Friday, June 16, 2006

Frank Miller's All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder and the Grotesque

Thanks in part to Ping33, who has been commenting here, I have tried, yet again, to try to like Frank Miller's All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. With the fourth issue, I finally succeeded.

As I discussed in an earlier post on Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Frank Miller has joined a handful of American writers -- like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor -- that go for the grotesque. I like Miller's absurd art in DKSA, in which, for example, Lex Luthor has huge hands as big as his torso, like a cartoon ape. He is monstrous and so he is drawn like a monster. Dark Knight Strikes Again looks weird and wild, stylish and unique, and these are good things. Batman must be invented again and again, and we should applaud bravery in this arena, and condemn unimaginative stuff like Batman Begins.

All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, written by Frank Miller but drawn by Jim Lee, has a story to match Miller's art in Dark Knight Strikes Again. Everything in the story is grossly out of proportion, like Lex Luthor's gigantic hands. And that's really wild, and a good thing.

The first issue has five full pages -- nearly twenty five per cent of the comic -- in which Vicki Vale dances around in bra and panties. It is the storytelling equivalent of drawing a woman with huge out-of-proportion breasts (a drawing style Jim Lee has some experience with): the time devoted to her is as out of proportion as Miller's women usually appear visually.

Exacerbated by the slow publishing of All Star Batman Robin has been in the car with Batman for 11 months of my life. And don't think it's just a publishing issue: even monthly, four issues is a long time to keep your two title characters in a car. Miller intended this. Drawing attention to the gap, Batman has grown stubble between issue one and two, though surely very little time has passed. That's how much of a man he is. Hilarious. Miller's jacks up his already famously hyper-masculine characters.

Look at the proportions of issue three: the first 15 pages are dedicated to the Black Canary, an aside that violently interrupts the Batman-meets-Robin story with fish-net stockings and nonsense; the book ends with two pages about Superman; in between we get a full page shot of the Batmobile, a full page shot of Batman and Robin in the Batmobile, and a two page splash image of the Batmobile underwater. (The advanced tech of the Batmobile is also intentionally out of whack with Miller's "Year Two" framework). Those three images, which have minimal dialogue, hardly advance the story at all even though they are the only images that star the title characters. It is even more audacious to do this only three issues in.

The hilarious greatness of all this hit me when I saw, in the fourth issue, the six page glamour shot of the Batcave, followed by one more single page glamour shot of the same thing: in a 22 page comic book these pages -- two images of the same thing -- take up nearly a third of the book. Even the title, eight words long, is, like Lex Luthor's hands, completely out of proportion. It's hilarious. (But notice the continuity with Dark Knight Strikes Again: The cave is making the robot T-Rex that Batman will use to attack Superman in that book.)

The writing is not just repetitive, its absurdly repetitive. To quote from the first issue (copying the book's repetitions rather than repeating myself), Robin says "They're always there for me. They always catch me. Mom and dad. They always catch me. They're always there for me. They're always there for me." The identical sound of "They're" and "there" makes it much worse; this is intentional. In the next scene Vicki Vale says "I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. How cool is that? I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. How cool is that?" Cut back to Robin: "They're always there for me. They always catch me." Cut to Vale: "I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. Hot Damn." Miller wrote those words on paper before they were put in word balloons in the comic books. Try typing them out on Word, as I just did, and you will see that no one can write like that and intend it to be taken seriously. Miller knows what he is doing (which should not surprise anyone who has read Dark Knight Returns).

Complaining about the weird proportions of, say, issue three, or the dialogue, I realized, is like complaining about the weird proportions of the eyes of anime characters, or how ugly Rugrats looks. Miller is developing a new kind of story here, one to match the grotesque proportions so many superhero characters are drawn with, one to match his own visual weirdness in DKSA. Jack Kirby's weird art style leads right here, to Miller's weird story style.

Frank Miller. Batman. The Grotesque. I get it now. Batman has been done to death, even by Miller himself. So this is the next step. Absurdity. Great superhero creators reinvent the genre. Frank Miller reinvents the genre TWICE.


Anonymous said...

let's not start dissing batman begins, now......

i think it was a perfect blend of cinema and comics. while i appreciated what rodriguez was doing with Sin City (making an exact replica of the books), i think the experiment failed. comics and movies are not the same medium, and should not be treated as such.

the original batman movies (while i was psyched to see them at the time) totally missed the idea of how cool comics can be, and instead opted for tommy guns with neon on them, in an attempt to remain fantastic.

batman begins, however, deftly skirted the line between fantastic and real. take the layout of gotham, for example. obviously manhattan-esque in layout/style, but touches like the elevated train bring it outside of reality just enough for the audience to suspend disbelief.

anyway. that wasn't really about miller, but i needed to defend what i thought was a great comic adaptation.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to like Batman Begins, I really did. I admire its intent a great deal, but ultimately, it just left me cold.
It's just so 1987 (or whenever Batman: Year One came out)...but without any of the pinache.

