Our Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
I Happen To Be Crazy. Not Stupid.
Author’s note: The below was written on 3rd November, before the recent US presidential election result. I have never been less happy that my gut was right. I have never been more afraid for the future than I am right now. Please be kind to each other. The world is going to need a lot of that in the months ahead, I suspect.
The bastards locked the door.
In a final analysis, I got it because it was cheap.
I am somewhere around the twelve/thirteen mark, to the best of my recollection. Thirteen, tops. Old enough that my dad had allowed me to read The Dark Knight Returns, I think - a seminal experience for any Batman fan. And I almost certainly picked it up during one of my occasional weekend pilgrimages to that thriving hub of commerce, Exeter, and specifically the Waterstones in the city centre (a business that, at the time of writing, is still present, in the same big building on the same street corner as it was in my childhood).
I will have wanted More. More Batman. More comic book goodness.
And the sad truth is, most comic books, most trade collections anyway, were expensive. The huge Batman Vs The Joker: The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told; for example, would have been at least £8.99, maybe more. I did eventually pick that sucker up when it was on sale, but no way was I paying full sticker price, with £20 a month being my allowance, and the bus journey alone swallowing £5 of that. Not with music to buy as well. I mean, I loved comics and books, but let’s not go crazy.
So this will have sung to me, I suspect. Lovely black cover. Ominous art. The back cover, recreating the covers of the original 4 issue comic run, alongside some truly hyperbolic press quotes. And of course, most importantly, that lovely £2.50 price sticker.
Sold. Death In The Family was coming home with me.
I’ve popped the name, because I want to give y’all a chance to back out now. It may sound stupid, talking spoilers about a comic that came out in ‘89, before some of you were born. But this is, IMO, one of The Big Ones - as classic and defining as Dark Knight, Watchmen, Transmetropolitan. Yeah, I’m serious. So in the unlikely event you haven’t read this one, and don’t understand it’s cultural significance, back the hell away from the article now, and go and spend £2.50 in today's money on the collection, okay?
Thanks me later.
I read it on the bus on the way home. All of it. The totally weird, po-faced introduction, where some Dr. from the future rattled on about the ‘unique 20th century pathology of the costumed superhero’ or whatever, through to the still-a-bit-defensive postscript from Dennis O’Neil, featuring the heart stopping final vote tally - holy shit, this was a close one.
I mean I poured over it. Obsessed. I remember reading this over and over and over again, in the weeks, months and years that followed. I even, God help me, tried to sketch a couple of the panels from the comic myself - a full face shot of Batman from the last issue, from his interrogation with the CIA guy, and another of the Joker at the UN in the Iranian headdress. Not trace, you understand, but draw, freehand - I was trying to recreate the pictures as faithfully as I could, trying to get my clumsy hand to push the pencil over the page as the artist had done.
Trying to understand the magic. Trying to feel it.
I have a recollection of also trying to turn it into a radio play, roping in friends to play the other parts, using the in-built microphone in my sister’s cassette recorder. I mean, I was nuts about this damn story. The contours of the narrative, and many of the individual art panels, are seared into my brain, scarring it as surely as acid scarred Harvey Dent in the courtroom.
I mean, fucking hell, this story.
The setup is great. Say what you like about DC in the late 80’s, they knew how to do melodrama. Having Jason Todd, Robin number two, going increasingly off the rails, still not dealing with the death of his parents, tracks well, and adds a nice early helping of guilt in for Bruce, as he contemplates the wisdom of his masked-vigilantism-as-grief-therapy approach to sidekick recruitment. The section where Batman (the narrator for the entire story) hypothesizes about where Jason’s angry walk will take him really shouldn't work… but it really does. And the moment where Jason discovers, via a water damaged birth certificate, that the woman he thought was his mother wasn’t, is a genuine spine tingler. These are the fundamental pillars of the Batman mythos, after all - vigilante = orphan. The discovery that Jason may not in fact be a paid up member of the Dead Parents Club immediately puts his status as Robin in jeopardy, in a way Bruce’s ‘temporary suspension’ never really did. Likewise, his decision to go after his mother solo makes sense - or at least as much sense as teenagers ever make.
Meanwhile, as a newspaper headline informs us, The Joker Escapes Again.
He’s just fucking brilliant in this. Smart, capricious, vicious, cunning, desperate, and utterly, violently insane. The story takes place just after The Killing Joke (indeed, there’s references to ‘What He Did To Barbara’ that flew over my head until years later), so the conceit that The Joker is having to sell his cruise missile with a nuclear warhead to raise funds makes sense - even if his hints, in chapter one, that he’s looking to get into the international diplomacy game feel a touch odd. But mainly, it’s just My Joker, the one who never made it fully to screen until Heath Ledger - the guy who is a rampant cancer cell, tearing through humanity with a blood soaked grin, leaving a trail of human destruction in his wake.
He’s not even very funny.
I remember being utterly gripped by his sociopathy, his casual cruelty. The fact that Robin’s possible candidates for mother (the three women who shared the first initial with the birth certificate and were also in his father’s address book) were all based in the middle east, the same place Joker and his bomb were heading, feels laughably contrived now, but felt utterly reasonable back then. Mainly, I suspect, because a combination of sheer pace - aside from the recaps at the start of each chapter the story zips along pretty well - and also a feeling of inevitability. This is, after all, a tragedy, and tragedy has it’s own shape and pace and weight.
