Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Jim Lee (p), Scott Williams (i)
Publisher: DC Comics
EDITOR’S NOTE: Concern yourself NOT for my (or your own) sense of reality. I DO have a calendar, and I DO realize that today isn’t Sunday. However, since several of our reviewers submitted their judgments on the second issue of All Star Batman & Robin (more judgments than I anticipated), I thought maybe you readers would enjoy an impromptu weekday Slugfest that combined all the reviews.
Plot: As Alfred tends to Vicki Vale’s injuries, Batman eludes the police with Dick Grayson riding shotgun.
Commentary: My first reaction to reading this book was, “Wow, Sin City meets Gotham City,” which is a really cheap and unfair comparison to make. The hard boiled nature of the dialogue is what draws the comparison, but to go down that road is insulting to Miller as a writer. There were some hard boiled moments in this book, but Sin City always struck me as hard boiled in service of the story and All Star Batman & Robin has Batman talking that way to try and scare the crud out of Dick Grayson. Once I made that realization I knew that there was a lot going on in this story and that Frank Miller was doing his best to explain how a young boy could possibly become Batman’s partner.
I’ve long agreed with the theory that Batman is a kind of Rorschach test for writers. They look at Batman and see different things. Some see Batman as the ultimate detective, some see him as the ultimate fighter, some see him as only working alone and some see him as the patriarch for an extended crime fighting family. I always got the feeling that Miller thinks Batman is a messed up individual (though Miller likes writing that type of character) who is completely obsessed with the war he is fighting. To fight this war he had to become something bigger than life to frighten those he is going up against. He adopts a persona that is tough; tougher than anyone else he faces and the “mask” he wears requires him to be this unyielding monster that can never back down from the identity he has created.
It is because Dick Grayson was able to see through this that he became Robin. If he didn’t see the “wizard” behind Batman’s curtain, he would have been useless. I think Batman needed someone not only to work with him and care about, but also someone who would make him rethink his motives and what he is doing.
But that’s in the future. In the here and now Batman is going purely by instinct and the focus of this issue was Dick’s journey from a normal boy (as normal as a trained acrobat could be) to becoming Batman’s partner. Fighting crime as Batman does is insane, and it takes more than just a set of dead parents to cause a person to wear tights and swing from the rooftops. Through this issue Dick worked through all that was happening to him and by the end of the issue, the determination and will emerge. It was eight simple panels, but the transformation was there and made for a great read.
The only problem I had with this issue was the flying Batmobile. It just didn’t gel with the rest of the story. It looked great, but felt out of place.
I was very impressed with Jim Lee and Scott Willaims’ art. Jim Lee usually likes to go big with his art. In both the “Hush” storyline in Batman and “For Tomorrow” in Superman, even the quiet moments were told in large panels. Here they go for several pages of multi-paneled layouts. I liked this. It really served the story well. The big moments were fun as well. As much as the Batmobile flying sequence bugged me, I would be a fool not to realize that it looked good.
In The End: This is shaping up to be an interesting storyline. The reworking of Dick Grayson’s origin works for me. Miller’s writing is somewhat deceptive, but has a lot of heart to it. This is also definitely some of the best art of Jim Lee’s (and Scott Williams’) career.
There’s a theory going around that with this series: Miller’s actually parodying what DC have done to the Batman character since Miller himself put out the original Dark Knight Returns. Either that, or he’s gone utterly loopy. Strangely enough, the exact same suggestion popped up when DK2 came out.
There’s some evidence for the theory; this is a Batman quite unlike any you’ve seen before. He’s quite deranged, more so than any previous Miller version of the character, and certainly more so than the Crazy Batman in the current DCU. His dialogue is off (“I guess someone on the FORCE put out a KILL ORDER on me. Cool.”* Batman says “cool”?), his actions are off, everything is just very strange and off-kilter, and it’s really quite difficult to figure out why. Surely Miller must know that this isn’t how Batman acts, so what’s the reasoning behind it?
