Not to get overly reductive in the way that is often mocked when people talk about criticism on the internet, but maybe a better title for Death of the Family is Fridging of the Family.
The premise is pretty straightforward. The Joker returns to Gotham, after previously escaping from Arkham and having his face surgically removed. He steals his face back from the Gotham PD Evidence locker and starts a game of cat and mouse with Batman. His objective – to make Batman cut loose. He feels that Batman’s “family” is holding him back, and if he gets rid of that, then Batman would be his true self, and the greatest opponent that the Joker could ever want.
On the one hand, if this was all the event was, then it could work. The opinion the Joker puts forward here is the same one as every fan who has talked about how much they hate the Bat Family, how Batman should be a dark brooding loner, and the Batman should kill the Joker, and so on. Basically, people whose perspective on Batman is defined by Tim Burton’s Batman films (and who Batman writers like Denny O’Neil tried to counter way back in the ’90s with the Knightsfall/Knightsquest/Knightsend event).
Unfortunately, that’s not how the book quite plays out. If you take how the story plays out strictly in Batman, it almost works out that way. The Joker one at a time manages to capture most of the various members of the Bat Family, traps them, and creates a situation where Batman would have to kill him to save their lives. However, through the ingenuity of the various members of the Bat Family, they manage to get out, and even when they are forced to fight each other by Joker Gas, their bonds as family members allow them to overcome the gas.
Except the story ends on a bitter note with basically the family members who aren’t bedridden (like Alfred), not returning Bruce’s calls when he wants to talk about it, leaving him kind of alone.
There is a second volume, called Joker: Death of the Family, which covers the side stories as part of this, focusing on each of the members of the Bat Family leading up to the final confrontation in the cave at the conclusion of the story, and which also contains the epilogue. Unfortunately, each installment of the story, save for three, effectively serves to gut each member’s own personal support network, in some cases killing parts of their support group off for the pathos of the relevant Bat Family member and to drive a wedge between them and their “family”.
There are three exceptions. The first is Harley Quinn’s story, from the Suicide Squad book, with The Joker breaking Harley out from the Suicide Squad to help with his plan, only to try to kill her after he’s done with her. In a way, it serves to put a final wedge in between Joker and Harley, to enough of a degree that hopefully no further writers feel inspired to bring that abusive relationship back together.
Next is from Ann Nocenti’s run on Catwoman. The story has Joker try to drive Catwoman away from Batman, but considering where their relationship is at this point, Joker really doesn’t get much traction with Selena. It also doesn’t play much into the larger story either, aside from the aspect of The Joker’s return. It feels more like a storyline introduced through an executive mandate.
The last one that doesn’t take a splitting maul to the main characters and their support groups is the Teen Titans tie-in from Scott Lobdell. Lobdell has some problems as a person, and with how he writes Starfire. However, I like the Titans tie-in. In part, because unlike the other tie-ins we’ll be getting to soon, it isn’t as focused on splitting the Bat-Family member off from their support group in a potentially permanent fashion. Red Robin/Tim Drake gets kidnapped, the Titans come to rescue him but are unable to do so because they just aren’t able to find him, so instead deal with saving the residents of an apartment project that the Joker had hit with Joker Gas, with Wonder Girl needing to move into a team lead position, with Arsenal on support.
The Damien Wayne/Robin III story is okay. It’s basically Damien going hunting for Alfred, who was captured by the Joker earlier in the main story and getting captured himself. Here the Joker’s rhetoric about Damien holding Batman back rings hollow – if anything, it’s the other way around. Damien, as the son of Talia Al Ghul, and who has also received training from the League of Assassins, would probably have cut a bloody swath through Batman’s rogue’s gallery if left unchecked. He would have also left a power vacuum in Gotham’s underworld that would have left the city in chaos for years, but that’s neither here nor there. Still, it makes it clear that of the members of the Bat Family, Damien is the member the Joker truly understands the least.
Probably the strongest of the tie-ins, by comparison, is the Batgirl tie-in by Gail Simone. In New 52 Batgirl, Barbara Gordon had regained the ability to walk basically through unspecified DCU superscience, but in this universe, the events of The Killing Joke still happened – so the story focuses on Batgirl finally getting to really confront the Joker for the first time, pulverizing his goons, pulverizing him, and only through circumstance being stopped from just straight fucking murdering him (or at least putting him in a wheelchair).
However, this is also probably the first story that starts splitting off Bat-Family members from their own support network. The story has The Joker kidnapping Barbara’s mother, and Barbara basically realizing that her friend and roommate is in danger, so she should break-off the friendship. We don’t get how this concludes in Batgirl’s book, so I can’t say if she follows through, or if she cuts off her supporting cast.
Things proceed to get worse with the Red Hood and the Outlaws tie-in. Jason Todd comes to Gotham with his girlfriend, only for the Joker to break into their apartment and cause her to overdose (because Jason’s mom was an addict and the Joker knows Jason Todd’s identity and killed his mother in A Death in the Family), leading to Todd to go hunting for the Joker, only to get captured and held with Tim Drake, leading to the two trying to break out… only to be captured again in time for the conclusion of the main book. The problem is that Joker is basically hospitalizing a female character for the sake of motivating the main character when you really don’t need to do that to motivate Jason Todd to chase down the Joker – you could just have him tie a note to a crowbar and stick it in Todd’s apartment. Again, A Death in the Family still happened – Jason Todd was still, at least for a little while, dead thanks to the Joker.
Probably the worst instance of this lies with Nightwing. As of the start of this event, Dick Greyson had been rolling with a circus, which had recently come into Gotham. The Joker uses the Circus to get to Nightwing – and in the course of this murders Nightwing’s love interest with Joker Toxin blows up the circus, and then doses the entire population of the circus – men, women, and children, with Joker Toxin as well. With Nightwing unable to fight them, they beat him half to death, allowing The Joker to grab Nightwing and take him to the main story’s final confrontation.
However, in the meantime, this basically takes a small yield nuclear weapon to pretty much all of Nightwing’s friends. One romantic interest is dead, the circus has been blown up, causing a massive financial setback, and any number of the actual members of the circus have been killed as well. That’s the kind of thing you don’t bounce back from – and basically, the reason this happened is for the sake of motivating Nightwing into getting captured for one scene in the climax of the main story.
I don’t know how much of this writer Kyle Higgins wanted to do from the get-go. However, it feels excessively cruel. I will admit, that I’m putting the next trade in the story on hold, as I want to know where he goes next, but depending on what the payoff to this status quo shakeup is, I may hold off until the next wave of post-relaunch material.
The epilogue mitigates this somewhat with Bruce, Damian, and Alfred haunted by nightmares due to the after-effects of the Joker Gas, but are ultimately comforted both in real life and in their nightmares by their family members. However, while this epilogue was in the main Batman comic, it wasn’t included in the book that covered the core storyline, which is frustrating.
I am still liking Snyder’s run, and I will keep reading from here – but this installment makes for a rough patch that doesn’t necessarily make me want to go further.
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