Appreciating “All Star Batman & Robin”

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It was hard to not be excited about DC Comics back in 2005. A new, definitive Batman movie was erasing the stench of the Schumacher films. Bryan Singer had left the X-Men franchise to bring Superman back to the big screen. In comics, Geoff Johns was rewriting the history of the Green Lanterns while spearheading Infinite Crisis. That same year, DC launched it’s “All Star” imprint with a Superman story by the rockstar team behind New X-Men and We3: Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. A Wonder Woman series by acclaimed artist Adam Hughes was rumored to be in the works, but the entire All Star imprint failed to gain traction due to the polarizing and controversial All Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder.

Make no mistake: All Star Batman is a terrible comic series. Despite featuring Jim Lee’s finest work at DC, many point to Frank Miller’s writing as downright atrocious — a far cry from the brilliance of the 1980s works Batman: Year One andThe Dark Knight Returns. The Batman found within its pages was not the calculated, Dark Knight detective, but a rich sociopath in a costume. Superman is a moron. Wonder Woman is unlikable. Green Lantern is a tool. This isn’t your grandma’s Batman. It actually isn’t anyone’s Batman. And I absolutely love it.

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Creative Team Tear Down

The biggest problem with All Star Batman is actually the one thing people point to as the title’s strength: Jim Lee’s art. Yes, it is drop-dead gorgeous at times, but it is also a poor match for Frank Miller’s script. As seen just a year prior inHush, Jim Lee’s art works well when the writing can match it. Unfortunately, he was playing it straight while his writer was in crazytown. A more fitting art style to capture the tone of the series would have been Chris Burnham (Batman Incorporated) or Nick Pitarra (The Manhattan Projects). If DC was hell-bent on getting Jim Lee to draw All Star Batman, editorial should have found another superstar writer (Paul Dini? Mark Waid?) that intended on playing it straight.

Frank Miller has written four Batman stories — not including obscure short story Wanted: Santa Claus – Dead or Aliveand the best forgotten Batman/Spawn one-shot — without once repeating himself. The quality of the works are subject to debate, but there is no denying that they are independently unique interpretations of DC’s flagship character. The Dark Knight Returns cements the concept that the Batman legend never ends and provides commentary on 1980s culture, while simultaneously returning the character to his darker, Golden Age roots. Batman: Year One represents a grim, but ultimately hopeful origin story for Batman and James Gordon. The Dark Knight Strikes Again is the use of these iconic characters to cope with personal tragedy – which in Miller’s case are the events of September 11, 2001. All Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder sees Miller tackling the direction of mainstream comics which he unwittingly spawned back in 1986.

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The Rise and Fall of the Grim-and-Gritty Era

After the wild success of The Dark Knight Returns, the superhero landscape became markedly darker. The 1990s saw the death of Superman and the crippling of Batman. Over at Marvel, Spider-man went through the “Clone Saga” and the X-Men suffered the dark, alternate reality “Age of Apocalypse.” Anti-heroes such as Lobo and Deadpool rose in popularity, and the work at fledgling publisher Image defined the “xtreme” vision of the genre. The pinnacle of this idea can be seen in the pages of Wildstorm’s The Authority, written by Warren Ellis and later Mark Millar. The Authority featured a group of heroes willing to get the job done by any means necessary. This commonly meant extreme measures, including killing their enemies, which would later be the target of criticism of fans and those in the industry alike.

Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way” in Action Comics #775 directly challenged what is now referred to as the Grim-and-Gritty Era by pitting Superman against analogues for The Authority. The story reminded readers that the classic superheroes tropes are inspirational, as well as aspirational. This was further reinforced by Grant Morrison’s run on JLA, which saw superheroes treated as larger-than-life beings comparable to the Greek gods of Olympus. As the calendar turned from the 20th century to the 21st, more comic book talents rebelled against the Grim-and-Gritty Era. David Mazzuchelli, Frank Miller’s collaborator on Batman: Year One, even went on record questioning the influence that story had on the genre. As he stated in the 2005 re-release of Batman: Year One:

“While an interesting experiment, it’s probably not a good idea to shoehorn too much “reality” into the fantasy realm of the superhero. with Year One, [Frank Miller and I] sought to craft a credible Batman, grounded in a world we recognize. But did we go too far? Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre. The more ‘realistic’ superheroes become, the less believable they are.”

Mazzucchelli’s words continue to reverberate across the cultural landscape. Between popular Image titles Saga andBlack Science, Marvel’s Avengers films and the continued popularity of the zombie genre, mainstream audiences and readers are looking to escape reality in their entertainment.