And it really does feel bad. There’s a sense of menace that hangs over the first two books - especially the second, when in true thriller fashion, we know long before Jason does that his mother is being blackmailed by The Joker. I can still remember the relief I felt when Jason went back to get Batman, telling him the Joker had taken his mother - and then the dread I felt as they realised the booby-trapped supplies were already in convoy, and that Batman was going to have to leave Jason behind to watch the warehouse while he went after the lorries. The scene is brilliant - Batman, hands on Jason’s shoulders, pleading with him to wait for him, to not take the Joker on, while Jason stands, stony-faced. Promising he will.
Batman doesn’t believe him. But he goes anyway.
He has to.
We see Jason’s thoughts as the BatCopter lifts off and he shields his eyes from the swirling desert sands. We know he’s going into the warehouse. It’s a sickening sinking feeling. I get it every single time I read the story. Every single time.
He goes down to the warehouse. Reveals his secret to his mother. She invites him inside.
She turns him over to the Joker.
It’s horrible. She pulls a gun, her beautiful face suddenly hard, as she explains she’s been dipping into the funds, that any BatInterference will uncover her crimes as well as The Jokers’. He is betrayed by his birth mother, hours after meeting her for the first time. Delivered into the custody of his mentors’ most dangerous opponent.
The Joker beats him. He feigns unconsciousness, then fights back. Two of Joker’s enormous goons knock him to the floor, one of them kicking him in the ribs. He balls up, clearly in agony.
The Joker picks up a crowbar, and beats the shit out of him.
We see the first blow land across his back, and what might be spit or blood spew out of his mouth. Then a series of panels of the Joker, bring the crowbar down. Again. And Again. And Again. He’s sweating, mouth not just grinning but gaping. The end of the crowbar becomes bloody. Jason’s mother watches, then turns away in disgust, and lights a cigarette.
By the time Joker is done, his gloves are also stained red with blood. We see only a bloodied leg of The Boy Wonder on the edge of the panel. As The Joker recovers from his frenzy, and realises what terrible danger he’s put himself in, he leaves Jason’s mother tied up in the warehouse, with a bomb timed to explode.
I mean, I can’t even. The sadism of it would often bring out prickly fear sweats in me as I read it. This was something utterly taboo, verbotten. The bad guys were bad, sure, innocent people would get hurt, even killed, shit, that happened even in Doctor Who… but this was Robin. This was a kid. Not just a kid, but Batman’s sidekick. This did. Not. Happen.
And it was happening.
It went on happening, as the panel pattern showed the timer counting down, alongside widescreen shots of the warehouse. As, around the two minute mark, Robin regained consciousness, with a ruined face not unlike that of a certain recent Walking Dead cast member, as I think about it, and crawled first to the device, then, realising he was in no fit state to handle it, to his mother.
There’s a little under a minute to go as he unties the rope and collapses, urging her to leave. Around 40 seconds by the time she’s got an arm over her shoulders and has pulled him up. They stagger to the door, painfully slow, as the clock ticks ticks ticks.
They reach the door with 10 seconds to spare.
And it’s locked.
The last panel inside the warehouse is a close up of Jason’s mother, her eyes wide and pupils dilated with terror. “The Joker locked the door!”
We see the Batman’s face lit by the fireball, then the last panel is behind him, as he walks towards the smoking wreckage. “Jason… no…”
Some fucking writer. I just cannot put into words what that did to me. What it does to me. It’s the locked door, I think. We’ve seen this scene before, after all. Just a few times. The last minute escape from the big boom. But that fucking locked door. It’s like The Joker’s seen the same movies we have, and decided ‘not this time, baby!’. It’s a classic moment of pure sadistic villainy - a final twist of the knife delivered by an expert in inflicting misery, suffering and death.
Even more than The Killing Joke, this was the moment, for me, that The Joker cemented his position as Batman’s archnemesis, for all time. No matter the wealth, powers, or intelligence of the rest of the rogues gallery, no-one was EVER going to top this moment.
Interesting to note, therefore, that there were two possible Batman 428’s written - one where Jason lived, one where he died. I speculated furiously about that, as a kid, trying to envisage what that other issue might look like, how the scenario might play out (the version of events I eventually hit upon was that in the other comic, his mother shields Jason from the blast at the last minute. She is killed, thereby keeping ‘A Death In The Family’ and Jason is hospitalised, leaving The Bat to go after Joker alone - and no, I have no idea, but I bet it was something like that). I know intellectually that it was a phone vote that decided Jason’s fate, and that the final tally from over 10,000 calls was damnably close, with less than 100 votes separating the final result (sad to say, I still find this one of the most compelling arguments for voting in general - you never know when it’s going to be close, as recent events have proven). Yet, for all that, the ending we got feels utterly inevitable.
And, you know, it’s far from the last time a popular vote has left me feeling sick to my stomach, with both the closeness of the result and the wrongness of the outcome - the feeling like reality itself has swung a curve ball, that we’ve fallen away from some theoretical future line of best fit and been cast into some crappy alternate reality where Picard is a bad guy and The Brigadier wears an eyepatch. As I write this, we’re a week out from a US presidential election where a badly written Batman villain has a non-trivial chance of becoming the leader of the free world, and by the time you read this, you’ll know if we dodged that bullet, and if so, how closely by.
But right now, I don’t know if we dodged it at all. I don’t know if we made it out the door in time. I don’t know if the bomb went off.
I don’t know if hope lies, bleeding and battered but still breathing, or if it’s been shredded utterly by the blast. But I am starting to get a terrible feeling - that sickening, sinking sense of inevitability. Tragedy has a pattern, after all. It has a shape and a rhythm and a pace. I’ve rarely wanted more fervently to be wrong.
A Death In The Family is still a scary story.
We still live in a very scary world.