Comics have a long history of audience participation stunts: fan clubs like the Merry Marvel Marching Society and F.O.O.M., reader polls, letter columns, and of course the fabled Marvel No-Prize. Very rarely, however, have these gimmicks been matters of Life and Death, as they were the time the fate of a beloved sidekick hung by a 900 number.
Robin the Boy Wonder was introduced into the comics about a year after the first appearance of Batman. The son of a pair of circus aerialists, Dick Grayson was orphaned when his parents were killed in a rigged accident by gangsters trying to shake down their circus. Bruce Wayne happened to be in the audience the night of the murder, and, knowing what it's like to be orphaned by crime, he adopted young Dick on the spot and began training him as a partner in his war against crime.
Ostensibly, Robin was supposed to be an audience identification character. Cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer, who has written about his own lifetime love of comic books, disagreed, saying that as a kid he never identified with Robin; he always wanted to be the Batman. Pfeiffer was probably not the first, and far from the last, to make that observation. But strictly from a meta point of view, Robin brought other elements to the book as well: He gave Batman someone to talk to, in order to let the reader in on what he's thinking; he also allowed Batman to explain things the reader might not know. And he brought an element of fun into a comic which began as a pulp crime comic about a grim, gun-toting Avenger of the Night. Robin became the prototype for a flood of kid sidekicks during the Golden Age of Comic Books.
By the 1960s, though, Robin had become something of a liability. Marvel Comics were appealing to an older, college-age audience and an 8-year-old kid running around in yellow shorts making lame puns seemed awfully unsophisticated; (as opposed to an 18-year-old kid swinging from buildings in a web-covered body stocking and making lame puns). More importantly, the '60s Batman TV series had played up the goofier aspects of the comic and cemented them in the public mind, to the point where even decades later, newspaper articles about comic books frequently use the words, “ZAP” and “POW!”
And so the writers had Robin grow up. He had already become the leader of his own super-team, the Teen Titans, composed of other kid sidekicks like Kid Flash, Aquallad, and Wonder Girl, (sorry, “Wonder Chick”). As time went on, Dick was bundled off to college and Robin withdrew from the regular BATMAN titles, appearing only occasionally or in reprints of older stories. He got a hot alien girlfriend named Starfire and eventually he ditched the yellow shorts and the Peter Pan booties and adopted a new costume and identity, one that didn't include the words “Batman and ...”
But there must always be a Robin. Although Nightwing is a cool character, he doesn't match the artwork on the licensed Batman & Robin T-shirts and lunchboxes and Underoos. It was only a matter of time before DC introduced a New Robin to fill the Robin-Shaped Hole in the Batcave.
This Robin was Jason Todd, the son of circus aerialists who was orphaned when … wait, you say you've heard this before? Yes, the New Robin's origin story was exactly the same as the Old Robin's, only with some of the names changed. I'm sure the editors thought this was a clever idea, but the readers found it lame. They found Jason lame too, and regarded the character with a disdain unparalleled in fandom until the coming of Wesley Crusher.
In the late '80s, author Max Allan Collins, (who, in addition to being a prolific mystery novelist, also scripted the DICK TRACY comic strip and a slam-bang noir comic in the early '80s titled MS TREE) wrote a re-vamped origin for Jason, making him a homeless street kid whom Batman catches stealing the hubcaps off the Batmobile. I personally liked the Collins retcon, and his version was later incorporated into the origin of the Tim Drake Robin in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES; but the Todd-haters still hated it. The Powers That Be at DC decided to write Jason Todd out of the comic.
To a certain extent, I think Frank Miller deserves some of the blame. In his THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, set years in the future and depicting Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement as the Batman, there is a throw-away line to the effect that Something Bad happened to Jason, something which either convinced Bruce to hang up the cowl or which convinced his friends that things were out of hand. The Something Bad is never explained in DKR, but a lot of Miller's fans decided that his graphic novel was not just a “possible future” of the Batman, but the Shape of Things To Come. I think from this point, Jason's days were numbered.
The crisis came in a storyline titled “A Death in the Family”. In it, Jason learns that the woman who raised him was not his biological mother and he goes on a quest to find her. After a couple of blind alleys, (Lady Shiva? He thought that Lady Shiva might be his mother???) He finds her serving as an aid worker in Ethiopia bringing medicine to dying children. Which is when the Joker shows up. Why is the Joker in Ethiopia? Maybe because it's funny saying “Addis Ababa”. (“Are we going to Addis Ababa Mister Luthor?”) Anyway, Robin falls into the Joker's hands and the Harlequin of Hate beats the little tyke to a pulp with a tire iron.
A tire iron. Not a flower that squirts acid; not an exploding cigar; not a “BANG” pistol that also shoots bullets; not even a rubber chicken loaded with lead weights. A tire iron.
The man needs better material.
