Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Writing reviews; when critical reasoning becomes complete violent hatred. All-Star Batman & Robin reviewed

Okay, before we get into this one, a little detour about the critical process and my writing.

Writing critically about comics, (just like about writing about anything) is an art. It's an art I'm learning as I go and hopefully I'm getting better at it as I do more of it. I look at some stuff and wince, but occasionally there are the odd bits that I'm rather proud of. But, as with all things, there are many who do it so much better. (Jog springs to mind first - he writes so easily, so well, so lyrically that I find myself both impressed and depressed when I read his reviewing).

But every so often something comes along that just proves almost too much to review. This can be something so amazingly good that I actually feel incapable of writing words that properly describe exactly how good a book is or can go completely the other way and be something that fills me with utter distaste and revulsion to the point where it's difficult to rein in the venom and present a reasoned case.

Examples of the former include a lot of things on my bookcase including classics by; Mssrs Moore, Morrison, Gaiman et al; Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, Posy Simmonds' Tamara Drewe; Dave Sim's Cerebus and many, many more. There's a part of me that really wants to tell you how much I love them. But a larger part that just doesn't think my writing's up to the task. So they sit on the shelf daring me to write about them and I keep putting them off.

Examples of the latter include very little to be honest. I rarely hate something that I've read. And it's mostly because of the way I get books to review. I do it the old fashioned way and go into a comic shop and get them off the shelf. I Occasionally I get sent books by publishers, but most of the time it's my choice from the shelves. With limited money and limited time, I don't really want to read something I know I just wont like.

Two notable exceptions to this last point are Ultimates Volume 3 and The Sword. I hated both of these to a point where critical reason almost left me and I was writing on venom alone. It's not something I particularly like doing and have tried not to repeat (although they are spectacularly easy reviews to write in truth - the venom just pours out onto the page).

And now we have a third example to play with. All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder by Frank Miller and Jim Lee. And this is the one time I've gone against my desire to only read things I want to read. This one I picked up purely to see if all the bad reviews it had been getting were worth it. Morbid curiosity led my hand, just to see if it really is as bad as they say.

I wrote the review a few times. The first was in the immediate aftermath of reading the book. It was a scathing assault of a review with barely a pause for breath at times. Then I put it away to come back to for a final draft and the process of adding images for the review. This is usually where I tweak and hone and cut and add little bits to make it better. But this time I found myself re-reading it and looking again at some of the things I'd gone over fairly quickly the first time. And I found myself getting angrier and angrier with the work. So I rewrote the whole thing into pretty much the form I've included below.

And then I started to wonder whether it should be published at all. (The review, not the book). Because I'd started to think that Miller's Batman belonged in the category of near un-reviewable works. Not because it's too difficult, just because it exists outside normal, rational, reasoned writing. Miller is writing it his way, propagating his views of his world onto the characters. And I really, really wouldn't like to live in Frank's world. I may be a depressive, obsesional type but at least I can see a little hope in this world. Not like Frank.

On talking to a friend about the book I think I'm in agreement with them when they say that:
I didn't like it either. But I'm not sure it is critiqueable - in the kind of way you might not want to try and shine light on De Sade or Kathy Acker or even Alan Moore. They all have a distinct worldview - De Sade - well, you know, Acker scabarous, rancid but literary Moore benign, magical, healing. You don't have to subscribe to their views to enjoy them - tho I can't see most women appreciating some of De Sade once the titillation wears off and the reality sets in, many folks who see the world optimistically enjoying Acker or those who live in the here and now truly getting Moore.

I don't think Miller is pastiching himself - he has a world view - it's pretty overt in everything he does - even 300. A dark world , horrid, without end, he despairs for us as humans - his heroes embrace the despair. Often the only redemption is in death or self sacrifice - Dark Knight, 300, Sin City, Elektra etc etc. I thought this was Dark Knight without a good editior - his cuffing around of Robin seemed like the next move down from his cuffing around of Superman. From national hero where can you go down - redeemed boy hero with echoes of the great demon paedophilia in the whole tone and execution. It is a mirror held up to us all - look and see if you recognise it. of course many do. I'd rather read the optimism of Adv of Supes any day. But horses for courses. I think in that worldview he has started to dispense with dialogue as we know it in current terms. He doesn't want sympathy for his bad writing - he wants to complete the temple of his Hobbesian vision of man. This book pretty much did it. As for the overt sexist stuff - well it's comics - they ARE overtly sexist for the most part - add it to the masterplan of creating something that reflects how beyond redemption we really are. Frank is reall waiting for the bomb to come and right the world and the lone survivor couple to repopulate the world (all very Earth Abides). He is an end of the worldest, a once great magician, now crafting his spells for evil over good (though he never really did a lot of good - maybe the Mazzuchelli Year One (my fave Frank comic or perhaps his DD run with the same artist).
My un-named source's words ring very true. And I just have to hold up my hands and say I can't write anything better on the subject. Not right now.

