By Alex Boney
In our November 2006 issue of Guttergeek, I favorably reviewed All-Star Superman—a book that features the still-impressive work of writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quietly. DC’s “All-Star” line is intended to showcase some of the industry’s top creators on DC’s top-tier properties. When the creative team for All-Star Batman and Robin was first announced a few years ago, the hype was astounding. And in at least one way, the book lives up to its name. Frank Miller, Jim Lee, and Batman would seem to be a mix made in fanboy heaven. Miller made his name on high-profile 80s projects such as Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, while Jim Lee garnered critical praise for his work with Jeph Loeb on the 2002-2003 “Hush” storyline. A big book with big names and a big character, All-Star Batman and Robin is a book that should have been better than this. But nine issues in now, it is becoming increasingly clear that All-Star Batman and Robin is as bad as All-Star Superman is good.
One of the major problems with All-Star Batman and Robin is that nobody seems to agree how to read it. Some readers seem to believe that the book is being written sincerely—that this is Miller’s and Lee’s attempt to write the biggest, baddest, most kick-ass and over-the-top superhero book ever written. In some ways—if I squint hard enough—I can see this. The layouts are lavish but uncomplicated. The splash pages are numerous. (Issue #4 even features a six-page gatefold panoramic illustration of the Batcave.) The dialogue is simple, repetitive, and ostentatious. Miller seems to be tapping into the darker, grittier direction in which comics turned in the late 1980s—a direction he himself helped pioneer. In issue #5, Batman races across the Gotham rooftops thinking to himself, “It’s a beautiful night. It’s a perfect night. It’s a hunter’s night. Every inch of me is alive.”
But even if the tropes and techniques of All-Star Batman and Robin are recognizable, something is terribly wrong about all of this. For one thing, this is horrible writing. When Batman climbs on top of Black Canary in the middle of a thunderstorm in issue #7, he thinks, “We keep our masks on. It’s better that way.” Simplistic, absurd, cliché-ridden monologue and dialogue may work (for some) in Sin City, but Gotham is no Sin City. Although Batman began as a superhero in a pulp/noir atmosphere, it evolved into something more complex over time. There’s nothing complex about Miller’s take on the character. While All-Star Superman makes the familiar new and innovative, All-Star Batman makes the old feel more stale and more ridiculous.
A second theory about All-Star Batman and Robin is that the book provides an outlet for Frank Miller’s latent hatred of the superhero comic book genre. This take is partially supported by Miller’s gravitation away from superhero comics and toward hard-boiled creator-owned projects (Sin City, 300) in the 1990s. The “Frank hates capes” theory becomes more believable as you make your way through what passes for dialogue in the series. Issue #5 opens with Wonder Woman walking through Metropolis and dismissing a pedestrian with “Out of my way, sperm bank.” Later, she might as well be channeling Miller’s voice when she yells at Superman, “You bastard! You bastard. I hate your guts. I hate your guts. You make me sick.” Fully half of issue #3 is devoted to “characterizing” Black Canary as a glorified bar-keep prostitute, and all of issue #9 is devoted to making Green Lantern look as moronic as possible. It’s as though Miller truly despises these characters, and he’s doing everything he can to deflate them as heroic archetypes.
Another theory circulating about this book is that Miller is intentionally writing a parody. According to this approach, the book is actually pretty funny if you don’t take it seriously. Part of me sees this, too. I do laugh several times each issue. But the main problem I have with seeing this as a parody is that I can’t figure out what Miller is parodying. If Miller is parodying himself, then it’s a sad commentary on the work of a once-gifted storyteller. Although the grim-and-gritty tone of superhero comics became ubiquitous and boorish in the 1990s, Miller helped comics evolve in the 1980s with projects like Daredevil, Ronin, and The Dark Knight Returns. If All-Star Batman and Robin is a parody of the comic book medium (and specifically the superhero genre), then Miller simply comes across as ungrateful. When he uses past Batman creators’ names as street names throughout the series, Miller seems to be paying homage. Similar homages are made to Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid in issue #9 and Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in issue #8. But in a book as absurd as All-Star Batman and Robin, these insider references are more misplaced and offensive than they are reverential. Miller is not honoring the legacy of comics in this book; he’s defecating all over it.
All-Star Batman and Robin was originally pitched as an outside-continuity re-imagining of the origin of the Batman and Robin team. But thus far, Miller and Lee have provided nothing new, innovative, or re-imagined about the characters. There is nothing touching or heartfelt about Batman repeatedly calling a child who just lost his parents a “little snot” or leaving the child alone in a cave and telling him to fend for himself. It’s not understandable or interesting, and—even if this book is a parody—it’s not even very funny. It’s lazy and outrageous. And after nine issues of reading this book while shaking my head, I’ve come to believe that the only person who can really think this is funny is Frank Miller. Because he’s making a presumably large sum of money off readers who—whatever the reason—continue to buy his lazy, outrageous book. And even this isn’t very funny. It’s actually pretty embarrassing—for all involved.