Sure, Batman: Year One is old school now. And sure, it reminds me too much of all the many Miller imitators that followed. But, even so, it still crackles with more life - more raw energy - than ten Batman Begins films.

There was - and is - magic in Batman: Year One. Batman Begins? Not so much.

Batman Begins integrates many aspects Batman: Year One, and ends up being (for me, anyway) less engaging than its source material. X-Men 2 on the other hand, integrates many aspects from God Loves, Man Kills, and ends up being (for me, anyway) more engaging than its source material.

Anonymous said...

And I, for one, am glad Miller didn't pump out a clone of the original Dark Knight in DKSA. Or a clone of Year One in All-Star Batman. At the very least, it keeps things interesting.

Anonymous said...

I'll say in argument AGAINST the layout of Gotham City in Batman Begins: I once heard legendary Bat-writer and editor (including editor of YEAR 1) Denny O'Neil say that drawing a map of Gotham City misses the point of it's being a fictional city. He was later made to compose one in the No Man's Land storyline and has never forgiven himself. His idea was that Gotham City needs to be a place where ANYTHING can happen. If they need an amusement park for one story, it can be written in without damaging the mystique. To adopt a Manhattan-esque landscape deludes the mystery and locks future writers into following it.

Note the opening shot of Tim Burton's Batman. The only wide exterior we see of Gotham City and boy is it cool. Gothic. The scyscrapers are almost diagonal! Sure it still evokes an island, but we're obviously only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

And it's very hard to not like ASBARTBW. And I totally agree about the name Geoff. Miller might as well have called it "I'm the Goddamn Batman!"

Geoff Klock said...

liam: an elevated train does not take us "outside of reality". It takes us to Astoria, Queens. I challenge you to name something imaginative in Batman Begins: the all black outfit, the dreary fight scenes, the ergonomic tank, Morgan Freeman as the wise old black man? I know I am giving you a hard time, but make your case. I will take back what I said if you can show me something imaginative.

Troy: good points. Too many people think source material is always better than adapted material, but it just ain't true (the new Solaris, Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, Double Indemnity). Ian McKellen, as I will be posting about soon, puts all the X-Men writers (including Grant Morrison and Mark Millar) to shame -- his Magneto is THE Magneto.

Mitch: I think there is evidence that it is easy to hate ASBARTBW: lots of people do, and I was one of them before issue 4 came out. But you are right, once you get it it seems so obviously fun.... And you could never ever draw a map of Millar's Gotham: it's like Milton's Hell, always opening up to new depths.

The Futurist said...

When ASBARTBW came out one of the things I hated most (and I hated a lot of things about it) was the pairing of Lee and Miller. I thought you couldn't possibly find a more inappropriate artist for Miller's writing, and I kept imagining how much more palatable the bad writing would have been if it was coming out of a distorted, horrible face drawn by Miller.

Now that I've acquired a taste for the book (as if it's some nasty French cheese that smells like farts), I feel like Lee was the perfect choice. People love Lee. He's engrained in the medium. Everyone's read books he's drawn. And his style isn't just generic - in the 90s he created what generic would look like today. That is to say he's a major stylistic influence on a huge number of superhero artists that came after him.

So if Miller's intention was to tell a grotesque, out-of-proportion story, choosing an artist who has mass appeal was crucial. Because an appreciation for the story takes so long to click in, it's essential to have an artist that draws things pretty and perfect in a way agreed upon by the audience.

Geoff Klock said...

the futurist: it's actually a bit like Seinfeld, which was so smart because it slipped a misanthropic view of the world into a hilarious sitcom everyone could love. Without Lee, ASBARTBW is just a weird little indie project and the product of Miller's self-indulgence...

The real question for me now is What is Grant Morrison's Batman going to look like when it comes out in July (art by the Kubert bros, like Lee, popular 90s artists)? This is the real clash of the titans as far as I am concerned. Miller invented the modern Batman, and paved the way for guys like Morrison to emerge as big name auteurs. Morrison is the best guy working in comics today. Now they will both be on Batman titles. After a couple of issues pass on each side, I think we can look forward to seeing how one book deals with the influence of the other. I think the "Lois showers and narrates" bit in All Star Superman 2 was responding to the "Vicki Vale in bra and panties narrates" bit in ASBARTBW 1.

