I'm reviewing the trade paperback of A Death in the Family that also includes A Lonely Place of Dying, a story that's almost as important in Batman mythology. The former, famously, kills the second Robin, Jason Todd. The latter introduces the third one, Tim Drake.
The first story's not what I'd expected, but I liked the second one.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY (Batman 426-429)
This one has two problems. The biggest, oddly, is the colouring. Jim Aparo was a very good artist and the cover of this graphic collection shows how good his work looks with good colouring. Unfortunately, he doesn't get that in the story itself. It's gaudy and it looks like a children's comic. It's hard to take the story seriously. Maybe unavoidable at the time given the paper and printing technology, but I think you could blow people's minds today with a recoloured release. You'd still have a few artistic quirks (e.g. this Joker's stupidly long chin), but nothing that people couldn't live with.
The other problem is the on-the-nose script. It's dialogue with an anti-spark. A lot of the story is either Batman or Robin solo, so they've got no one to talk to and instead do running inner monologues as pseudo-narration. It's... uh, not exactly The Killing Joke.
That said, though, the actual plot is far more interesting than I'd expected. Jason finds evidence that his mother wasn't his birth mother, so he goes looking in the Middle East and Africa for the latter. They visit Beirut. Batman speaks Farsi. It's a lot more colourful than the usual Gotham dinginess. Meanwhile, the Joker's selling a cruise missile to terrorists and then getting diplomatic status at the UN, so Batman can't lay a finger on him. No, not even after the Joker's beaten Jason half to death with a crowbar, then locked him in a room with a bomb.
There are shocking plot beats. Jason and his mother, ouch. Then, after Robin's dead, the story unsurprisingly gains emotional force and Batman decides to kill the Joker.
Famously, this story was decided by a phone-in vote. Jason Todd was unpopular with fans, so the editor had an ingenious idea. "Robin will die because the Joker wants revenge, but you can prevent it with a telephone call. 1-(900) 720-2660 = the Joker fails and Robin lives. 1-(900) 720-2666 = the Joker succeeds and Robin will not survive."
A slim majority voted for death.
A LONELY PLACE OF DYING (Batman 440-442, The New Titans 60-61)
An unusually insane Two-Face is trying to plan his next crime. Marv Wolfman writes the character interestingly, with dialogue between the two personalities and a surprising level of depth to his insanity. This Harvey really likes the number two and is obsessed with duality in everything.
Meanwhile, Batman's been losing it since Jason's death. Anger and other emotions are making him sloppy. A child called Tim Drake tracks down Dick Grayson and asks him to stop being Nightwing, because Batman needs a Robin. (Tim's worked out everyone's secret identities and the truth about Jason, but it feels plausible. Tim's clever, but not a mega-genius. He's just a big fan of Dick's and once saw him at the circus, so he's been watching him for years and noticing all the obvious things that were hidden in plain sight.)
I like the mental duel between Batman and Two-Face, the two unstable obsessives. Both Dick and Tim are good too. They're very likeable, which isn't inevitable with a Robin. I like the fact that the real story here is the emotional one of Batman getting over his issues and accepting another sidekick.
Mind you, is it just me or does Nightwing's costume suggest someone who's about to go on a Gay Pride march? I'd never thought that before, but as soon as I'd noticed it I couldn't unthink it. That yellow line across his chest follows the neckline of an off-the-shoulder ballgown, complete with cleavage. There are also panels where his Ming the Merciless collar and eye shadow are simply divine. Presumably this isn't deliberate, but even if it's not, I think it could be argued to be quite interesting. Gay superheroes are a thing these days, but Batman and Robin were the first by decades if you count all the jokes and parodies. Sometimes more than that, e.g. The Dark Knight Strikes Again. There are probably casual readers today who'd assume that that was official subtext.
In short, A Death in the Family is surprisingly strong, but let down by its dialogue and its colouring. A Lonely Place of Dying is likeable and pretty good. Both are interesting, while also being landmarks in Batman history. I'm very happy to have bought this book.