Illustration by Popularium. Source images DC Comics
Camp Manitou, Maine.
The cabin is pitch black except for the glow under the covers from the flashlight belonging to the boy in the top bunk. Now we see him up close. He has a look of horror on his face. He is reading a comic book. Slowly. Attentively. Desperately.
“This is going to hurt you a lot more than it does me.”
The man — if you can call him that — smiles with twisted delight as he raises the crowbar high into the air. He smashes it down on the boy’s back, knocking him to the ground. The man strikes again… and again and again. Frame after frame. The boy’s mother looks on for as long as she can but then turns away, steeling herself with a cigarette, as if the smoke might mask her shame.
The boy under the sheet can’t look away. He sees another headstrong kid who thinks he knows better than the rest of the world, trying to right a wrong. A kid trying to connect with the only real family he has. Trying to make his surrogate father proud. But as hard as it is for him, he reads on. He is quietly crying. Shaking. He sniffles and hopes it doesn’t wake the other boys in the cabin.
The boy comes to, barely alive in a pool of his own blood, and sees his mother tied up. And even though she betrayed him — her very own son — he inches forward to try to help her. The bomb timer reads 2:04. He tells her he’ll save her. Slowly and painfully, he is able to untie her. Now it’s 0:57 and time is running out. He falls to the ground but she hauls him up and they stumble toward the door. At 0:02 she discovers the door is locked. There is no escape. 0:01.
“The Joker locked us in here!”
The boy places the comic down on his stomach, which rises up and down and up and down as he breathes heavily. He turns off the light, peeks out from underneath the covers, and looks around the cabin. Everyone else is asleep. Don’t they know what just happened? Don’t they care? He shines the light on each one of their faces. Innocent. Unaware. Like he was, just an hour or so prior.
Don’t they care that Robin is dead?!
He holds the comic close to his heart, feeling hollow. Then he rocks himself until he finally falls asleep.
Years pass. Now a teenager, he reads Batman: A Death in the Family again. Robin’s death still messes him up. The pain hasn’t gone anywhere; it’s been dormant, and it hits him all over again. Harder, even.
He’s at home with his family. But he feels even more alone then the first time in the cabin.
Yes, he loves his older brother and his dad, but both mask the bulk of their emotions and won’t understand. He’s often accused of being too sensitive. Of wearing his heart on his sleeve. He tries to contain his outbursts of elation or sadness to the privacy of his bedroom.
Generally, the boy and his father interact with rudimentary hellos and meaningless conversation. Dad does crosswords alone in one room while the he watches TV alone in the next. The boy takes interest in the performing arts, which seems to disappoint his father, who is an attorney. “Childish dreams from someone who believes in comic books,” he imagines Dad saying, let down. Yet again.
In high school, he exists mainly in the ‘friend zone’. His best pals are taller and better looking, so he’s the third wheel on dates, the funny friend who just isn’t thought of in that way by the opposite sex. He is the only one of his group who never gets a kiss, a hookup, or a girlfriend. Instead he hears, “Oh, Josh, thank you… but I see you as more of a brother… you’re just too nice.”
“Fuck me,” he thinks to himself. “I’m the ultimate sidekick.”
One afternoon during school, he randomly overhears some kids talking about Death In The Family — the very comic that has haunted him for years. He immediately perks up, trailing behind them in the hall, eavesdropping. One says, “… and this one dude programmed his computer to dial the thumbs down number every 90 seconds for eight hours. He’s the one who made the difference.”
He keeps following them, listening eagerly. Apparently, DC Comics became aware that Jason Todd’s Robin was an unpopular character, so they put his fate to a vote. They set up two 1-900 hotlines for fans to call, one for Jason to die and one for Jason to live. By a very narrow margin, the fans voted for Jason to die. He wasn’t popular enough to survive.
As he dislodges from the group and heads into the restroom, the boy remembers the time in the cabin. He can’t disconnect it from the pages in the comic. Frames with him, crying under the covers. Frames with Jason Todd, dead in Batman’s arms. He locks himself in a stall for a little while. A safe place to let his feelings out and relive the death all over again. The sad nostalgia feels like an old friend.
When Batman: Death in the Family was written in 1989, comics were changing. Specifically Batman. With the death of Robin, the days of Adam West’s campy “booms” and “pows” were gone forever, introducing much more serious Batmen for more serious times. First Keaton, then Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, and eventually Affleck. Bringing an end to the boy’s — to my — childhood, and to my sense of wonder and innocence.
It changed me. It made me different. I knew comics weren’t real. But I didn’t expect them to feel so real.
Later in life, Jason Todd returns to the pages of Batman as a vigilante called The Red Hood — a nod to his murderer, The Joker. I read it, both of us no longer innocent, and it affects me less. I guess that’s how we grow up; our childhoods kind of die in front of us. Leaving us changed. Hopefully for the better.
Or maybe just different.