Negative fan reaction has practically sunk Frank Miller’s Batman comic book. Shows you what the fans know . . .
Frank Miller & Jim Lee, DC Comics
Negative fan reaction has practically sunk Frank Miller’s most recent Batman comic book. Shows you what the fans know . . .
Marketed on the cover blurb of the All-Star Batman & Robin trade paperback as the “creator of 300 and Sin City” Frank Miller is of course better known to comic book geeks as the writer who reinvented Batman with his two epochal graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 and Batman: Year One in 1987. Both comics turned out to be hugely influential not only in the comic book world, but in the “outside” world of pop culture and movies as well.
A tough and gritty re-imagining of Batman’s origin story, Batman: Year One was to prove a huge inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins movie. One scene in which Batman must avoid capture by a SWAT team in an abandoned warehouse and uses a sonic whistle to attract a huge flock of bats was almost taken verbatim from the Frank Miller comic for instance. Dark Knight Returns had an older Batman returning from retirement to battle it out with a vicious punk street gang. All this in an era in which Batman still meant the old camp 1960s TV show starring Adam West. (Come to think of it, it still meant that to director Joel Schumacher. Word also has it that Tim Burton also went “oh, yeah, the TV series” when contacted to direct a Batman movie back in the late-1980s.)
Since these two highly-rated Batman comics Frank Miller flirted with the character again with The Dark Knight Strikes Again (a sequel to Dark Knight Returns) in 2001. This best-selling graphic novel was however so different to the much-beloved Dark Knight Returns in tone that it couldn’t live up its own advance hype and despite the record-breaking sales there wasn’t a lot of fan love for the book. All-Star Batman & Robin is (obviously) another Batman title by the 52-year-old comic book legend and sometimes movie director (The Spirit).
All-Star Batman is a ostensibly a standalone Batman comic that falls outside the regular DC Comics universe although Miller has often described it as a “prequel” to Dark Knight Returns. (It must be a real pain for DC – and Marvel! – writers to continuously write tales that fit into the complex and involved background stories of their respective publishing houses. No wonder they “reboot” these fictional universes every once in a while!) Despite this version of Batman being confined to a few solitary issues, fans have reacted largely negatively to All-Star Batman. Their biggest issue is Miller’s depiction of the character as practically a cackling sociopath who beats up criminals for the sheer sadistic joy of it. (What? Aren’t we all entitled to a little job satisfaction once in a while? Even for a violent vigilante who dresses up as a giant flying rodent?)
In one scene Batman even kills some of Gotham’s Finest by crashing an armoured Batmobile into their squad car. In other scenes Batman laughs maniacally when attacking a trio of rapists. This is standard operating procedure by the way for this Batman who is more Rorschach than Batman. “I give them the laugh,” the voice-over narrates. “That ALWAYS works.” To mix metaphors: if the Joker and Batman have always been two sides of the same coin, then they seem to be on the same page here.
Even worse is Batman’s behavior towards Bruce Wayne’s ward and twelve-year-old sidekick Dick Grayson a.k.a. Robin. Shortly after his parents’ murder Batman rescues the kid from corrupt cops (i.e. kidnaps him) and leaves him alone in the Batcave for a few days without any food, implying that Grayson should eat live rats. When his faithful butler Alfred supplies the kid with a Quarter Pounder with cheese plus fries, they scuffle. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Alfred?” Batman snarls. “That boy will not be reduced to eating rats, sir,” Alfred replies. “I was,” Batman retorts.
Perpetually unshaven and snarling, this is Batman as we’ve never seen him. And it freaked the fans. The blurb may have promised a “darker knight” but this was going too far. Reviewer Brett Weiss knocked the series in the December 2007 issue of Comics Buyers Guide for depicting Batman “as a psychopath, as opposed to merely dark and disturbed.” Iann Robinson in Crave Online moaned that Frank Miller has “stripped Batman of all of his dignity, class, and honor. This isn’t the Dark Knight; this is Dirty Harry in a cowl. The worst part is that this is exactly what Batman isn’t about.”
