Frank Miller & Jim Lee: All-Star Batman and Robin, Volume 1

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Miller, Frank & Jim Lee. All-Star Batman and Robin, Volume 1 (New York: DC Comics, 2008)

For a more modern take on Batman than that of the Moore/Bolland tale The Killing Joke, I checked out the first collection (issues #1-9) of the Frank Miller/Jim Lee All-Star Batman & Robin series. Miller has taken his perspective on the beginning and end of Batman's career (Year One and Dark Knight, respectively) and applied it to his nascent partnership with Robin. The series begins about a year after Year One, just before the murder of Dick Grayson's parents, and shows us how Batman befriends the young orphan and begins transforming him from an grief-stricken gymnast into a costumed crimefighter. William Gatevackes reviewed issues #1-3 for PopMatters, and faulted Miller's characters:

"The book is filled to the brim with one negative character after another, which wouldn't be a problem if they were developed more and written better. But instead of being hard-boiled, they're half-baked."

I have to give some weight to his complaint, because Miller's characterization is pretty thin even after a half-dozen more issues (although the denouement after issue #9's tussle with Green Lantern is a good omen). His scripts give us a cocky and borderline out-of-control Batman, who often seems as dangerous and unbalanced as his opponents. He's almost a caricature of the Dark Knight Batman, as this much-publicized (and mocked) exchange from issue #2 shows:

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Perhaps because this particular usage garnered so much attention, "goddamn" was re-used many times later in the series; here is the funniest example (from issue #7):

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It's as good an illustration as any that Miller doesn't take the series so seriously that he omits levity from his script. The humor--such as Wonder Woman's over-the-top imperiousness, for example--clashes somewhat with Miller's noir-ish narration, which works less well here than in his previous books. The typographic and color changes between characters serve to differentiate the changes in narration adequately, but the characters themselves are still far less fleshed-out that they should be by this point in the series.

Despite penciller Jim Lee's superstar reputation, the art doesn't grab me the way it apparently does so many comics fans; it's well-finished by Scott Williams and sublimely colored by Alex Sinclair, but it strikes me as rather sterile. (Not that the pools of blood from Dick's parents--or the numerous flying teeth and broken bones from the many fight scenes--are sterile, but most of the art just doesn't involve me emotionally in the story.) Van Jensen's review at ComicMix echoes my assessment:

The biggest problem here really is the creative team, as Lee's art represents the superhero norm. His clean, highly detailed and gregarious style evokes the action-heavy, reader-friendly adventure comics. There is nothing dark or edgy about his work, and so paired with Miller's script it creates a sense of cognitive dissonance. These two do not match.

I can only wonder if Miller's script would be more effective paired with his art, all harsh lines and heavy contrasts. His successes have all come in books that he's either drawn himself or teamed with a similarly gritty artist.

Despite my complaints about the book, I'll still be queued up to buy the second volume as soon as it's released. Miller and Lee haven't created the perfect Batman story in All-Star Batman and Robin, but it's compelling enough to command one's attention.

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Regarding the All-Star Spirit movie, I don't have a problem with directors of adaptations putting their own spin on the comic book material. In fact, I encourage it. For all the fanboy whining I hear about Tim Burton's Batman movies, I love the fact that he made Tim Burton's Batman instead of a slavishly faithful, fanboy-pleasing "translation" of the comics, like the complete waste of time that was the Sin City movie.

But it was still a Batman movie; Burton had enough respect for the material to make it his interpretation of Batman instead of just making a Tim Burton movie that just happened to feature a guy in a bat costume*, which is exactly what Miller's done with All-Star Batman and The Spirit. The Dark Knight Returns was Frank Miller's Batman; All-Star Batman is Frank Miller's Sin City featuring a guy in a bat costume, and The Spirit, by all accounts, will be Frank Miller's Sin City featuring a guy pretending to be Denny Colt. Really, the only thing bigger than that stupid fedora that Miller wears these days is his ego.

Oh, and Miller insisting on calling the movie "Will Eisner's The Spirit" is an insult. A full-blown, digging up the corpse, having sex with it in every way imaginable, and then pissing on it insult.

I'll have to do some research to find a Spirit collection that suits me, but I'll put it high on my buy list. I've been procrastinating too long. And I need to kick my habit of buying every hardcover Batman story arc that's even halfway decent. "Hey, it's Lovers & Madmen. $17 for the hardcover? Well...alright."

* Though I'm sure plenty of people would like to argue this in regards to Batman Returns.

I've tried to remain optimistic, believe me, but it just got too tiring waiting for Miller to get to the point. And the fact that the book is only published once every million years certainly doesn't help. (Only ten issues of this "monthly" title have been published since it debuted three years ago.) And looking at the diminishing quality and coherence in Miller's work, culminating in his embarrassing Batman vs. Al-Qaeda comic, I doubt he's ever going to have much of a point ever again. I hate to "give up" on an artist, but there's just too much good stuff out there for me to be wasting my time and money on this tripe anymore. Kudos for sticking with it, but I really don't think I have that kind of patience.

I'm just theorizing, but I think Miller going so far downhill can be blamed on his fame and clout. He wasn't able to turn Daredevil or Batman into an ultra-stylized Dirty Harry rip-off because he wasn't able to get away with it. I think he's a great example of an artist who needs a good editor for his genius to get onto the page, to spray him with a water bottle when he gets too rowdy. He's like a dog who's obedient and loyal and loving, but take him off his leash and he's mauling the mailman to death. I think he's much more interested in style than in substance, and when The Dark Knight Returns and Year One turned him into a superstar, his editors stopped forcing him to include substance and just let him write whatever he wanted. I think All-Star Batman is the Dark Knight Returns he wanted to write but couldn't.

I actually admire how bizarre some of his recent stuff is -- specifically, the art style in The Dark Knight Strikes Again -- but he just seems so rambling and incoherent. A political message here, some character development there, but then it's back to the corruption and the whores and the "cool" dialogue that only an eight year old would find cool and the eight pages of Superman and Wonder Woman humping.

By the way, I think I'll take you up on that idea of buying a Spirit reprint collection. I've always had at least a lukewarm interest in the character, but I never got around to actually buying anything. It'll certainly be a better investment than Miller's All-Star Spirit.

I agree that it's "compelling," but only in the sense of a fascinating train wreck you can't help but watch. The book is just awful. There are plenty of zealous Frank Miller fans defending it as some kind of satire, and they're more than willing to condescendingly tell you that you just don't "get" it, but I think it's a load of crap.

I don't think there's anything deep about this book. I think the situation is actually rather simple: Miller has no interest in writing about superheroes. He wants to write Sin City stories. DC came along and offered him a solid gold dump truck full of money to write a Batman title, and he took it. But he wrote the Sin City story he wanted to write, and dressed it up in a Batman costume.

(He's doing the exact same thing with the movie version of The Spirit that he's directing. Have you seen the trailer? It's a Sin City story in looks, atmosphere, tone, and dialogue, just dressed up as The Spirit.)

And why should DC bother editing him? His name is on the cover, and that's all they care about, because he could write 30 pages of Batman dancing in a mariachi hat and it would sell a million copies. And at least a dozen people would write poorly-spelled and incoherent essays on their blogs about how brilliant it is and how anyone who criticizes it is just too dim to recognize Miller's genius.

But it doesn't really work even if you give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it's a satire. If it is, it's automatically a failure simply due to the fact that Miller doesn't do a good enough job of getting that point across. When 99.9% of your audience has no friggin' idea what you're trying to say, you've failed. I've tried to be positive and open-minded, and I've tried looking at All-Star Batman from every angle, trying to see the genius that the smug zealots insist is there, but it's just a crash and burn failure morning, noon, and night.

(As a sidenote, it's also alarming that the All-Star books are supposed to be the DC equivalent of Marvel's Ultimate books, designed for casual comic book fans who just want to read and enjoy a comic without needing encyclopedic knowledge of the decades of continuity just to understand the story. Can you imagine a casual Batman fan spending money on this and enjoying it?)

I can usually respect a new take on Batman since, unlike a lot of fans, I don't feel there's a "true" and definitive version of Batman. I don't feel offended or insulted by All-Star Batman; I don't feel like Miller is pissing on my childhood or the perfect and ideal Batman that I've created in my head, or something. But it's just so terrible. It's awful taken seriously and it's awful taken tongue in cheek.

Miller's next project is a Batman vs. Al-Qaeda comic called Holy Terror, Batman!, which he already admitted will simply be a piece of propaganda and won't actually say anything or have any artistic merit. Do I really need to say any more? It's funny how some artists get less mature as they get older. Miller's in his 50s and comes off as an obnoxious child crying out for attention. Of course, it'll sell a million copies when it comes out, and we'll be hearing the same nonsense from the fanatics about how it's bold and daring and brilliant and how anyone who dares to speak ill of Miller's genius is an idiot.

Yikes, that was long. I need sleep.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on August 7, 2008 10:06 PM.

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