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All-Star Batman and Robin Is Amazing. No, I am Not Trolling. (FBB Remix)

Posted by on Monday, March 3rd, 2008 at 09:11:31 AM

This article kicked off the FBB invasion of PopCultureShock, and also launched PCS’s new comics feature, Alternate Current — a series of weekly posts on thought-provoking, or simply fun, topics from bright minds all throughout the blogalaxy. Go check it out every week. I think it runs Thursdays? Maybe I just write fast. And if you already read this over at PCS, there’s new, FBB-exclusive content at the end. Never say we don’t love you.

Man, Issue 9 already. How time flies!The ninth issue of Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder came out this Wednesday, and finally, at long last, it looks like we’ve got enough material here to accurately gauge it. Its release schedule is still highly irregular — though it’s been rapidly getting less so — and sure, it’s taken us over two years to get to this point. But here we are, and from all appearances, Miller and Lee have handed us something a hell of a lot more complex than most people thought they’d get when they picked up the first couple issues. Really, though, this is Frank Miller we’re talking about. You should have known by now there’d be something lurking there underneath all that sex and violence.

After the first couple issues of ASBAR (God I love that acronym) hit, the conventional wisdom stated that Frank Miller had, quite frankly, gone insane. That’s fine. That was more or less the conventional wisdom that followed The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Not so much following Batman: Year One, but there was still some kvetching about how Miller portrayed Catwoman. What people seemed to miss about Miller’s latter day Batman work — especially the oft-maligned DKSA, which is right now competing against itself and only itself for “Most Disappointing Comic” in some silly poll Wizard Online is running — is that Miller is doing something most comic writers seem incapable of doing: he is reacting. DKSA is a reaction to DKR and its rather blind, unconsidered acceptance by both creative forces at DC Comics and the comic community at large; the book is a mockery through absurdity. Not a lot of people got this message, and many of the ones who did still disliked it, because they found the writing or art off-putting. And to be fair, Miller’s exaggerated “ugly” style that he pulls out these days is something that takes a little getting used to.

But a lot of people — including, I’m assuming, the bright minds and hearty souls over at Wizard — disliked Dark Knight Strikes Again because they came into it expecting something they were never going to get, based, perhaps, on their misunderstanding of what Miller actually did with the character in Dark Knight Returns. The absolute worst way to engage with the text of DKR is to read it like Miller is saying that Batman’s a cool dude, totally ripping around town and kicking all sorts of asses, thinking that it’s a war and his kids in it are soldiers and that this is how things should be, thinking that creepy memorials are the way to go when a child in his care dies. DKR is not an endorsement. DKR is a cautionary tale.

So when the main line DC Comics version of Batman got his sidekick killed, it must have been bizarre for Miller to see that memorial show up. Because that memorial was not a good thing for the character. What happened when that memorial went up in Dark Knight Returns was that Bruce Wayne stopped being Batman. So when DC killed Jason Todd off on their main line, and someone realized this would be a great opportunity to do a throwback to that wildly successful miniseries that Frank Miller did — which, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, comprised a late-eighties sea change in comics, for better or for worse — they essentially betrayed the memorial’s symbolism. Sure, they kept the inscription, the glass case, the creepy costume, all that physical stuff, but they botched the context. In DKR, that event makes Batman hang up the mask. In the main DCU, that event makes him…try to kill Joker, but get stopped by Superman because Joker is part of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations (or the one from Qurac, or Khandaq, or whatever made-up fake Arabic state is standing in for Iran these days). Then he continues soldiering on, getting kind of nutty until Tim Drake saves his soul. And there the memorial stays.

The memorial looms, now; it’s pretty much replaced the T-Rex and the giant penny as the standard stage prop you see when any DC artist does an interior of the Batcave. That’s a powerful message, and one that doesn’t seem to be that considered. And in the late nineties, with dreck like Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and Batman: Fugitive cemented the bizarre, one foot in the room, one foot out the door approach Batman’s editorial handlers, Batman’s writers, and a large group of Batman’s fans took towards the character, perhaps best summed up in what was maybe the most misguided, character damaging single issue of Batman ever penned — Batman #600, the climax of Bruce Wayne: Murderer?, written by none other than Ed Brubaker. Let’s be clear: “Bruce Wayne is the mask” is perhaps the most tedious, surface-level, purely lazy interpretation of Frank Miller’s legacy with this character that you can make.

