Friday, September 26, 2008

Comics Out September 24, 2008 (All Star Batman)

All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder 10. Two reviews. First my more abstract comments on the All Star line generally, and then Scott with something more specific on the issue.

Ping33 and Scott and I are in the minority loving All Star Batman. With everyone knowing that Morrison's All Star Superman is the best Superman comic book of all time, this means that for us, the All Star line has been a total success. People complain about the lateness, but in letting only brilliant people work on these books DC has created something really lasting and timeless. When the idea was first announced years ago, everyone assumed it was a late-to-the-party attempt to do Marvels Ultimate line: continuity free, movie-like versions of their most famous characters. But the Ultimate line sports more than a hundred issues of Ultimate Spider Man alone, the line has too many titles and creators. DC wins, as far as I am concerned, and I would love to see Marvel do the same thing.

At the center of the tenth issue of Miller's Year One sequel are five pages of glamour shots of Batman and Robin - shots that do not advance the plot at all. There have been many such images in Millers project. Gordon, Batgirl, Black Canary, and to a lesser extent Catwoman get most of the attention in the surrounding pages. I have written in the past about small tensions between All Star Batman and All Star Superman (click the label below), but now I am starting to think they are up to the same thing. Both books -- in other words the entire All Star line -- use the most famous comic book characters of all time and focus on the idea that they inspire people to be like them. What they do matter's less than who they can inspire, and in Miller this means his man characters are just "posters" a lot of the time. In Morrison's optimistic liberal magical view, Superman is the vision of the human potential for godhood through a combination of imagination and kindness. In Miller's pessimistic conservative view, Batman inspires people to act as crazy as he does -- "impressionable" women in particular? -- but lacking his moral center they also lack his self control. I have friends who are vaguely offended that I like both the conservative 24 and the liberal Wire, and that conflict is playing out again with these books, both of which I really love, especially as counterpoints, and I love them more in that they are part of a kind of walled off prestige universe quarantined from events like Final Crisis and non-sense like fill in artists.

Here is Scott on All Star 10:

First off, this issue is paced much differently than most of the previous issues. As I’ve noted before, other issues in this series actually read very quickly. I can usually finish one in about 10 minutes (about half the time of a standard comic). This issue is denser; most of this can be attributed to a lot more dialogue (mostly internal) than the previous issues. Speaking of which, Miller’s hard-boiled style is in fine form here:

“A fog settles. Made for lonely walks and stolen kisses. Gotham floats, a cloud city, her million plaintive cries muffled, her predators moving freely, silently, leaving not even shadows.”

“Take an airplane over Gotham at night and she looks like diamonds against black velvet.”

“…. Every scurrying rat sounds like Satan’s claws….”

“A six year-old boy screams as bullets turn his mother’s brain into a wad and, almost two decades later, he still screams. He still screams and he’ll never stop screaming.”

A lot of people have criticized Miller as being particularly over-the-top on this series (one critic, apparently, suggested that the only way to save the series was to reprint it sans dialogue and let the reader fill in their own words) and, while there have been some cringe worthy moments, this issue is CLASSIC Miller. Sure, it’s melodramatic… but Miller has always been melodramatic. How is this any more over the top than lines like “The rain on my chest is a baptism” or “It’s the night when the city smells call out to him” from The Dark Knight Returns? To Miller, this is the kind of language he loves; it’s Hammet, Chandler and Spilane, these are his great poets. To him, this is poetry and, at times, I’m inclined to agree.

Miller makes great use of Gordon here as well who, as he did in Year One, takes center stage for much of the issue. Geoff has noted that Miller doesn’t like cops, actually that’s only partially true: he hates a) corrupt cops or b) clean cops who are too naïve to see the corruption around them (i.e. Superman and Green Lantern). However, he likes “good cops”; especially when they are ‘hard men’ like Gordon. Miller, by the end of the issue, will call back to hints dropped in Year One about Gordon’s past when, after Barbara tells him that “he has never done anything to tarnish [his] badge” he thinks:

“I wish on my soul that were true, my darling. But there’s no need for you to ever know about Chicago.”

This is something that, as far as I know, neither Miller nor any other writer has really followed up on; even in Year One he leaves it vague, all that we know is that Gotham is meant to be a fresh start after some sort of ‘trouble’ Gordon was involved with in Chicago (I think there was some implication in Year One that he was on the take but, after his conscience got the best of him, he turned on the other, dirtier cops).

In the issue’s opening, Miller also uses Gordon to make fun of his own hard-boiled verbosity as Gordon delivers a very noir-ish monologue (cue lonely saxophone music in the distance), seemingly to no one, only to have it revealed that he has actually been talking to Batman who has been walking just beneath him on the docks (Panel Watch: page 3, Gordon leaning against the flashback panels. This is straight out of the Spirit. Just as Jason noted that Miller’s Eisner influence shaped Claremont’s economy of words in the Wolverine mini-series, so here does it influence Lee’s visuals).

And then, in my favorite moment from the issue, Gordon thinks:

“And does Mister Goddamn Batman say so much as “thanks”? Of course not, that’d hardly be GRIM AND GRITTY, would it? The jerk…”

First of all, Miller is acknowledging his own part in what would become the “Grim and Gritty” era of comics while simultaneously ridiculing it by having Gordon dismiss it by calling Batman a ‘Jerk.’ It’s also important to note that Gordon’s assessment of Batman as a ‘Jerk’ is important for how Miller views Batman; he has always felt that Batman should NOT be your buddy. He’s supposed to be scary, he’s not your friend but he’s the first guy you’d want to have your back in a dark alley. This informs so much of the way that Miller has portrayed the character, particularly in this series.

Miller gives us an interesting bit of background on Batman and Catwoman: they knew each other and were romantically involved in their adolescence. Hmmm, two people who share a young romance and grow up to be on opposite sides of the law? Sound familiar to anyone?

Batgirl is back in this issue and I get the feeling that Miller likes her a lot more than Robin and is using her as a sort of Carrie Kelly stand in. I also love that she is the ‘Fucking Batgirl’. I love the contrast of this with ‘The Goddamned Batman”. “Goddamned” is a very adult swear; it is a blasphemy and, as such, it carries weight. “Fucking” is a child’s curse word; it is shocking for the sake of shock and exactly the kind of thing that a rebellious youth would say to rail against the world.

I also like how, later in the issue, Gordon decides not to come down hard on his daughter because, as far as he’s concerned, she’s being hard enough on herself but, just a few issues earlier, you’ll remember that she was boasting about how great she was at bullshitting her dad. She’s playing him like a violin.

Black Canary shows up again, this time busting up a ring of internet pornographers and taking their money. She considers gathering her own group of “merry men” to assist her in her Robin Hood style crusade, quite appropriate when one considers that her main love interest has always been none other than Green Arrow (this really makes me hope Ollie is going to show up in the series… and maybe even the Question, I always loved that bit between the two in The Dark Knight Strikes Again).

So why has Miller decided to bring in Batgirl, Black Canary and Catwoman into a story that is, basically, supposed to be a Batman and Robin tale? It’s because Miller knows his comics history, particularly in terms of its controversies. He hasn’t addressed it directly yet, but I think he’s playing with something that is an inescapable part of the history of the Batman and Robin partnership: Frederic Wertham’s assertions that they were a “wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” DC answered Wertham’s original accusation by having Batman and Robin start hanging around with girls a lot more and the original Batwoman was, in fact, created specifically to address this concern (in a bit of what I am sure is intentional irony [is such a thing possible] the new Batwoman is a lesbian). Miller dodged the issue in The Dark Knight Returns by simply making Robin female; here, he does just what DC did over fifty years ago: he gives the boys some girls to play with.

The last page of the issue is great. A distraught Gordon, his wife in the ER and his daughter in Jail, phones Sara Essen (who we all know will one day become his wife) and says to her:

“Right now. Just tell me about your day. I just want to hear your voice…”

Then, in his internal monologue, thinks:

“She washes over me and there’s no pain or guilt in the world.”

This is a pretty powerful (and powerfully fucked-up) moment that highlights how well Miller writes Gordon. In many ways, his Gordon is a much better character than his Batman. He’s far more complex in some ways and much more human. As a result, he gives us someone we can relate to.

We also see the hints of Gordon’s deepening friendship with “The Goddamned Batman” when he thinks that:

“There is one man I’d love to talk to. To tell all my problems to. One person. A man. […] and I’m not even supposed to know his real name.”

I love that he says he isn’t ‘supposed’ to know his real name; this is something many Batman writers, including Miller, have played with: the fact that Gordon has probably long since figured out who Batman is but, for the sake of their ‘professional relationship,’ plays dumb.

All in all, All Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder might be the tightest issue yet. This is, possibly, the best issue of Batman Miller has done since Year One. In much of the previous issues, Miller verged (and quite possibly crossed over into) self-parody. Here, he comes across much like his earlier work. Each issue of this series just keeps getting better and better… and I don’t care if I’m the only one who feels that way.


Voice Of The Eagle said...

I've been loving ASBARTBW (just typing that out makes smile with insane glee) since issue six. Consider me one of the minority.

Jason said...

Great entry, Geoff and Scott.

The All-Star stuff isn't for me, but reading your blogs about them is nonetheless inspiring. It's always a pleasure to watch smart people talk intelligently about work they truly enjoy.

scott91777 said...

Actually, I would say that issue 10 would be a great a) starting point for new readers or b) to re-evaluate if you haven't picked it up in awhile. This is basically the start of a second arc with the first 9 issues, basically, serving to cement the partnership between Batman and Robin. As I mentioned, this is much less condensed and reads much more like the Miller we all know and love from DKR and Year One.


Great point on the Glamour Shots of the main characters. I particularly like the one where a wide-eyed, grinning Robin hitches a ride on the subway and 'hangs loose'

Jason said...

I bought that hardcover that reprints 1-9. I'm not sure if I'm ready to dive back into it so soon. I appreciate the series' ... vigor, I guess? But to actually read it, page after page of it, was a bit trying for me. I guess I love the concept of ASBARTBW more than the actual reality of it.

neilshyminsky said...

Where's the love for the final issue of A-SS? I wrote a quick review on my blog but recently put up a much better (in my humble opinion, natch) overview of why the series works solely in relation to the Lex/Leo connection. I'd love to hear what people think.

scott91777 said...


You're right... we didn't say much about All Star Superman last week during that post. I think we're all just basically in agreement that the series as a whole was awesome and, as I said, the real climax of the series was issue 10 which meant that the last two were just sort of denoument.


I like your point about the opposing positions that Miller and Morrison take on superheroes in each of these series. What better way than to start this line than to have the two people best suited for fulfilling the extreme sides of each viewpoint write the two characters who most embody that dissonance. This is also why Morrison's Batman doesn't work... he basically just tries to write him as Superman and, if you're going to do that, what's the point of Batman.

neilshyminsky said...

scott: While issue 10 of A-SS was indeed fantastic, it didn't really offer any closure on the Superman-Lex battle. And I think that 12 supplies that in very interesting ways. *cough*pluggingmyblogagain*cough*

Voice Of The Eagle said...

Something I just noticed: the arcade where the f***ing Batgirl kicks ass is the same arcade where Carrie Kelly is attacked by the mutants.

scott91777 said...

VoE, Nice catch! Normally that's the sort of thing I notice... that's how I started wrting these things in the first place actually....


Yes, AS Superman ended beautifully, and even more beautifully if the Lex/Leo connection is valid. My problem with something like this is, if it was Morrison's inention, WHY DID HE LEAVE IT SO VAGUE? It's kind of a key issue don't you think? I'm all for a certain level of ambiguity, but there should have been some sort of definitive 'reveal' at some point... it could have been done subtly, just give me some sort of *wink* at some point to confirm my suspicions.

Geoff Klock said...

i am with scott on this issue. the argument is interesting (though the Milton thing is far fetched I think) but it is just too vague.

Anonymous said...

All Star Batman is a great comic? Sexist/racist/homophobic/fascist Frank Miller is a "brilliant person"? "Fucking” is a child’s curse word?

Oh dear, I seem to have stumbled into the wrong kind blog. I think I best be going now...

Matthew J. Brady said...

I don't mean to be a dick or anything, but Scott's take is the kind of review that makes people call comics readers "babymen". Miller "verges on" self-parody? I gave up on ASS-BAR long ago, but from what I understand in all the reviews I've read, the supposed self-parody is just about the only thing the series has going for it. And holy crap, the dialogue samples here are terrible. Celebrating this series as anything other than a train wreck (intentional or not) seems ridiculous.

