In 1998 DC Comics pulled off one of the biggest publicity stunts in the history of comic books. They killed Robin (of Batman and Robin fame). Technically, this was the second Robin. The first, a character introduced in 1939 named Dick Grayson, was now on his own and going by the moniker Nightwing.
This new Robin was a street kid named Jason Todd, who Batman discovered when he caught the kid stealing a tire off the Batmobile. Todd was petulant, moody, and prone to outbursts of violence. I was 12 at the time and I loved him. A lot of fans, however, did not, which was reflected in the monthly letters to the editor.
Then came A Death in the Family, a monthly four-part miniseries which ended in Robin's death at the hands of the Joker. The penultimate issue was a cliffhanger for sure, but running opposite the last panel was an advertisement featuring a pay telephone number where we the fans could vote whether he would live or die.
Over 10,000 fans voted. The final tally was 5,343 votes for Jason to die over 5,271 for him to live. I personally voted for him to live a 100 times, and my mom flipped when she saw the phone bill.
Soon, the Boy Wonder was smoked turkey.
This past October during a New York City Comic-Con panel on the upcoming film, Avengers: Infinity Gauntlet, writer Jim Starlin — who penned the Robin storyline — offered a slightly disturbing anecdote about how it came about.
"The idea to kill off the Jason Todd Robin came about in the late '80s," Starlin explained. "It was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. DC had this great idea, and they put in a suggestion box, and said, 'Which character should we give AIDS to? And we'll do a special story.' I stuffed it with Robins. Every day I was sticking Robins in there. But they recognized my handwriting, and they threw all the Robins out. And then Jimmy Olsen won. And then they found out the actor who plays Jimmy Olsen [Jack Larson] from the 1950s Superman TV show was gay, and they abandoned the whole project. That's the origin of that particular tale."
It appears that the idea was meant both to ride the publicity wave that had put HIV-positive kid Ryan White in the headlines and generate sympathy for the Jimmy Olsen character, rather than to promote HIV phobia as could have happened. (Maybe, just maybe, it was also meant to apologize for their previously embarassing and stereotypical HIV-positve character Extrano.) But since DC reportedly reconsidered in light of Larson's real-life sexual orientation, I have to wonder if they feared it would strike too close to home or that they would be accused of homophobia given Larson's connection to the character?
Whichever, the short blip in comic history is a reminder that HIV has impacted popular culture widely, even in cases when it's not entirely obvious.
Fans might want to check out the complete Batman: A Death In The Family.