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Sunday Slugfest: All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #9

Posted: Sunday, March 2, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Frank Miller
Jim Lee (p), Scott Williams (i), Alex Sinclair (colors)
DC Comics
"Episode Nine"

Chris Murman: 4 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 3.5 Bullets
Thom Young: 2.5 Bullets

Chris Murman: 4 Bullets

First off, I would like to state the record that I think it's crap to have to do a slugfest with just Thom and Dave. It would akin to having dinner with a good friend, then realizing that his parents are coming along. Now you have to watch your language and use complete sentences in dinner conversation. I love the idea of leading those two off, but you may want to skip ahead. At least you were warned ahead of time.

I'm going to say this to get it out of the way: this book is no longer ridiculous. People will still make "GD Batman" jokes (including this panel of reviewers, so we're not immune) and mock the tone with which Frank Miller is still writing this title because they can't think of anything new to say, but it won't make it true. The vision for this book is now clear. In fact it should have been clear to astute readers the entire time. None of us were, mind you, which is why Frank can still spin a yarn when he wants.

The main portion of this book is, of course, in the same vein as the previous chapters. Kudos for this part go to colorist Alex Sinclair for the yellow motif in which Bruce gives Hal Jordan the hard time many readers have been wanting for a while. Of course, Wayne still speaks immature dialogue, referencing the fact that Jordan can't keep his real name a secret as moronic while using effeminate objects to describe his ring-slinging skills like dandelions. It's humorous that Batman stages a laughable press conference to throw the Justice League off the scent that he did indeed kidnap a 12-year-old boy, but my favorite remark was hearing young Dick tell Bruce that he even painted the roaches yellow in the room. That, combined with Bats offering Jordan lemonade to drink, was meant to prove a point, but also shows that he has no idea how to be a hero at this stage. His arguments, while in years could seem valid, don't show any kind of realization as to what he has become with the cowl on his head. That distinction comes in time, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Before I leave the train of thought on the artwork, I don't have anything intelligent to say about how great Jim Lee's art continues to be, but I do have a beef. Some of the panel layouts still confuse me at times, and letterer Jared Fletcher makes me chase words more than any book out there right now. I don't want to criticize either Lee or Fletcher because the script dictates more of that than many realize. I just think that for a book this pretty to look at, and fascinating to read, I shouldn't need to figure out which panel or word balloon comes next.

Batman's heart is in the right place most times; he just doesn't know when to let up. He stops rapists in issue #5, using the line, "These creeps will survive, but I want them to suffer pain that will last a lifetime." He admits in issue #6 to poisoning a crook named Jocko-boy who is working his way up the corruption ladder, "Lord only knows what he's seeing. I can only hope it's plain damn awful." Would the mature, enlightened Batman we know and love do that today? I would like to think it's highly doubtful, but Batman used to love guns back in the day too, so anything's possible.

Hal also mentions Bruce's methods, calling them "repugnant." I think it's funny that Jordan uses words like that, mostly because I don't think he can. Clark probably fed him that line. GL continues, "Every time I turn around, I hear about you smashing some lowlife's femur or shattering a cop's jaw." Again, something like this should be coming from Superman, but more than likely Bruce won't respect any of the Justice League's admonishments at this point. Hal was just next in line to be made fun of by Miller.

Speaking of laughing at the League, surely I wasn't the only one who laughed at Big Blue being called "Candy Pants," Wonder Woman's sexuality being called into question, and Jordan being referred to as the "Master of the Giant Green Eggbeater." We have known that we are reading a satire for several issues now, so the line shouldn't have caught any of us off-guard. If you didn't snicker a bit, you're probably just buying this book as a collector at this point.

Bruce not being able to toe the line of propriety effectively, though, was overshadowed by his completely improper behavior with other super heroes (not that he would see them as peers). Having Clark run (not fly, guess he can't do that yet) over to Paris to fetch a doctor in issue #4 not only was low-brow and manipulative, it put others at risk just for Vicky Vale. She can't mean that much to Bruce. He made it with Black Canary in issue #7 on the ground in a dark alley. Of course, Bats didn't mind helping the hot blonde out, but he still talked to her as a child.

The final straw, however, was when Wayne saw the actual child he kidnapped and trained nearly killing a good guy. I realize the previous sentence looks out of place in this review, but it happened. Granted, Bats has beaten many a cop senseless in the eight prior issues…but those were dirty Gotham cops. Miller had another layer of onion to peel away from his version of the early Caped Crusader apparently, and while we know it exists in canon, many of us weren't expecting to see it in this title.

Batman may mock and poke fun at his fellow good guys, but he will not kill them or anyone else for that matter.

You can tell the seriousness with which Bruce addressed the moment, punching a 12-year-old Dick Grayson in the face and telling him to stay down. He's not that sick as to get any jollies from knocking around his budding sidekick. He was serious and realized that while he knew what line not to cross, his methods and training took Dick past them. That's why the book ended the way it did. The Batmobile drove past the cemetery, and told Grayson to say goodbye to his former life. They were starting from scratch, and they were doing it right then.