And of course All Star Batman and All Star Superman are in the same universe: I would tear my own arm off to read a Batman/Superman All Star crossover written by Morrison and drawn by Miller, or written by Miller and drawn by Quitely. It's a good time to be a comics fan.

Anonymous said...

As you no doubt know... I agree with most of everything you have written but would like to add more.

1) the deliberate provocation- it's not just that Miller amps up the silly and exploitative elements to 1000%, it's that he does them in such a way so as to deliberately provoke the comic-fanboy-sheep who like reading the same thing over and over again just so long as the art is pretty and it meets their expectations note for note. The main complaint that I have heard from the message-board haters out there is: "he thinks he can get away with anything because he is Frank Miller and they will drive dump-trucks full of money up to him for utter garbage" to which I say "yeah that's the point, he CAN 'get away' with anything so why do you feel he needs to live up to YOUR expectations of what a Miller/Lee Batman will be like?!" In the end he is giving 'the fans' exactly what they THINK they want and they find it too much to take. Earlier on I made the connection between ASB&R:TBW and Russ Meyer movies... I think part of it is the repetitiveness that you note Geoff, as both works seem to LOVE to use that kind of repetition. Another connection is the blatant pervyness, being knowingly and unapologetically distasteful/objectifying of women while at the same time admiring their strength and ability to control men effortlessly.

2) Larger Meta-textual/historical context - Miller raises a interesting central question in all of this which has been largely over-looked. How and Why did Batman get/need Robin and how did the introduction of the character change Batman as a character and the tone of the book as a whole? Go back and read those early issues of Detective Comics... they are dark as hell! WAY darker then Dark Knight Returns or The Cult or Black and White or any of the "darkest" modern-age batman stories. Robin's sudden introduction in #38 is a seismic change which completely transforms Batman from a grim vigilante to a Superhero in the truest sense. From a Meta stand-point, not only did the comic change it changed REALLY fast, a Year+ of "continuity" in terms of tone, theme and characterization is blown away in order to appeal to younger readers. Many of the Message-board haters are quick to point out how long the Car ride in ASB&R:TBW is (aside from the stubble you also have time for newspaper stories about Dick's Kidnapping to be written, published, delivered and read) but no one points out how short and sudden were the changes when Robin was introduced the first time.

So in the end you have a story which understands the medium, history and audience and uses all that understanding to zig when a zag is what's expected. 20 years from now people will hopefully realize how great this shit is and how much they missed the boat the first time it came around.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping 33: I agree, Miller is out to get all those kids. That's actually the reason I continued to get the book after the first issue: something making that many fanboys so upset couldn't be all bad. You point about the sudden introduction of Robin in reglular continuity is well taken: I will pick up a collection of those early Batman stories as soon as I can. But the newspaper: I forgot to mention that. (I actually forgot I noticed it in the first place). Hilarious.

As for zigging where everyone expects zagging: there is a great line from News Radio where Jimmy James tells Dave Nelson that when people think he is going to zig he zaggs, and when people think he is going to zag -- then Dave cuts him off and says "you zig, sir?" And Mr. James replies "No, that's when I ZOG." Frank Miller ZOGGS.

Anonymous said...

"super karate monkey death car"

Geoff Klock said...

Anyone wondering why ping33 said "super karate monkey death car" should go here:

(I cannot believe that googling that exact phrase gets 22,000 hits. God bless the internet.)

Anonymous said...

or here:

Anonymous said...

Geoff Said: "Ian McKellen, as I will be posting about soon, puts all the X-Men writers (including Grant Morrison and Mark Millar) to shame -- his Magneto is THE Magneto."

Geoff: I realize this Magneto discussion is now going on in TWO comments sections, but I wanted to mention that I'm interested to hear your thoughts on what has the potential to be the most widely publisized and anticipated case of "Anxiety of Influence" in the history of cinema... I'm of course refering to the days away return of Superman to the big screen. Can Brandon Routh really over come the anxiety of infleunce of Christopher Reeve, who not only played Superman excellently, but who also in his later life came to be regarded as A REAL SUPERMAN?

Should be interesting.

Geoff Klock said...

Mitch: yeah, that is going to be huge. I will see the film and see what I think, but the size of the discussion may be too big to blog (plus I would need to see all four original movies again, and I don't have time to do that right now).

Geoff Klock said...

Ping33: thanks for the youtube link: I have not seen that episode in years and that clip is fantastic. Everyone go watch it. It's only three minutes long, and it's News Radio at its best.

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