Yeah, he painted himself yellow. What?Come on!! Lemonade!!!

That, I think, is why after Dark Knight Strikes Again failed, Miller felt the need to come back and try it again, in a way that would appeal to the baser natures of some the people that gave DKSA the heave-ho. It’s slick and beautiful, Jim Lee at his finest, his most insane and fundamentally sound. Miller has Lee doing things that Jeph Loeb wishes he had the imagination to ask for in Batman: Hush. And Lee’s style fits the new approach Miller is taking to the material perfectly. Instead of using intentionally ugly art to contrast with the sickly-sweet over-pop portrayals of superheroes in DKSA (and anyone who thinks that art wasn’t intentional should reread not just his first run on Daredevil, but the issues immediately preceding it, when he was the book’s penciller; every choice Miller makes is a matter of style and is done by a man with a very, very solid grounding in his craft), Miller and Lee are using the art to emphasize the slick, fuel-injected, ultra-violent, over-the-top creature Batman has become. Everything about this book, from Batman’s ridiculous inner monologue to the 12 year old boy who’s the closest thing we have to a character we can identify with, to a six-page fold out of the Batcave, indicates that there’s something behind all this sound and fury, and that it’s something important.

The Batman of All-Star Batman and Robin is not just a dude who can bust some heads. He’s not one-dimensional. And like most characters that are not one-dimensional, he should not always be taken at his word. As we’ve seen so far, this Batman is a troubled individual in an utterly insane world — an updated analogue of the Silver Age, where the whimsy that characterized that era’s climate has been replaced by the exaggerated faux-maturity that characterizes ours. This character has built a reactive persona that he hides behind, and in Issue #9, for the first time in the run, it comes down, and we see Bruce Wayne. Issue #9 is also the first time we see a recognition that violence has consequences, which starkly contrasts with the extremely funny, over-the-top scene that comes before it. Basically, Issue #9 is the turn that the first eight issues were building to, where Miller pulls back the curtain and makes how he sees these characters explicit. Seriously. Go back and read Issues #1-9 in one sitting, and see how he does it. Miller is a master — he’s crafted a ludicrous comic that’s not only viscerally entertaining and amazingly funny, but carries on the tradition of the old DC Universe, translated into the modern era, while also giving a spin on the character that has as much weight and consideration as his work in Dark Knight Returns. Probably not as much impact, but that’s a good thing. Let’s be honest — just like with its contemporary, Watchmen, fans are a bit too blindly rabid when it comes to DKR.

It’s a good time to be a Batman fan. Grant Morrison and Frank Miller, with generally solid work by Paul Dini on the side? Yes please. It’s taken way too long, but Miller and Morrison, who are far and away the best two minds currently working on superheroes for DC, are taking a character that has honestly been doing nothing of note for almost fifteen years and breathing major life back into him (with assists by guys like Darwyn Cooke and David Lapham, of course — Batman: Ego and Batman: City of Crime complete the essential post-Knightfall Batman). This should have sea-changing effects on the Batman franchise — complete with people trying to drag it kicking and screaming back to the way he was in the nineties. But that’s cool. We won’t see the real way Morrison and Miller are changing how people view these characters until a new crop of writers gets in and starts wrecking shop. And that’s the way it should be.

But what kind of man puts his name on a crosspost without changing it up? That’s just lazy. And down here round Baltimore way, everyone knows what happens when you don’t change up. So here’s some more about the All-Star books in general.

DC Comics announced their All-Star line in 2005 to what would probably best be described as general fan confusion. Ever since Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis (with helping hands from Ellis and a couple other guys) had updated and reinvigorated a bunch of Marvel’s core franchises with the high-speed, low-drag Ultimates line, there had been constant internet clamoring for something to match on the DC side, and an accompanying rumor every couple of months or something that maybe something like that was coming. So when DC announced the All-Star line, promoting it as the biggest creators in funnybooks on the biggest franchises at DC, people thought maybe they were finally getting their DC redux of the successful Marvel imprint.

Jim Lee's Iconic Batman: Feet first.This cover is so good it was homaged months after it came out. BY ORDER OF JEPH LOEB. It’s here forever.

