Friday, September 12, 2008

Book of the Week 3: All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder Volume One

[Another in my ongoing series of discussing the most interesting comic I get in a particular week. It may not be a good comic, just something I feel like discussing in greater depth than my usual "reviews." New posts every Friday where I feel a book deserves a look.]

I'm probably the last guy with a comic blog to discuss this book, but it finally arrived today and I read it straight through. I've been looking forward to reading "The Goddamn Batman and Brat, the Boy Wonder" volume one for a long time. I've read various accounts as to its absurdity, its insanity and its awfulness--all of which made me want to read this book more. See, I love crazy old Frank Miller. When 95% of the comic-reading world was trashing The Dark Knight Strikes Again, I was loving it... and it seems that the other members of the remaining 5% hate this book, too. So, yeah, who doesn't want to read a comic like that?

And, you know what? I really enjoyed this book. Hell, I liked it.

Of course, I can't say for sure if that's me being genuine or that weird contrarian attitude of mine taking over. "Everyone else hates it? Then, I guess I'll like it just for fun..." Sometimes I do that, but I don't think I'm doing that here, because, well, I can back up my enjoyment with logic.

The key to this series is viewing it as part of a larger story, I think. You need to look at it as part of Frank Miller's larger Dark Knight story. A lot of people do that and still aren't fans, which is understandable, because this isn't the best comic in the world. If I were buying it in singles, I'd probably hate it, too, because Miller is using a lot of decompression here... in these nine issues, about three or four issues' worth of plot happens... but who cares? I sure as hell don't.

The Batman we see here makes more sense as a character than most versions I've seen, particularly of the character early in his career. Of course he would go overboard after a year or so. He's young, he's stupid, he's having a lot of fun beating the shit out of criminals... who wouldn't? This Batman is reckless and half-insane, and that makes a lot of sense. There's a method to his madness, but not much. If you compare this Batman to the one in Year One, it mirrors the progression of the character in The Dark Knight Returns, kind of. As he grows more confident, he becomes less human, less Bruce Wayne and more the Bat--before he goes too far and then transitions back to a more balanced version of himself. Note that Bruce Wayne appears twice in these nine issues: at the very beginning and the very end (aside from flashbacks to the character as a child). In the beginning, he's still scouting Dick Grayson with plans to approach the young man in a few years--but the murder of Grayson's parents pushes him a bit over the edge, reminds him of his own parents' death, and allows for him to move into a more reckless manner of behaviour--one that he was probably in already, but we don't see it. Bruce Wayne only appears again when Batman's reckless behaviour is mirrored by the new Robin almost killing Hal Jordan. There's no reason for Batman to remove his cowl in that scene other than to reassert his humanity, to recognise that he's gone too far and it brought his young protege with him. I could be proven wrong in coming issues, but it suggests that a balance between Bruce Wayne and Batman is forthcoming, that "The Goddamn Batman" will fade away a little.

Miller's approach here is interesting as, usually, Dick Grayson mellows Bruce Wayne through his youthful innocence, but, here, it's youthful enthusiasm and recklessness that forces Wayne to look at his own actions.

But, Miller's twisting of the early relationship between Batman and Robin is at the core of this book--and it's such a twisted version of what most comic book fans know that it's not surprising so many can't stomach it. Batman views himself as a soldier in a war, not just another costumed crimefighter (does that surprise anyone who's read Miller's work? Really?) and if Grayson is to join him, he's got to be prepared quickly and harshly. He eventually sees that he was too harsh and pushed too hard, but these methods do make a certain amount of sense. It's not just about training to fight but to survive--to do anything to keep on living and fighting the war. In addition, this plants the seeds for the Dick Grayson we see in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the insane, twisted Grayson who is completely devoted to Batman, is in love with Batman, but also betrayed so much.

Nearly every character protrayal here sets up Miller's "Dark Knight" stuff. Batman's view of the Justice League plays a big role in those other works, especially the relationship of Superman and Batman. What I'm particularly interested in is the relationship of Batman and Hal Jordan, because, if you remember, the two are friends in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In this book, Batman seems to consider Jordan the worst of the bunch (although Superman may have that honour)... and seems to have nothing but contempt for the man. He calls Jordan an idiot using pretty much every synonym I can think of and taunts him with his biggest weakness, yellow. But, this seems like the first step in Batman reforming much of the Justice League in his image, in his manner of thinking--except for Superman and Wonder Woman. Jordan, along with Plastic Man, isn't entirely against Batman here, either.

One of the scenes here that particularly jumped out at me involves Jim Gordon... did this scene cause much of a stir when the issue hit (issue 6)? I think I remember the Black Canary/Batman sex stuff causing some talk, but the Gordon scene is brutal and demonstrates just how fucked up Gotham City is. This is the one honest cop and he's talking to a woman he's having an affair with right out in the open while his wife lurches into the room to fill her glass with more booze and then slink away. Gordon's fidelity has been a part of Miller's Batman stuff since the beginning, but to have it this out in the open is very uncomfortable, and is part of portraying Gotham as the worst city in America, basically. It's one thing for Gordon to cheat on his wife, that happens, but to almost flaunt it? This is what it takes for him to be the good cop? Even the best man in the city is a jackass.

Miller's portrayal of women is what it's always been: they're sex objects, but capable sex objects. Is that better somehow? I'm not a big fan of this sort of portrayal, but it could be worse. At least any woman victimised fights back, rises above the role of victim. (Although, what is up with "love chunks"? Has anyone else ever heard that before?)

Normally, I'm not a fan of Jim Lee's art, but I found myself hating it less here. In more than a few places, he's obviously channeling Miller, which makes it work a lot better than Lee's art, usually.

This is a cynical book. It reads as such and is still rooted strongly in the gritty '80s Miller helped bring about in comics, which is one of the reasons it doesn't read as well to most. It seems almost antiquated, but with odd modern twinges in the dialogue. Personally, I could see a young Batman calling a kid "retarded," but that's me... and Frank Miller, I guess.

As I said, this version of Batman rings true for me more than most. In denying his humanity, in sublimating it to his mission, he's more human than most. He's on the edge of sanity here and pushing himself far beyond his means. Of course he thinks the other heroes are morons! Of course he treats a pre-teen like shit! Of course he takes pleasure in hurting criminals! Of course he takes pleasure in hurting the police! He's young and stupid still... he's only been doing this for a year or so--it's still new and shiny and he feels immortal. He hasn't learned any humility yet, he hasn't failed really yet. Look at how quickly he reverted to this sort of behaviour in The Dark Knight Returns. He came out of retirement and was soon as reckless as this--it's a failing of youth.

I'm very interested to see how this story plays out over the next, what, 15 or 16 issues? I have a strange amount of faith in Miller, because I see a general arc forming here, of a progression of the character as Miller sets up The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Obviously All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder isn't a success in and of itself, because it relies on those other books to justify the characters, but since I have read those books, I can read this one with them in mind. Reading it that way, I'm really enjoying what Miller and Lee do here and look forward to volume two.