Batman is undoubtedly one of the most interesting of the superheroes. Usually written as a deeply intelligent man – a detective and scientist – with a billion dollars of gadgetry at his hip and a thing for going out at night and kicking the living daylights out of crime.
All-Star Batman & Robin, however, sees Frank Miller doing what some might argue he does best – taking Batman’s personality and skewing it a bit, tightening the spring on Batman’s psychosis, as if he wasn’t far enough over the edge already. Miller did it to great effect in The Dark Knight Returns and, to a certain extent in the wonderful Year One. He doesn’t, however, manage to pull it off in All-Star Batman & Robin.
Miller strips Batman down to one simple character trait – that of the deranged psychopath, intent on grinding the faces of Gotham’s criminal underworld into the same sorry streets that his parents landed on after being shot by a petty mugger. His path is so defined, his vision so focused, that he is blinkered to the rest of the world. And he’s no detective, preferring hospitalisation over interrogation, washing a crime scene with the blood of the perpetrators and dishing out the kind of instant justice that wouldn’t see the light of day in the kangaroo courts of the most oppressive regimes.
This makes for exciting, blood-soaked comics but does little for Batman’s heroic status. In this he’s little more than an above average street brawler with a cool car, a well-stocked Bat Cave and a desire to draw a young assistant into his world. When Dick Grayson, acrobat, sees his parents shot at the end of a family performance, he’s whisked away by Batman and taught how to be a brooding, grieving superhero.
This isn’t the only thread to the plot but it’s the main arc. The rest of the book is mostly taken up with introductions to Miller’s viewpoint on characters surrounding Batman. Black Canary is an Irish barmaid, driven to beating up louts by the leery sexual banter she endures in her bar job. Green Lantern is an unimaginative buffoon, Superman a smouldering alien struggling for acceptance, Wonder Woman a feminist who still can’t help but fall for Miller’s macho men. And The Joker is a cool, calculating psycho who only appears in this volume to rape and murder an attractive and promising young lawyer for no better reason than the number of people who’ll be saddened by her demise.
It’s a brutal reworking of Batman but it loses a lot of sophistication. Batman’s character is alien and unthomable, while the focus on violence and sex as the main sub-plot lying behind a flimsy reworking of Batman meets Robin feels more like a cheesy made-for-the-masses exercise in lowest common denominator superhero comics. If it’s aimed at young teenage boys looking for soft porn and splattered blood then its right on target. Those of us hoping for something more intelligent, even from our superhero fixes, even if we quite enjoy a little sex and violence in our comics, can’t help but feel a little soiled at reading this. The ultimate insult is its cringe-worthy replacement swear words, sitting ridiculously innocently next to the bone-crunching violence and brutal sex.
All this takes nothing away from Lee, whose ability to realise Miller’s unstoppable barrage of action is mind-blowing. His attention to detail and consistent quality will leave you spellbound, especially if you’re a fan of his muscle-bound take on superhero illustration. We doubt anyone could have executed this bizarre script with more style and panache than Lee. Which makes him the true star of All-Star Batman & Robin, because it sure isn’t Miller or his latest incarnation of Batman.
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