The darkest of knights
I was recently at a party in which I met a gentleman who tried to convince me that the third Matrix film is the finest of the trilogy. Needless to say, I was aghast and spent the next several minutes arguing against this delusional notion until finally my wife wisely and diplomatically separated me from this poor misguided individual. The conversation got me thinking about how almost everyone I know likes at least two or three widely reviled popular culture creations. There’s the friend who thinks that Guns N’ Roses’s Chinese Democracy was a masterpiece which was well worth the wait. The girl I know that loved Battleship Earth or the guy who doesn’t know why NBC didn’t produce a second season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (actually, that last person would be me.)
It is surprising that we often feel very strongly about the need to defend and justify our beliefs about these underappreciated cultural works. In doing so we are not only defending the things in question but also our own tastes and in some way our validity as social and cultural commentators. It matters to many of us that our friends and colleagues respect our opinions and understand why we believe what we do. Which is why this column is about my appreciation of All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder. The often-delayed Frank Miller and Jim Lee ten issue series is almost universally despised by both critics and comic book readers alike but I have a strange affinity for the story. Reviewers generally praise Lee’s artwork but despise Miller’s storytelling. I, on the other hand, appreciate both creators’ work, and find that the two mesh together to create something unique and exciting, the likes of which I have never seen. The narrative showcases a nearly psychopathic Batman who seems to be teetering on the brink of sanity as he drags a twelve year old Dick Grayson into his war against crime. There is nothing likable about this Dark Knight, he’s extremely violent, overly profane, masochistic, and bordering on sadistic. He is not a good guy and may not be a hero. He is a deeply troubled man who tortures criminals, kidnaps little boys, seems to be devoid of empathy, and is only concerned about himself. He is a highly unsavory character who displays many of humanity’s worst traits and is a role model for no one.
The logical question to ask at this point is; if this Batman is truly so unpleasant why do I like the story so much? In truth it is because this version of the Dark Knight has little to no redeeming qualities or social value. To my mind this Batman is the logical extension of many of the Caped Crusader’s traits taken to the highest degree. Batman has often been portrayed as disturbed, violent, arrogant, and pompous. These characteristics were soft-pedaled or muted by other more desirable qualities in past stories. This book enhances the Dark Knight’s core self and displays how unbecoming such a hero truly would be. I read it as a commentary on society in a post-September 11th world (the first issue was published in 2005.) The narrative asks the reader to consider what price is he/she willing to pay for security and what amount of freedom is he/she willing to sacrifice in the process. I find the effort to be bold and rather forward thinking. It follows the tradition of Miller’s own Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen in presenting the negative aspects of superheroes but it does it at an intensity never before seen in a story featuring one of the comic industry’s best known characters. I can understand why some readers are repulsed by the effort but I believe that such feelings are the point of the story. We should be repulsed, the idea that a mentally unstable billionaire dresses as a bat and violently fights crime would bother many of us if these events happened in the real world. I understand that Batman is fantasy and that escapist literature provides an avenue to flee reality for awhile but isn’t Miller’s notion of a maximized Batman something worth considering?
The other reason that I like All-Star Batman & Robin so much is in many ways the opposite of my above way of thinking. This Batman story takes place in the same universe as Miller’s most notable Batman stories: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. When combined these stories create a dense narrative that presents the Dark Knight at the beginning of his career and at the end. This progression is fascinating and allows the reader to see how the Batman from The Dark Knight Returns was created and how he changed. It provides insight into numerous plot points and story details that were before unexplored. Miller has created a sinister universe in which not only Batman has become a super-enhanced version of himself but so too have other heroes like Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Green Arrow. Like Batman, these characters’ core qualities are maintained but are taken to their furthest logical extent. All-Star Batman & Robin rewards readers that follow along closely and connect the dots from previous stories. The narrative also contains numerous Easter eggs from throughout DC Comics history and encourages the reader to consider Batman’s mythos and how the character has progressed since 1939 when he began as a hardcore vigilante.
So, that’s my overall spiel. I doubt I’ve convinced many of you because I imagine a large number of readers find the story to be too distasteful to stick with and also because I didn’t give any concrete examples from the book. The problem is that I don’t think I have room to fit any good illustrations into this column. To remedy this I am going to use future columns to review individual issues of All-Star Batman & Robin and give tangible examples of why I think the narrative is so good. Imagine me as the guy at the party who is trying his best to convince you to rethink something you have written off as inferior. Feel free to argue with me, I’d like the input and relish the challenge. Hopefully the hors d’oeuvres are good, the beer is plentiful, and I don’t have spinach in my teeth.
Jeffrey Johnson is an avid reader of comic books, watcher of television and film, and an annoying fount of 1980s and 1990s trivia. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University and has written numerous journal articles and book chapter about popular culture. His latest book is entitled Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. He currently lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii.