Saturday, August 9, 2008

All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder
volume 1

By Frank Miller and Jim Lee with Scott Williams; published by DC Comics

"You've just been drafted. Into a war." Collecting the first nine issues of the monthly series All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder (ASBAR), this book acts as a sequel to Miller and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One. To anyone expecting more of the same, or even coming to comics from the movie The Dark Knight - ASBAR chucks out the dark, serious tone of its forebears and replaces it with something resembling a fever dream. It feels fast (in stark contrast to how it felt to anyone trying to get it as a monthly series, as these nine issues took about two-and-a-half years to come out); the Goddamn Batman laughs as he beats the crap out of the underworld and messes with Miller's versions of the other heroes published by DC.

It looks like a million bucks - Miller writes to Jim Lee's strengths as well as he has to previous artistic partners, like Geof Darrow (Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot) or Dave Gibbons (Martha Washington). That first shot of the Batcave astonishes in its detail, and women like Vicki Vale seem effortlessly sexy. The appropriateness of some of the scenes can be called into question early on, but as ASBAR progresses it becomes clear that they are part of the Goddamn Batman's world: a technicolour Sin City.

Speaking of Sin City, the plot feels like what would happen if Miller replaced The Hard Goodbye's Marv with Batman and Robin. ASBAR is the story of how Batman recruits his iconic sidekick, Robin. Batman kidnaps the just-orphaned Dick Grayson, leaves Dick in a cave to fend for himself, puts some shortpants on the kid, and cackles like a madman the entire time. He seems to realize how deeply troubled - and lacking in training - Robin is when the Boy Wonder almost kills a man, finally giving Grayson time to mourn. And once the turning point is reached... the volume ends.

There is the matter of Batman's archfoe, the Joker, who is positioning himself to be the villain of ASBAR. When the Joker puts in his appearance in this volume he is quite insane; but he is dour, dark, and when he says "But I'm not very funny," he's absolutely correct. The Goddamn Batman is writ large across Gotham City and revels in being at his prime; the Joker takes himself so seriously, right down to the giant dragon tattoo stretching across his back. It's an inversion of the Batman/Joker dynamic in virtually every other Batman story since 1970.

ASBAR volume 1 is ultimately an unsatisfying read due to its inability to stand alone. How it holds up depends greatly on what comes next - which hopefully does not take until 2011 (or later!) to resolve. Miller sees all his Batman stories as taking place in the same timeline, so it is possible to see what happens eventually in Batman: the Dark Knight Returns and Batman: the Dark Knight Strikes Again, but those are hardly substitutes to getting an actual conclusion.

ASBAR is the Batman book you wanted when you were a fifteen-year-old-boy. It's Sin City: Gotham. It's spiritual sequel to The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It could very well be part of a joke Miller's been playing on DC for the last decade. If any of those things sounds appealing, All-Star Batman & Robin is for you. Otherwise - it might be best to stay away.