Written by Scott Snyder
Pencilled by Greg Capullo
Inked by Jonathan Glapion
Colored by FCO Plascencia
Even if it is drawn like (a dark opening scene from the Joker’s POV as he cracks Gotham police officer’s necks) and plotted like a slasher film, “Death of the Family” is a love story. A long, lost lover returns to get his love’s attention by changing his appearance and generally putting on a show. Familiar haunts are visited, an intimate candle-lit dinner is had, and dances happen. But to be with the man he loves, the lover must get rid of the family of the object of his affection. The previous two sentences are actually the plot of “Death of the Family”. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo play up the Joker’s romantic feelings for Batman in “Death of the Family” while also showing him carefully and methodically “kill off” the Batman Family starting with his infiltration of the Batcave where he nabs Alfred at the end of Batman #13. Throughout the arc, Snyder’s writing shows that the Batman’s friends and family counterbalance his dark obsession with stopping criminals, especially the Joker. He genuinely cares about them too, but struggles to let them in on his secrets and failings. This failing began when Bruce Wayne returned the Joker his calling card at Arkham Asylum a long time ago.
“Death of the Family” exposes the chinks in the normally unflappable Dark Knight’s armor. Snyder hints at this in his dialogue where Jim Gordon tells Batman that with the Joker, “All you can do is react. God help the man who can think like him.” Unfortunately, Batman can think like him and spends the entire story trying to “beat him to the punchline” and stop him once and for all. However, the Joker ends up winning in the end as the notebook with secrets about the whole Batman family was just another joke, and Batman is the punchline once again when Dick, Barbara, Jason, Tim, and Damian don’t meet with him. This is after ironically telling the Joker that his family makes him stronger. At least Batman learns from his mistakes (obviously not the mistake of keeping the Joker alive though) even if it means the fragmentation of his family. But this breaking apart isn’t sudden. Snyder and Capullo subtly foreshadow the spiritual death of the family starting from Batman’s first confrontation with him after he massacres the GCPD. However, before the break-up, Capullo illustrates the close-knit relationship of the Batman family in a single page splash with all the different members coming out of the Bat symbol near Bruce’s heart as they go their separate ways, but eventually meet up to take on Joker.
However, this little family meeting doesn’t end up in a superhero team-up, but in Batman deciding to take on the Joker by himself because he wants to protect the Batman family from him. His attitude in this meeting contrasts with Jim Gordon’s in Batman #14 where he decides to fight and die with his men instead of hiding in one of Batman’s bunkers. Capullo’s captures Batman’s decision in a powerful panel which is a close-up of Bruce Wayne’s face covered by a domino mask reminding him of the family he is neglecting. Colorist FCO Plascencia’s dark greys add an extra air of melancholy. The loneliness only increases in Batman #13 when Batman runs into Harley Quinn wearing the Red Hood mask that the Joker wore before falling in acid. Joker’s electronic voice in the mask makes fun of him for calling in allies to defeat the “old birds” (Court of the Owls), and he says, “Your kingdom rots beneath you.” This sets up the running theme of Batman as king of Gotham with the Joker as his court jester, his villains taking on various roles ( former district attorney Two-Face as judge, ex-actor Clayface as the royal player), and his family as knights at his own Round Table that really pays off in the final two issues. And like Camelot, the fellowship of the Batman Family will be sundered not due its king’s ego, but due to his pride and obsession with besting his greatest foe.
After Alfred is kidnapped at the end of Batman #13 and Batman broods about how lonely he feels, catching and defeating the Joker is the only thing that matters. He doesn’t tell the family that Alfred, who is the real father figure of the Batman Family, has been captured by the Joker, but focuses on the case and trying to figure out Joker’s methods. He doesn’t even let Nightwing in on his plan to stop Joker even though Dick has helped him stop the Joker in the past as well as do a bang-up job of being Batman in the first volume of Batman and Robin. This plan fails and the whole Batman family gets kidnapped partially because Batman didn’t tell them that Joker possibly knows their civilian identities. (Even though the Joker attacked Batgirl’s mother and Nightwing’s girlfriend.) Instead of using the Batman family as allies and confidants like in “Court of the Owls”, Batman chooses to isolate himself and put them in harm’s way. Maybe he could have stopped the Joker once and for all if he trusted his allies with this information. Unfortunately, the Joker got away, and Batman is stuck fetching drinks and caring for Alfred, who will always be there for him.
On a bigger level, I think that “Death of the Family” shows how Batman needs his friends, family, and allies in his life so he can avoid being a monosyllabic, brooding loner, like he is in Batman #16 where he punches thing while getting progressively angrier at the Joker. (“I hate nothing more on this Earth than you, Joker.) The different members of the Batman family have different impacts on him. Damian brings out the father in him. Tim is someone he can match wits with. Jason shows him the benefit of giving a wayward son a second chance. Barbara shows him that great physical obstacles can be overcome. Dick shows him that you can lose your parents and become a crime fighter, but crack a smile once in a while. And Alfred is there to be his father and keep stitching up his wounds. In “Death of the Family Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo show how terrifying Batman’s obsession with the Joker is, and how precious his relationship with his supporting cast is..