Friday, June 15, 2007

Batman: A Controversy In The Family

It was one of the biggest and most controversial events in comic books for it's era. The death of Batman's trusty side-kick, Robin. And even worse, the general public got to vote for the poor guy to live or die, and the end margin was a handful of votes for Robin to meet the reaper. The reaper, in this case, was Jim Starlin.

To be fair it wasn't the original, classic Robin that died. This Robin was a replacement, a kid named Jason Todd who came across as a bit of a sulk, a whinger who'd complain at the drop of a hat. Even when the character was relaunched he had few redeeming features and for a while it seemed that the character was being set up for a huge fall. In the issue immediately prior to this storyline it was strongly implied that Robin had done the unforgivable, he'd murdered a domestic violence committing drug dealer. No tears there, but heroes in comic books just don't kick people off ledges to their death because they can't lock them up (in this case the 'Diplomatic Immunity' defense was evoked. Funnily enough the same defense was used in the movie Lethal Weapon II in 1989 to justify murder, with the same results. The immunity was 'revoked'). Still there's plenty of books and sites that detail what went on in those issues, and they still argue the merits of what was done back in 1988/1989.

When I had the chance to interview the story's writer, Jim Starlin, I asked about the death of Robin and this was his response;
DB: You went from Marvel to DC and killed Robin.

JS: Well, I always thought that the whole idea of a kid side-kick was sheer insanity. So when I started writing Batman, I immediately started lobbying to kill off Robin. At one point DC had this AIDS book they wanted to do. They sent around memos to everybody saying “What character do you think we should, you know, have him get AIDS and do this dramatic thing” and they never ended up doing this project. I kept sending them things saying “Oh, do Robin! Do Robin!” And Denny O’Neil said “We can’t kill Robin off”. Then Denny one night got this flash that “Hey, if we get this number where people call in and they can vote on it, they can decide whether Robin lives or dies.” So that’s how it started. I wrote up two endings and the readers came in and voted and I think it was 93 or something, it was this negligible amount, the difference for him to be put to death. And the death won out of course. So we did this and the book came out, Denny was on all these talk shows across the country that day saying, it’s kind of funny because he was taking credit for the whole project. But as soon as the book came out and Robin died, the executives up at DC started going “Whoof!” because they had all these lunch pails with Robin’s picture on it – suddenly it was all my idea again.

I was happy with that. How could you speak to Starlin and not be happy? Still, when I re-read the storyline in preparation for the interview something didn't seem right. In the last issue there's an exchange between Batman and the Joker that appeared to have been altered. I'd always suspected that the Joker knew Batman was Bruce Wayne, a few pages later he even indicates as much, but nowhere was it ever written, in concrete, that both men had this knowledge out in the open. There was something about that page. I put it to the back of my mind and forgot about it.

Out of the blue The Former DC Staffer emailed me and had this to say, "Here’s a story for you. I was working at DC Comics during the Death Of Robin series and I was the one entrusted to do the production work on the book, as everyone in the company knew I could keep a secret. Denny O’Neil even managed to get me a private office to do the correction work on the actual death issue. I couldn’t do a damn thing until the votes came in and when they did it was no surprise and once I finished the book it was taken from me and sealed in an envelope and sent to print.

"That isn’t the interesting part of the story.

"The next book came into production and in this story Jim Starlin had a one-page sequence where Batman confronts the Joker only to find out that the Joker now knows he’s Bruce Wayne. This stunned me as it was brilliantly written by Starlin and drawn by Jim Aparo. Then I saw all the notes attached. I was to re-letter the sequence and take out this daring revelation that would have created a great deal of conflict in Batman’s life. If you look at the page you can clearly see it was re-lettered by me and that the character’s expressions just don’t work right with the dialogue. Panel two was the big 'I know you're Bruce
Wayne!' revelation."

Here you can see the page in question. Clearly the lettering doesn't match up, so there was something done at some stage, yet I decided to contact Starlin again and ask him outright if his work had been changed to maintain the status quo. Jim was good enough to email me straight back.

"You've been misinformed," said Jim. "Never wrote anything like that. My alternative ending only had Robin living. Nothing more on the Joker than had already appeared." I followed that up with a question about the page in question, and sent over a scan with the altered letting. "That I can help you with," Jim replied, "Denny O'Neil was into secrecy on this story and budget conscious. The last page wasn't lettered until the vote on Robin was in. The alternate pages were never lettered. Not sure about the inking. My guess is John probably just wasn't available when the last page had to be lettered."

I sent copies of my correspondence to The Former DC Staffer who then sent back a few emails. One of the theories I put forward was that someone had altered Starlin's script to reflect the change that the Staffer had seen. "That sounds plausible," he replied. "So much was done in a rush that we were always fighting a deadline. Still it was an extremely powerful idea. If Starlin didn't write it WHO did? And who gave the script change to Costanza to letter? The note on the piece certainly came from Denny's office but if he wrote it I can't say. But since he
was the editor he would have to have made the final decision to change the text. But remember it was lettered with the identity revelation in place when it got to my hands." The Staffer then confirmed that he'd lettered panels 2, 4 and 7 on that page. I emailed Denny O'Neil about this but got no reply at all. Other people working on Batman at the time all said the same thing - they never saw those pages in their original form.

So what really happened back in 1988? This is one of those cases where I believe all parties concerned. My guess is that changes were made. You can clearly see that the lettering is different from panel to panel, so something was done in a different hand, and that hand appears to be The Former DC Staffer. But why were changes made in the first place?

It's well known that Jim Starlin wrote two different endings to this story-arc. One had Robin living, the other had him dying. Pages were prepared for both endings, but Starlin only really changed it for the one issue. Had Robin lived he'd had been referenced, but not seen, in the last issue. Perhaps someone, perhaps Denny O'Neil, thought that if Robin had lived then a confrontation scene between Batman and the Joker wouldn't have as much impact. Robin had been badly beaten before, it comes with the territory. Hence Joker telling Batman how he nearly killed Robin just wouldn't have been as powerful as Joker telling Batman that he knows that he is Bruce Wayne, millionaire. After all when he assaulted Robin the face mask came off, Robin's mother was there, she confirmed his identity. A simple check would have revealed that Jason Todd was the adopted son of Bruce Wayne - the rest is just logical deduction. With Robin living that would have been a shock to the system. Once the vote came in and Robin was dead, well why give away all the surprises in the one story? The death of Robin was powerful enough on it's own, no need for the reveal. So once it'd been decided what was going to happen then the change had to be made to bring the storyline back to what Starlin originally wrote. Or perhaps the changes were originally made to throw people off the scent? It's hard to imagine in this day and age of technology, but back then it was relatively easy to hide the contents of a comic book until the day of it's release. In order to maintain that mystery, and shock, perhaps the pages were originally altered to make people believe that the big reveal was that the Joker would finally tell Batman what he knows, as opposed to who he just killed.

Now the question is, who altered Starlin's original script in the first place? That one I don't have an answer to, but I suspect that someone out there does. Hopefully they'll come forward and add new light onto an old story. Until then it's just another mystery.

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