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.

The Big Squeeze: How Mr. Whipple Made Advertising History

Charmin toilet paper icon Mr. Whipple in 1999.
Charmin toilet paper icon Mr. Whipple in 1999.
Bob Riha, Jr., Getty Images

In the 1970s, a handful of famous faces dominated popular culture. There was scandalized former president Richard Nixon; the Reverend Billy Graham; daredevil Evel Knievel; and boxer Muhammad Ali, among others.

Dick Wilson had a face, not a name, that might have come close to being equally recognizable. The English actor was known to millions of Americans as Mr. Whipple, the nervous grocer who spent 21 years and more than 500 commercials pleading with fictional customers to please "don't squeeze the Charmin."

Born in Preston, England, on July 30, 1916, Wilson grew up in Ontario, where he worked as a radio announcer as a teenager, and attended the Ontario College of Art and Design majoring in sculpture. (He would also later serve in the Canadian Air Force during World War II.) Wilson, who was the son of two performers—his father was a vaudeville attraction and his mother a singer—designed scenery for a dance school after graduating and got compensated in the form of dance lessons. Those skills led to Wilson becoming a comedic acrobatic performer on the vaudeville circuit, which led to acting.

The MVP of TP

When Wilson got the call to audition for a toilet paper commercial in 1964, he had already built up a long career in stage, film, and television, including one-off appearances on everything from Bewitched to McHale’s Navy. The call for the commercial came from Wilson's agent, about whom the actor joked he had put on a missing persons list due to the lack of communication.

Toilet paper mascots were, of course, nothing new. As far back as the 1920s, brands like Scott and Charmin had used a variety of figures on packaging that had positive connotations—things like babies, angels, and puppies. Scott had Mr. Thirsty Fibre, a gentleman in a top hat who seemed downright ornery. Charmin, introduced by the Hoberg Paper Company in 1928, used a woman’s silhouette and later a baby to endorse their buttock wipe. (An employee described the pattern on the roll as "charming," leading to its name.)

These mascots were necessary in a time when being explicit about the quality of toilet paper was virtually forbidden. Until 1890, magazines wouldn’t even accept ads for toilet tissue. That year, The Atlantic agreed to print a photo of a package but didn’t allow any advertising copy to accompany it. And prior to 1975, television commercials weren’t allowed use of the phrase toilet paper. It was “bathroom tissue.”

This was the world Wilson found himself in when he beat out 33 would-be Whipples to become the face of the ad campaign. The character was named after George Whipple, a public relations director for ad agency Benton & Bowles, on the premise that no one else could sue Charmin parent company Procter & Gamble, which bought Charmin in 1957, for using their name.

The Big Squeeze

In the world depicted in the ads, Mr. Whipple was a grocer who appeared to have a great deal of anxiety over customers—typically giddy housewives—who couldn’t resist squeezing the Charmin products.

The premise was devised by Benton & Bowles copywriter John Chervokas, who said he was inspired by shoppers who squeezed fruit to evaluate its firmness before buying. Chervokas also wrote Mr. Whipple’s signature plea, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.”

But squeeze it they did, across 504 ads total from 1964 to 1985. The punchline was that even Mr. Whipple himself could not resist Charmin’s softness, and often gave in to the temptation to squeeze when no one was looking.

The spots were formulaic by necessity. “What are you going to say about toilet paper?” Wilson once asked. “I think we handle it the best way we can.”

A legend is born

In an industry where human mascots can have a high turnover rate—we’re looking at you, Dell Dude—two decades is a notable achievement. Wilson himself considered it a cushy job, once noting that it took just 16 days out of the year. Charmin also provided him with a monthly shipment of toilet paper.

In return, Wilson swore loyalty to Procter & Gamble, refusing to appear in any other commercials or endorse any other products. He also faithfully followed a morals clause in order to protect the character; "I can't be seen coming out of a porn parlor,” Wilson told the Chicago Tribune in 1985.

Wilson appeared sporadically after his retirement in 1985, returning for a series of ad spots in 1999 to celebrate a new, more absorbent version of Charmin. That led to a Lifetime Achievement Award, given to him by the company in 2000, though the ceremony was delayed after a Screen Actors Guild strike complicated things. (Wilson showed up at a rally with the line, “Please don’t squeeze the actors.”)

That same year, the Charmin bear was introduced. Wilson died at age 91 in 2007. While he probably never imagined he would become nationally known for endorsing toilet paper, he maintained a sense of humor about it. When queried about his career squeezing rolls, he enjoyed pointing out where he shot his very first commercial: in Flushing, New York.

He's Also a Client: The Saga of Sy Sperling's Hair Club

Upper Playground, YouTube
Upper Playground, YouTube

Divorced, depressed, and with his midsection growing, Sy Sperling stood in front of a mirror at his home in Long Island in the late 1960s and adjusted his hair. It wasn’t his hair, exactly, but a toupee purchased for the express purpose of obscuring his prematurely shiny crown.

Though he was only 26, Sperling had been losing his hair for years. Now that he was newly single, he felt self-conscious about his receding hairline, believing it would diminish his chances with the opposite sex. He tried combing tufts of hair from the side over to the front. He tried the toupee, which looked like a road-flattened beaver. He tried weaving, which knitted human locks to his existing strands; the first time he shampooed it, it collapsed into a ball of knotted hair.

