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Revisiting Batman's 'a Death in the Family' controversial fan vote

(Image credit: DC)

With Warner Bros. Animation adapting the seminal Batman storyline 'A Death in the Family' for an animated film due out October 13, we're re-posting this May 2020 article on the comic book storyline's controversial fan vote to decide whether Robin would live or die.

Before the existence of social media, how did the comic book industry make sure comic fans' voices were heard? In 1988, the four-issue Batman arc 'A Death in the Family' gave fans the power to decide if Robin (a.k.a. Jason Todd) would live or die - and, spoilers, they chose the latter.

(Image credit: DC)

With 10,614 votes tallied and a slim 72 vote difference, Jason Todd's death was decided by fans - and carried out by DC, writer Jim Starlin, and artist Jim Aparo.

From a modern perspective it seems chilling, but what was it like in the heat of the moment?

"There was a lot of talk about the voting," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Stuff in Concord, California. "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."

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."

(Image credit: DC)

Former DC president/publisher Paul Levitz tells Newsarama that he remains 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 Dennis O'Neil says 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 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."

(Image credit: DC)

DC's then-president/editor-in-chief Jenette Kahn echoes 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 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 tells Newsarama. "But that was the grim and gritty '80s."

Levitz says 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.

(Image credit: DC)

"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 tells Newsarama. "But I understood marketing enough to go along with the idea."

That being said, even before the voting was announced he 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 says.

Despite their speculation, DC had Starlin, Aparo, and DeCarlo create two different endings to account for fans' 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. "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."

(Image credit: DC)

In a recent 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 tells Newsarama said he thought fans would vote for Jason Todd's death and was surprised by the slim margin of 72 votes.

(Image credit: DC)

"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 tells Newsarama.

32 years later and after Jason Todd's return from death in Batman's 'Hush' storyline, '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 explains. "Given his later reappearance as the Red Hood, Jason is still a key character in the world of Batman."

Kat Calamia

Kat has been working in the comic book industry as a critic for over a decade with her YouTube channel, Comic Uno. She’s been writing for Newsarama since 2017 and also currently writes for DC Comics’ DC Universe - bylines include IGN, Fandom, and TV Guide. She writes her own comics with her titles Like Father, Like Daughter and They Call Her…The Dancer. Calamia has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and minor in Journalism through Marymount Manhattan and a MFA in Writing and Producing Television from LIU Brooklyn.