Certain corners of the internet were abuzz this week when voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammill hinted at possible animated adaptations of two classic Batman storylines: Hush and A Death in the Family.
If you’re a comics-obsessed dork, you’ve already read A Death in the Family. If you aren’t, you should read it because it’s fucking incredible. The comic is an amazing artifact of Reagan-era conservative panic, a fevered nightmare where Robin is a moody Gen X street kid, Batman is aided by his friends in the CIA, and the Joker is dealing arms to Hezbollah. The only thing missing is a scheming Japanese business tycoon.
Bringing the whole thing together is an insane Mamma Mia! plot where Robin tries to discover the identity of his mother: Is it the Mossad agent Sharmin Rosen? The mercenary Shiva Woosan, who is training Arab terrorists? Or Sheila Haywood, the famine relief worker in Ethiopia?
Batman, the story of an orphaned billionaire who fights crime in his hopelessly corrupt city using only his own intelligence and ingenuity, is an essential American myth. The way we tell and re-tell his stories reflects a lot about our culture.
A Death in the Family is both an important piece of the Batman canon and an indispensable text for analyzing the Reagan era. In the story, Jason Todd – the second Robin – dies at the hands of the Joker shortly after Batman’s archnemesis crippled Batgirl Barbara Gordon. In real life, comic book readers voted by dialing a 1-900 number to kill the unpopular, Generation X Robin. Earlier in 1988, the year the arc began, writer Jim Starlin introduced the character KGBeast, a superpowered Soviet assassin.
This book not only uniquely captures the moral terror of late-80s conservatives, it illustrates the pathologies running through large parts of American culture at the time. In A Death in the Family Batman becomes an avatar of the moral superiority of American capitalism, using all the tools at his disposal to battle the legacy of liberalism gone mad, rampant moral perversion, and the threat of Shia Islam to Western hegemony in the Middle East, all of which are threatening to destroy the future, a generation of ungrateful, disaffected slackers.
Which is to say, there’s a whole lot to unpack here.