A Death in the Family is a Batman comic book story arc first published in the late 1980s, which gave fans the ability to influence the story through voting with a 900 number. "A Death in the Family" ran in Batman #426-429, published in 1988-1989. The story was credited to Jim Starlin (script), Jim Aparo (pencil), Mike DeCarlo (ink), Adrienne Roy (color), and John Costanza (lettering). Covers were illustrated by Mike Mignola. The story is also collected as a trade paperback under the title Batman: A Death in the Family, which has gone through multiple printings and is still available today.
The story is divided up into four chapters, but all centre on the life and death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Prior to this, Jason's backstory had been changed in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths. No longer the redheaded child of circus acrobats slain by Killer Croc, Jason was re-imagined as a vagrant who first ran into Batman after stealing the tires off of the Batmobile. After rescuing him from a school dedicated to creating young criminals, Batman recruited the young boy to be the new Robin, as the original, Dick Grayson, had left and became his own man following being shot by the Joker. However, Jason was still full of rage and he would channel it during his beatdowns, culminating in an ambiguous ending where Jason chases down the son of a foreign diplomat in revenge for the girl he killed, only for the man to fall to his death, leaving it unknown to both Batman and the readers if the man slipped and fell or if Jason crossed the line and pushed him. Fans did not like the Darker and Edgier Robin and something had to be done. Unsure whether to kill Todd off or simply retool his character, the staff set up a phone poll to let readers decide, inspired by a 1982 episode of Saturday Night Live where Eddie Murphy used a similar stunt to decide the fate of a live lobster in a chef's kitchen.
In the beginning of the story, Jason and Bruce are in uniform hiding behind some crates while a mob plans. Then, out of the blue, an impatient Jason leaps out from behind the crates and attacks the criminals. When the struggle is over, Bruce asks him what the devil he was doing and said one of these times he is going to get killed. Bruce then asks him if he thinks this is a game, and Jason replies "Yes, life is a game." Bruce therefore relieves him from duty and asks him about his parents. Jason resents this and storms out, refusing to discuss the issue.
A short while later, Jason bumps into a person from his past, who gives him a box containing some evidence that the persons he knew as his parents aren't actually his biological mom and dad. Believing that his mother is alive somewhere, Jason takes off to find her and Batman is reluctantly forced to join him. Their initial efforts prove fruitless, but eventually they track his mother to a refugee aid camp in Ethiopia. Unfortunately for Jason, the Joker has plans for him and his mother, and Chapter 1 ends with Jason dead, Batman mournfully holding his body in his arms à la La Pietà. The fans got what they wanted, only to regret it as soon as they got it.
Chapter 2 involves Batman's attempts to get even with the Joker for what he did, which are complicated by the Joker becoming Iran's representative at the United Nations, which grants him Diplomatic Impunity and leads the US Government to recruit Superman to prevent Bruce from doing anything that could cause a diplomatic incident. When the Joker tries to gas-bomb the UN Chambers, Superman and Batman team up to stop him. Unfortunately for Batman, though, Joker ends up going down in a helicopter that crashes into the ocean, and of course he comes back later. Batman laments that things between him and the Joker always end that way: unresolved.
The later chapters dealt with Batman falling into a Heroic BSoD that saw him becoming increasingly brutal and fatalistic because of his unresolved guilt over Jason's death, as well as the efforts of Tim Drake, a young boy who idolized Dick Grayson, to convince Dick to be Batman's Robin again, believing that only a sidekick could snap Bruce out of his funk. Ironically, these events paved the way for Tim himself to take the mantle of Robin.
The story was loosely adapted into the prologue of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies film Batman: Under the Red Hood, which also featured the follow-up comic storyline "Under the Hood", but changed it to be a Ra's al Ghul distraction plot Gone Horribly Wrong and Word Of God revealed that this event happened in the Time Skip between seasons one and two of Young Justice (2010). DC Showcase Batman: Death in the Family, released in 2020, is an interactive short that gives the viewer the choice to have Batman save Robin, have him die, or have him cheat death, each choice leading to new scenarios with their own consequences. The actors from Under the Red Hood reprised their roles.
- Ambiguous Situation: When Joker spots Bruce Wayne at the UN, they stare at each other for several panels (with Bruce looking really angry), then Joker walks away laughing. It's ambiguous whether Joker is just laughing because he thought he recognized Batman, or because he actually recognized Batman (of course, given how many people the Joker has murdered over the years, he could just figure it's someone who lost a friend or family member to one of his sprees, and he's enjoying yet another person having been affected by his actions).
- Audience Participation: Jason Todd's fate was decided through a fan telephone poll, a move that was inspired by the "Larry the Lobster" skit in Saturday Night Live.