Of course, this kind of ignored that the Marvel Ultimate universe was never sold like that — when Bendis launched Ultimate Spider-man almost a decade ago, he was basically nobody — but the thinking persisted anyway. And when Frank Miller and Jim Lee put out All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #1 in September 2005, and Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely followed it up with All-Star Superman in November, the reaction was generally baffled and somewhat wary: what’s the continuity here? Do these books happen in the same universe as the other Batman and Superman books? Do they even happen in the same universe as each other? What does Grant Morrison mean when he says that this is what Superman would be like today if the Crisis never happened? And what the fuck is Frank Miller up to?

It’s early 2008 now, approaching two and a half years later, and all we’ve gotten are nine issues each of All-Star Batman and Robin and All-Star Superman and a couple of rumored or announced but unsolicited books — Geoff Johns’s All-Star Batgirl and Adam Hughes’s All-Star Wonder Woman. Every now and again talk about a Lantern or Flash book gets kicked around. Two and a half years in, I think we’re justified in asking the big question, and that is: is the All-Star line succeeding?

The short answer is “sort of.” The longer short answer is “it all depends on how you define success.” The actual long answer is that the All-Star line has basically delivered exactly what its editors and creators promised fans at the outset of the line, but it has fallen far flat of the external expectations that were placed on the line because of the line’s context in the Greater Superhero Funnybook Discourse.

It’s a hard truth that you can’t build a successful imprint — and we’ll define “successful imprint” here as an imprint that can move copies based on its the titles of its books, rather than the names of its creators — in Big Two superhero comics when both of your theoretical ongoings come out quarterly, at their most frequent. Actually, each book has released nine issues in thirty months, so the average is quite a bit worse than that, though both release schedules have gotten a bit better recently. A linewide three to four month wait between the release of issues in ongoings featuring licensed properties usually means a line is about to die or is dead already, and is just tying up loose ends before disappearing. But not with the All-Star line. The All-Star line has done all of jack shit to build itself into a successful imprint as defined above, but it doesn’t matter. It succeeded anyway.

That’s because the All-Star line does not, and never will, have to move copies based solely on the reputation of the All-Star name. The line, as said above, is dedicated to giving the best creators in comics a stage to tell the stories they want to tell with DC’s biggest, most recognized properties. Frank Miller on a Batman book is going to sell, no matter what words you put in front of the title. Grant Morrison on Superman is going to sell, no matter how late the single issues are. The All-Star line was only envisioned like the Ultimate imprint in the minds of fans who didn’t read the promo material closely enough — all the All-Star line has ever been, since 2005 and before, is a convenient header to throw the biggest-budget, highest-profile collaborations under, with an editorial support staff that’s used to dealing with successful creators who are dedicated to telling a story, regardless of the usual, limiting concerns of shared-universe superhero comics: continuity and monthly schedules. All-Star issues come out when they’re done (much to the chagrin of the fans, and the All-Star line editors that the fans bother, like somehow if the editors just call Frank Quitely one more time, he’ll rush his art just to get that issue of All-Star Superman to the New York offices lickety-split), and that’s how it should be. The All-Star books are more or less an organized attempt to generate new Dark Knight Returns and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?s.

And regardless of how irregularly the books perform in the direct market, this is a shrewd economic move by DC. If even one of the stories in this line achieves that kind of status, it not only increases the cultural cache of that DC property — and as far as this kind of intellectual property is concerned, cultural cache is everything — but creates a book that basically be kept perpetually in print, with a version sold in hardcover for $70 retail, and always provide a steady stream of revenues. And if any of these stories do for characters what, say, The Killing Joke did for the Joker, that sort of thing will carry over to DC’s insanely lucrative film franchises — this summer’s The Dark Knight fashions a Joker that, at the very least, uses Alan Moore’s book as a substantial starting point.

So the All-Star line will never be Ultimate DC, and that’s cool. It’s not supposed to be. Marvel reinvigorates its properties by reaffixing them in time: restarting their properties in the new millennium, with iPods and the internet and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. DC reinvigorates its properties by doing the opposite, and making them more iconic — removing them from an acknowledged timeline. Neither All-Star Batman and Robin nor All-Star Superman happen in “our world, but with superheroes.” They both lay out worlds much more extreme than that. And that’s fine; both models work. And both lines have enjoyed the success that well-executed reinvigorations deserve.

Though for one of those lines, that’s about to end. You know, with the Jeph Loeb and all.

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