That question is more interesting than the issue itself, which consists of an unexciting car chase and a dash of child abuse overlaid with some painfully bad scripting in the form of amateurish attempts at poetic language combined with really stinky metaphors and similes. Apparently, Gotham, viewed from above (via that mountain road overlooking the city shot that Miller uses at least once in every Sin City story) is beautiful like Edgar Allen Poe’s wife before she was stricken by tuberculosis. Okay…
Jim Lee continues to be woefully out of his element, being required to draw an oppressively dark and moody piece that doesn’t play to his strengths. While he’s no favourite of mine I do generally like Lee’s art, but he’s simply not suited to this, and the overly heavy inking, presumably an attempt to darken his style, just doesn’t work, instead crushing the art under unnecessary murkiness. Given how much of the imagery in this comic matches up quite nicely with familiar Frank Miller visual techniques (lots of high contrast stuff in the rain, the aforementioned mountain road shot), I’d guess that Miller’s providing a fairly specific script in terms of composition and layout; either that, or Lee’s making a conscious decision to ape Miller’s style. Either way, I have to question the motivation; are the sales numbers significantly higher on a Miller/Lee book than a comic written and drawn by Miller alone? Because all I get from Lee’s involvement here is a sense of “stunt casting” without any consideration for how the final product turns out. This is a highly entertaining comic, but in the same way that watching drunk people dancing at a party is fun; there’s no sense of quality or craft to the performance, and they’ll be embarrassed by it all when they wake up the next morning, but for now it’s a great laugh for the onlookers.
*That’s not me misrepresenting the emphasis of the words. Batman’s internal monologue is presented in lower case lettering, and FORCE and KILL ORDER are capitalised, which implies that Batman randomly shouts at himself in his own thoughts. Which, you know, is a bit crazy.
Plot: Batman speeds a grieving Robin from one crime scene to another, while Alfred tries to care for a shocked and brutalized Vicky Vale.
Comments: In a way, that’s not much to happen in the second issue of a comic. But in another way, this is a much better issue than the first. While the first gave us several first person narratives to introduce us to our characters (save for the Batman himself), this issue lets us into Bruce’s hard-boiled, hardly sane mind. It’s really a battle of wills, between a traumatized (but highly intelligent) boy and a traumatized (but battle-scarred) man. Who, it seems, needs a partner, and isn’t that keen on asking.
The cover is the first clue that Miller isn’t just trodding familiar paths with this non-continuity title. Robin cowers in fear before the Bat, with blood spattering his face. For those who like badass, that’s what Miller offers: a very very old school, very noir, very edgy Batman. He’s barely holding himself together, but it’s all internal, on the outside he’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but one who can act.
The key here is that, even through his misery, this Robin can already see through his mentor/ally/captor. Batman may be applying hard sell tactics, but Dick actually makes his decision to sign up for his own reasons. The success of the series depends on whether Miller can make Bruce more than just a brooding loner; can he give the Bat a family, too?
Visual splendor: Sparkling pencils by Lee are still a questionable choice of partner to Miller’s gritty sensibility, but it’s kind of fun watching two such distinctive styles clash. If you need a flying Batcar (and who doesn’t?), Lee’s your guy.
This will certainly be the weirdest Batman comic you read all year.
Now, “weird” may not seem like an intelligent qualitative judgment of art from a respected critic such as myself, but the thought dominating one’s head while reading All-Star Batman and Robin #2 is, “God that’s weird!”
Witness: Batman kidnapping twelve-year old Dick Grayson (there are no illusions in any character’s head that this is not what’s happening); Batman drugging said boy to knock him out, repeatedly frustrated when young Master Grayson won’t fall asleep; trying desperately to scare the poor boy (who, it must be remembered, has just watched his parents spectacularly murdered) by driving like a maniac, wearing a fiendish grin. But the icing on the cake is the random commentary from bystanders, rightly shouting “Lunatic!” and “Madness it’s Madness!”
Issue #2 of All-Star BRBW (not to be confused with All-Star BDSM, which you can find in the back section of the free city newspapers) has much to love, and much to piss off fans who take Batman seriously. It progresses at the pace of an action movie, a car chase scene to be precise, yet is laugh-out loud funny from beginning to end. Somewhere amid the laughing, though, the reader must realize that this is something like a Tarantino film: you’re laughing at situations that are too horrible to be believed.
Writer Frank Miller does a solid job of making sure this is very clear, that every character acts out of desperation, and each one of them is in shock. Some will complain that Batman and Vicki Vale each repeat the same words for five pages. The same words. For five pages. Batman and Vicki Vale. They say them. The words. The same ones. For five pages. But the dialogue rings true, because people often behave this way when faced with a crisis, and many do even when they’re safe.
Jim Lee’s art speeds the story along, giving it a glossy feeling and allowing Miller to tell the kind of high-octane tale he might not accomplish with his own brushes. Little details like a bunny scampering away from the Batmobile add to the surreal, impish quality of this particular issue, as well. For all of this, though, Lee is capable of conveying great emotion, as in the final few pages entirely composed of shot/reaction shot between Dick and his captor-savior.
