In 2005, DC created the “All-Star” label. These titles would have A-list talent telling grand standalone stories for A-list characters. Their first two books were “All Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder”, written by Frank Miller and drawn by Jim Lee, and “All Star Superman”, written by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Like any great series, both topped sales charts and took forever to come out. Both series released their last three issues in 2008 (8-10 of Batman and Robin, 10-12 of Superman).
Despite being under the same label, these two books couldn’t be any more different. Most people wouldn’t put them in the same category at all. All-Star Batman and Robin is crass (very crass).
In contrast, All-Star Superman is calm and contemplative.
There are many more obvious differences between both these books and the characters Batman and Superman. It could just be that All Star Batman and Robin sucks and Superman doesn’t. People read All Star Batman and Robin ironically while All Star Superman is a modern classic. But I think it’s a lot more than that. All Star Batman and Robin is goddamn hilarious. I don’t care if it’s on purpose or not (but I do think it is). It ranks alongside Adam West’s Batman and Lego Batman (and even the movie Batman and Robin) as an insane comedic take on Batman and superheroes. Okay, it is also dumber and uglier and much more offensive than those. It’s South Park’s take on The Dark Knight.
All over the series, people criticize Batman and his methods. That’s normal for a superhero story, with average people fearing and misunderstanding the hero, but this is different. When characters like Wonder Woman and Alfred call Batman a psychopath and a gangster, they’re right. In Frank Miller’s early Batman series, Batman goes above and beyond the law to do what needs to be done. This is a portrait of a Batman who truly takes orders from no one. He is a crazy person and a villain. The series is just as insane and unreasonable as he is. While this is over the top and exaggerated by superhero standards, in some ways it’s also more realistic. If Batman were real, he would be truly insane (and not in a sexy Fight Club way).
Miller and Lee ruthlessly exploit and criticize superheroes in equal measure. In one scene, Black Canary fights back against creepy lecherous men after being shouted at obsessively and then groped. Misogyny is bad, easy moral to the scene. Yet the entire time, even as she beats them up, Lee draws her as provocatively as possible (with her clothes still on). The reader is just as slimy as the guys at the bar ogling her. Then, to cap the scene off she kicks a man wearing a Superman shirt squarely in the crotch. This is Miller and Lee directly attacking the DC Comics fan. It’s a strange nonsensical t-shirt that seems to have the Superman logo on both the front and back. After looking at it for more than a second, the reader is hit over the head with its clear message.
Miller’s text is much more extreme and ridiculous than Jim Lee’s art. Just about every single piece of dialogue or narration is said more than once, usually at least a few times for a good measure. The big repeated phrases are “Dick Grayson. Age Twelve” and “the Goddamn Batman”, but even the smallest pieces of dialogue and narration link into each other. This repetitive text carries through multiple characters’ internal monologues and the dialogue. There’s much more text than necessary, but it’s all in short quick phrases. Even text that isn’t repeated in the same page or the next page usually ends up repeated within the same issue. This is a huge part of the hilarious insane quality. Batman’s mind can only focus on a handful of things and Miller makes sure we know. He thinks about Bats. Rats. The Goddamn Batman. Dick Grayson. Age Twelve. This narration feels like an old Frank Miller making fun of himself after years of hardboiled detectives and noir stories. This also feels like Lego Batman, constantly talking about darkness and danger. In reality, this is more like Frank Miller doing his best Garth Ennis impression.
It’s easy to see why fans were so put off by this. Frank Miller and Jim Lee are two of the most high-profile comics creators and this would be a revolutionary collaboration on Batman, everyone’s favorite character. Lee’s art primes the reader for a very standard modern DC story. This could be handed to artists and readers as a prime example for modern DC house style art. His men are just a bit more muscular and his women just a bit racier than the average DC comic, but not far from it. Ironically, Lee’s art was widely praised at the time, but looking back the art feels stiff and boring compared to the over the top dialogue and narration. Still, they have to rope readers in somehow. This is a double-edged sword though. It’s so extremely sexist and stupid that it critiques the sexism and stupidity of comics. But it’s also extremely sexist and stupid. This feels like an exercise in pissing off and making fun of comics fans and it definitely worked.
If I had to pick a most “2008” comic, it’d probably be Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick-Ass. It’s perfectly on the cusp of the superhero movie phenomenon, with dated “relevant” tech/internet scenes, lazy deconstruction and “clever” humor. It even deals with similar themes surrounding children and the glorification of violence in superhero comics. But it feels much less subversive or satirical, especially when combined with some very awkward racial/LGBT politics.
2008 was a banner year for edgy comics and superheroes, with All Star Batman and Robin, Kick-Ass, Batman RIP and Final Crisis, Ennis and Dillon’s Punisher: War Zone, and the debut of Crossed from Avatar Press. It also featured many dark comic book movies: The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, Punisher War Zone, The Spirit and Wanted. Hellboy II and the original Iron Man are the only light fun comic book movies of 2008, the year that created the modern comic book movie. All Star Batman and Robin taps into the mean spirit of 2008 and cranks it up to 11 for upsetting results.
Last week’s post was my most successful yet, and I’ll happily put the blame for that on James Stokoe’s eye-catching art. I’ll be back to the present next week with something new. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter, like Gutter-Space on Facebook, and keep reading.