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Parodying Previous Works

This brings us back to All Star Batman & Robin. Though the execution is questionable, the series clearly attempts to parody the tropes Miller’s prior works had wrought upon the medium. Earlier, I derided the decision to have Jim Lee provide the art for this series. I stand by that from a storytelling perspective. However, having defined the “xtreme to the max” visual style the 1990s, he is the perfect choice to parody it.  After the first issue’s opening pages introduce Dick Grayson, readers meet a scantily-clad Vicki Vale; a very “cheesecake” illustration that on first glance appears to fulfill a “T&A” quota and nothing more. Yet upon further review, one can’t help but conjure up images of the depiction of women in the 1990s, such as in TopCow’s Witchblade. That series was at one time a perennial best-seller thanks to its heroine’s painted on costume and provocative positioning.

Lee’s art throughout All Star Batman & Robin is a microcosm of 1990s visual techniques. Musclebound men and supermodel women grace every turning page, with even Alfred and the Joker looking as though they had invested heavily in gym memberships and performance supplements. Gorgeous, mesmerizing splash pages are littered throughout the series, including a fold-out, poster-sized splash of the Batcave. This particular moment sees Batman doing his best Deadpool impersonation, directly asking readers “Is this cool or what?”

Miller’s script takes the the comic book conventions he helped perpetuate with The Dark Knight Returns — and later Sin City — then turns them up to maximum capacity. The death of the Flying Graysons has been depicted over the years in a manner that borders on graceful, most notably in the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. Miller takes these expectations and crushes them with blunt-force trauma. Gone is the nearly poetic sequence, replaced by two gunshots between the eyes. Surrounded by the bloodied corpses of his parents, young Dick Grayson is taken into the “protection” of the Gotham City police.

Batman: Year One is notable for having introduced the idea of a corrupt police department to the Batman mythos. It’s an idea so simple that it becomes amazing that it wasn’t incorporated into canon sooner. If the police in Gotham had been doing it’s job – and if they had not been so steeped in corruption – there wouldn’t be a need for Batman. In Year One, the police officers are clearly shown to be corrupt, but they are also smart enough to be coy. Again, Miller takes this concept and brings it well beyond the extremes of the most derided comics of the era. The police in All Star Batman & Robin are not simply corrupt, they are evil. This depiction is so far at one end of the spectrum that readers find it offputting, as they rightfully should. In other stories, even when Batman’s relationship with the cops had been contentious, they still possessed a shred of humanity that readers could identify with. At the very least, readers could depend on Batman to be a likeable character.

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The Batman depicted in All Star Batman & Robin is not a dark avenger of the night – he’s a straight-up psychopath. This iteration of the Caped Crusader maniacally cackles as he patrols Gotham, as evidenced in the opening pages of the fifth issue. Following a meeting of a “proto-Justice League”, readers are treated to the following internal monologue:

“I love being the goddamn BATMAN. I should be EXHAUSTED, I haven’t slept in DAYS. But I CAN’T GET TIRED. No matter how hard I TRY. Not on a night like THIS. Not with my PULSE pounding my EARS and dear GOTHAM calling me like a sultry SIREN. I leave the BATMOBILE parked in a BACK ALLEY off GIORDANO and ADAMS. That’s taking a CHANCE — some LOSER with IDEAS might SPOT it and get himself ELECTROCUTED trying to STEAL it. That’d be DAMNED inconvenient. But I’ve got no CHOICE. I can’t stay inside the car. I can’t stay inside ANYTHING. Not TONIGHT. The WIND off the RIVER rips across the rooftops, fish-smelly and cold as all HELL. Twenty stories below me, some IDIOT leans on the horn of his PETERBILT. Some LOON two blocks behind me LAUGHS and calls to JESUS. It’s a beautiful night. It’s a perfect night. It’s a hunter’s night.”

Borrowing heavily from early noir stories, Miller gives Batman a voice which reads as both humorously stilted and over-the-top. High art this is not. The voice, however, is a familiar one – especially for longtime readers. It is a voice that can be found within the pages of Youngblood, Spawn, The New Mutants and others. It is the voice of Lobo, Wolverine and countless other “badasses.” This was not what he intended for the medium when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns. As he said in a 2000 interview with ComicBookResources.com:

“I’ve seen all these characters of my childhood fall into disarray. They’ve become neither fish nor fowl. Those of us who wanted to test the boundaries of what a superhero comic book could do, unfortunately broke those boundaries and the results have not all been very good. We pushed against the old walls, and they fell-but nothing much has been built to replace them. And now the roof is leaking and the sewer’s backing up. ”

To his chagrin, Miller had seen the playfulness of his beloved characters swept to the wayside. Seeing the joy of Will Eisner’s The Spirit replaced by Wolverine having the adamantium ripped from his bones, Miller knew he had to kill this era, and so he took the worst of the grim-and-gritty and wrote a story, albeit unfinished, starring one of the medium’s most beloved characters. With All Star Batman & Robin, he managed to drive a stake through its heart.