As comics have begun to diversify and reach out to broader audiences, there has emerged a series to fit nearly every taste. There are comics to excite, comics to titillate, comics to ponder, comics as soap opera, comics as comedy, comics as social satire, and a million other bloody things. But, man, there aren’t many comics that are just fun-fun-fun, that leave you feeling just happy to have read them. All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is shaping up to be such comic.
Miller’s second issue retelling the origins of comics’ most dynamic duo is a very different beast then the first, eschewing the light tone and gratuitous cheesecake which put so many readers off and opting instead for a very intense story which sees Batman taking on (or should that be taking out) some of Gotham’s Finest in his spruced-up Batmobile, as he attempts to convert the young Dick Grayson to his cause. The majority of the issue is a Bruce/Dick two-hander, although we do get occasional glimpses at what’s happening with Alfred and Vicki Vale, which bolster their characters slightly without distracting too much from the main reason this story exists: to see how and why--according to Frank Miller--Batman takes on Robin as his ward.
Miller’s take on Batman this time around doesn’t seem to set out to be as overtly controversial as some of his other work in comics, but it still manages to break new ground with the character. Whether this is a good thing is for the readers to decide, as Miller’s Batman shows a truly psychopathic streak here, tearing through policemen (all of whom are corrupt anyway, according to his reasoning) with abandon and blowing all kinds of stuff up with his overhauled car without so much as a flicker of hesitation or conscience--hardly the clinical, sleek and shadowy urban legend that previous interpretations of Batman would have us believe. However, it can’t be denied that this interpretation of the duo’s fledgling relationship makes for an exciting read, and as the issue draws to a close Batman’s more cerebral side rises to the surface, as he cynically attempts to manipulate the recently-bereaved minor into becoming his protégé. Some of Miller’s insights into Batman’s psyche make for interesting reading, as the character shows a self-awareness--almost self-loathing--which almost leads him to question the morality of his actions, and rightly so. It’s rare to see a Batman unsure of himself, and the combination of this uncertainty and apparent mental instability sows some potentially interesting seeds for future issues of this title. Miller successfully builds things to an interesting emotional climax before leaving us hanging for next month’s issue (even if the final page does seem like a bit of an incongruous space-filler, as though the creators forgot to write and draw enough pages to fill out a 22-page comic book).
Jim Lee’s artwork here seems head and shoulders above what we saw in issue #1; then again, maybe that’s because he’s given something far more interesting to draw. An opening splash page which shows a scared Dick Grayson subdued by Bruce’s giant gloved hand as the Batman (subtly reflected in his eyes) gasses him into submission is an absolute showstopper, and an image which had me studying the page in awe for over a minute. As the issue progresses, Lee shows himself to be a disciplined and consistent storyteller, tackling both quiet character moments and explosive larger-scale action with confidence. An extended dialogue between the two central characters towards the end of the issue is made far more animated by Lee’s well-executed use of smaller panels, which allow him to explore a range of emotions--particularly for the recently-bereaved Dick Grayson--and bring a lot more meaning to the couple’s first exchange than the mere words alone would suggest. The characters’ internal monologues also benefit a lot from Lee’s pencils, and the important sense of melodrama which is expressed through the visuals manages to justify some passages that, if presented as bare text, would look laughably po-faced. But who can complain about a slightly extreme edge to this book when Miller’s writing extravagances allow Lee to render some of the most breathtakingly explosive Batmobile action sequences I’ve ever seen committed to paper. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Scott Williams’ faithful and painstaking inks are such a perfect match for Lee’s complex pencils, and he adds some real depth to the visuals whilst retaining the necessary balance of light and dark that a Batman title demands.
This issue isn’t without its flaws. Certainly, some people are likely to find the characterisation of Batman questionable, as he comes off like an abusive father to the scared-out-of-his-wits youngster (and believe me, that’s not the creepiest interpretation I could think of for their relationship at this point). Some may feel that the issue doesn’t move things on enough, and that after two issues we really shouldn’t be waiting for Bruce to get Dick in the Batcave. It could even be argued that Miller contradicts some crucial tenets in the portrayal of Batman here, as the supposed hero shows a remarkable recklessness towards human life as he takes on the police force in his supercharged Batmobile, relishing the creation of unnecessary and mindless carnage. But for me, this comic entertains, excites the eye and challenges my perception of one of the most iconic heroes DC has to offer, without feeling the need to resort to any cheap tie-ins (Infinite Crises, Houses of M or otherwise) to tell an interesting story. After last issue I was ready to give up on this “All-Star” project as an empty exercise in hype and marketing. This second issue has made me glad I didn’t.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!