Brian Michael Bendis once talked about breaking the internet in half, but I would posit that Frank Miller’s return to Batman is the divisive superhero book that has divided opinions on the blogospher in half. On the one hand, you have the likes of long-time supporter of the book Mike Sterling and Kevin Church; on the other hand, the rest of the blogosphere. Reactions have been extreme.
I didn’t buy this book when it came out but was curious to read it after the hoopla (I was the first to get my library copy, something I’m quite happy about). I’ve lost interest in the comic book work of Miller – I thought his Sin City descended into awful parody of itself and his artwork was getting ugly to look at (I thought it progressed to very ugly by Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again) – so it was a shock to see his vision in a superhero book again. Because this is very much Miller’s Batman (Bob Shreck’s foreword accurately describes this as the prequel to The Dark Knight Returns; but his foreword also comes across as a desperate plea for faith in the book: ‘It’s all about trust’ and ‘Trust me!’ scream to me ‘The book isn’t shit, honest!’) – when the third page of the first issue is a full page spread of a woman in bra and panties in high heels with the description, ‘She’s trouble. The kind of trouble you want.’, followed by a panel of her sucking her finger and then a close up of her pert bottom, you know for certain that this is a Frank Miller® Comic Book. There’s even a montage of sexy costume changes on the next page (Jim Lee draws sexy and at least it’s not Miller trying to sexy women – check out his ugly variant covers for unsexiness).
Miller is setting the scene for his Batman Year Two, leading into TDKR – Gotham City is totally corrupt, normal people don’t trust cops, and Batman is the only man who can stop the rot. Lee gives this a slick sheen to this rough and dark world, although his Batman looks more like Miller’s Batman in TDKR, especially the last page of the first issue, a splash page that is actually quite striking, with Batman holding up Dick Grayson and tells him, ‘You’ve just been drafted. Into a war’, echoing the TDKR talk of soldiers in his battle against crime.
The second issue is where the hard-boiled narration really loses it – as long as it was only Batman doing it, you could almost accept it. However, when EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER talks in the same way, even a 12-year-old Dick Grayson, it is very, very stupid. This issue, the Batman narration goes totally overboard and the dialogue goes insane, with the infamous: ‘What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? I’m the Goddamn Batman.’ (It’s obvious that Miller wants to use a stronger word than goddamn, so it smacks of an old man desperately trying to be down with the kids, but this is supposedly for all ages so we get this substitute.) An example of Grayson narrative:
‘He sucks air and for a second it looks like he’s got a razor blade stuck between his teeth – then he talks and it sounds like every single word he says is a jagged chunk of glass that scrapes his throat on the way out. Just listening to him is like being punched in the chest. Again and again.’
What kind of 12 year old thinks like that? Even if it was a child who had read nothing but hard-boiled fiction their entire life would not create sentences like that or equate an action with these words – it’s goddamn retarded, and it takes the reader out of the story.
In issue 3, Miller brings us Black Canary, which is one of the most idiotic sequences I’ve seen in a Batman book; I felt quite sad after reading it, even if it has a Chris Sims special – a kick to the face – by Lee on a double-page spread, with teeth flying out of the face-kickee’s mouth. The dialogue is awful and the choices taken with the character is more and embarrassing, importing a Miller woman into the DC universe. Horrible.
Side note: in the first issue, we see a close up of Bruce Wayne’s face in the circus at the murder of the Graysons, and he’s clean shaven; yet, an hour or so later, as Batman he has a face full of stubble. How did that happen? Is it make up? It irked me.
Onto the fourth issue, which deserves special kudos for the six-page pull-out spread of the Batcave that is actually quite cool, and that’s the only time I felt that while reading this book, but it is also thematically resonant because it reflects Dick’s first reaction to seeing the place. In contrast, it sees the return of Miller’s (via Batman) disdain for Superman, who can’t fly yet, suggesting that it was always there rather than a late reaction to how Superman turned out in TDKR. The final page, with Batman striding off from an argument with Alfred, looks so much like a Frank Miller Batman as drawn by Lee it’s quite scary, and seems to hammer home the connection to TDKR.