Geoff Klock said...

Matt -- have you read all the All Star Batman posts around here? You can put the phrase into the search at the top. Miller does verge on self parody -- I do not think I see your objection. And yes the dialog is "terrible" but I have a category called "gloriously trashy" that no everyone seems to have and Miller falls right in there.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Geoff, I have been following your ASB reviews here and there, and I can generally see what you like about it, even if I don't really agree. But Scott's review (if I'm not misreading it and missing a bit of his own self-parody or something) seems to praise everything that people say is either bad or gloriously over-the-top about the book, except he takes it at face value. I just don't see how an adult can read that dialogue ("grim and gritty" references passed their expiration date at least 15 years ago) or look at that artwork (Robin "throwing up the metal horns" and surfing on a subway car just seems stupid) and think that it is good, unless they think it's so bad it's good.

So, I guess Geoff's take is okay, but Scott's isn't? I guess I generally expect better, more insightful criticism on this blog, rather than the "dude, that's awesome!" school of superhero comics reviews. Eh, maybe I am being a dick. If so, feel free to ignore me. I'm probably just cranky today.

vcaramela said...

I know I'm late to the game but I must state how much I love Scott's critiques. They are both simple and incredibly thought-provoking.

scott91777 said...

Hmmmm, apparently I missed some serious criticisms here. Well, I guess "a child's curse word" was incorrect, perhaps in the context of Miller's series 'A boy's curse word' as opposed to a 'man's' would be more appropriate.

Well, given that the series takes a "Dude, that's awesome" approach to storytelling... that's kind of the best way to appreciate it.

I agree with Geoff's 'gloriously trashy' category.

Yes, Grim & Gritty passed it's expiration date; but not in a book by the guy who ushered in the era on so many different levels... That's what struck me about it's usage here.

Mikey said...

Anonymous - yeah, we knew you were coming and set all this up just for you.

Gah, am I the only one who thinks Morrison left it so vague because he didn't mean it?? (I hope he doesn't pop up in an interview and go 'of course they're the same person, the clues are all there!' as he's been doing lately). Lex is Leo is a ghastly idea.

And I have not read this issue of All Star Batman yet but:

“There is one man I’d love to talk to. To tell all my problems to. One person. A man. […] and I’m not even supposed to know his real name.”

seems to be the same language men use in (often melodramatic) movies/novels/tacky magazine stories/real life when describing illicit homosexual love affairs, no?

The series is self-parody but it is also not self-parody. (Or maybe it is (self-)parody of the idea of self-parody? Damn, Miller's got Thetan-level layers to his shit. Seen the new Spirit trailer?). No one but Miller could do that or make you think that he's doing that with the same cache (including the films).

If I could bring myself to think about it a little more, I'm sure I'd love the interaction between Miller as we know him, of the comics subculture, and the Miller he is setting himself up as in the mainstream with Sin City, 300 and The Spirit.

scott91777 said...

Actually, I think the bit of Miller diologue with Gordon is there to stress purely 'heterosexual' male bonding. We only read those lines as Homosexual because we live in such a homophobic culture. The story of Batman and Robin, after all, is supposed to be a story of male-bonding.

I often encounter this problem when I teach Whitman, since most of them have heard Whitman was gay, they want to read any reference to a man kissing, embracing or loving a man as immediately homosexual.

Same thing with Sherwood Anderson's "Hands"... they immediately judge the teacher in the story as being either a) gay or b) a child molester based on the fact that he would often embrace his students. Even though though the embraces spoken of are of the kind that an affectionate father may visit upon his son.

Geoff Klock said...

scott - im with mikey on this one. he is on the phone with his wife and he can think of a better person to tell "all his problems" (very diferent from one problem) to and when he says "a man" there is a note of surprise there, because this is a role for a woman in his opinion. Plus he says "love" to talk to. I dont know what to do with it but something is going on there.

scott91777 said...


In Miller's sexist world, wouldn't another man be the only other person who could possibly understand Gordon's problems?

He wants a confidante; in this world women are lovers, not companions (and, yes, this is very sexist). All in all, I think he's trying to make sense of the whole 'dudes hanging out with dudes' aspect of the Batman and Robin relationship.

Mikey said...

Geoff - "I dont know what to do with it but something is going on there." That's it in a nutshell, really. This is at the heart of this series, and is probably why it makes so many fanboys so uneasy. It's certainly not what they were expecting.

Scott - I think that's definitely there. But I also think that the men in this series haven't particularly been presented as confidantes or companions up to this point, if that is what Miller's after.

And if it is 'dudes hanging out with dudes', this automatically generates a secondary, titillating correlative, perhaps tied to the fact that the culture would consider it shameful. I don't really have the theory to back it up - homosocial versus homosexual I guess - this is more Neil's field anyway.

But I do think 'I'm not supposed to know his name.' is the language of the affair (which can be hetero-, homo- or bi-). But it's also, perhaps more commonly, the language of cruising isn't it? Or at least, as it's usually presented in film (or books).

scott91777 said...

Batman's not Gay, dammit! He's not I tell you! :)

I guess the whole homoerotic thing is bound to come up in any comic since it involves spandex clad muscleman running around... Batman and Robin are particularly rife with hundreds of unintentionally homoerotic bits over the years, just check out this site:

There are several dozen here... be sure to read the Joker's Boner crimes... I laughed out loud.

However, in this instance I am inclined to agree with Dave Mazzuchelli who, in his 'Pictorial Essay' at the end of the latest editions of Year One says:

"Because of their simplicity, superheroes are easy prey for revisionist. In 1954, Dr. Frederic Werhtam saw in Batman and Robin's relationship a coded metaphor for Homosexuality. First, let's remember that superhero comics were invented for children- boys,, really. Wertham made the fundamental mistake of examining these comics with an adult sensibility - and without humor [...] when Bruce Wayne was a kid his idyllic life was shatterred to pieces. Since then, he's been trying to put it back together. It makes perfect sense that his best friend would be twelve years old, because Batman is still a little boy stuck in a man's body. If there's a "no Girl's allowed" sign on their batcave/clubhouse, it's because girls are icky. That's why catwoman is dangerous- she represents a maturity the boys aren't ready for. Superheroes live best in their own world- a preadolescent world."

Now, it's not that I don't SEE it here, because I can SEE it... I can't even say it's unintentional on Miller's part as, being aware of the history, he may intentionally be peppering the language to lead you in certain direction but, I'm thinking, he might be doing it just for the sake of saying "Ha! Gotcha!"

Like you Mikey, I'm no gender role expert, so maybe we should get Neil to weigh in on this. Neil? What do you think about this?

Totally loving the discussion here guys, actually, I originally thought Miller might have played with this issue more directly in this issue (that's why I had that Mazuchelli piece at the ready) so I'm actually glad you brought it up

How about this: Maybe Gordon just has a "Man-Crush" on Batman (much as my buddy Shaun has on John Cusak or I do on Bono... or Geoff on Harold Bloom... kidding ).

neilshyminsky said...

I arrived home to see that both scott and Geoff want me to weigh in on this. So with the necessary caveat that I've only read the first issue of ASS-BAR, though I'm largely familiar with Frank Miller himself and his work...

I don't think that anyone is supplying a categorically wrong reading of the Gordon bit that's been quoted. Like I've noted in our previous discussions of homosociality, it's a necessarily ambiguous social mode because the same codes can apply to very differently valued practices: every man in the homosocial mode desires the company of men, sure, but there's a lot of slippage possible within that phrase.

That said, as amusing as I find the idea of Gordon using euphemisms for "cruising", I think that Miller is simply making another joke. As Batman readers, we're already sensitive to the sexualizing of the male characters' relationships, and as Frank Miller readers, doubly-so - On one level, I think he's just dangling this in front of us to see if we'll bite and so he can sexualize yet another totally benign guy-guy relationship. (I'm also inclined to think this because the language of cruising simply doesn't fit with Gordon and Batman's relationship.)

