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.
The book begins with Batman and Robin beating the hell out of a kiddie porn ring.
Robin is an aggressive and broody teen, a street kid by the name of Jason Todd that Batman adopted when he found him stealing the hubcaps off of the Batmobile. He represents Generation X, a bunch of latchkey kids born in the late-70s recession that the era’s adults were simultaneously terrified of (think of the devil children of Carrie, The Omen, and Halloween) and terrified for (think of the moral panics around Satanic ritual abuse and Dungeons & Dragons). Note that in the opening scene, they’re fighting people who prey on children.
Robin flies off the handle and uses excessive force, even by Batman’s standards, against the pornographers, and he takes him off duty. Robin is out walking in his old neighborhood when a woman hails him from an abandoned building and gives him a box of his father’s belongings. Robin is examining his birth certificate when…
TWIST! It turns out that Catherine Todd isn’t his real mother. The smudged-out name on his certificate begins with an “S” and there’s only three names beginning with “S” in his father’s address book.
Any plotline with mommy stuff is a big red flag telling you to look deeper. Here, Robin’s three possible mothers are competing fantasies about mother figures. Sharmin Rosen, the Mossad agent, represents the protector mother; Shiva Woosan, mercenary, is the dangerous, exotic mother of Oedipal lust; and Sheila Haywood, the famine relief worker, is the nurturer mother. A large part of this comic is the Reagan right figuring out which of these mother figures created this new wayward generation about which it feels so ambivalent.
It’s also hilarious that this is the exact plot of the ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia!.
Meanwhile, the Joker has broken out of Arkham Asylum again and he’s headed for the Middle East with a stolen cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead.
Batman is on the case.
Like America, his membership in an “internationally recognized organization” legitimizes his actions. But also like America, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, stepping outside the confines of international law and flexing the power afforded him as a capitalist of considerable means.
Obviously, if Batman is America, then the “internationally recognized” Justice League in this analogy is the UN. Like America, Batman takes advantage of the legitimacy the Justice League lends him without being too squeamish about actually obeying the conventions of international law. This is extremely good.
Batman makes a deal with his friend at the CIA, an operator named Ralph Bundy who has no issue dealing with a mentally ill vigilante in a bat costume: He will take out a group of “Shi’ite extremists” who have captured a Navy C-130 if he can first examine the plane. These extremists are clearly Hezbollah, because it’s the 80s and Hezbollah and Iran (who we’ll get to later) are the main Middle Eastern bad guys.
Unbeknownst to Batman, Robin has also flown to Beirut in pursuit of Possible Mommy #1: Mossad Agent Sharmin Rosen. Telling his cabby (in Farsi, because everyone in Lebanon speaks Farsi in this comic) to take him to “the worst section of this city, a place where criminals gather,” he finds a Beirut “in turmoil…torn apart by armed polarized factions, each trying to seize control.”
“Seems everyone’s either armed or crippled by the war. You can feel the tension in the streets,” he observes. “This is not a place for an American.”
That everyone in Lebanon speaks Farsi in this comic speaks to a larger theme at work here where all Shi’ite Muslims are basically interchangeable and are also all pretty much evil. The baddies that have the Navy plane are referred to simply as “Shiite extremists.” Later, Lady Shiva is training another group of terrorists are also referred to only as “Shiites.” In three different times in the story arc, Starlin makes a joke of an American referring to a Middle Eastern person as “Abdul,” not caring what their actual name is.
Batman and Robin bump into each other on the street in Beirut, they realize the people they’re tracking (Rosen and an arms dealer named Peter Brando) are at the same hotel and in fact, Rosen seems to be working Brando. They track Rosen and Brando to the Israeli border where Brando and Rupert, the Joker’s fedora-wearing henchman, are brokering the deal between the Joker and the terrorists.
Batman and Robin spring into action to stop the terrorists and the Americans that brokered the deal, who have pointed the nuke at Tel Aviv.
Despite the help of “Sharmin Rosen, Israeli agent” in beating up the terrorists, Rupert and the main terrorist try to launch the missile, but it blows up on pad. The main terrorist guy is killed, but Rupert is thrown to safety. Sharmin tells Batman and Robin that she had never had any children in Gotham City. Satisfied, they give her a ride back to Beirut on their hang gliders.
Soon, Batman and Robin find themselves in the Beqaa Valley, “the very heartland of Shiite terrorist activity.” Possible Mommy #2, Shiva Woosan, the mercenary also known as Lady Shiva, appears to have been kidnapped; however, after they beat the hell out of all the terrorists, it turns out that she has actually been hired to train them.
After defeating Lady Shiva in hand-to-hand combat, Batman and Robin bring the Arabs a safe distance away and set off all the explosives in the camp, “enough to level a major city.”
They drug and interrogate Lady Shiva to find out whether she had any babies. Under the effects of Batman’s sodium pentothal, she reveals that she has not. After the drug wears off, Batman sets he free. Because this is the uncivilized Levant, there are no authorities to bring her to.