But I'm still proud of what I did write for a review of All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder. And I'd be very interested to see what you think, either in the comments But it's not something I really want to put up where I usually put my reviews. So this one's just for me, just for Fictions. Here goes..........................................

all star BM R cov

All Star Batman & Robin: The Boy Wonder Volume 1

by Frank Miller and Jim Lee

You know what? Every word; every critical mauling; every review expressing amazement that this is the same Frank Miller who wrote Batman: Year One; They're all true.

This is incredibly, unbearably bad. It almost goes beyond being truly awful and verges on a ridiculous parody of a comic. In fact, I wouldn't be overly surprised if Frank actually came out in a few months time and owned up to it being a huge joke.

Except it's just not funny and, at times, veers into being plain downright disturbing.

It's overwritten, yet desperately light on plot, packed with really horrible dialogue, awful stereotypes and familiar characters deliberately written as hideous authority figures. Now maybe Miller's just writing it to fit in with his long-standing ideas on the Batman mythos. After all, you can really see the Batman here as a younger version of the sociopath in Dark Knight. The same manic drive, the same willingness to endanger himself and anyone who gets in his way, the same recklessness with children, the same disdain for other superheroes - it's all here, just like it was in Dark Knight Returns. But where Dark Knight Returns was inventive, original and actually had something to say, All-Star Batman & Robin is mere pastiche, taking all the excesses of Dark Knight Returns and going just too far with them into the realms of self-parody.

And of course, what review of All Star Batman & Robin would be complete without mention of the line that may well go down in history as the stupidest ever and has given rise to everyone's favourite catch-phrase:

all star BM R 7

("I'm the goddamn Batman". Stop you in your tracks awful dialogue and the systematic abuse of a 12 year old boy. Pretty much a summary of the experience of reading All-Star Batman & Robin.)

And the art? Jim Lee's doing his best Jim Lee here and, on purely aesthetic level, it's okay as long as you like Jim Lee's art. But I don't. It's just not really my cup of tea. He's always been able to lay a page out and does dynamic action very well. But what I couldn't get over, what I found utterly amazing was the sheer gratuitous nature of the whole thing. Now maybe it was Frank giving him layout instructions or maybe it was Jim Lee throwing these things in himself but something is horribly wrong here.

Just look at the first few pages. Page 1: Splash page. Dick Grayson flying through the air on trapeze. Page 2: more trapeze. page 3: Vicki Vale. Splash Page - gratuitous underwear shot. Page 4: more underwear, only in leering, creepy closeup:

all star BM R 2

(Vicki Vale. Or at least the bits of Vicki Vale that Jim and Frank think are most important.)

And so it goes throughout the book. No opportunity is missed to have a long, leering look at sex and violence in equal measure. Often together. Lee uses the panels like a camera, carefully going in for the nastiest shot possible, angling it just right to get the ass, crotch or cleavage shot just right.

And then, on top of the visual unease we have the underlying nastiness. That Miller writes Batman as borderline insane isn't a surprise. He's done it before. But what really sets the alarm bells ringing is the deliberate kidnap and subsequent verbal and physical abuse of Dick Grayson.

Miller goes to great lengths to point out repeatedly that Grayson is just 12, almost as if he's taking delight in what he's doing to him. It's disturbing. Every conversation between Batman and Dick Grayson has a violent, threatening undercurrent and then, as the story develops, this undercurrent manifests itself into endangerment and neglect (leaving the 12 year old who's just seen his parents killed in your bat-cave with nothing to eat but the rats) and finally explodes into physical violence as well. It's bubbling under all the way through but after confronting Green Lantern and goading him into a fight, Batman lets Robin have a go at the green boy-scout. After Robin ends up nearly killing Green Lantern with a vicious chop to the throat, Batman springs into action to pull the Boy-Wonder off. Of course, Batman needs to get Robin out of the way, so you can almost (almost) understand that he needs to throw him across the room into the wall. But does he really need to land a vicious punch while Robin's already down?

