When Bloodthirsty Batman Readers Voted to Kill Off Robin

DC Comics
DC Comics

Denny O’Neil kept thinking about Larry the Lobster. O’Neil, who served as the group editor of the Batman family of comic book titles for DC Comics in the 1980s, was at a writer’s retreat in upstate New York in 1988 when he and other staffers began discussing the best way to address growing reader dissent with the current incarnation of Robin. Batman’s newest sidekick—a street urchin named Jason Todd—was sullen and moody, a sharp contrast to the gleeful energy of former ward Dick Grayson. Fans called him whiny and petulant. Measures needed to be taken.

During the conversation, O’Neil suddenly remembered a 1982 skit from Saturday Night Live in which cast member Eddie Murphy threatened to boil a lobster named Larry on air unless viewers phoned in and begged for clemency. Or, Murphy told them, they could dial a separate 900 number to cast a vote for his death. The following week, Murphy announced the lobster had earned a stay of execution. He ate it anyway.

O’Neil wondered if the same gimmick could be applied to comics. If fans hated Robin so much, O’Neil thought, then perhaps they should feel culpable for killing him.

 

Death in comics was nothing new. Saddled with decades of continuity and running the risk of repeating themselves, comics writers often turn to tragedy to shake up the status quo. Comic book covers of the 1950s—the clickbait of their time—often hinted at a demise inside, though it was usually a case of misdirection. In 1973, Marvel allowed Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, to plummet to her death during a scuffle with the Green Goblin. (In the next issue, the Goblin, a.k.a. Norman Osborn, met his maker.) In the 1980s, one iteration of Captain Marvel succumbed to that most human of weaknesses: cancer.

DC had enlisted the Grim Reaper, too, killing off the Flash and Supergirl during their 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover that attempted to sort out the publisher’s confusing timelines.

It was the clean slate of Crisis on Infinite Earths that allowed O’Neil to improve upon Jason Todd’s origin story. Originally introduced in Batman #357 (1983) as a trapeze artist whose parents fell to their death, Todd’s background was a virtual carbon copy of Dick Grayson’s, who had first appeared as Robin back in 1940. After more than 40 years as the Dark Knight's sidekick, Grayson came into his own and adopted the mantle of Nightwing, another player in the DC Universe. Which left a spot open for a new Robin. Enter Todd who, under O'Neil's supervision, was first discovered trying to liberate a wheel from the Batmobile. Impressed with the kid’s courage, Batman enlisted him to bust a child crime ring. After a bit of superhero training, he became an official costumed sidekick. 

Batman holds an injured Robin in a DC Comics illustration by Jim Aparo
DC Comics

Jim Starlin, who had recently come on board as writer for the main Batman title—and who had killed off Captain Marvel for Marvel—had never particularly liked any version of Robin; he preferred to depict Batman as a troubled loner. While Starlin had advocated for Robin’s demise as far back as 1984, this latest iteration was especially grating to him, as Todd often ignored orders and brooded incessantly. When DC floated the idea of having one of their characters contract HIV, it was Starlin who repeatedly suggested giving Robin the virus.

The publisher didn’t go for that, but O’Neil’s idea to have readers cast their own votes gained momentum within the company. Starlin needed no convincing and wove a four-issue plot, “Death in the Family,” in which Todd discovers his biological mother is alive and working in Ethiopia. He travels to see her, but realizes she has been recruited by the Joker to sell stolen medical supplies. Todd's only choice is to confront the iconic villain—a showdown that sees him beaten nearly to death with a crowbar and left to die in an explosion.

An ad at the conclusion of the issue breathlessly told readers that Robin’s ultimate fate was in their hands. “Robin will die because the Joker wants revenge, but you can prevent it with a telephone call,” it read. Dialing one 900 number cast a vote for his survival; dialing another would help seal his doom. Each call cost 50 cents.

The lines were only open for a 36-hour period on September 16 and 17, 1988. Approximately 10,614 calls were received. Of those, 5271 backed a second chance, while 5343 threw dirt on Todd’s face. Robin would die, executed by a margin of just 72 votes—though that may not have represented 72 people. At least one anti-Robin activist admitted to calling in four times to cement the sidekick's death.

In Batman #428, which hit stands that October, the Dark Knight finds a bloodied Todd in the rubble. (Two endings had been prepared by Starlin and artist Jim Aparo; the winning conclusion was the one rushed to press.) To make matters worse, Batman discovers that the Joker has been named an ambassador to the United Nations by the Ayatollah Khomeini and now has diplomatic immunity.

Starlin got his wish. So did the majority of fans. But DC wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

 

With the mainstream media not quite hip to the fact that death is often not a permanent condition in comics, hundreds of headlines that fall ran with the news that Batman’s perennial sidekick had perished. “Holy Hearse, Batman!” read the Arizona Daily Star. Press calls flooded into DC’s offices. O’Neil gave interviews for three days straight, and was eventually cut off by a concerned DC public relations employee who feared that all the attention was reflecting poorly on the company.

For most of the public, the “Robin’s Dead” notices were scanned without much regard for which Robin died—it was the aloof Todd who had met his maker, not the beloved Dick Grayson. DC’s marketing arm was jolted, as thousands of lunchboxes, shirts, and toys were now doubling as memorials for Batman's deceased sidekick. (For better or worse, Robin was not a part of Tim Burton’s Batman, which was set to arrive in theaters just seven months later.) Starlin later said, perhaps only half-jokingly, that O’Neil took credit for the idea until executives grew annoyed, at which point Starlin became the man who killed the Boy Wonder.

Batman stands in front of the Bat symbol in this book collection illustration
iStock.com/neilkendall

Batman #428 and the other connected issues sold out, with the issues going for $20 to $40 apiece in the collector’s aftermarket. DC would later use the death trope to even greater effect with their 1993 “Death of Superman” saga, selling millions of copies, some of them bagged with a black armband for proper mourning.

Superman returned, of course. So did Todd. He was later revealed as the Red Hood, a Batman nemesis who is slated to appear on the DC Universe streaming series Titans alongside original Robin Dick Grayson. Still, Todd's death seemed to teach O’Neil a lesson about the enduring appeal of comic mythology and the responsibility that goes along with it.

“It changed my mind about what I did for a living,” O'Neil said. “I realized that, no, I am in charge of post-modern folklore. These characters have been around so long and so ubiquitously that they are our modern equivalent of Paul Bunyan and mythic figures of earlier ages.”

Just because it was O'Neil's idea to let fans decide Robin's fate doesn't mean he was in favor of his demise. During the brief window the phone lines were open, O’Neil picked up his phone. He dialed the 900 number in support of saving him.

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER