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Frank Miller: the man who redefined Batman's early years in Batman: Year One. Frank Miller: the man who redefined the end of Batman's career in The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller: the man who seriously misses the mark when it comes to redefining the origins of Batman's partnership with Robin, the Boy Wonder.
The All-Star series of titles takes a fresh look at key moments in the lives of well known DC heroes and gives them a fresh spin. Whilst the basic facts familiar to comic fans around the world are adhered to, the authors have a great deal of freedom to add their own ideas and interpretation.
I was really excited about the title - Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are arguably some of the finest Batman tales ever told and whilst Miller mis-fired with The Dark Knight Strikes Back, I was hoping this would be a return to form. Sadly All Star Batman & Robin proves a bit of a damp squib.
The central plot sees Bruce Wayne witness the murder of mother and father circus act The Flying Graysons. Only their young son, Dick (also an accomplished acrobat) survives. Batman kidnaps him and imprisons him in the Batcave, slowly training him to be a crime fighter.
One of the book's biggest issues is that the central plot just never rings true. I can forgive the fact that it plays fast and loose with some of the accepted "facts" regarding the origins of Robin - after all Batman's history has been re-invented many, many times. However, this retelling always feels like it is being deliberately provocative and controversial, whilst adding nothing new. It always feels false and contrived, going totally against everything we know about Batman. This is not character reinvention; it's character assassination.
The story lacks any context for Batman's erratic behaviour. There is no consideration of why he suddenly feels the need to have a partner, let alone why he thinks that partner should be a child. There is no reference to why (apart from his athletic abilities) Dick Grayson has been selected or whether others have been considered and discarded. In fairness, the All Star comics are an on-going series, so perhaps these issues were explored in subsequent issues. However, it does feel as though you are operating in a vacuum, totally ignorant of the thought processes or motives of the Batman. His cold and heartless behaviour leaves you despising him and Batman needs the reader on his side to work.
It's Miller's characterisation of the Big Bad Bat which is most unforgiveable. Yes, Batman is a dark and somewhat twisted character, driven by a relentless desire for revenge and a hatred for criminals. We accept that, and we accept that Batman will always be prepared to do things and sink to levels of behaviour not normally condoned by society. Yet, beneath his ruthless efficiency and cold logic, there is a deeply humanitarian streak which abhors violence, whilst recognising the crucial role it plays in helping him to achieve his goals.
Miller's Batman is different. He is more or less insane; a sadistic individual who delights in inflicting pain on those he deems deserve it often out of all proportion to their crime. This is a Batman who uses violence not as a means of preventing worse violence, but as a way of deliberately causing life-long injuries. This Batman's mission is not about justice, it is about pain. In other words, this Batman is a criminal. And OK, I accept the argument that Batman has always used somewhat dubious methods to achieve his results but he has always had his own in-built moral code which has prevented him from crossing too far over the line (that in-built contradiction is what has always made the character work so well). This Batman has no such scruples and, as such, is no better than the "scum" he stops. In short, it is virtually impossible for the reader to feel any sympathy for him.
Again, perhaps I am being a little unfair. Perhaps over the following issues, the character of Robin gradually tempered this vicious Batman and that was the reason why he needed a partner. But on the evidence of this offering, I'm not interested enough in either character to bother finding out.
The same is true of the new spins on other characters - Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Plastic Man - trying to form a nascent Justice League and worried that this rogue Batman is giving heroes a bad name. They are all selfish and unlikeable, although at least here there are some interesting dynamics which could provide some potentially fascinating future plotlines. The character of Black Canary, meanwhile is awful, speaking in the most unimaginably stereotypical "Oirish" way that makes her every line of dialogue excruciatingly embarrassing.
Thank goodness then for the artwork of Jim Lee which at least salvages something. If Frank Miller is mis-firing on all cylinders with the writing, Lee produces some of his best work. His artwork is big, brash and bold. Gone are the muted tones of Hush as he opens up his paint box and heads straight for the primary colours. Normally, such brashness doesn't suit Batman's world - his is a city of darkness and shadow, but it works surprisingly well. Every panel bursts with life and excitement. All the characters are extremely well drawn and Lee's artwork brings them to life far more than Miller's sterile writing. Indeed, thanks to the artwork of Lee, this is the first time I have ever come close to liking Dick Grayson's Robin (as opposed to his Nightwing character). Miller may portray him as a little brat; Lee invests him with a tremendous amount of personality and spirit.
Whilst Lee might make more use of colour than we are used to in Batman's world, he shows he can still do darkness and shadows needed, and his depiction of Gotham City is suitably gritty and grimy. Panels are well laid out and artwork clearly defined. This all stops All Star Batman & Robin from being a dead loss. Three cheers then, for Jim Lee.
It's not been a good year for Frank Miller. The Spirit deservedly tanked at the box office, Sin City 2 seems forever stuck in development hell and, on the evidence of this first volume, All Star Batman & Robin is not going to pull him out of his slump any time soon. Maybe future volumes will show an improvement, but this is one reader who's not interested in finding out.
All Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder
Frank Miller and Jim Lee
Titan Books, 2009
© Copyright SWSt 2009
The All Star ranges of comics that have been released by DC on a monthly basis are something completely different to that of the normal comic run that DC publishes. These are totally separate to the normal line of monthly publications from DC and are giving some well known characters a little bit of a reboot and re-programming.
They are also treated in a manner that some would say that they take place in a parallel universe or some would say that these could be classified as a "What if..." story. Well for me the reasoning behind the different universe fits perfectly well as this gives a fresh start and an even playing field to tell a story with well known names, but with off focus characterisations.
The story is told as the origin of Dick Grayson who as a child who has not reached his teenage years is part of a circus act called The Flying Grayson's who perform nightly to wow audiences with their trapeze work. At one of the evening performances in Gotham City, in attendance in the audience at this particular performance is millionaire businessman Bruce Wayne accompanied by Vicky Vale. As the Grayson's perform in front of a sold out audience, Dick's parent are murdered in front of him. The manner in which the book handles this really does bring out the scale of the tragedy that occurred as feelings of anger and hate are shown as Grayson as no idea why this has happened and more importantly why this has happened to him. This is the catalyst for the story as we follow Grayson's steps to become the sidekick to Batman.
The whole focal point and gravity is really from Grayson's point of view, this adds a new dimension as throughout the book the view points of other characters are raised at various places in which they play a part in the story and you get to read how they are thinking and what they are saying to the people they are addressing, curiously these two conversations don't necessarily add up to the same point and this makes you realise that the level of trust between some of the characters are lower than the reader would expect them to be. This again is a good example of how the story is taken to a different level. The story also brings to forefront how easy it is for someone, who is still discovering who they actually are can cross the line from defender, can get so much sadistic joy in the level of violence that they can project towards someone, in some cases for no good reason at all.
The opportunities to break the mould have been taken to the extreme and we see a different type of Batman than what has come before in comic terms. This Batman starts off working alone and has a deviant attitude that can only be described as thrill seeking and with a complete disrespect for anyone else but himself showing a level of arrogance that at times far exceeds the expectations of the people he is in combat against, he refers to the role of Batman as a soldier in a war, which gives some idea as to how far he is willing to go. Appearance wise the costume is the same as what we expect to see Batman wearing, with the exception that he is unshaven and has at least a day's growth. This really does give him a total vigilante look and takes the character off to a place that we very rarely see him go to as Batman lets rip with everything when he feels it is necessary. Usually the character is an intelligent, self contained person while showing a calm exterior, this one is different in every way in fact the character is out of control with his own agenda to deal with crime.
Other characters from the DC world are present in the story as well, this allows a fine balance to be upheld against the main characters and the rest which are really a supporting cast but have an important part to perform. For example Superman is given "orders" by Batman to do things, Superman complies with this out of the urgency but deep down detests the methods that are being used against him. Wonder Woman is totally different in character and seems to have a permanent rage throughout; she also uses her sexuality to get what she wants! Surprisingly it is Green Lantern also attempts to act as mediator on behalf of the Justice League and not one of the usual heroes such as Superman.
Totally every thing is outside its normal "comfort zone" and you can see that as you read the book, writer Frank Miller who also wrote the graphic novels 300 and Sin City has taken everything and played against type throughout. Immediately you see that people have a different persona and that different methods are used to address certain issues. For example Batman using the weight of the Batmobile to crush cars and using a high level of brute force on Robin. In fact for me this was one of the more frightening aspects to the story as Grayson adapts to his role of sidekick, Batman does emit a high level of violence towards the child. In some cases leaving him to hunt for food himself by capturing a rat inside the Batcave rather than starve and telling him what he will be doing rather in an aggressive manner that genuinely scares the young Grayson. To give the full picture at one point Grayson does ask Batman why he speaks like Clint Eastwood when he talks. This for me completes the vigilante portrait as this confirms that he is more of a Dirty Harry type character and I interpret that as a very good thing. Dialogue is also upped in level as there are a lot of more colourful metaphors and swearing being added to the way in which the characters speak to each other. Batman refers to himself in places as "the goddamn Batman" to emphasise a point.
In the end you realise that both Batman and Robin are very similar, okay they are different in age and experience, but the fact is that they have both had their parents taken away by the most violent means possible by separate events that they witnessed themselves, this has given their vigour and hunger, bottom line is they are still looking for closure to their issues and both can easily be considered to be tortured souls.
Now whether Miller, as writer, has started to kick off events that lead to another one of his graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns, is another good question, Miller has stated that this is in the same universe before Dark Knight Returns but after Batman: Year One took place. There are easily a number of traits in this that can be seen in the others and vice versa. It is safe to say that the grittier and far darker versions of Batman and Robin do tend to hold the imagination longer and does make you ask a lot more questions about the story. In fact this aspect made me want to read the book again for a second time to which I picked up on more of the sub plots the second time around.
Now don't worry if you think I have given so much away that this wouldn't be worth reading, I haven't. There is a lot happening in this book and there are a number of well planned, orchestrated and clever sub plots that do tend to get answered by the last page, however some don't and that for me was the best thing as this can then be said that this is to be continued. Naturally I won't say which ones do and which ones don't as I think that would be totally unfair. The build up of story arcs across the monthly editions not only preserve the longevity of the title but also means that the story can be lifted to other places knowing that there are some unanswered questions that will keep me interested long enough to see these answered. A good example that utilises this to the full is the TV series Lost, in fact it could be said that this is probably the first Batman soap opera to be published.
The artwork by renowned artist Jim Lee really adds to the storytelling, the angles and colours not only makes the pictures stand out and effectively leap out in front of you, but also build's up the tension sufficiently to think that you are reading a film based script rather than an individual piece of work. Lee's work previous to this included Batman: Hush and Superman: For Tomorrow. His close up work on character faces is superb and through just one frame of someone's face you understand what is being implied just from the look on their face with minimal dialogue being spoken, absolutely priceless. His style of build for all the male characters are tall and muscular with the obligatory quaffed hair style, in fact all the male heroes look big, the females are drawn as sexy and curvy and are on a equal footing with their male counterpart when it comes to fighting. The look suits the characters well and get the point across that Batman is a determined man with what he does.
In my mind All Star Batman and Robin is a very good example of how the comic books should be and how gritty and dark the off focus characterisations can be without damaging any of the characters legacy or back history. There is a high level of violence and blood, but this is not meant for a ten year old child to read this is more relevantly aimed at adults rather than children. The book contains the collected editions of All Star Batman and Robin Editions 1 to 9, with the book being labelled as Volume One. Personally I cannot wait for Volume Two as this will continue the high standard which has been achieved here. I have to say that the final pane that on the final page of the story is very moving indeed and very poignant to the story as a whole and whilst I don't own a Batman or Robin costume what takes place in this picture alone is something that we can all relate to in some way at some point in our lives.
I paid £16.99 from Waterstones for this as a Hardback edition with dust cover and thought that this was worth every penny.
Once again Frank Miller takes on Batman and adds to the universe he has created with batman Year One, The Dark Knight Returns and very poor Dark Knight Strikes Back.
In the All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (a curiously camp and frivolous title) Frank Miller takes us to a period between Year One and the Dark Knight Returns to rewrite the history of Batman and Robin.
This graphic novel is collection of issues 1-9 and introduces Robin into the equation of this Batman universe. Since the 70s Robin started to be slowly phased out of the Batman comics until the Dark Knight was solo. He has occasionally had other versions of Robin, but these have been short lived and on the whole thank god. See how bringing Robin into the film franchise helped to kill the series off for good.
In this part of the Dark Knight instalment Miller attempts to make sense in a modern world as to why Batman would recruit Robin and make it plausible. However for some reason as I started reading it, I had the nasty suspicion that this was just a cheap version of Marvel's brilliant Ultimate franchise. This where they take their most popular characters such as The Fantastic Four, Avengers and Spiderman, put them in a modern setting and start their stories from scratch again and try and put all their villains and other stories in the Ultimates universe into context with an entire arc. I highly recommend anyone interested in further reading to check out "The Ultimates", which is a re working of "he Avengers. The Ultimates is so brilliant I will be surprised if a film version of this isn't made in the next few years.
But enough about genius, let's get on with the mediocre. Bruce Wayne actually is thinking of recruiting Dick Grayson before his parents get killed, rather than it being a co-incidence. He actually needs Dick Grayson which is a nice take on him happening to be at the circus by chance.
Alfred is no longer an old butler, but a strong middle age man that has experience military service. This makes sense as to why he's able to do emergency first aid on Bruce Wayne. So far so good. Dick Grayson notices that Batman sounds like he's impersonation Clint Eastwood. This is nice. Bruce Wayne realises that he needs to sound differently, so he uses Clint as a role model and let's face it, if Batman is anyone, he's The Stranger from the spaghetti westerns.
However, every now and then Batman's says the word "cool". Have to say that jars somewhat. He's a crime fighting superhero and a billionaire. That just didn't ring true in the slightest.
I rolled my eyes at the gratuitous pictures of Vicki Vale wandering in her well toned voluptuous body in lace underwear and a close up on her backside, which left me completely cold. I might be a sad comic book fan, but I'm there to read a comic book story and not get off on it.
The Black Canary is introduced as a kung fu kicking sex pot Irish barmaid with a bad attitude and black stockings to match. She was always a pretty sexy comic book character, but now they've made her uber sexy and again, sexed up to satisfy the drooling fan boys
The story really takes quite a long time to get going. Not that this is always a bad thing. A good story needs to take it's time, especially if it's entertaining. However I feel we are just dragging out a story we already know with only a marginal twist to it with a little more padding. When Batman kidnaps Dick Grayson to train him up as Robin, is the journey in the Bat mobile as it turns into a submarine really worth it? Surely all we're gaining from this is a bit of insight into the first journey they had on the way to Wayne Manor. I also can't deal with Batman basically acting like a**hole and grinning all the time. Since when did Batman smile? I once read a comic where Batman laughs and everyone in the Justice League of America were shocked and commented how they'd never even seen him smile. Speaking of which, much like The Dark Knight Strikes Again there seems to be too much of a reliance of other heroes. Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Plastic Man? I have no idea what Miller sees in Plastic Man. Plastic Man is awful. Full stop.
About halfway through we see sparks of genius. Batman in the city at night hunting. Just him and his thoughts. This is why we love Batman. We want the man and his thoughts. I was truly excited at this point and hoped that it would be the turning point. It was Batman "hunting" as he likes to call it, on the street of Gotham, rather than holding up the law. But it all gets let down by him laughing as he attacks street criminals to scare them.
But the story does improve a hell of a lot. In fact I can say that almost halfway through the story it gets a hell of a lot better. And it doesn't stop as we get into the psyche of why Batman and Robin are a double acts and what drives them both. We've always known that the death of Bruce Wayne's parents is the force that drove him, but we finally get to understand Robin.
However even though this is a reinvention we cannot let go that Miller has taken Batman down such a different route, he is barely the character we know. In The Ultimate Spiderman Peter Parker is no longer a weed to be picked on. He is not a bully or flaunts his powers but it makes sense for him to not take crap from anyone. In Batman he is just completely different character and Miller may as well have created something new.
In the end all Miller gives us is a slightly and I'm talking slightly different take on the Batman recruiting Robin story. The graphic novel ends suddenly. It's been reported that the single issues aren't coming out monthly and deadlines are being missed. So they needed to get a graphic novel and simply put out what they had.
As of writing this graphic novel is every issue that's come out so far.
It's better than The Dark Knight Strikes Back, but it's not great.