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.

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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The lifetime membership that’s currently discounted is intended to allow you to learn at your own pace so you don’t burn out, which would be pretty difficult to do because the lessons have you building advanced games in just your first few hours of learning. The remote classes will train you with step-by-step, hands-on projects that more than 50,000 other students around the world can vouch for.

Once you’ve nailed the basics, the lifetime membership provides unlimited access to thousands of dollars' worth of royalty-free game art and textures to use in your 2D or 3D designs. Support from instructors and professionals with over 16 years of game industry experience will guide you from start to finish, where you’ll be equipped to land a job doing something you truly love.

Earn money doing what you love with an education from the School of Game Design’s lifetime membership, currently discounted at $49.

 

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The Fur Trade: How the Care Bears Conquered the '80s

Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

How do you patent a teddy bear? That was the question facing executives at American Greetings, the popular greeting card company, and toy kingpin Kenner in the early 1980s. American Greetings was coming off the success of Strawberry Shortcake, an apple-cheeked sensation that adorned cards and hundreds of licensed products. Kenner was the force behind the Star Wars action figure line, which rolled out in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the biggest success stories in the history of the toy industry.

Now the two companies wanted to collaborate on a line of teddy bears. For Kenner, it was an opportunity to break into the lucrative plush toy market. For American Greetings, having a stuffed, furry iteration of a greeting card—complete with a name, a unique color, and an emotional message—was the goal. The solution? Put greeting card-esque designs on the bears's stomachs and call them Care Bears. It was a simple idea that proceeded to rake in roughly $2 billion in sales in the Care Bears's first five years alone.

 

Strawberry Shortcake was the brainchild of Those Characters From Cleveland, a creative subsidiary of American Greetings headed up by co-presidents Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer. (While on a business meeting on the West Coast, the two overheard a receptionist telling someone that “those guys from Cleveland” were there, inspiring the name.) Given a mission from Kenner to reinvent the teddy bear, a childhood staple since the turn of the 20th century, Those Characters recruited cartoonist Dave Polter and freelance artist Elena Kucharik.

Shaffer examined the rainbow, heart, and other greeting card designs submitted by Polter. He then examined the bear sketches turned in by Kucharik. They fit together like two puzzle pieces. Putting the colorful designs on the bear’s stomach gave it a quality similar to the sentimental cards American Greetings was known for.

Two Care Bears are pictured at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears symbolize friendship—and billions of dollars in revenue.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

Those Characters continued to refine the look of the bears, compressing their frame and giving them a little extra volume to make them more squeezable, and a heart-shaped button on their rear ends identified them as Care Bears. American Greetings was able to secure a patent based on the graphic design of their bellies. Their two-dimensional look was fleshed out by Sue Trentel, a plush designer who was able to craft a teddy that resembled the drawings.

The creative team eventually settled on a lineup of 10 bears, each one a different color and reflecting a different emotional dimension. There was Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear, and Wish Bear, along with one anomaly. To balance out the potential overdose of saccharine feelings, Grumpy Bear was added. In the narrative devised by Those Characters, the Care Bears lived in a giant castle and went out on missions of caring.

While Kenner was leading the charge in terms of marketing, American Greetings knew they had a premise with broad appeal. Before any Care Bears made it to shelves, the company secured 26 licensees to manufacture everything from clothing to bedsheets to coloring books. Retailers who may have been reluctant to devote store space to a new line of teddy bears were impressed by the support, leading chains like Walmart, Kmart, and Target to quickly sign on.

 

To complement the launch of the Care Bears at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York City, Kenner president Bernie Loomis mounted a major Broadway-style stage production at a cost of roughly $1 million. During the show, Strawberry Shortcake made an appearance to introduce the next great merchandising craze.

The bears went on sale that March and quickly sold out. Desperate for more product, Kenner promised a factory owner in Taiwan a new Mercedes if he could make 1 million more Care Bears—and quickly. (Kenner got their bears, and the factory owner got his car.) American Greetings had a 16-foot stretch of Care Bears cards lining the greeting card aisles. An animated series was a hit. The Care Bears Movie followed in 1985. By 1988, more than 40 million Care Bears had been sold. By 2007, the number was 110 million. The teddy bear had successfully been reinvented.

Several Care Bears are pictured on a table at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears have endured for nearly 40 years.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

The Care Bears have been reintroduced several times, including in 2002, 2007, and 2013. American Greetings is still marketing the Care Bears under their Cloudco Entertainment brand. A new animated series, Care Bears: Unlock the Magic, began airing on Boomerang in 2019, while apparel and other licensing—like Care Bears Funko Pops! and Care Bears clothing for Mattel’s Barbie—is still going strong.

Why the enduring appeal? In 2007, Polter credited the secularized version of values that are often instilled in churches. The Care Bears were on a mission of sharing, loving, and caring—a greeting card message that never had to leave your side.