Oh, and he also planted a bomb, so that the battered and bleeding Robin has to try save his mother. He fails. No matter what happened there was going to be a death in the family. Batman arrives too late and finds...
And that's where you the reader come in!
Before the issue was published, DC made a big announcement that it would have its readers vote on whether Robin lives or dies. They used a marketing gimmick popular for a time just before the Internet Era of inviting the readers to call a 900 number to cast their vote; one number for Robin Lives, another for Robin Dies. The participants were charged a small fee for each call, which theoretically would prevent people from stuffing the ballot box, as it were, as well as providing a little extra for AT&T, which developed the 900 number as a new source of revenue when its monopoly was broken up.
Reportedly one fan set up his computer at home to war-dial the “Kill Robin” number. It cost him something like $200. He really hated Jason Todd. Did this one guy influence the vote? Maybe. But a lot of fans also hated Jason and the auguries were not favorable.
I don't really think DC expected their gimmick to hit the mainstream the way it did. The gimmick they used made an interesting story, of course, but what got everybody's attention was DC WAS KILLING ROBIN!!! That the Robin who died was a replacement and not the “real” Robin that people remembered growing up with and who was played on TV by Burt Ward got overlooked. The Mainstream Media do not really do nuance that well when it comes to stories about comics. (“ZAP! POW!”)
A lot of people were outraged. Many of them were people who hadn't read comics in years, but who thought something precious from their childhood was being destroyed. Some were current comics fans who maybe didn't like Jason either, but who felt that DC had gone about killing him in a stupid and distasteful manner. Some fans I know darkly suggested that DC wanted Jason to die, but didn't want to be blamed for “killing Robin”, so they set up the phone poll, knowing what the results would be, in order to give them deniability.
What struck me the most at the time were the ramifications of the story. By killing Robin, the Joker Had Crossed The Line. Oh, yeah, he had killed scads of people before, and had even crippled Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon, but offing Robin, to employ another cliché, Made It Personal. From a narrative point of view, there was no way the Joker could just walk away from this and still give the readers anything like a satisfying story. And I fretted that DC would do something lame.
What the writers did was so audacious that it went beyond lame into the territory of “Did I Just Read That???” The Joker meets up with THE AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI – yes, you read that right; the Ayatollah Khomeini – who gives the Joker – The Joker – an official position in the Iranian government. Now I could see maybe Saddam Hussein hiring the Joker as a big “Eff-You” to the United States (although at that time Saddam was our pal because he was invading Iran), or maybe Hugo Chavez, or possibly Fidel Castro; but Khomeini???
Never mind that. Joker gets to appear before the UN General Assembly and nobody will let Batman touch him because he has Diplomatic Blah-Blah and you know there's going to be a bomb and a double-cross in there someplace. It ends with a helicopter Joker is escaping in blowing up and the wreckage falling into the East River. Even Superman can't find the body, but he assures Batman that “No One Could Have Survived That!” Batman tells him to pull the other one.
The story had two immediate consequences. Number one was that officially, the Joker was Dead. He was not coming back. Well... the fans knew he would; after all, one of the cardinal rules of comic books is If You Don't See the Body, the Villain Isn't Dead. Just as There Must Always Be a Robin, There Must Always Be a Joker. But DC realized that from a logical narrative point of view, if the Joker turned out to be alive, Batman would feel compelled to take care of him for good, once and for all. No more dragging his crayon-colored butt back to the revolving door at Arkham; the Batman would have to take more permanent steps. Maybe even killing him, although that would be a Moral Event Horizon for the Batman even bigger than the Joker's killing of Jason. So DC kept the Joker dead for a good long time before they began teasing readers with hints of his return.
The other consequence was that, from a logical point of view, there is no way in hell that Batman would take on another kid sidekick. He'd been skirting the Child Endangerment laws badly enough as it was; he could no longer pretend that he'd always be able to cover Robin's back. And so for a good long time, Batman worked alone.
But as I mentioned before, The Must Always Be a Robin. In time, a third Robin was introduced: a boy named Tim Drake. This time, the writers took better care introducing him and establishing the character with a keen intellect as well as a nimble athlete, and making him prove his worthiness to wear Robin's mask and cape. (And they also ditched the doofy shorts and gave him a new costume that had echoes of the old but looked a lot more practical). DC helped further establish the character with a very good ROBIN solo series written by Chuck Dixon.
Since then, Batman has accumulated a few more Robins, including Tim's girlfriend and the cute but nasty love-child of Batman and Ra's Al-Ghul's daughter. And eventually Jason Todd came back from the dead too, thanks in part to the mass re-booting connected with the New 52. He's now a cranky young man, bitter about being left for dead by Batman and not averse to employing extreme violence to solve problems. Oh, and Jason now calls himself Red Hood, which was the original nom de crime of the Joker.
I guess it all comes around eventually.