On an entirely different homosocial level, though, I would more sincerely read this as scott has - as indicative of how, in this world, women cannot understand the world of men, and so Gordon needs another man of heroic masculinity to confide in. Basically, these characters would seem to exist in Robert Bly's perfect world of mythopoetic manhood, (think Wilson from "Home Improvement" meets J-J Rousseau meets Dave Sim) where men can retreat from a feminized society that threatens them to a world where they commune with only men, as MEN. Not for any sexual reason, but because other like-minded men understand them implicitly. It is, as scott notes directly above this message, a grown-up version of the "no girls allowed" clubhouse in the back yard or forest. Which, since they're adults, expresses a certain misogyny more than anything else, I think.

(Interestingly, we come full circle here - feminist writer Marilyn Frye has suggested that misogyny is, at its root, homoerotic. I don't agree, but you can see, again, how easily the various aspects of homosociality shade into one another.)

neilshyminsky said...

And about A-SS...

mikey: Why is Leo as Lex such a bad idea? I think it ties everything together rather nicely.

scott: But Morrison is always vague about characters' secret identities, isn't he? Certain aspects of characters' identities are left unclear in The Invisibles, and it's left to us to decide whether No-Girl (among others) is actually Sublime in New X-Men. Morrison seems to want people to do the work to piece his clues together. At least until he gets frustrated that there's still some doubt and he just outright tells us.

Mikey said...

Neil - re Batman - Don't get me wrong, I definitely think that "in this world, women cannot understand the world of men, and so Gordon needs another man of heroic masculinity to confide in." That's clearly the most upfront subtext (is it even subtext? It's not very 'sub') and it is cohesive through the series and Miller's other work.

I think your idea of Miller dangling this in front of us is pretty on the money and an example of how he's more sophisticated, if maddening/mercurial, than most give him credit for. He knows we will bite. And for every instance of reinforcing this desired world of (benign) male camaraderie (I want to leave macho out of this for now) he does undercut it by pushing it into areas such as this.

Oh, and: "think Wilson from "Home Improvement" meets J-J Rousseau meets Dave Sim"!! Great! If I could do one of those animated laughing face things I would.

Mikey said...

And on Lex/Leo.

True, Morrison is often vague about people's secret identities. But he often isn't and I think he's most effective when he's saying 'it isn't that hard'. Jack Frost is Jack Frost. Emma Frost is Emma Frost. One is the future Buddha and a hoodlum from Liverpool and the other is a first class bitch. They both get all the best lines.

This straight forward ease seems entirely true and satisfyingly appropriate in this series. Everyone knows exactly who they are and what they believe, be it Lois, Jimmy (he's Mr Action. He looks great), even Luthor (he's getting old and Superman isn't). Going back and re-reading all the amazing interviews Morrison did prior to the series starting and what I love so much about them, and the series itself, is that everything is simple, straight forward and benign. Most convincing was Morrison's dismissal of Tarantino's argument in Kill Bill II, where he tried to cynicise Superman (that is not a word). There's no great complexity to the Superman/Clark dynamic. There's the Clark in Metropolis, there's Superman, and there's the Clark Kent who grew up on a farm and knows how to drive a tractor. In the series Superman even says something like "And to Clark Kent, who taught me how to be human." (I'll dig out these interviews if anyone wants to read).

I think my problem is that the Lex/Leo twist does tie things up neatly, in terms of plot and I don't always want that. It would be a neat character arc - but we don't really need a character arc for Luthor. He sucks, he's deeply petty and skeptical, he almost transcends all this in the final issue but doesn't.

I much prefer the idea of Quintum just being this new character we've never seen before that Morrison has seamlessly woven into Superman's world. He 'may be the devil incarnate', but he isn't. He's a good guy, a good person. No complicated back story, and none required. He's not Lex, he's the inversion of Lex. A super-scientist who wants to use his powers to save the world. No big epiphany, no great big nuanced back story. He's trying to escape from the past because he's from there, as are we all, and believes in the future because he's an inventor. He's not trying to escape from his past. No secret code or deep thought required, unless you want to.

Oh heck, Morrison's totally going to come out and say he's Luthor, isn't he?

neilshyminsky said...

"There's no great complexity to the Superman/Clark dynamic." Absolutely. Morrison embraces the Superman as an archetype or symbol and there is no dark cloud and none of the complexity of a real person apparent in Superman to suggest otherwise. But Lex is a real person - maybe the only real person in the entire story - and I think that Morrison is trying to get at how the idea of Superman can be transformative in the life of real people.