01 August 2010

Reader Response to Robin Removal—Really?

DC Comics’s decision to invite Batman fans to vote via 900-number calls on whether Jason Todd lived or died got a lot of attention within the comics industry, much of it unfavorable.

The fact that fans voted for Jason to die and DC was going through with it got attention outside the industry, particularly a 10 Nov 1988 New York Times article headlined “Holy Bomb Blast! The Real Robin Fights On!”

Reporter Georgia Dullea’s unfamiliarity with her subject surfaced in her repeated reference to Frank Miller’s portrayal of Batman as “The Black Knight.” For quotations, she relied on people within the comics industry.

Sylvia Lamar at the Forbidden Planet store explained fans’ preferences: “Dick Grayson they liked, but Jason Todd was not as popular.” Don Thompson of the Comic Buyer’s Guide criticized the telephone poll itself: “It smacks of the Roman arena, with thumbs up and thumbs down.”

Dullea dug up the requisite voices on either side of the Jason Todd debate. Here’s the pro-Robin statement:

“I voted 10 times to save Robin, and I’ve got the $5 phone bill to prove it,” said Robert Ingersoll, a 36-year-old assistant public defender in Cleveland. “If I had known the margin would be only 72 votes, I would have voted 73 more times.”
Bob Ingersoll wasn’t just any public defender who happened to like Robin. He was writing a column on legal issues in superhero stories for the Comic Buyer’s Guide. Eventually he got into scripting comics himself, and also cowrote the prose novel Captain America: Liberty’s Torch. A year ago, Cuyahoga County basically bought out Ingersoll’s contract to lower its budget. He’s active on cowriter Tony Isabella’s website, but hasn’t resumed his “The Law Is a Ass” column, even as a cranky blog like this one.

On the anti-Robin side was “Rick Schindler of White Plains, who voted to ‘waste’ the Boy Wonder,” but also suspected that Jason would come back from the dead. Is this the same Rick Schindler who wrote for HBO, TV Guide, and now Todayshow.com? If so, the Times reporter interviewed no one outside the popular-culture media.

Finding non-professional opinions of Jason Todd from the late 1980s isn’t easy since that was well before the web made everyone’s opinions available everywhere. Last week I quoted one letter published in Batman, #424, criticizing the character. For the Times comics editor Dennis O’Neil cited others that called Jason a “twerp,” a “wimp,” and a “vindictive, vengeful little brat.”

Other coverage of this controversy in such papers as the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and St. Petersburg Times used those same quotations, leading me to suspect they were written off the Times article, not additional reporting. Which leads to the question: what did comics readers from outside the industry say about Jason Todd’s death in 1988?

COMING UP: Two letters from young readers.


Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

As usual, great research and great questions that I've not seen asked, let alone answered, anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

For the Times comics editor Dennis O’Neil cited others that called Jason a “twerp,” a “wimp,” and a “vindictive, vengeful little brat.”

A lot of the criticism of Jason just seems so conflicting and unfocused, probably because they were two versions of him - one who might be described as a wimp, and one who could be described as vindictive and vengeful (not always a bad thing when dealing with a sadistic serial rapist). I suspect that, in the end, they were both unpopular simply because they weren't Dick Grayson, and at the time they were written people had begun to doubt that Robin was even a viable character concept any more.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, DC was published two characterizations of Jason Todd at the same time. Only with his death, I argue, did his character solidify enough that he started to symbolize something distinct and important in the DC Universe.

There was definitely an argument among fans at the time about whether an adolescent Robin made sense, especially as Batman became more “gritty” and Gotham more “real.” As I wrote here, around this time some of the biggest Batman projects didn’t include Robin at all.

However, even as DC let readers kill of Jason Todd, it seems to have already been committed to bringing in a new Robin. Licensing revenue must have been one factor, but the fact that the firm redesigned the Robin costume suggests that wasn’t a rigid need. (DC could have kept the bare-legged Robin as a legacy Superfriends trademark.) Instead, it appears that DC’s editors thought that there was still storytelling potential in pairing Batman with a teenager.