I will say that I rather like this edgy Bruce Wayne and have enjoyed nearly every issue of this series so far. Sure it's not very PC, sensitive and polite as many of our current Batman stories. I like it that way, as a matter of fact. I could use a few less bra and panty shots (which are thankfully absent this time around), and the incessant use of the "GD" is certainly grating at times…but this is a book from the glory days. I'd like to ask: can we all find something new to complain about?

In seventy some-odd years, our dear Dark Knight has learned quite the lesson or two from his run-ins with some of the best bad guys in comics. This is not that man yet, and Miller's assertion that Bats must break a few eggs to make an omelet is a welcome idea to this reader. Hardly anybody knows how to make the right decision the first time around, so it's okay to reflect that with my favorite super hero.

Dave Wallace: 3.5 Bullets

This issue is one of the silliest, most fun issues of All-Star Batman yet, and in order to create that effect, it doesn't resort to hyperbolic characterisation of Batman as a grim 'n' gritty violent vigilante, or the repetition of grating Goddamn catchphrases. Instead, it takes a very simple idea - Batman and Robin confront Green Lantern in an attempt to convince him (and the JLA) not to pursue Batman for his kidnapping of Dick Grayson - and turns it into quite an entertaining story.

This feels like the first issue that we really get to see Batman and Robin work together as a functional team, and there's a lightness to both characters that we haven't really seen in the book before. Part of that is down to the inherent silliness of a plot device which sees the duo paint one of Batman's safehouses (and everything in it, including themselves) entirely yellow, in order to defuse Green Lantern's power. The comedy continues when a confused Hal Jordan arrives, and the dynamic duo's relationship begins to feel more like that of Beavis and Butthead as they sniggeringly taunt him with offers of lemonade and vanilla ice-cream. I can't say that it's the most thrilling story about the two characters that I've ever read, but this section certainly raised a smile.

From there, Miller pushes things in a slightly more serious direction, as an attempt to conceal Robin's identity from Green Lantern gives way to a fight between Hal and Dick which becomes surprisingly brutal. Miller seems to have finally remembered that Grayson would still be nursing a huge amount of rage and anguish at his parents' death, and his violent outburst leads to Batman's realisation that he may have taken the wrong path in his "training" of the Boy Wonder. However, the story is marred somewhat by Miller's continuingly incoherent characterisation of Batman. He seems to yo-yo between being a deluded, borderline psychotic, and an omniscient genius, and whilst I'm sure Miller intends to demonstrate that these are both facets of the same character that we've been reading about for decades, I don't feel like he's found a way of convincingly presenting them as two parts of a whole person.

There's also a problem with the character's motivation in this issue: although Batman says that he "can't wait to knock the SNOT out of GREEN LANTERN," when the time comes, he refuses to throw a punch. However, I guess it's possible that he always intended to goad Hal into a fight with Robin, but that he hadn't bargained on such a brutal fight. As with previous issues, it appears that Miller is attempting to characterise Batman and Robin in more realistic terms than we might be used to, and he seems intent on showing us how ludicrous it is to expect such damaged and scarred people to be able to function as well-rounded and heroic crimefighters. Whilst that might be a novel approach for the characters, Miller has still to convince me that it's a very satisfying one. That said, I'm interested in seeing where the book goes from here, because the final pages of this issue suggest that Batman is going to adopt a different approach in training Robin - and one which might lead to a different feel for the title in future issues.

Jim Lee's great art seems to be showing even more improvement here, and I wonder if that's because he's getting into a more regular rhythm of drawing the book. His style seems a little freer than in previous issues, and it strikes me that this is likely to be an intentional choice, to reflect the lighter tone of the scenes between Batman, Robin and Green Lantern. There's less of the obsessive hatching and gritty detail than we've seen in previous issues, and the clean look of the art (which is emphasised by Alex Sinclair's bold colouring - I wonder how many different shades of yellow he used?) plays up the humour of the situation well. When the scene takes a turn for the more dramatic, however, Lee (and inker Scott Williams) begin to include more and more hatching and detail, symbolising the sudden seriousness that's brought on by Hal's severe injuries, and bringing the characters back down to earth after the silly hi-jinks of their earlier teasing. By the end of the issue, Lee has reverted to his regular style, depicting several dramatic tableaux of Batman and Robin as they mourn the passing of Dick's parents (including one very Miller-esque depiction of the dynamic duo in silhouette).

In addition to the strong artwork, I'm also having some fun spotting the slightly obscure references to century-old comics that Miller and Lee seem to be sneaking into the book. Last issue saw Batman compare Dick Grayson to Little Nemo, and this issue sees Robin reading a comic about the Yellow Kid (in a panel for which Jim Lee evidently visited wikipedia for reference materials). There were also memorable references to several Marvel characters in earlier issues, and whilst I can't work out whether these allusions have any particular significance (although the appearance of the Yellow Kid reinforces the running gag about yellow objects and foodstuffs in the first part of the issue), it at least shows that the creators are having some fun with the book.

