A Death in the Family Sticks Out in a Unique Way
As a pop culture figure, Batman has a rich library of influential and exceptional stories. Any list of essential graphic novels is likely to include entries such as The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween, Hush, and many more. However, there’s one important story that sticks out in a unique way: A Death in the Family.
A Death in the Family doesn’t make it to the top of many must-read lists, but people who haven’t read it still know about it for its spot in the Dark Knight’s history. It features the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, at the hands of the Joker. This, of course, gave us Tim Drake as Robin, and Jason’s eventual resurrection as the Red Hood. The fact that readers voted on whether to kill Jason only cements the work’s unique place in the Caped Crusader’s canon.
But the story doesn’t simply end with Jason dead, Batman distraught, and the Joker victorious. That’s the part of the story everyone knows. What not everyone knows is that it keeps going with a bizarre final act. I certainly wasn’t aware of it the first time I read the story. If you haven’t read it, take a little journey with me into one of the more peculiar parts of Batman’s history.
Joker’s New Gig
Still on a murder high from his work with Jason, we find Joker trading stolen medical supplies to his nefarious partners. They bring Joker to members of the Iranian secret service and Ayatollah Khomeini, who wishes to discuss business. The Ayatollah was a common villain in patriotic American media of the 80s, but if you think a move like this is entirely out-of-place in a Batman comic, you’d be right. And thus, this formerly simple story goes off the rails, never to see them again.
Khomeini offers Joker the position of Iran’s representative to the United Nations because, in this world, Iran is more interested in convoluted schemes involving psychotic master criminals than they are with any type of actual diplomacy. Joker takes the job and kills his former henchmen. Because why not? The Iranian secret service is probably better trained anyway.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne buries Jason and goes on the warpath. He follows a mocking clue left by Joker and arrives at the United Nations. Superman meets him and informs him he’s there to stop Batman from causing any problems with Iran’s new ambassador, who has full diplomatic immunity. Superman stalls for a few pages as Batman becomes more and more agitated. This all builds to the dramatic reveal that the Joker is the new ambassador, as we’re treated to a splash page of Joker in semi-Middle Eastern garb. I still don’t know whether it’s offensive or not.
A Perplexing Plot
In one of those very common meetings between masked superheroes and the CIA, Batman is told not to mess with the Joker, and that Superman will keep him in line if he has to. Batman, being Batman, ignores this. Superman, being Superman, doesn’t stop him.
Batman confronts the Joker in his hotel room. They say mean things to each other for a bit, and Joker confirms that he was responsible for Robin’s death. Then Batman leaves because… I don’t know why. The only point of this interlude seems to be to add three pages.
The next day, Batman attends the Joker’s big presentation as Bruce Wayne. His inner monologue makes it clear that he won’t do anything to stop the Joker from massacring the entire UN General Assembly because he was ordered to do nothing. As any fan knows, Batman is often fine with letting hundreds of people die because he’s pouting. But, don’t worry too much: he has resolved to kill the Joker once he’s made his move. Classic Batman!
Joker, decked out in even more Middle Eastern garb (and I’m pretty sure it’s at least insulting this time), starts his speech. In an astonishing twist, it turns out the Joker and the Ayatollah are up to no good! Joker whips off his robes to reveal two canisters of his lethal laughing gas attached to a spray gun. Bruce begins changing into his costume in the confusion, but it’s too late. Joker is already spraying wildly. However, the guard next to him bravely breaks his gun and starts breathing in all the gas. It was Superman in disguise! Double twist! Superman, flying away, tells Batman to handle Joker as he finds a safe place to exhale all the gas. Apparently, one of Superman’s many powers is simultaneously speaking and holding his breath.
Superheroes and Ayatollahs
The plot is pretty standard from here. Joker kills some people with hidden explosives. Batman goes after him. Joker shoots some people. They both wind up on an Iranian escape helicopter (okay, maybe it’s not too standard). The helicopter crashes. Batman survives, and Joker is gone without a trace. Or maybe he was never there. That would be about as grounded as anything else in the final act of A Death in the Family.
All things considered, A Death in the Family is important for its place in Batman’s history. Jason’s death is Batman’s greatest failure, and the story paved the way for even better stories in the future. But perhaps its greatest contribution is its absurd and off-the-wall finale. If you haven’t read it, check it out. It’s an experience like no other.