The buzz on the Internet around Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder has been mixed at best. Most reviewers have declared the series to be bizarre, mystifying, perhaps the strangest take on Batman in a long time, even a clear sign that Frank Miller has completely jumped the shark.
Then there are the dissenters, those who enjoy going against the curve, and declare this book to be a quirky and unique work of genius, a deliberate attempt by Frank Miller to deliver a new Batman for a new age. Those reviewers generally see this series as a deliberately over-the-top satire of super-heroes.
Well, I’ve just finished reading the new hardcover collection of the first nine issues of this series and I gotta tell you: it’s a mess.
Frank Miller’s writing in this series is all over the place. It’s hard to find a coherent plot that runs through this collection. There certainly isn’t a villain in it. Despite the Joker’s appearance in chapter eight, and the fact that the white-faced madman commits a very serious crime, he never is confronted by the Dark Knight as this book reaches its conclusion (which is due more to the fact that DC arbitrarily declared, “Part 1 of Frank Miller’s and Jim Lee’s two-fisted thrill ride ends here”).
In fact, the real villain of the piece might be Batman himself. As written by Miller, Batman is an eternally angry, manipulative jerk who enjoys terrorizing a teenage boy, fighting his fellow heroes, and having sex with a wannabe.
In fact, Miller’s take on Batman in this book is so over-the-top that it begins to cast Batman’s personal makeup in real doubt. Over and over again we see Batman pronounce his toughness in a way that would make Chris Claremont’s Wolverine proud. In different language, he mumbles again and again about how much of a badass he is, as if trying to persuade himself of his own grittiness.
With all the repeated self-actualization, Batman comes across as a character with a real and intense inferiority complex. Despite all his character flaws and weaknesses, I felt myself feeling an odd sense of empathy for Bruce Wayne. What kinds of emotional hell did that young boy go through after his parents were murdered? What kind of internal drive would that little boy need in order to make himself into the ultimate detective and fighting machine? How often would he have to repeat his mantra about the rightness of his cause.
Batman certainly seems to see himself in opposition to every other force in the world. He despises his fellow heroes, both mocking them in his own head and literally fighting them in order to prove his rightness. He only holds two characters close to him: Alfred, a pseudo-father figure, and Robin, a teenager whom he tortures in order to make him tougher.
I would praise Miller for that characterization, but one can’t help but believe that such character insights are accidental. This whole series has a tremendously slipshod and rambling feel to it that leads me to believe it was created without an outline or a lot of planning. Characters are introduced, seemingly at the whim of Miller, and often disappear. For instance, Miller makes a big show of introducing Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in chapter six, but readers never see her again through the rest of this volume.
Even Black Canary, a major supporting character in the series, seems crazily off kilter. It’s not that she’s Irish, or that she’s a bartender wearing an absurd mask that could never conceal her identity, or the fact that men like to call her “sweet cheeks” and “love chunks.” No, it’s more that she is insanely strong, has amazing abilities, has the urge to fight crime, and possesses an extremely wish-fulfilling sex drive. It’s as if Miller wanted desperately to invest this character with every positive attribute of his Sin City women.
The thing is, there’s a feeling through the whole series that this is a satire of sorts. I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Otherwise why would a writer with the skills and experience of Frank goddamn Miller create a series that is so crazy, so over-the-top, so full of wild and unexplained situations? It’s all so operatic, so grand, and so arbitrary that no other explanation seems to be satisfactory.
I think that’s a valid reading of this book because it’s the only interpretation that makes sense–but I also think that interpretation is a bit of a cheat.
It’s a cheat because it’s a magic ticket. Saying this book is a satire means that every odd moment, every misstep and unfunny weird moment has to be satirical. If you don’t like Batman humping Black Canary, well, you just missed a joke about heroes and their suppressed sex drives. If you’re annoyed by the battle with Green Lantern, well, it’s just Miller tweaking with heroic archetypes. Why else would a comic have a six-page foldout of the Batcave if it weren’t intended to be over the top?
If you follow that line of reasoning, Miller can therefore do whatever he wants in this series. All the endless, mindless scenes can ramble onward in their own helter-skelter, random pace, tumbling upon each other like bad opera singers trying desperately to break a glass with their off-key singing. In discrete, love-sized chunks, such moments might be amusing. However, cumulatively, they become dull and exhausting.
By the end of this book I found myself worn out, wishing Miller would either slow down or come to some sort of conclusion with this series.
Nevertheless, I find myself compelled to call out some positive moments in this series. There certainly are quite a few positive moments in the book. There are moments where Robin has a wonderful energy and spark to him. Miller’s characterization of Dick Grayson is full of life and spirit, even though his depiction of Dick’s mourning is absurdly shallow.
I also enjoyed Batman’s mocking dismissal of Green Lantern. Despite GL’s power, he lacks imagination, and Batman enjoys taunting and zinging him at every turn. It’s just a lot of fun reading Batman mumble about how stupid it is that GL has a weakness to the color yellow, or to see GL act as dumb as a post about the kidnapping of Dick Grayson.
I’ve gone a thousand words into this review without talking about Jim Lee’s artwork, and that’s pretty much on purpose. I know a lot of readers absolutely adore Lee’s work, and that’s cool. I pretty much dislike most of the man’s work.
Jim Lee does very slick comics, but I personally find his command of anatomy to be weak and his character designs uninteresting. I especially found his interpretation of Dick Grayson frustrating. Dick is supposed to be a teenager in this story, but to me he looks like a slightly precocious grade-school child under Lee’s pencils.
So, yeah, I guess I agree with the conventional wisdom in this case. Reading nine issues of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder was one of the oddest and most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had with a comic.