It might have been a long time coming, but this book is getting better, and the plot is starting to make a little more sense with each issue. That's not to say that it's providing a great story, because it hasn't yet convinced me that Miller has any kind of real plan for where he's taking the characters, and the plot still feels a little like it's being made up as Miller goes along. However, this issue at least manages to be entertaining, and - compared to some of the earlier issues - fairly restrained. If Miller had been paired with a less talented artist, I might have given up on the book by now - or at least been content to wait for the collected editions rather than buying the issues on a monthly (well, you know what I mean) basis. However, the combination of Miller's unique writing and Lee's solid art is enjoyable enough that I still look forward to reading the book on an issue-to-issue basis. Unless things take a turn for the worse again, I'll probably continue to keep buying it - but it's hardly a masterpiece.

Thom Young: 2.5 Bullets

Astute readers of my reviews and/or message board posts might have noticed that I had claimed that issue #8 was going to be the last issue of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder that I was going to buy, yet here I am reviewing the ninth issue. How strange.

No, I didn’t get the ninth issue for free. I claimed that #8 was to be my final issue because DC had originally claimed on their Web site about the eighth issue, "Part 1 of Frank Miller's and Jim Lee's two-fisted thrill ride ends here." However, after reading it, I realized that there wasn’t anything in that issue to suggest that Miller viewed it to be the end of "part one."

Indeed, in their solicitation for volume one of the collected edition of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (on sale June 18, 2008), DC's Web site states, "This volume collects issues #1-9 of the acclaimed series." Thus, I decided to buy one more issue of this "acclaimed series" so that I can say I bought all of "part one" (or volume one).

I can now definitely say that this is the last issue I will be buying since it's a waste of my money. I’ve listed the problems in this series before--from the poor chronology of events to inconsistent characterizations.

An example of the former is when a milk carton with Dick Grayson's "missing child" details appeared in Clark Kent's refrigerator at the same time that Grayson and Batman were still in their three-issue (six-month) drive in the Batmobile. In other words, the carton with Grayson's picture was printed, distributed, packaged at a dairy, distributed again, and then bought by Clark Kent all in the time it took Batman to drive from the circus to the Batcave.

An example of the latter would be Superman (as Clark Kent) in one issue viewing said milk carton and getting so angry he would have fried Batman with his heat vision, but then (in the next issue) racing across the Atlantic and back to fetch a Parisian surgeon for Batman like a good dog .

Unfortunately, this latest issue is just as inconsistent with its chronology of events and its characterizations. Batman "fools" Green Lantern into believing that Robin is not Dick Grayson because Dick Grayson showed up at a news conference at a trauma clinic yesterday while Robin is appearing with Batman today. See? They can't be the same person--and Dick Grayson wasn't kidnapped (even though his picture appeared on the side of a milk carton in Clark Kent's refrigerator no more than 30 minutes, I guess, after Batman rescued the tyke from the bad men at the circus).

I'm 90 percent certain that at least one of Miller's intentions with this series is to reveal the ludicrous nature of superhero comics--as well as that the ever-decreasing audience for this genre tends to take these stories of men and women in Lycra™ very seriously.

If that's the case, Miller is clearly having fun with that intention. In fact, I have also considered how ludicrous the notion is of men and women running around in masks, leotards, and tights as they beat the snot out of each other--especially when I catch a TV promo for a "professional wrestling" event.

In the precise meaning of the word, Roland Barthes deconstructed professional wrestling in his "The World of Wrestling" essay that appeared in Mythologies--and a deconstruction of comic book superheroes could probably achieve the same conclusion:
When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds the power of transmutation that is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key that opens Nature--the pure gesture that separates Good from Evil and unveils the form of a Justice that is at last intelligible.
Of course, Barthes' deconstructive analysis of the spectacle of professional wrestling doesn't make it any less buffoonish as steroid-pumped men and silicone-pumped women engage in their melodramas for the entertainment of a niche audience.

The biggest problem I have with professional wrestling is that the shows are poorly written and poorly acted, and that's similar to the problems I have with most superhero comics (they're poorly written and poorly illustrated).

Yes, the costumes of masks, leotards, and tights are silly. However, once we get past that convention of the concept (which owes its origin to Siegel and Shuster giving Superman the garb of a circus strongman), the stories can actually reveal an interaction between the divine and the mundane as superheroes play the roles in a contemporary mythology as they become "for a few moments, the key that opens Nature--the pure gesture that separates Good from Evil and unveils the form of a Justice that is at last intelligible."

Alan Moore has achieved this level with Watchmen and other works. Grant Morrison has achieved in the past and is displaying it again in All-Star Superman and the monthly Batman title. And, of course, Frank Miller has also achieved it with his work on Daredevil, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns.

However, in this series Miller just seems intent on throwing together whatever ideas he comes up with regarding how ludicrous (in a professional wrestling way) he believes the whole concept of superheroes is as he conflates Silver Age silliness with Dark Age explicitness.

Thus, we have in the same issue the Silver Age silliness of Green Lantern's weakness to yellow and Batman having Robin paint everything yellow, including themselves, coupled with the Dark Age explicitness of Batman's constant use of "goddamn" and the graphic brutality of the Caped Crusaders.

I'll admit that there's something here worthy of pondering, but it's too muddled with what I firmly believe is Miller's lack of respect for his audience. I can't care about this series any longer.

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