This is not to say that all elements of this era have been ostracised. Though it has improved in recent months, many still point to DC Comics’ current lineup as “too ‘90s” compared to the competition at Marvel, Image, Oni Press, and others. Readers can point to the mid-2000s as the turning point away from the Grim-and-Gritty era.

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Embracing the Craziness

As has been eluded to, All Star Batman & Robin can be an examination of the wrongdoings of the comics era that preceded its publication. Such examinations may very well be over-analysis of an inferior work – a perfectly valid opinion. Instead, the title may simply be an 1980s action movie starring Batman. To clarify, it is not an adventure film like Back to the Future or Raiders of the Lost Ark, but rather akin to Cobra, Commando, or Bloodsport. All Star Batman & Robinpossesses all of the elements to be a comedic, over-the-top action romp. Readers just need to embrace the craziness.

From the series’ opening pages to it’s bright yellow conclusion, Frank Miller’s script is rife with enough one-liners — both humorous and dripping in over-the-top badassery — to make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush. Readers are introduced to Vicki Vale, who’s opening monologue contains, among other things, the first documented utterance of “The Goddamn Batman” – a line which would gain infamy in the succeeding issue as Batman refers to himself as so.

Much of the series is from the perspective of young Dick Grayson. Early on, he catches the lie that is Batman’s “voice,” which goes on to set the tone for their relationship during this story. He notes that his captor/protector is doing a “lameass Clint Eastwood impersonation” – a bit of fanservice to those who have called for the actor to portray the costumed vigilante in a live-action adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. He questions Batman’s choice of words, eliciting the hilarious response of “…shut up. I’ll do the talking here.” Not exactly the caring, paternal relationship readers have become accustomed to.

There are plenty of winks and nods to readers throughout the story, none more obvious than the aforementioned reveal of the Batcave. Though many still consider it to be a relic of an era best forgotten, Jim Lee’s art is on another level in this sequence. A fold-out, triple-page spread reveals a Batcave chock full of Easter eggs that will please the most hardened of fanboys. The story may be terrible, but seeing the Adam West-era Batmobile next to the tank from The Dark Knight Returns surely brings smiles.

It is often forgotten that other superheroes from the DC Universe made their way into All Star Batman & Robin – notably in fifth issue and again in the ninth. The opening pages of All Star Batman #5 features a meeting of what appears to be a proto-Justice League, lead by a strong and fiery Wonder Woman. The highlight of this sequence is Plastic Man. Though he barely speaks throughout the entirety of the series, his impact is everlasting to those who take notice. Jim Lee’s depiction of him is another clue to readers that this series is not to be taken seriously. As Wonder Woman and Superman bicker about the “Batman problem,” Plastic Man twisting himself into a mushroom cloud and, later, a heart while DC’s power couple share a passionate kiss. That’s right, the New 52 ripped the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship from All Star Batman & Robin.

Critical mass is reached in the ninth issue, as Batman and Robin confront Green Lantern in a room which the newly formed Dynamic Duo has decided to paint completely yellow. Having the room itself painted yellow is funny enough, but Miller and Lee decide to dial it up to eleven by having Gotham’s “heroes” painted yellow as well. Not yellow suits. Painted. Robin even applies some finishing touches to Batman’s cape with a paint roller. Further mockery of Green Lantern is added when Batman continues to take sips from his nice, refreshing glass of lemonade. This sequence not only plays up the silliness of Green Lantern’s traditional weakness to the color yellow, but it also elicits the statement “Damn you and your lemonade!”

All Star Batman & Robin is a terrible series courtesy of an atrocious script, laughable dialogue, and a poor art team pairing. Yet with questionable execution, it provides timely commentary on the state of the industry at that moment in time. More than that, it produced a version of the Dark Knight which had never truly been seen before – an impressive feat for a character with as rich of a publication history as Batman’s. Moreover, despite its quality, it is wildly entertaining. Isn’t that why we read comics to begin with?

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This entry was published on August 18, 2014 at 4:18 pm. It’s filed under Opinions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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