Batman isn’t the only character to get the Miller treatment. Black Canary is re-invented as a talkative Irish barmaid who gets tired of the endless work place sexual innuendos and beats up on her entire clientele one evening. (In-joke: one sexual harasser bears an uncanny resemblance to Oliver Queen a.k.a. Green Arrow!) Black Canary consequently becomes a vigilante who beats up street thugs and then, um, robs them afterwards. Later on Batman saves her from a group of heavily armed thugs at Gotham harbor. After dispatching the bad guys the two indulge in a bit of the old outdoor in-out, right there on the pier!
The first issue of All-Star Batman sold over 300 000 copies back in 2005, but sales dropped sharply thereafter. Publication, which was patchy to begin with, grew patchier. Wikipedia tells the tale: “The once-monthly series became increasingly delayed over time to the point where only one entire issue was published in 2006. When issue #5 was released, the series was placed on a regular bi-monthly schedule, with the exception of Issue #10, which was postponed from April 9 release to August 27 release, and then to a September 10 release, which it successfully met, only for the book to be recalled due to a printing error that left numerous profanities insufficiently censored.”
While it is easy to write off All-Star Batman as “a Sin City story in bat-garb” as one critic has done, it is hardly “one of the biggest train wrecks in comics history”. In fact All-Star Batman is pretty darned good. What most reviewers seem to have missed is the book’s humor. It may consist of “faux-noir dialogue”, but it happens to be pretty funny “faux-noir dialogue” damn it! And it’s all told with a sheer breathless bravado that makes All-Star Batman is a vicarious thrill to read. Sure, much of the thrill has to do with “wow! I can’t believe they are depicting the characters like this!” and “what are they going to make them do next?” but this revisionist tale about how Dick Grayson became Batman’s sidekick Robin has more going for it than that.
Frank Miller’s disrespectful revisionism aside, All-Star Batman’s biggest selling point is the brilliant art work supplied by the excellent Jim Lee. (Inks and colors by Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair. Lettering is by Jared K. Fletcher.) Miller usually supplies his own idiosyncratic pencils to stories bearing his name. However in this case Jim Lee, who is no stranger to the Batman universe having supplied the art work for perennial fan favorite Batman: Hush, supplies some gorgeous two-page spreads culminating in a six-page (yup, you read that right – six pages!) panoramic view of the Batcave. Along the way he even manages to throw in a sly reference to the poster art work of Gone with the Wind, once affirming the project’s whole tongue-in-cheek aesthetic.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Frank Miller Batman title if Batman doesn’t get to beat up a superhero with much stronger superpowers than his own. (Batman famously pummeled the bejesus out of Superman in Dark Knight Returns using over-sized gloves made out of kryptonite.) In this case it is Green Lantern’s turn to get the snot kicked out of him. “Thing is, old Hal […] Jordan [...] can’t even make himself a green DANDELION with that RING of his if what’s he’s up against is YELLOW,” a yellow-painted Batman recounts. “Dumbest WEAKNESS I ever HEARD of . . .”
The trade paperback (only available in hardback at the time of writing) contains nine of the ten published All-Star Batman issues. Unfortunately the series has been put on hiatus for reasons that remain unclear. Despite the plummet in sales, the title still appeared on DC’s best-selling lists whenever it was published so it couldn’t really be the negative fan reaction. Maybe Miller is too busy flirting with Hollywood to get round to his comic book writing chores. (It has long been rumored that Miller is interested in making a Buck Rogers in the 25th Century movie – the mind boggles!)
The All-Star Batman debacle and fan reaction to the Dark Knight Returns aside doesn’t mean that Miller is finished with the character though. The writer has long been rumored to be working on Holy Terror, Batman!, an as-yet-unpublished 122-page graphic novel in which the Caped Crusader protects Gotham City from an attack by Al-Qaeda terrorists. For Miller, a New Yorker who passes by or through Ground Zero almost daily, this is a labor of love (or is that hate?).
In a 2007 radio interview he had the following to say on the invasion of Iraq:
“Nobody questions why we, after Pearl Harbor, attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now … It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants…. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth-century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where 3000 of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.”
Holy fatwa, Batman!
All-Star Batman may not be as canonical Miller’s previous efforts, but it is a shame that the series has been put on ice. Revisionism aside, we believe that it is one of the best comics we have read in quite a while. Still, it is good to know that Frank Miller hasn’t been put off the character and that Miller will no doubt give us comic geeks lots to talk about in future . . .