- Bad Boss: The Joker, who "pays" his Mooks in Ethiopia with a dose of his laughing gas when he doesn't need them anymore.
- Beige Prose: From the ads and cover of the fourth book, also serving as a Late-Arrival Spoiler for those who thought Status Quo Is God: "Robin is dead, murdered by the Joker."
- Bloody Smile: The Joker has just given Robin II/Jason Todd a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown. What does Jason do after he gives Joker a Spiteful Spit? He smiles at him.
- Continuity Nod: This was possibly the first 'mainline' comic to acknowledge the events of The Killing Joke, noting the superhero community and especially Jason are furious with the Joker for what he did to Barbara. Later, the wheelchair-bound Barbara is seen attending Jason's funeral.
- Contrived Coincidence: Even though Batman's hunt for the Joker and Jason's quest to find his true mother are separate and cross borders, the Joker manages to turn up exactly where Jason is going twice during the story, allowing Batman to team up with Jason again and ensuring that Bruce will be there when Jason is killed by the Joker.
- Critical Research Failure: When the Joker allies with Iran, he starts wearing a traditional Arabic headdress and robes. Except that Iran isn't an Arabic country. For an American comparison, this is like if a New Yorker was depicted wearing a Texas cowboy outfit. The writers believing All Muslims Are Arab is the likely cause of this. However, it would also be totally in-character for the Joker to intentionally wear the wrong cultural clothing to troll his "allies".
- Crowbar Combatant: The Joker uses a crowbar to attack Jason.
- Didn't Think This Through:
- Several delegates in the United Nations show up for the Joker's speech, you can guess what happens as a result.
- After Joker had beaten Jason with a crowbar to near-death, Sheila warns him that Batman is still out there and may exact revenge for mutilating his young partner. Joker worriedly admits that he hadn't thought about it... and comes up with an idea to get rid of all evidence by blowing up both Jason and his mother, along with entire warehouse.
- Diplomatic Impunity: The Joker somehow becomes Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.
- Downer Ending: Oh sure, Joker has been stopped, but Jason and his mother are dead, and the Joker escapes so he does not have to answer for his crimes. Batman also ends the story on the dismal note that the conflict between himself and Joker will never be resolved.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: Jason Todd is brutally beaten with a crowbar and dies in an explosion alongside his mother. Additionally, Robin's broken body is visible, as well as Batman's reactions to checking Robin's pulse and the realization of his sidekick's death. He also has to strip Robin of his clothes to disguise his secret identity.
- Forgot About His Powers: Somehow Superman is not able to find the Joker's body when he goes down in the flaming helicopter. There wasn't anything special about the helicopter or the ocean, his Super Senses should have spotted Joker easily.
- Heel Realization: Sheila's dying moments have her realize that Jason, whom she'd already betrayed, was desperately trying to save her life, and tries to help Jason escape with her.
- Hero Antagonist: The UN calls in Superman because they correctly assume Batman is not going to like Joker being made Iran's ambassador to the UN and don't want him to cause an international incident. To Superman's credit he doesn't like the job but recognizes it's importance, which is why he holds Batman back.
- Hope Spot: Badly concussed but still alive, Robin frees both himself and his mother from their bondage. Knowing that he can't disarm the bomb, they go for the door instead, as Joker's goons have already fled to safety... only to find the door locked. Kaboom. Said Kaboom happens at the end of part 3, making readers wait until part 4 to see if Jason survives. Adding to the Hope Spot is Batman racing to the scene, only to arrive right when the bomb goes off.
- Ignored Epiphany: When Joker starts beating Jason with a crowbar, Sheila seems horrified and remorseful at first. But a moment later, she just walks away and helps herself to a cigarette, with a stern look on her face.
- Late-Arrival Spoiler: At the time, many people dismissed the voting as a publicity gimmick, and that Robin would naturally live. The ads for issue 4 stated otherwise: "Robin is dead, murdered by the Joker."
- Lonely Funeral: A total of five people attend Jason Todd's funeral: Bruce, Alfred, Jim and Barbara Gordon, and a priest. Though there are a number of reasons as to why. First, Jason was only in his mid-teens at the time, and as the narration states "Jason's life was too short for his passing to cause many ripples." Second, Dick Grayson, the first Robin and Jason's surrogate brother, had been on an adventure in space at the time, and didn't find out about Jason's death until he returned to Earth. Third, Jason was usually busy with his duties as Robin in Gotham, preventing him from forming friendships with civilians or other heroes.
- Misblamed: In-Universe, whenever the story is referenced later, Jason's mother, and the role she played, are completely forgotten, leading to writers blaming Jason for his own death.