“Unfortunately, training terrorists is not against the law in this country,” Batman tells her. “You’re free to go.
Meanwhile, way ahead of Batman and and Robin, the Joker has already found Possible Mommy #3 in Ethiopia. You see, after Batman foiled his nuke sale, Joker needs money. And despite his ability to walk away with millions of dollars worth of US military machinery, he’s decided on a scheme to blackmail Sheila Haywood, an American doctor distributing medical supplies in famine-stricken Ethiopia.
It turns out that Haywood, Robin’s real mother, isn’t the ideal, nurturing mommy figure the wayward Boy Wonder needs. She is actually an on-the-lam, baby-murdering “operationist” (Starlin and/or his publishers at DC can never bring themselves to use the word “abortion,” leading to numerous awkward references to Haywood’s illegal and sloppy “operations”) who would rather help steal medical supplies from starving Africans than face justice for her crimes.
Haywood represents the perverse morality of liberalism run amok. Behind the veneer of the loving nurturer who is out to care for the needy is a self-obsessed interior twisted to the point of infanticide. Birth control, drugs, women in the workplace multiculturalism: these are the evils that created this generation of aimless brooders.
The Joker also represents liberalism run amok, with an emphasis on the amok part. He cares most about making the world mad like him and he lacks any moral or spiritual compass to guide him. Money to him is merely a means to an end and, of course, he blames his personal financial hardship on President Reagan.
Batman and Robin show up in Ethiopia shortly thereafter and are made incredibly sad by the starvation. Bruce Wayne is so moved by what he sees that he resolves to do the only thing in his power as a billionaire superhero to help the starving Africans: write them a check and forget about them.
Soon they find Dr. Haywood who is stunned to be confronted by the child she abandoned in order to flee from justice. After a brief reunion, she shunts them aside to meet with the Joker, who, with Haywood’s help, is stealing medical supplies and replacing them with his deadly laughing gas.
Batman takes off after the supply convoy in his mini-copter, leaving Robin to watch the warehouse where Haywood and the Joker are. Being a disaffected Gen X teen with a death wish, Robin rushes in to rescue his mother, revealing his secret identity in the process. Haywood, already established as a baby-killer who would abandon her own child to protect herself, promptly turns him over to the Joker.
Haywood is such a bad mother that she’ll even kill the starving Ethiopians she’s supposed to be helping by embezzling money from crucial aid efforts. She’d rather her only child die than be caught for her crimes.
Batman stops the convoy, unloads the crates of chemical weapons, and leaves them “for the army to deal with.” This is presumably the army of Mengitstu Haile Miram, the Ethiopian president later convicted of genocide. He commandeers an empty truck and drives back to the warehouse, where the Joker has been beaten Robin nearly to death with a crowbar and tied him and Haywood up with a bomb.
Despite the sudden appearance of Haywood’s maternal instincts, just as Batman pulls up, the bomb explodes, killing her and her son.
The Joker is selling the stolen medical supplies to whomever his buyer is (it’s not really clear), when he is approached by members of the Iranian secret service who want to discuss a business proposition. They bring him in to meet one of the ultimate 1980s bad guys: Ayatollah Khomeini himself!
The Ayatollah, whose sole ideology, like all Shi’ites in this comic, is wanton evil, names the Joker as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Batman sees what this means right away. Joker will now be able to commit any crime he wants free from repercussion, even from Batman, who, despite being a criminal vigilante himself, is bound to respect diplomatic immunity, lest Iran come after American diplomats.
Even though he doesn’t want to play along, Superman and CIA Agent Ralph Bundy, representing the spineless bureaucrats whose slavish adherence to the rules allows evil to triumph, tell Batman that the Joker is off-limits and that President Reagan has brought in Superman to ensure compliance.
Thanks to Bruce Wayne’s status as a billionaire, Batman is able to gain access to the UN General Assembly despite his alter ego’s “reputation as a playboy dilettante.” In his address, the Joker (wearing the ghutra and agal more associated with Iran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia, but as with the Farsi-speaking Lebanese, Muslim-y stuff is pretty interchangeable for Starlin) lays out the reasoning behind the Ayatollah appointing a mass murderer and international crook as UN ambassador.
Because he’s the Joker, he then sprays the room with his signature Joker Gas from a tank concealed beneath his Middle Eastern robe.
Luckily, Superman has also snuck in. Disguised as a security guard, he inhales all the gas, saving the UN delegates from laughing themselves to death. The Joker then detonates a bomb he’d had planted in the assembly hall and pulls out a gun and starts firing. Several delegates are killed as the Joker makes his escape to the roof. Batman follows Joker into his escape chopper, which is downed by the erratic shooting of a henchman.
Like American conservatives facing the beginning of Reagan’s second term and the impending 1990s, Batman ends the book facing an uncertain future.