25 July 2010

Buy This Magazine or We’ll Kill This Robin

In early 1988, Batman magazines editor Dennis O’Neil faced two novel challenges. First, he’d proposed that DC Comics set up and publicize 900 numbers to let readers vote on some question in the DC Universe. This would strengthen the link to readers and get some publicity, O’Neil argued. But what question would be appropriate?

Publisher Jenette Kahn didn’t want to use the effort for a minor issue, such as a new costume or a year’s free membership in the Justice League. At the same time, the vote’s effect had to be limited enough that one magazine could be ready to reflect the readers’ choice. Readers couldn’t be invited to vote on something that would affect the entire line, such as reversing the recent Crisis on Infinite Earths.

O’Neil’s second challenge was the “Robin problem” that arose after writers Max Allan Collins and Jim Starlin had given Batman’s young sidekick Jason Todd a new background and more challenging personality. To O’Neil’s surprise, readers disliked the result. For example, in Batman, #424, reader George Gustines wrote of recent issues:

The best part of all these stories is that there have been few appearances of Robin, who I think is an insult to the real hero who once wore that costume.
Even Starlin was reportedly lobbying to get rid of the new Robin. The character had stopped appearing in Detective Comics as Alan Grant and John Wagner became its writers. (Here’s Greg Burgas’s appreciation of those issues.) O’Neil and his Batman team had already decided to remove Jason from the Robin role, but not how to do that or what to do with him next.

O’Neil saw the “Robin problem” as the answer to his 900-number challenge, and the 900-number vote as the answer to his Robin problem. Jason was on his way out, but readers would be invited to decided whether he would die or would survive but no longer be able or eager to serve as Robin. Turning the result over to readers would also spare O’Neil the need to impose a choice himself.

Starlin scripted a series of Batman issues under the title “A Death in the Family.” The family was Jason’s: he discovers that the mother he remembered wasn’t his birth mother and runs away from Gotham City to track down three candidates. As for the death, that would be his mother’s—and it could be his as well. Ads in all the DC magazines told readers:
Robin will die because the Joker wants revenge but you can prevent it with a telephone call.
The options under the two phone numbers were, “The Joker fails, and Robin lives,” and “The Joker succeeds and Robin will not survive.” (The copywriters appear to have shied away from using the word “die” or “kill.”)

The issues went out. The calls came in. Readers voted for Jason to survive the Joker’s bomb. Batman found him badly injured in the wreckage, and the character was shipped off for rehabilitation, thus removing him from the comics for an indefinite time. But before he disappeared, Jason promised Bruce Wayne that he would adopt a new attitu—

Oh, wait, that’s what happened in an alternate universe. In our universe, fans voted 5,343 to 5,271 for Jason to die. Artist Jim Aparo had prepared two versions of the final panel in Batman, #428. One showed Batman anguishing over Jason’s corpse, the other Batman celebrating that Jason had survived. The panel to the left is the one that never got colored.

The difference was only 72 votes out of more than 10,000, or .68% of the total. O’Neil, who had been reading the fan mail, expected the vote to be much higher in favor of death. Editorial Director Dick Giordano bet that the fans would go the other way.

In an interview O’Neil later said, “I heard it was one guy, who programmed his computer to dial the thumbs down number every ninety seconds for eight hours.” But it’s not clear whether the source of that statement was the company that recorded the calls or an untraceable comics-convention rumor.

Either way, Jason Todd was dead.

COMING UP: Reactions from a couple of Robin fans, and why death was the best thing that ever happened to the character of Jason Todd.

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