08 August 2010

“Very, Very Sad That You Made Robin Die”

I’ve found it tough to locate actual fan responses to A Death in the Family, the 1988 Batman story that included the death of the second Jason Todd. As I noted last week, the major newspaper coverage quoted industry insiders. Apparently DC Comics editor Dennis O’Neil did a bunch of radio interviews, but those aren’t preserved. Internet fandom was just getting started.

The “Bat-Signals” letters column in the Batman magazine is a prime source, but not all issues from the period included letters, and the editors chose which to run. There are, for example, few missives lambasting Jason Todd in 1987-88, even though fan response was harsh enough that the company had decided to remove him from Robin role even before A Death in the Family.

In the issues that I’ve been able to peruse, only two letters comment directly on the death of a Robin. Batman, #433, contains this letter from Jenna Loughlin, age eight:

When I was four years old I saw my first Batman and Robin show. I loved it. Then I pretended I was Robin one Halloween. It was the first super-hero I was.

I am very, very sad that you made Robin die. I have been crying for a whole day. Why did you make him die? That’s what I can’t figure out!

He was a hero. You don’t kill heroes, you save them!

Please change your comic book!
The response, probably written by Assistant Editor Dan Raspler, provided the narrative justifications for Jason’s death and then passed the buck to the people who had actually decided on it:
I’m sorry, Jenna, but we just can’t change the story. Robin died in “A Death in the Family” for many reasons. He didn’t listen to Batman when Batman told him to wait. He was captured by the Joker and threw himself in front of the Joker’s bomb hoping to shield his mother from the blast, even though she lied to him and betrayed him. I’m also sad that Robin died in “A Death in the Family,” but more readers wanted him to be dead than wanted him to be alive.

Maybe if those readers thought about what they were doing to Batman when they voted to let Robin die, they might have changed their vote. Now Batman is all alone.

I’m sorry you cried for a whole day.
Three months later, in Batman, #436, Eric Martinson of Florida wrote:
I love Batman comics, but why did you kill Robin? I liked Jason a lot. I got all his comics. I found out in a magazine that Robin was going to die. I miss him. But why did you kill him?
Though Martinson did not state his age, this letter also looks like it came from a kid.

Those two letters suggest a couple of conclusions. First, for all of Jason Todd’s flaws, he had continued to fulfill Reason for Robin, #3: Younger readers can identify with Robin.

On the other hand, these letters don’t offer evidence that their writers were fans of Jason, the angry, rebellious kid from the streets. The letters don’t mention that character’s individual traits. They didn’t discuss details of A Death in the Family. Loughlin conflated the Robin on the TV show and the Robin of the late 1980s. Instead, those kids were fans of Robin, the DC Universe’s symbol of youth, and were upset at news that he had died.

But, Jason’s detractors would have replied, he hadn’t lived up to the role of Robin. Batman had already sidelined him before A Death in the Family. DC was removing him from the magazine. Even the New York Times headlined its report “The Real Robin Fights On”—in other words, Dick Grayson Lives!

COMING UP: And death turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Jason Todd.


Anonymous said...

"On the other hand, these letters don’t offer evidence that their writers were fans of Jason, the angry, rebellious kid from the streets. The letters don’t mention that character’s individual traits. They didn’t discuss details of A Death in the Family."

That's not really true of Eric's letter though, is it? He named Jason, said "(he) really liked him", and that he had bought all his comics. Those few details suggest to me that he was a fan of Jason specifically.

I'm not sure if I'd say Jason failed to live up to the role of Robin, at least not completely. I think he suceeded in some ways and failed in others, but it's probably his failures that really endear him to most of his fans.

The damaged child who can't live up to the wholesome ideal really resonates with me, and I think a lot of kids reading Batman who didn't have the happiest lives might have felt the same way. Jason was angry, he refused to get over his past, and he wasn't nice. Might not be healthy in real life, but damn if it's not cathartic to read about.

J. L. Bell said...

Eric Martinson’s letter shows that he knew the Robin in the most recent Batman comics—quite possibly the Robin he’d grown up with—was named “Jason.” But I find it significant that his letter doesn’t make any allusion to the specific personality or actions of Jason Todd shown over the preceding two years.

