Frank Miller’s Brain Fart: All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder

Monday , 17, September 2018 3 Comments

Fabulous artwork. Terrible dialogue. (Click to enlarge.)

So, All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder. (And you thought MY titles were long.)

This series is awful, to begin with. I just want to get that out of the way. It’s appalling. Abominable. Deeply nasty. But I’ll get to all that in a second.

First, and I swear this is not a joke, I don’t remember buying this book. At all. I purchased it exactly two weeks ago, but I have no memory of doing so. I don’t know why I bought it, who recommended it to me, or what I was thinking when I purchased it.

I was not drunk (I don’t drink). The story would make more sense if I had been. I was not.

I do remember buying All-Star Superman on the strength of a recommend. It was pretty great. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely knocked that one out of the park. I read that there had been one other “All-Star” book, went to buy it on Friday, and… I already owned it. So I read it.

This may have been a mistake.

The book was just bizarre, for reasons I go into below, so utterly bizarre I went fishing for info online, which I never do. The info I found was as bizarre as the series itself.

All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder was (intended to be) a 12 issue mini-series made by two of DC’s all-stars, Frank Miller and Jim Lee. The proposed All-Star series was meant to give ace #1 creators carte blanche in remaking certain characters EXACTLY as they saw them, outside of any continuity with the mainline DC universe or even other “All-Star” books. No telling how many were planned, but only three were announced, only two were ever published, and of those only one was even completed. (Not this one, just in case you were wondering.)

The book is apparently intended as a bridge between Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns (a year after the former and 20-30 years before the latter). Characters (swastika pasties lady), gear (tank Batmobile), and locales (the arcade where the Mutant gangers hang out) from the earlier series appear in this one, though it’s only a partial match: for one example (there are others) Year One Gordon doesn’t have any kids, but in this series he has two, both teenagers. Hard to tell if these are deliberate retcons or just Frank not giving a rat’s patooti.

(More mundane errors also abound. Sarah Essen, the illicit love interest of Gordon from Y1, appears as “Sarah” in issues #1-9 in this series but “Sara” throughout issue #10. Based on this, it appears that editing was inconsistent, perhaps nonexistent.)

As for content, this is not a Batman comic. (Peep the dialogue above for proof. What the hell.) That is, the main character doesn’t act at all like Batman. He acts like… well, the Joker, if the Joker had decided to put on a bat suit and fight crime. He breaks cops’ jaws, runs over them (probably killing them), sets criminals aflame with bleach and thermite, kidnaps Dick Grayson after the murder of Grayson’s parents (admittedly, before crooked cops could kill him), keeps Grayson in the pitch-black and freezing cold Batcave for days, forcing Grayson to survive on rats (and, at one point, a bacon cheeseburger smuggled in by Alfred), grins and laughs like a maniac constantly, and either makes out with or boinks Black Canary on a pier after burning a bunch of criminals alive (and presumably to death).

(Conversely, the Joker in the series is cold, methodical, and self-possessed. He’s more like the Batman than the Batman is.)

This is not Batman. This is not a Batman comic. This is a Sin City comic, wearing the skin suit of Batman. In addition to the above list of Batman war crimes, there’s…

The Joker having sex with a woman he strangles a few minutes later (lovingly lingered on for five whole pages); Wonder Woman ranting about how useless and soft and useless men are and how she’d like to kill them all, especially Batman but excluding Superman, who makes out with her in front of the whole Justice League; Black Canary (bizarrely, she’s now Irish) totally flipping out on some sexist barflys and beating down a whole bar (and not even thinking twice about it), then later she totally flips out on some snuff porn purveyors (whose products and production pipeline are presented in WAY TOO MUCH detail) then sets the building on fire, killing all of them.

The series wallows in the worst humanity has to offer. It’s grotesquely, gratuitously nasty and over-the-top. It bathes in sewage. (Ironic, because the series tells us that Batman and Catwoman first “did it” in a sewage pipe.) It’s just ugly, much like Sin City.

Even the structure supports this interpretation. Like the Sin City movie, this miniseries is (in essence) a compilation of seven wholly distinct and separate miniseries combined into one. The big problem is that the mini-miniseries go nowhere: each gets its own half-issue debut, but very few of them get an Issue #2. They just kinda stop.

There’s Batman and Robin, Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne and Batman, the nascent Justice League, Black Canary, Batgirl, the Joker, and Jim Gordon. Each has their own separate story, most of which, as of issue #10, have never really affected (or in most cases even intersected with) any other. None of these mini-miniseries fit together either tonally or chronologically (the drive from the circus to the Batcave takes FOUR ISSUES, corresponding to weeks passing for the other characters), and though each story begins, it never, ever goes anywhere. This is, as you might imagine, somewhat disconcerting, almost schizophrenic.

Which isn’t surprising, considering that the release schedule of the series was disconcerting, almost schizophrenic. To call the release schedule “erratic” would be generous. Spawn’s release schedule was erratic. This miniseries put out 10 issues over three years, starting in 2005, but only one issue came out for all of 2006, and Issue #10 of the 12-issue series, the last issue to be released thus far, came out in September of 2008, ten years ago. Like I said, schizophrenic.

Some random observations:

  • The plot. There isn’t one. No story at all, just a bunch of random scenes.
  • The series’ first issue sold over 300,000 copies, a level of sales Marvel and DC would KILL to get today. Literally. (Probably.)
  • Jim Lee’s art is INCENDIARY. Flawless. Man’s amazing. Reprint these without word balloons and you’d have a classic art book.
  • Is this series Frank Miller doing a “Take THAT!” at characters he despises? Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Supes, and Plastic Man all get dumped on by both the plot and Batman himself.
  • I didn’t even mention the “I’m the goddamn Batman!” meme, which was born in this series. I mean, there’s “being a contrarian”, Frank, and then there’s “being an asshole for no good reason”.

To all appearances the last two issues, overdue for over a decade, will never come out. According to TVTropes, “[i]n 2010, DC announced a new series called Dark Knight: Boy Wonder that would last six issues and wrap up the series. In October 2015, Frank Miller claimed he’d just started working on it. According to Jim Lee, the art for the series is complete, DC just won’t publish it.” If true, that wouldn’t surprise me.

Miller is a legend in the industry. The Dark Knight Returns, while dark and ugly, is readable and compelling. It’s clearly the work of a huge talent.

For whatever reason (and there seems to be dozens of theories) All-Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder is the work of a huge talent who’s no longer firing on all cylinders. In this series he’s turned the Dark and Ugly up to 14 or 15 at least, but let meaningless details like “story”, “characterization”, and “coherent chronology” slip, and it’s tragic. Miller is one of the few independent creators left in mainstream comics, an industry pervaded by groupthink, and the thought that he’s gone Sickboy Syndrome is saddening.

I don’t remember buying this book. I sincerely wish I didn’t remember reading it.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

3 Comments
  • Henry says:

    I read someone else’s copies, thank God. Like you, I loved All-Star Superman. It’s a great series and well worth buying and reading. Conversely, I kept waiting for All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder to get good. It never did. Honestly, by the time I got through issue 10 I was happy the series wasn’t finished.

  • Andy says:

    I’ve heard a couple of times that after 9/11 Miller fell into alcoholism, so a lot of the work he’s done since, including this here, reflect his mind going to some really dark and mostly incoherent places.

    I’ve never actually read this one. To be honest, I’m not a Jim Lee fan, so the idea of Lee illustrating a post-Dark Knight Strikes Back Miller story never held much appeal for me.

  • Ben says:

    I read this one. Liked it. Oh, not epic like Dark Knight returns, but still fun. I loved how he upped Green Lantern…

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