- Missing Mom: Jason is trying to find his. There are three women in this story who potentially fit in the profile. And the third one is his mom. Her name is Sheila Haywood, she's an aid worker in Magdala, Ethiopia... and she turns out to have massive issues.
- My Greatest Failure: The death of Jason is and will always be this for Batman.
- Never Found the Body: The Joker is shot and left in a helicopter that crashes into the ocean. However, his body can't be found afterwards. Batman seems aware of this trope, since when Batman washes up he repeatedly tells Superman to find the body.
- Horrifyingly averted for Robin, showing the writers were aware of this trope. Jason's body is clearly seen, clearly dead, and clearly identified.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Joker delivers a very brutal beatdown to Jason with a crowbar. When he's done, his gloves, pants and the crowbar itself are all drenched in blood.
- Nothing Is the Same Anymore: It took decades for the Batman to recover from this storyline.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Bruce after Jason is murdered by the Joker.
- Papa Wolf: Batman, obviously. He is so impossibly pissed off at The Joker for what he did to poor Jason that he comes this close to killing him, and only Superman's intervention stops him.
- Parental Betrayal:
- Sheila Haywood pulls a gun on Jason to prevent him from foiling the Joker's plot since it would expose her own crimes as well.
- Bruce later admits he sees this in himself, as Robin was a child when he died.
- Pietà Plagiarism: Included as the cover and the used in-story, with Batman kindly holding Jason's lifeless body and sorrowfully carrying him away◊ in his arms. It's re-created in Batman: Under the Red Hood.
- This trope also showed up in the unused "Jason Lives" ending, though this time with a jubilant Batman exclaiming "He's alive! Thank God!" (though its variation would later be used in the Batman Annual #25 story, "The Return of Jason Todd").
- Popularity Power: Invoked by DC in regards to the ending of the story - Fans could phone one of two telephone numbers to decide if Jason would live or die at the Joker's hands. He very nearly survived, in part to news outlets picking up the story but merely reporting that it was Robin who could die & not mentioning it wasn't the original Robin. Denny O'Neil later said that they discovered that someone had rigged the poll by setting up a computer to dial the hotline and vote "die" eighty-six times, meaning he was even closer to survive.
- Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh...: Batman punches Superman. This naturally proves to be a dumb idea.
- Redemption Equals Death: Sheila tries to make up for her betrayal by getting heavily wounded Jason out of the warehouse rigged to explode — although she could escape faster by herself and leave him behind. Unfortunately, the door turns out to be locked anyway, so they are both killed when the bomb goes off. In her dying words, she says that Jason is a good boy and she did not deserve him.
- Seemingly-Wholesome '50s Girl: Dr. Haywood looks just like Doris Day. Otherwise, she is nothing like Doris Day.
- Senseless Sacrifice: Batman finds Sheila terribly injured from the bomb blast, and she tells him that her son Jason tried shielding her from the full force of the blast and ended up dying. However, his sacrifice is in vain all too soon, as she dies in Batman's arms shortly afterward.
- Shooting Superman: In this case, Punching Superman, as Batman slugs Superman in grief. Superman mentally notes that he had to roll with that punch because if he took it, Batman would have broken his entire hand.
- Superman Stays Out of Gotham: Averted, with a lampshade on the aversion — when Superman thwarts the Joker's attempt to gas the UN, the Joker complains that it's "unfair" for Superman to get involved in his affairs.
- Take That!:
- A rather unsubtle one to the Iranian government and the Ayatollah Khomeini specifically, who literally appoint a mass-murdering psychopath as their United Nations ambassador for the purpose of murdering the General Assembly. Given the state of U.S.-Iranian relations in The '80s, it's not too far from what films and television shows were doing.
- And one to the United States government, especially those involved in the Iran-Contra Scandal of the period, since they allow the Joker — the Joker! — to speak to the General Assembly because of what are strongly implied to be secret dealings with Iran.
- Truth Serums: Although he regrets the necessity of its use, Batman uses sodium pentothal on Lady Shiva to get her to say whether or not she is Jason's mother.
- The Unreveal: While it had been played with before whether the Joker knew Batman's Secret Identity, the final chapter has a Quiet Drama Scene where the Joker notices Bruce Wayne in the crowd, and they simply stare at each other. Jason had publicly been Wayne's ward for some time, and had been unmasked and confessed his identity shortly before his death, which the Joker could have overheard.
- Wham Episode: For years, DC had been trying to reinvent Batman the way they'd done Superman and Wonder Woman post-Crisis. For decades, they tried to get the Joker out from under the shadow of the 60s TV show. This arc, combined with The Killing Joke, did both.