Like many pioneering spirits before him, Sperling imagined that there had to be a better way—a solution to regaining his lost self-confidence and living the life he desired.

In the coming years, Sperling and his second wife, a hairstylist, would perfect an existing approach with irresistible marketing that provided a solution for millions of follicle-deprived individuals everywhere. And much of that success came from Sperling admitting that he was not just the president. He was also a client.

 

Baldness “cures” date back to the most ancient civilizations. Egyptians used hippopotamus and crocodile fat as hair growth stimulants. In Rome, burning donkey genitals and mixing the ashes with urine was believed to help grow luscious locks. Various concoctions involving poop were believed to work, too.

In more enlightened times, thinning hair could be addressed with transplantation surgery. In 1939, a Japanese dermatologist extracted hair-bearing skin and replanted it by punching a small hole on sites affected by burn injuries. This practice was mirrored by Norman Orentreich, a New York dermatologist who successfully planted hairs into a patient with male pattern baldness in the 1950s. Orentreich was the first person to observe that hairs on the sides of the head were largely resistant to shedding and would therefore remain in place when transplanted to the top or front of the head.

For decades, this was a crude surgical practice, giving rise to a number of patients who had hair sparsely transplanted and created a reputation for heads that appeared to be implanted with “plugs.” It wasn’t until the 1990s that transplants could be more densely packed, offering a convincing restoration of the hairline.

For Sperling, who was born in 1942 and in his 20s when his hair loss became apparent, invasive surgery that was still years away from being refined wasn’t an option. After his sister admonished him to “do something” about the thinning hair that was causing him such grief, he went to a hairstylist who recommended weaving. While somewhat effective, this only seemed practical if hair was remaining on top. Toupees were out, as Sperling had a particular concern over solutions that could fall off or become dislodged during more intimate moments.

"If you're dating and going to be having special moments, how do you explain, 'I got to take my hair off now?'" he asked.

Even with its drawbacks, weaving seemed like the best option. After learning the technique from his stylist, Sperling left his job in swimming pool sales and opened his own salon on New York City's Madison Avenue in 1968. Using $10,000 in capital from credit cards, he leased a vacant business that already had barber-style chairs. Soon, he and his new wife, Amy—who, it turned out, was indifferent to his hair shortage—perfected a technique in which they used a nylon mesh fitted to the scalp. The net-like fabric allowed the head to breathe and for hairs to grow out from under it. It also acted as a base for human hair strands to be woven on top and secured with a polymer adhesive. The entire “system” was secured to the client by weaving the mesh into the hair on the sides. The result was a relatively natural-looking addition that would remain in place through showering, exercising, and—key for Sperling—sexual activity.

The approach took off, enticing New Yorkers and celebrities alike. (Sperling later insisted Jimi Hendrix came in for a fitting in 1969.) Sperling’s business grew steadily throughout the 1970s, but by 1979, sales were leveling off. The problem was that even though he had happy customers, they were reticent to tell friends about their hair-replacement efforts, so word-of-mouth was not reliable. That’s when Sperling decided to advertise.

 

Sperling’s business, then known as the Hair Club for Men, debuted on national television in 1982. One early campaign featured testimonials from actual customers, but the response was minimal. Producers had shot a second spot featuring Sperling himself and considered it as a back-up plan in case the first approach failed. The infomercial aired late at night, when advertising time was cheapest.

Though Sperling was no trained actor or orator, he was genuine. “I’m not just the president,” he said. “I’m also a client.”

When it aired, the reaction was immediate. The Hair Club got 10,000 calls in a month. Interested parties received a brochure discussing various hair-system options and why Sperling’s approach worked. By 1991, there were 40 franchise locations, where clients paid between $2000 and $3500 for a custom mesh that used colored and textured hair to match their natural growth. A maintenance appointment every two months cost $65.

By 1993, the commercial was airing 400 times a day, costing Sperling $12 million annually in advertising expenses. But it was drawing up to $100 million annually in sales. In admitting what most men wouldn't, Sperling engendered trust—and profit.

 

Later, the Hair Club for Men would undergo several cosmetic alterations to its business model. Sperling moved away from strip-mall locations for his clinics and into commercial office spaces to help provide discretion. He even used initials—HCM—on signage to promote privacy.

The “For Men” was dropped as more women suffering from hair loss due to genetics or illness came looking for assistance. Sperling also provided assistance to kids with cancer diagnoses. Through it all, he sold something more than polymers and mesh: Hair Club trafficked in confidence and self-esteem. He allowed reporters to tug on his own hair as a demonstration of quality. It would barely move. "Not bad, eh?" he asked a Spy journalist in 1991. "It really is an amazing transformation."

The hair stayed in place, but Sperling didn’t. In 2000, he sold Hair Club for $45 million to a group of investors who turned around and sold it in 2005 to the Regis hair company for $210 million. Today, Hair Club still offers solutions similar to what Sperling marketed, as well as proven topical treatments like Rogaine (minoxidil), laser combs purported to stimulate growth, and transplantation surgery.

Sperling had an impressive 15-year non-compete clause for the initial sale and spent time in Vancouver and Florida until his death at age 78 in February 2020. Photographs of Sperling in his later years showed that the septuagenarian still had a full head of hair.

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