Much as churches have constituents who only attend twice yearly on Easter and Christmas, thus do comic books have buyers only seen in stores whenever mainstream media headlines alert all of Earth to the death of a major character. Such casual super-hero fans are doubtlessly well aware of this week’s main event, courtesy of DC Comics and Batman Inc. #8.
If you’re somehow not aware of the heavily publicized ending and were hoping to read it for yourself this weekend or during spring break, you may wish to stop reading now, and possibly unplug your Internet this instant. You’ll also need to see if someone can sell you a coverless copy of the issue, because the cover broadcasts the ending with no attempt at subtlety or surprise. I trust this is sufficient spoiler alert for the two comic-collecting hermits out there unaware of the character’s fate in question. Now’s your chance to flee and save yourselves.
Before 1985, headlines such as we’ve seen this week never existed because the most famous super-heroes — i.e., those who sold the most merchandise or crossed over into TV or movies — never died. They might have tense cliffhangers, close calls, or uncomfortable situations, but they didn’t die. The first such slow-news-day meltdown in my cognizant lifetime occurred when Supergirl and the Flash died in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Reporters were stunned. America was shocked. Suddenly this was important . Super-heroes were never killed, especially not characters who had been around in various forms for decades, even if one of them had starred in a pretty lousy movie. Outsiders had no idea what to think. Readers at the time weren’t jaded yet and likewise struggled to cope with this brutal shift in DC’s status quo.
Fast-forward seven years later: DC kills again! This time it’s no mere beloved hero, but the hero to end all heroes. I distinctly recall that fabled day in 1992 when I skipped an 11 a.m. college English class, drove to the comic shop nearest campus, and waited in a long line to enter when they opened at noon. Never before had I seen such a line to enter a shop, nor have I seen one since, mostly because I’m not remotely interested in treating a comic book like a rock star. Credit DC for announcing to the media that Superman #75, available in multiple formats, would feature the death of the one and only Man of Steel. Everyone in America decided this issue must be theirs — mothers, grandmothers, former readers, movie/TV fans who’d never even read a comic, and shameless comic investors looking to score as many copies as possible to resell for twenty times the cover price to other gullible, affluent folks. When the doors opened, the store — normally cramped with its narrow walkways and dozens of back-issue boxes scattered to and fro — packed so many dozens of us in so tightly, any competent fire marshal would’ve blown the whistle and started evacuating by 12:05. As I recall, my experience was far from unique nationwide.
It didn’t take long for Marvel and DC executives to figure out that major character deaths are a powerful promotional tool to move large quantities of product. It became an easy formula for success: kill someone everyone’s heard of; pass along the word to reporters; then let newspapers and local evening news spread the word for you, far more cost-effectively than your meager advertising budget could handle alone. Next thing you know, you’re swimming in surplus dollars above and beyond what the normal, hardcore fan base spends month-in-month-out.
We’ve witnessed this same stunt multiple other times: the second Robin (Jason Todd) in 1988; another Robin (Stephanie Brown) in 2004; Captain America in 2007; Batman in 2008; the Human Torch in 2011; the “Ultimate” version of Spider-Man in 2011; and the normal Marvel Universe version of Spidey in 2012. Each time our name-brand heroes died, journalists covered the occasion in utmost solemnity and drove crowds of non-geek looky-loos into comic shops, where they snapped up copies of the one issue without making any other purchases, not even the preceding chapters in the story that might lend the moment any context or meaning. Whether or not any of them truly believed the death at hand really meant anything, let alone represented a permanent change, was beside the point. Either DC or Marvel rang the Pavlovian MAJOR HERO DEATH bell; consumer conditioning kicked in; and thus did the fly-by-night readership answer the summons.
Today’s weekly trip to my local comic shop went as well as I could expect under the circumstances. I arrived later than I’d hoped due to work-related interference and was fortunate enough to nab their last copy of Batman Inc. #8. Bear in mind this was no act of hypocrisy on my part. I’ve been collecting the series since its previous incarnation, since before the New-52 relaunch. I was merely keeping up with the story in progress, one that’s been inconsistent in quality, but never boring or predictable. Sure enough, the issue sold out two hours after opening, even though my shop set a limit of one copy per customer. Online news reports confirm copies are already up on eBay for extravagant prices.
If you’re among those hardy few resisting that siren’s call, allow me to summarize the Big Deal:
This issue, Robin dies. Yes, again. Yes, another Robin. This incarnation’s secret identity is Damian Wayne, a laboratory-grown ten-year-old brat whose unwitting father is the Bruce Wayne, and whose mother is Talia al Ghul, daughter of longtime Bat-villain Ra’s al Ghul. After years of being raised by his mom and her loyal assassins, Damian wound up in Batman’s care with precocious athletic skills and literal killer instincts. Over the years he’s learned a lot, softened a little, and toned down his arrogance to a more tolerable, almost cute level.
As brought to us by hyperimaginative writer/creator Grant Morrison and talented artist Chris Burnham, this issue is not a standalone story that brings new readers up to speed by summarizing the previous several dozen installments. It’s a very late chapter in the Batman saga that Morrison has been weaving since 2006, a longform narrative with only four more parts left before The End.
What you get for your money is this, in brief: Gotham City is a mess (yes, again). Wayne Enterprises is one of many locales under attack by Talia’s evil forces, which include everything from hulking murderers to kids with baseball bats. While Batman is indisposed in a deathtrap, Nightwing (the former, original Robin), Red Robin (another former Robin), and cocky li’l Damian rush in to save innocents. They fight and fight and fight. Thanks to one bruiser in particular called the Heretic (whose name is mentioned nowhere in this issue), Damian doesn’t make it to the end. Batman arrives too late and has another dead Robin to add to his collection. To be continued.
This is the major hero who just died, so to speak. These are the twenty-two pages that your $2.99 would’ve bought if you located it at cover price. If Damian means a lot to you and you know what “Leviathan” is in context, you’ll appreciate the confluence of past story elements in this installment, the brief exchanges between Batman and Talia, and the emotional nuances in the moments shared between Robins past and present. DC should be announcing second and third printings for your benefit shortly.
If you’ve never heard of Damian Wayne before this week, but absolutely positively must own a copy of THE DEATH OF ROBIN for yourself, because this twenty-two-page fight scene is sure to be a collector’s item classic, despite the heavy promotion that’s marked the occasion with all the dignity of a lurid tabloid, regardless of whether or not DC brings back Damian alive and well within the next five years…if this is still on your want list to be acquired by any means necessary now now now now now, then it remains your privilege to spend as much as you’d like to obtain what I expect will be the only comic book you’ll purchase this year.
Boy, does DC have a treat for you. Go fetch.