remains to be seen. Scott Snyder’s flagship title Batman will be avoiding the issue by stepping into the past with a 13-issue ‘Zero Year’ storyline, while sister titles such as Detective Comics and The Dark Knight have used Robin sparingly. Damian Wayne was always a challenging character to write, and very few managed to pull it off with genuine panache – perhaps this inspired Morrison to euthanize his own exponent.
The first post-passing issue of Batman and Robin is yet to hit the stands at the time of writing, and that will presumably give us the first clue of what will happen next. Will Damian be resurrected – always a possibility, given his grandfather’s raft of Lazarus pits? Will Tim Drake take his mantle back? Will we see a sixth character take on the identity of Robin? Or will Batman take a long, hard look at his inability to keep these crime-fighting kids out of harm’s way and plough a lone furrow for a spell?
Whatever transpires, Damian Wayne made his mark on the comic book world and his demise will have a profound effect on the DC universe.
Til we meet again – R.I.P Robin.