He does if he's Frank Miller's Goddamn Batman. Way to beat up on a 12 year old Frank.

b&R punch

You read it. And something inside just dies as you realise that Frank Miller just lost any semblance of being the writer you once thought was up there with Alan Moore.

There are so many things wrong with All Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder that it's almost impossible to list them all.

It's vicious, nasty and just plain awful. I'm done with Frank Miller.

Richard Bruton


  1. Anonymous6:15 PM

    "Now maybe it was Frank giving him layout instructions"

    Oh, it is. Miller's script for #1 was printed in All Star Batman and Robin Special Edition #1. The portion of the script that dealt with that Vicky Vale panel you posted:

    "OK, Jim, I'm shameless. Let's go with an ASS SHOT. Panties detailed. Balloons from above. She's walking, restless as always. We can't take her eyes off her. Especially since she's got one fine ass."

  2. The inherent fascism which was always there in Miller's work has finally come out, showing that he's even nuttier than Steve Ditko, and a lot more offensive.


  3. Joe R1:56 AM

    Well I liked it actually. These characters don't have to be treated as saints all the time, we've had over 50 years of that. This is a self-contained series, it has no moral standards that it has to live up to by law, it is just another fictional story that is less than half way through.

    Plus if you've read all the way to issue #9 you'll understand that Batman realises he -has- made mistakes with abusing Dick Grayson, and his flaws and change of heart are foreshadowed on many a occasion. The flaws of a single-minded Batman is much more interesting to me than a cookie-cutter Adam West-ified version who "never makes mistakes!"

    And it's interesting that you moan at Miller for having small sexual innuenndo in a fictional work yet you praise Moore who had some truly banal depictions of rapists as sympathic figures in Watchmen and The Killing Joke, to say nothing of what happened to the fictional children in Lost Girls....

    Inherent fascism? Isn't there inherent fascism in the very idea of superheroes themselves deciding what is right? Plus if you think Vicki Vale's underwear is bad, you must watch some Eiken to see real insanity.

    Well, whatever. I've never enjoyed a Batman that wasn't written by Frank Miller or drawn by Jim Lee anyway. But just loosen up a little. Miller isn't bound by law to write the exact same thing you want him to write all the time.

    I look forward to the next issue.

  4. Anonymous4:34 AM

    Gotta agree with Joe R on this one - we have had to swallow sanitized, parent-group friendly, Wertham cow-towing rubbish since the 1950's.

    Of course this is a colossal joke on Miller's part - he is revelling in the pleasure of transgression, making a tongue in cheek mockery of his very own reinvention of Batman.

    I don't think you can bring the character of Robin into the fray without doing it in such a satirical fashion. After all, the original introduction of Robin was for no other reason than to make Batman more 'kid-friendly'.

    Similarly, I think Miller's "beating up on a 12 year-old" is a stab at the original character. Sure, the Adam West good guy Batman never directly beat on Robin, but he put him out there day after day in far greater danger than the "threatening undercurrent" in the conversations in Allstar Batman. Sit back and objectively look at the entire Batman and Robin scenario - at best it's a little creepy, at worst it's rampant child abuse.

    I applaud Miller for his intellectual approach to super-heroes. I love them, but let's face it - they are complete freaks! If we are to have a greater push towards realism, then we have to accept that we wont necessarily like what we see in superheroes - namely the worst parts of ourselves.

  5. Anonymous1:54 AM

    There are interesting comments all across the board here. I find myself in agreement with things said on both sides of the arguement. Frank Miller has every right to pitch a controversial take on Batman to DC Comics and they have every right to either pay him for his efforts or to reject his proposals. DC saw the series as a possible hit, so they went with it. Thta's just free enterprise. Miller also deserves praise for his constant and strong stance against cencorship in comics. Some of the greatest comics ever produced (I'm talking about EC's "New Dirction" line of horror and crime comics) were destroyed by cencorship.

    Jim Lee's artwork may be a matter of personal taste. While I'll agree that his art here isn't as good as what appeared in Hush, he's definately grown as an illustrator. Choice of viewpoint aside, Lee's work here is a vast improvement over his X-Men and WildCATs comics of the 90s.

    Having said all of that, there's still the elephant in the room that must be acknowledged... and that is this: All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is a poorly written and sloppy story. Miller's constant repition of phrases irritates and insults the intelligence of the reader. This, combined with Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again have made me think he has lost his touch. Both were just awful.