Has there been a more derided and divisive comic from DC or Marvel over the past few years than “All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder?” From internet memes surrounding ‘the goddamn Batman’ to the scandal over swearing not being properly blacked out to venom and bile piled upon the series for its portrayal of the Dark Knight as just plain mean and cruel... it’s not what anyone expected, but it is very good and exactly what a comic about Batman’s second year in action should be.
Two ideas continually jump off the pages of this book: fun and flaws. Nearly every scene presented here revolves around one or both of those ideas. Miller’s Batman is one that has fun. It’s fun being Batman, running around all night, kicking ass, impressing women, fighting crooked cops, stomping rapists... far more fun than anything else in Bruce Wayne’s life. In the middle section of the issues collected here, Batman narrates that he hasn’t slept in days, because he’s having too much fun. He’s given himself over to this costumed persona that is more exhilarating to be, an idea that strikes me as far more believable than the restrained character we always see, at least this early in his career. He’s yet to face any real challenges, yet to face any real hardships; he just beats on criminals and cops, and gets off on keeping everyone on edge.
The introduction of Dick Grayson here changes that. Miller does something rather clever with the usual Batman/Robin dynamic where Batman is portrayed as extra grim and dark until this child came along and taught him to lighten up. Sure, he may be gruff and cruel, but this Batman is light and fun, in a gallows humor sort of way. Whereas Dick Grayson brings out the even grimmer, darker side of Batman as he immediately begins his work of toughening Dick up to be his sidekick and ward. No time for grief, no time to slow down, just make the best of the situation and get on with the war. Which is where the flaws come in: in having such an exhilarating, thrilling time as Batman, Bruce Wayne has lost himself in his war on crime, and has found his first enlistee, a newly orphaned boy that he treats like one of the draftees from the first half of “Full Metal Jacket” than the scared kid that he is.
Oddly, Dick Grayson responds to this treatment. He quickly adapts, quickly makes himself into what Batman wants him to be. He gives lip along the way and doesn’t follow orders exactly, but he does as he’s told. The final issue collected here, the confrontation of Batman and Robin of Green Lantern in the room painted yellow is key to understanding exactly what Miller is looking to accomplish here. Batman lets Robin loose on Hal Jordan, giving him a lesson in just how powerless he is and, in the heat of it all, Robin almost kills him. Immediately, Batman pulls off his mask, reasserting his Bruce Wayne humanity, recognizing that the fun has gone too far. In his over-exuberance and thrill at using violence to prove himself superior, he let things go too far. In essence, by the end of this collection, it’s obvious that Dick Grayson’s involvement in Bruce Wayne’s life will humanize him, just in a different manner than has been shown in the past.
The Gotham City in these issues is a heavily flawed one. Crooked cops look to kill Grayson after his parents are murder and let their killer go free; crude men prowl the streets and bars, looking for women to rape; even the best cop in town, Jim Gordon openly talks to his mistress on the phone while his wife lurches into the kitchen to refill her glass with booze. Even its Batman is flawed, more violent than we’re accustomed to. It’s unsettling and over-the-top. It’s understandable why many find it so off-putting: it’s supposed to be.
Complementing this is Jim Lee, whose art has rarely looked better as he seemingly channels Miller in many places. His Batman is the bulky Miller version, the large, muscular, violent monster that glorifies in scaring the crap out of people. His Batgirl is rendered in a way that calls attention to Miller’s own work. But, even then, it’s still thoroughly Lee’s visuals, especially his women. His layouts also don’t have the same elegance or purpose of Miller’s. They do suit the looser, decompressed pacing of Miller’s writing, though.
Not the tighter, more honed work of “Year One,” “All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder” is very much in the vein of “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” a fun, flashy, exciting, quick-paced, and tongue-in-cheek version of Batman, a quasi-sequel to Miller’s work on the character in the ‘80s. Definitely not perfect by any means, but some of the most interesting comics of the past few years.