Did you hear DC is ‘killing’ a bunch of superheroes again?
There are three near certainties surrounding superhero deaths, such as when DC recently announced the ‘death’ of nine of ten Justice Leaguers in April’s Justice League #75.
The first certainty is it will garner a lot of attention, as DC’s announcement did… in spades.
The second is that many fans on the Internet will receive the news with derision and significant skepticism that the deaths will be real or long-lasting, much less permanent.
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The third certainty is those fans will probably be right. But that’s a topic for another day.
But there was that one time in which that dynamic was flipped on its head, and instead of fans calling ‘gimmick’ on a superhero death, they were directly responsible for it.
Yes, we’re of course talking about DC’s infamous ’80s’fan vote on whether to kill Batman’s then-Robin, Jason Todd.
It was all part of the 1988 four-issue Batman arc ‘A Death in the Family (opens in new tab)‘ (opens in new tab) storyline in which the Joker brutally beat Jason Todd with a crowbar within a literal inch of his life, and readers were given a phone number to call (hey, this was 1988) to vote on whether DC should go that last inch or not.
With 10,614 votes tallied and a slim 72 vote difference (which in 2022 Twitter poll-terms seems almost comical), readers decided to go that extra inch (and paid 50 cents for the privilege) and have Jason die in a story carried out by DC, writer Jim Starlin, and artist Jim Aparo.
Despite near-unimaginable changes to public discourse that social media is responsible for, in modern terms the fan vote seems somewhat morbid and chilling by today’s standards, but what were creators and observers thinking while it was happening?
In 2020 we spoke to some of the principal players involved and retailers directly affected and looked into some of their past interviews about the topic.
“There was a lot of talk about the voting,” Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Stuff in Concord, California, told us. “Some were super energetic about it either rooting for Jason Todd to die or wanting him to survive. I was part of a retailer group back then called the Northern California Comic Dealers Association and the call-in vote to kill Jason and the sales that went with it were definitely part of our lively discussion.”
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Field’s Flying Colors opened on October 3, 1988 – halfway through the release of the ‘A Death in the Family’ arc of Batman.
“To be honest, I got tired of the ‘death wish’ talk many had for killing off Jason Todd,” Field continued. “Some fans thought that with Jason dead, Dick Grayson would become Robin again. Some just wanted him to die because it was a raw thing to do. Those people kinda creeped me out. I wasn’t prepared to have to deal with that so soon after opening my shop.”
Former DC president/publisher Paul Levitz told Newsarama in 2020 that he remained unsure if fans as a whole wanted this death, or if it was a small but vocal minority.
“I don’t know if the wider fandom ‘wanted’ it to happen, or a certain number of fans were just passionate enough to ‘ballot stuff’ the result,” Levitz said. “Either way, there was a feeling in the office that Jason hadn’t worked out well as Robin, and maybe fans shared that?”
DC’s then-Batman group editor the late Dennis O’Neil once explained the company was aware of a brewing problem – Jason Todd was, in his words, a “disagreeable little snot.”
“We knew we had a problem with Robin,” O’Neil told 13th Dimension (opens in new tab) in 2014. “It was a case of something you hear about and seldom encounter: a character taking on a life of his own. Maybe I should have been a more hands-on editor but it just kind of slipped past us and all of a sudden we had this disagreeable little snot and I thought we either had to give him a massive personality change or write him out of the series.”
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DC’s then-president/editor-in-chief Jenette Kahn echoed her colleagues’ desire to address the discontent some fans had with Jason Todd.
“Many of our readers were unhappy with Jason Todd. We weren’t certain why or how widespread the discontent was, but we wanted to address it,” Kahn told Comics Beat (opens in new tab) in 2018. “Rather than autocratically write Jason out of the comics and bring in a new Robin, we thought we’d let our readers weigh in.”
Field, who again had just transitioned from fan to retailer, thought “a Death in the Family” was well-crafted but “morbid”.
“I thought it was well-crafted both in art and story… but the controversy around a call-in vote to kill off a character felt a little, I don’t know, morbid?,” Field told Newsarama. “But that was the grim and gritty ’80s.”
Levitz said that the fan participation aspect was alluring for him – and something he has enjoyed since Legion of Super-Heroes ran fan elections for choosing the team’s leader.
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“This was a bit morbid example of it, but the possibilities from the pre-Internet immediate voting/nearly immediate outcome were tempting.”
But how was it for the writers and artists creating this story – and carrying out the fan’s verdict?
“I felt at the time it was a bit hokey,” inker Mike DeCarlo told Newsarama. “But I understood marketing enough to go along with the idea.”
That being said, even before the voting was announced DeCarlo and the rest of the creative team assumed fans would vote for Jason Todd’s death.
“We counted on the vote being against him living,” he said.
Despite their speculation, DC had Starlin, Aparo, and DeCarlo create two different endings to account for the readers’ decision either way.
“Jim wrote two alternate endings for the fourth issue, I guess, or the sixth issue. It might’ve been three pages or something like that, and a number of the pages had static images so that it was easy to shift, it was easier to swap them in at the last second,” editor Dan Raspler told Comics Beat (opens in new tab).
“Jim Aparo might have doubled up four pages in total. It was very minimal. If you look at the story and imagine, ‘What would be necessary to change if he had lived,’ it wouldn’t be hard to figure out the panels. It would be a minimal number of panels.”
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In a 2020 episode of DC Universe’s DC Daily, the alternate pages were shown. In this version, Bruce brings Jason to the hospital with Dick Grayson by his side, instead of Alfred like in the original story. Revealing, either if Jason died or lived, Batman was always going to handle his feud with The Joker alone and push his family away.
Writer Jim Starlin told Newsarama said he thought fans would vote for Jason Todd’s death and was surprised by the slim margin of 72 votes.
“I never expected to see that in print actually. I knew who my fans were and I figured that Robin was toast the moment they decided to put this thing out. I was surprised at the time just how close it was,” Starlin said.
Over three decades later and after Jason Todd’s return from death in Batman’s ‘Hush’ storyline (opens in new tab), ‘A Death in the Family’ remains a seminal story for readers – and one that continues to sell to this day, even helped by Todd’s death being retconned.
“Collectors still seek out the ‘A Death in the Family’ issues and Jason Todd’s early appearances,” Field explained in 2020. “Given his later reappearance as the Red Hood, Jason is still a key character in the world of Batman.”
Speaking of Robins, here’s Newsarama’s look at Batman’s best Robins of all time. Just keep in mind, Jason Todd has turned out to be a great character, but he wasn’t a great Robin.