I was 15 years old when I decided to kill Robin, the Boy Wonder. I picked up the phone in my kitchen, a rotary phone with a big, long, tangled cord that you could use as you paced around the apartment and talked, and dialed a number. I received a recorded message and hung up. Just to make sure the brat was dead I did it all again - called, listened, hung up. I worried that my mom was going to get mad about the charge on the phone bill, which I think was 75 cents a call, but I had to do it anyway. Robin had to die.
DC Comics was in a weird place in 1988; just after the huge success of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Year One (to say nothing of Watchmen) and just a year before the release of Tim Burton's Batman, the comic company was trying to figure out just who Batman was now. He had been so many things for so many decades - grim avenger, space-faring happy dad, goofball TV star, hairy-chested adventurer, and recently a late-period Clint Eastwood type - that he was something of a moveable feast of a character. But with Miller's redefinition recently behind them and the Hollywood version just ahead, DC struggled with some of the basic elements of the character, especially Robin.
The orginal Robin, Dick Grayson, had left his post twenty years earlier, headed first to college and then life as a solo superhero Nightwing. The timing of that was similar to Batman's world in 1988 - in the aftermath of the campy Batman '66 TV show, DC sought to bring some seriousness back to the Batbooks. The kid sidekick had to go. But the kid sidekick always comes back (it's just part of Batman's DNA, like it or not), and a new Robin eventually joined the team. After the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths this Robin had a unique origin story, one that would hopefully make him less irritating to the fans (who always, from 1940, disliked the Boy Wonder) - he was street tough Jason Todd, who got busted trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile. This Robin was an angry young man, full of brash fury, as opposed to the whimsical and happy-go-lucky Dick Grayson.
The fans still hated him. Denny O'Neil, then the editor of the Batbooks, said:
"They did hate him...I don't know if it was fan craziness - maybe they saw him as usurping Dick Grayson's position... I think once writers became aware fans didn't like Jason Todd, they began to make him bratty. I toned some of it down. If I had to do it again I would tone it down more."
But it didn't work and O'Neil began trying to figure out how to get Jason Todd out of the Robin costume. At first the thought was a storyline that could heal Todd's anger and allow him to hang up the suit, to become a regular civilian again. But then O'Neil rememembered a stunt he had seen on Saturday Night Live, where Eddie Murphy had shown the home audience a lobster and given them two numbers to call - one to save the lobster, one to boil it alive. The viewers opted to save the lobster. Eddie Murphy opened the next week's show by eating the lobster.
That gimmick seemed like a good idea, and so Denny O'Neil worked with writer Jim Starlin to craft a story. At the end of Batman #427 Robin was caught in an explosion set by The Joker, a classic comic book cliffhanger. But this time the fans would have their say. At the end of the comic was an ad:
ROBIN WILL DIE BECAUSE THE JOKER WANTS REVENGE, BUT YOU CAN PREVENT IT WITH A TELEPHONE CALL!
And there were two numbers - one for Robin to live, one for him to die. I joined 5,343 fellow readers in sentencing Jason Todd to death. The margin was just 72 votes.
Jason Todd's death was a big deal, and probably a turning point in the history of superhero comics. For one thing it helped bring The Dark Knight Returns, an out of continuity story, closer to continuity. It cemented the bleakness of Batman's world. And it sparked the first media frenzy over the death of a superhero, a side effect no one at DC saw coming. In the late 80s superhero comics were becoming more and more insular, with only occasional breakouts like TDKR and Watchmen crossing over in any way. The public's perception of Batman remained the "Biff! Pow!" version from TV, but A Death in the Family, as it was known, helped change that image of the Dark Knight. It was not just a vital part of the Batman's late 80s repositioning, it was a moment when the usual bullshit story moves of superhero comics became of trivial but national interest. Every superhero who died in a high profile event did so because people like me called one number over the other.
