05 December 2010

All Star Robin

For whatever reason, I think it’s time for the weekly Robin to assess the highest-profile reexamination of Dick Grayson’s origin in recent years: Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Or, to call the series by the catch phrases it sparked off, The Goddamn Batman and Dick Grayson, Age Twelve.

When DC Comics launched this magazine in 2005, the company warned fans of two things. First, its version of Robin’s origin was “out of continuity”—it would not be part of the “official” story of the DC Universe. Second, because of the creators’ other responsibilities, issues would not appear on a regular schedule.

The company said the same about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman. That magazine nevertheless came out on a regular basis. And people love it so much that many want to make it part of the official version.

Over three years, All Star Batman and Robin limped through ten issues, the first nine of which have been collected. As for continuity, Miller stated in interviews that he saw this magazine’s Batman as the same character he’d written in the future-set The Dark Knight Returns and the in-continuity Batman: Year One, as well as more controversially in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. To placate Miller and his fans, DC’s editors have dubbed this version of life “Earth 31.”

As for reader reaction, there was a huge split. All Star Batman and Robin sold extremely well. Some readers adored it, either because they saw it as satire or because they enjoyed how much it annoyed traditionalists. Others complained that Miller had turned Batman from a hero into a crazed, sadistic kidnapper. And then there were the delays, which put fans in the position of complaining that this comic book sucked and they weren’t getting enough of it.

Jim Lee, already an executive at DC (and since promoted), was apparently the source of the delays. And I think he was also a big part of fans’ complaints that this comic book corrupted Batman. That’s because Lee’s pencils are immensely handsome. He’s great at drawing in what critic Douglas Wolk has called “the default style of the superhero mainstream,” though his work also adapts well to modern coloring.

Unlike Miller’s own art in The Dark Knight Returns, Lee’s pages don’t look like an individual’s stylized rendition of the Batman mythos. This is the Dynamic Duo we’re used to seeing, more vivid and rounded than ever. This world looks like what we want Earth 1 to look like. And yet Batman behaves like a crazy asshole. Everything else is over the top, too. Boss Zucco’s men don’t just sabotage the Flying Graysons’ trapeze; a sniper shoots Dick’s parents. (Usually protection rackets are a tad more subtle than that.) The magazine piles on the cheesecake of ace journalist Vicki Vale in her underwear and the Black Canary as an angry Irish barmaid who has sex with Batman on an industrial wharf.

Basic storytelling gets shot down early. The time line is screwed up, as many readers quickly pointed out. Bruce Wayne is clean-shaven at the circus, but Batman shows up shortly afterward with a five-o’clock shadow. The goddamn Batman’s overnight drive to Gotham City with Dick Grayson (age twelve) takes three issues. Even before the duo reaches the batcave, however, Clark Kent has not only seen a report of Dick’s kidnapping in the Daily Planet, but he’s seen Dick’s photo as a missing child on a milk carton.

Nevertheless, the first volume of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder succeeds in the criterion that matters for the weekly Robin: it gets Robin right. Dick and Alfred have the character to stand up to Batman like no one else. Pushed to his limits, Dick shows basic moral decency, and thus hope for the future. And in the final collected issue, the sight of what he’s turning Dick Grayson (age twelve) into pulls the goddamn Batman back from the brink. Because even in this insane, semi-satirical retelling of the mythos, Robin isn’t evil.


taterpie said...

It's a pity then that Miller regards this as a story in the continuity of DKR and DKSA, and that he intends to continue toward that end in Dark Knight, Boy Wonder. And we all know what happens to Dick Grayson in DKSA.

Richard Bensam said...

I defer to your knowledge of Robin (between you and the estimable Mary Borsellino, one couldn't hope for better guides) but I'm a Superman guy all the way, and I wanted to expand on one thing you say here. I haven't seen anyone calling for the Morrison/Quitely Superman to become part of the mainstream continuity of the character, though someone may well have done so; my impression has been that All-Star Superman fans actually prefer to have it remain in its own continuum, if you will, unburdened by any need to stay consistent with other authors' stories.

(Morrison himself muddles the issue by incorporating ideas in All-Star that he's also used in presumed-canonical DC books, such as the infant universe of Qwewq and Kal Kent, the Superman of the 853rd Century…but really, so what?)

What I think All-Star Superman fans want is for that vision of the character's attitude -- rooted in the stories of Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, and Elliot Maggin, among others -- to be reflected more widely in other works. Too often lately we've been shown Superman as a fascist, or Superman as self-pitying, or Superman as a sullen bully. What we want is a Superman who's kind and empathetic and wants to help people. In other words, we want writers to say Superman isn't evil!

J. L. Bell said...

I expect Dark Knight, Boy Wonder will start with scripts that Miller has already written, and then collected with All Star Batman and Robin, #10. There’s too much money to be made for DC to leave that material on the table.

As for Dark Knight Strikes Again, I prefer to think of that as a possible future, but not the only one. Then again, I prefer not to think of that book at all. As I’ve written elsewhere, it strikes me as Miller’s attempt to mess up the DC Universe as much as possible, and attacking Dick Grayson has to be the finishing stroke.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the Superman-guy perspective, Richard. My impression was probably influenced by seeing Chris Sims’s recent discussion of Superman’s origin, which puts a page from All Star Superman ahead of anything that’s been declared “in continuity.”

While DC has reserved Earth 31 for the “Millerverse,” mostly because of The Dark Knight Returns, I don’t think it’s done the same for All Star Superman. So the door is still open, no?

As I’ll probably discuss next Sunday, Grant Morrison edged All Star Batman and Robin into “continuity” in one of his issues of Batman & Robin. He doesn’t worry much about those lines between universes, does he?