Did Martinson like the tough, cocky, disobedient punk of Collins and Starlin? The cute, cheerful, eager sidekick of Barr? Did Martinson understand the difference between that Jason and the pre-Crisis Jason? Did he like Jason in particular, as opposed to the general figure of a kid sidekick for Batman?

Perhaps so, but there’s no sign of that in Martinson’s letter. And that wasn’t for lack of space; all the other published letters were much longer.

Specific complaints about losing this Jason Todd could be “I liked it when Jason stood up to Batman”; “The stories are more interesting when Robin isn’t always goody-goody”; “It’s fun to see a contrast with Dick Grayson”; “Jason was right about that rapist”; or “We have to cut Jason some slack because of his background.” All those responses would be grounded in the individual character.

I haven’t found such arguments from 1988-89. Maybe they’re in places I haven’t located, but I suspect those responses developed later, after (a) comics readership became older, and more concerned with psychological issues, and (b) Jason’s death gave him more symbolic force than he’d had in life.

Anonymous said...

As you say, the letter is short and to the point. It's my impression that this is because Eric is very young, and all he wants to say is that he misses Jason. There really isn't much evidence as to whether he's responding to the loss of Robin in general or Jason in particular, but I don't see why we shouldn't take "I liked Jason" at face value.

J. L. Bell said...

In taking Eric Martinson’s letter at face value, I’m trying not to project any interpretation of the character of Jason Todd and what he meant onto those words. Martinson “liked Jason a lot,” but the Robin of that name had appeared with different personalities in the preceding years. Was this fan thinking about “the angry, rebellious kid from the streets”? To me there’s no clear sign that he was.

It’s notable that Martinson wrote in because he “found out in a magazine that Robin was going to die.” He didn’t say he’d read A Death in the Family, which had been issued several months before this letter appeared. Perhaps he wasn’t allowed to. (I’m not treating the statement that “I got all his comics” as necessarily accurate, but rather as an expression of how Martinson treasured those Batman comics he got to see which did feature Jason.)

Anonymous said...

Was this fan thinking about “the angry, rebellious kid from the streets”? To me there’s no clear sign that he was.

And is there any clear sign that he wasn't?

J. L. Bell said...

You’re asking to prove a negative, but instead we have to build from the evidence before us. Nothing about Eric Martinson’s letter suggests that he liked Jason Todd as particularly reshaped by Max Allan Collins and Jim Starlin. If the letter had said, “I liked how he sometimes stood up to Batman,” or, “I liked how he tried to help his mother,” that would be more of a clue about what Jason meant to its writer.

The simplicity of the letter, and the lack of knowledge of A Death in the Family, lead me to think that Eric Martinson was a young reader who liked Robin the Boy Wonder rather than the most recent particular characterization of Robin.

Eric Martinson said...

Eric Martinson, the second letter writer, here. I was indeed only 8 years old when this letter was published and sent it off without assistance from my parents. At this time, I had been reading Batman comics for a good two years, including the reworked origin of Jason Todd. I knew of Dick Grayson's Robin and understood that Jason was a little rougher around the edges, but I was a little too young to fully understand his rebellious nature. To me, this was my Robin, since he was the guy in the tights at the age I learned to read on my own. I was mortified to learn of the phone-in death gimmick after reading an article in USA Today (Or some such publication) and bought up the issues as soon as they were available to me (our town didn't have a comic shop in those days). Unfortunately, like Batman, I was too late to intervene and I blamed myself when I saw Robin's cold body being lifted from the rubble.

It took a month or two, but after seeing a lone, grizzled Batman without a Robin, I had to write my grievances to the source responsible. As luck would have it, my letter was published in Batman 436, which contained artwork by Pat Broderick, whose brother had taught me art lessons! I was there for the entire ride and was thrilled when Tim Drake took up the mantle-- so much so, that my homemade Robin costume (made of old clothes turned inside out, construction paper and a Dracula cape) was published in Wizard Magazine's Halloween costume contest a few years later. For these reasons, I have always held a special place in my heart for Jason Todd's Robin!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Eric, for sharing your story then and now! I'm glad to know that Jason Todd's death, while meaningful, didn't turn you off comics.