At the time the decision was easy to make - Robin sucked, Batman was a brooding avenger of the night who worked best when he was alone and Jason Todd especially sucked. But that was me at 15. At 42 I feel differently; if the same thing happened, a) I wouldn't bother voting but b) if I did, I would keep the kid alive. In the late 80s the move towards darkness and 'seriousness' and 'realism' in superhero comics seemed to be the way forward. But when I made that phone call I couldn't have imagined the dominoes that were falling all around me, the series of events that would lead to a 90s comic book landscape that was a scorched earth of 'Extreme' characters toting guns and festooned with spikes. I couldn't imagine that my phone call was going to lead to a major motion picture where a hyper-violent, murderous Batman would have Robin's suit hanging in his Batcave... and I definitely couldn't imagine this would be a bad thing. I was still busy cursing the very ground upon which Adam West walked to consider that maybe the thing I was asking for was actually the worst thing I could get.
My memories of making that phone call - they're so vivid I can remember the patch of linoleum that was scorched from when I tried to 'age' a fake treasure map by charring it on the stove and dropped it when the whole fucking paper caught fire - were invoked by Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. Reading his passage about A Death in the Family (the Denny O'Neil quote and the exact number of votes listed above come from his book) was like Proust chomping a madeleine. It all rushed back to me - the experience of buying Batman #427 at Mike's Comic Hut in Flushing and riding the bus home, turning each page in fevered anticipation of the annihilation of Robin. Working up the courage to put that buck fifty on our phone bill (we were poor - getting the lights turned off poor - so I was really afraid of catching my single, working two jobs mom's wrath on this one). Feeling a sense of relief and satisfaction when it was done, and then reveling in the aftermath in the next issue. I felt like my superhero comics were finally, truly growing up, and allowing me - a very mature 15 year old who had once kissed a girl - to be part of that growing up was empowering. Remember, this was a time when you would still hide your comic books from girls, a time when bullies would happily take your comics - already bagged and boarded, mind you! - and throw them in the gutter, tearing the cover as they taunted you for being a baby fag. Killing the teenager who held Batman down felt like killing the stigma that made a teenager reading comics so very lame.
So Weldon's book speaks very deeply to me; he uses the history of Batman as a way to examine the history of nerds, and to look at the ways that nerd interests (like Batman) have crossed over into becoming mainstream interests. One part literary biography of a fictional character, one part subculture study, one part righting of historical wrong (Weldon goes hard on how Bob Kane has been over-credited for his role in Batman's origin), the book feels like it was written for me. My personal journey as a nerd - from someone who loved Batman '66 as a child to someone who resented it because it didn't take Batman seriously enough to someone who felt like the descent into darkness was a massive over-correction - is reflected in those pages. As Batman has changed so have I, and it's fascinating to see that the journey I've taken has been so clearly on a path that Batman (and his writers, artists and editors) blazed.
Weldon's book wrestles with a lot of the stuff that is plaguing nerd culture today - the line between the nature of all secret societies based on esoteric knowledge and a misogynistic gatekeeping mentality, the way that fans cling to 'dark' material as validation that these kiddie characters are ok for 30 year olds, the way that a 75 year old character has no fixed identity - and it does so with both intelligence and love. Weldon's a member of the tribe, and he cares deeply about Batman (and nerd culture) while also understanding the inherent ridiculousness of a lot of the shit we care very deeply about. More than that, he is able to expertly tie Batman's history into these things. The book, which is expertly researched, revealed to me that Batfans in the early 1960s were hoping for a return to the Dark Avenger of the NIght version of the character, a version that existed for about one year... and that year happened before many of these fans were born! The push and pull between Batman's need to have sidekicks and an extended family and the fans' need to have him be a sullen loner has been happening for over 70 years, an endless war of attrition between children's entertainment and those who take it very seriously.
Today I love Batman '66. I've come to feel about that show the way I do about the Monkees - as a kid I adored them, as a teen I thought they were an embarrasing blight on music history and now, as an old man, I've come to appreciate their poppy tunecraft again. Weldon makes an argument that just as fans goes through their adolescent angst when it comes to these characters - a period that equates 'unpleasant' with 'serious' - so has Batman gone through such a period. His book, written before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice erupted like one of those pimples you thought you left behind in high school, ends with the hopeful note that while there will always be 15 year olds looking to kill Robin, the many facets of the Batman are there for everybody to enjoy in their own way. Hell, he's convinced me to give Batman: The Animated Series another shot. That's how good the book is.