In the late 1980s, the Batman comics featured some of the greatest stories ever told about DC’s most popular character. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One were seminal works, giving readers realistic tales of a hero at the end and beginning of his career. The Killing Joke was a disturbing look at the origins of the Joker and the crippling of Batgirl. These were all written at the time that Tim Burton’s movie was in production, and helped to spearhead the film to tremendous box office success.
Earlier that year, perhaps the grimmest tale was told of the Dark Knight in the comics, as it featured not just the disabling of a major character, but his actual death. The character was Robin. Batman acquired his youthful sidekick in 1940, as the concept of the Dynamic Duo became ingrained in popular culture. The original Robin, Dick Grayson, had grown up in the comics to the point where he was a young man, no longer a boy, and had taken on the new superhero identity of Nightwing.
In 1983, DC decided it wast time to give Batman a new Robin, and Jason Todd was introduced, and following the Crisis on Infinite Earth’s revamp, his origin was established as a street thug and orphan who tried to steal the Batmobile’s tires. Batman took sympathy on him, and took him under his wing. He trained him to be the new Robin, reestablishing the Dynamic Duo.
Jason was not written as just a younger version of Dick Grayson. Instead, the writers saw fit to fill the character with anger, allowing him to be particularly brutal in his war on crime. Frequently, he would beat the criminals that he and Batman would encounter into submission, a practice which his mentor would find excessive. He and Batman were often at odds with each other, and that created unease with some readers of the character.
Thus, in late 1988, DC decided to try something a little different. A Death in the Family, written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by the late great Jim Aparo allowed for Jason Todd to discover that he was not an orphan, as his mother was still alive, giving him up shortly after his birth. He decided to search the world for her, to inquire as to why she had allowed him to think her dead for such a long time, and on the way he encountered several nasty characters, culminating with the Joker. He had left Batman behind in his quest, so the Dark Knight had to track him down.
Jason found his mother working as a relief worker in Ethiopia. However, she was no saint, as she had been embezzling and the Joker had gotten wind of this, and he blackmailed her into turning Jason over to her. He brutally beat the boy with a tire iron, and tied him to a bomb with his mother. With Batman nowhere in sight, the issue ended, and readers were given the opportunity to then vote by a 900 telephone number to either allow Batman to rescue him or to let him die.
The vote was close, but readers let him die, with the final total being 5,343 votes to kill him to 5,271 in favor of his survival. Thus, Batman arrived at the scene to find a dead Robin, with his mother just able to tell him that Jason had shielded her from the blast, before she passed away.
The story then bizzarely featured the Ayatollah Khomeni appointing the Joker as his Ambassador to the United Nations, giving him diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution. Superman showed up to warn Batman that he had to honor the law, only to have the Joker attempt to kill the General Assembly of the UN with his Joker venom by releasing it into the air ducts. Superman sucks all of the venom in, and tells Batman that the Joker is all his. Batman pursues him, only to have the Joker’s helicopter crash. The Joker disappears, and is out of commission in the comics for awhile.
Jason Todd is later resurrected but his death had an impact on Batman story lines for years to come, as the Dark Knight became even darker and was as almost as brutal with the criminal element as Jason had been. While no one in comics ever really stays dead, this was one that lasted until 2005–almost an entire generation.