Issue 5 has the early Justice League – Superman, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Plastic Men (eh? What’s he doing there?) and Wonder Woman (who has a Miller hard-boiled narrative, because she’s angry and shit, you know …), and Miller can barely hold in his disdain for the characters. I wonder why he feels the need for it. He doesn’t care as long as he gets to include ‘I love being the Goddamn Batman’. Even Alfred gets in on the act: ‘Not until Zorro … A mother took one last look into the eyes of her only son … and saw him become a demon.’ Who, apart from Miller, thinks like this?
I couldn’t understand the point of Barbara Gordon dressing up as Batgirl in issue 6 – why is it there? It doesn’t seem to lead anywhere other than to have it in the book. It seems pointless, and she looks very silly, with a mask that doesn’t even do the job, and readily identifiable long red hair, and all the stupid sparkly things around her waist. The embarrassment level is high, with Black Canary as an Irish lass, with a really silly way of talking (American writers should stop romanticising the Irish thing, seriously), and some of Batman’s one liners are just awful: ‘Eat glass, lawman!’, ‘Let me take you to school, suckers … in chemistry!’ WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? And he seems to be repeating himself, using the line ‘Striking terror. Best part of the job.’, which I’m sure he used in the sequel to TKDR.
The seventh issue actually posed a question: do Batman and Black Canary have sex after their beating of some criminals? Canary: ‘We keep our masks on. It’s better that way.’, followed by symbolic lightening. I hope so, but that might be just me. Of course, there is still stupidness: Batman recognises Canary’s accent as being from County Monaghan – yeah, I don’t think so, Miller …
Issue 8, and my stamina is being sapped. It’s time for the Joker to turn up, and his own hard-boiled narrative: ‘Gotham City cries. She is a sad old whore. I love her when she cries.’ Oh, please dear God in heaven, make it stop! He follows this up with a particularly nasty murder, seeming to enjoy the grisliness for its own sake, which is rather unpleasant. Keeping up the stupidity, Dick Grayson (a 12-year-old circus performer, remember) recognises Alfred’s accent – ‘British accent. Upper class. South Kensington, from the sound of it.’ FUCK OFF, JUST FUCK THE FUCK OFF. Stop right now before I have to kill you. Meanwhile, Miller lays into Green Lantern (‘That moron’, ‘He’s as dumb as a post’, ‘What a damn idiot.’) but, conversely, he puts in a nice touch by having Dick wanting to be called Hood after Robin Hood but Batman calls him Robin to get rid of the hood in the costume.
Finally, the last issue of this collection (and this is three years after the first issue) and we see Batman and Robin meeting Green Lantern in a room they’ve painted yellow and are themselves covered in yellow paint (‘Dumbest weakness I ever heard of …’). At least there is an actual attempt at genuine humour – Dick: ‘He’s got a point. Maybe I am Dick Grayson.’ Jordan: ‘Don’t try to confuse me, damn it!’ (Question: is it me or does Lee’s Hal Jordan echo Neal Adams’ version?)
When it comes down to it, this book is all about the title: ‘Robin the Boy Wonder’. It tries to explain how incredibly exceptional Dick Grayson is – a 12 year old, whose parents were killed in front of him, becomes a crime fighter immediately afterwards. ‘This kid’s brain is as fast as his hands.’ ‘He’s a natural.’ ‘He might just be a genius.’ Grayson has to be something amazing in order to survive this ordeal, let alone be exceptionally good (which makes it even more of a shame that Miller pisses all over this by turning him into a bad guy in TDKSA).
Is this book awful? No. It’s well drawn and interesting (in a scientific way). Is it good? No. Miller’s narration is the same for everybody, even the third-person omniscient narrator, and it seems very dated – compare with Brubaker’s exquisite dialogue and captions in Criminal. Maybe the style feels old because we have become used to the current vogue for telling stories without thought balloons or first-person narrative. Here, it seems tired and laughable, an old man trying to hang onto his former glories. There are too many silly aspects and pointless asides and digs at superheroes. I’ll let Sterling and Church to enjoy it.