In Which the Goddamn Batman Gets to the Goddamn Point

All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #5

Oh man, I seriously think Frank Miller has finally tipped his hand.

Initially, I mean that in the sense of outrage. All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder (last time I’ll be typing that in this post) has proven to be a remarkably long-lived source of controversy, sniping, miscellaneous garment-tearing, attack, defense, mockery all around - for a book that hasn’t actually seen a new issue in just about a full year, it still seems oddly immediate.

But god, I don’t know how Miller will keep up the reactions this time, not after the first half of this issue, a Justice League sequence so carefully constructed to piss so many people off, I really don’t think the effect will actually come through. Too much effort, you know?

I mean, gosh - the first line of dialogue uttered by Wonder Woman, an outstandingly caricatured man-eating she-woman, is “Out of my way, sperm bank,” with a pudgy nebbish clutching his briefcase to his chest in terror as she passes by. Diana then arrives at JLA headquarters -- a shitty abandoned cellar -- and absolutely lays into the rest of the team, driving poor, emasculated Superman bonkers with seething rage ("Woah! Felt that one right between the legs, huh, Kent?") until he finally snaps and knocks her over with a mighty stomp on the ground. Needless to say, Diana reacts to being (finally!) physically knocked around by a (real!) man by giving Superman a nasty kiss, her buttons duly pushed by the Big Blue Boy Scout resorting to brute, inhuman force. Put that in your laundry basket, Mary Jane!

I think the funniest part for me was definitely Miller’s characterization of Hal Jordan as the most bland, wishy-washy waste of a superhero concept ever. Diana barks at him, and he uses the infinite power of his ring to… make her a hanger for her jacket. What a horrible, horrible superhero Hal Jordan is. It’s almost like one of Johnny Ryan’s parodies of independent comics, hell-bent on upsetting everyone as a means of enhancing its own comedic drive.

But it’s not all just pushing fanboy buttons here. There’s obvious elements of parody, but as I’ve been saying for a year and a half (so, two prior issues), the inclusion of parodic elements does not render something a parody, just as the inclusion of jokes does not make a comic a joke. I am still convinced that the intent behind this book is largely straightforward. Yes folks, characterizations like this really do fit into Miller’s larger point.

Wait?! There’s a fucking point??

Yep. And it’s not an unfamiliar point either!

You see, to my mind, Miller is doing (in part) the same thing with this All Star book as Grant Morrison is doing with his All Star Superman - he’s folding bits and pieces of his own varied contributions to the title character’s lore into a type of ultra-summary of the character’s essence, as he sees it. Hence, the Superman as seen in this book is the consummate Frank Miller Superman, hopelessly tied down to the whims and machinations of humans, when he ought to be soaring as free as a god. As the narration states quite obviously, Wonder Woman isn’t as so much getting off on having real violence done to her by a real man, as becoming titillated at seeing Superman forget that horrible Clark Kent horseshit and seize the will to power. In the Millerverse proper, that’s something Superman wouldn’t truly do until the final pages of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, with no less than his and Diana’s ambitious love child at his side.

Now, I don’t think this comic is necessarily ‘set in’ Miller’s little Dark Knight universe. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s set in the same All Star universe that Morrison’s writing. There’s been a little bit of rhetoric surrounding the finale to 52, about the DC obsession with setting all the continuities straight, but some of its corners are really more like what’s being said of Marvel - stories existing as stores, free to connect and disconnect from one another as they please. That's what's going on here. Miller is canny enough to couch his exaggerated characterizations in the context of a JLA just starting out, not quite used to the world. Maybe they’ll grow into their ‘normal’ selves (whatever that means). Or maybe they’ll grow into Millerverse Gods.

"In time, the bonds will form. These four will become legends. The stuff that dreams are made of."

And in that way, the themes of this book are also Miller’s old favorites.

Hal’s really a wuss, you see, because he’s a galactic police officer, albeit one that's more prone to asking for votes and extra contemplation. He’s authority, which in the Millerverse exists only to be thrown down after its inevitable corruption. Hal isn’t corrupt, or wicked, so he’s merely a bit of an oaf. Obviously, he’s not beyond help - when we see him in DK2, he’s divorced himself from humanity entirely, even adopting a different physical shape. He’s free by that point, and freedom is the most precious thing in the Millerverse. For superheroes who command the powers of gods, ‘freedom’ comes through tossing off the yoke of humanity, of human civilization, and inhabiting the Pantheon. Becoming Legends. One wonders if the empowered Superman would even retain his morality, which is maybe why Miller leaves the question hanging at the end of DK2 - answering it would be sticky indeed, when you're trying to promote them as superheroes.

It’s no surprise, then, that Batman is the favored Miller superhero, because he’s no deity. He’s actually, fully human, yet he stands just as high as the gods. He can bring the greatest of the gods down low. And here, in All Star Batman, he represents perfect, joyous freedom. That’s the key to the series so far, in all its ridiculous, pitiful, gregarious glory and/or shame. Batman acts silly, and says silly words like “cool,” and spits out the most overblown of pulp narrations, and giggles while jumping down to engage in corny verbal play with street toughs, because I genuinely believe that is what Miller considers fun. Batman is a ‘fun’ superhero, because he is free, and he stars in what I'm sure Miller considers a 'fun' superhero comic. There's different versions of fun, you know? I like Geoff Klock’s notion of Miller’s and Morrison’s simultaneous visions of Batman existing in a sort of state of war - I personally suggest comparing the textures of the similar-yet-different pulpy narrations that both Batmen provide.

Same idea goes for Plastic Man, by the way - he’s the only member of the JLA that Miller seems to indicate any deep-seated affection for, and it’s no wonder. He’s the Id, doing anything he pleases with himself, pointing out everyone’s foibles, and cracking fanciful japes about Wonder Woman urinating on him (hmmm, this Johnny Ryan comparison is getting better and better). And Dick Grayson, well, his journey is all about picking up the axe, and becoming something powerful.

So, that's all fine - but, is the comic actually any good? I mean, identifying the mere existence of beating (bleating?) themes doesn't exactly form a rousing recommendation - it merely suggests motives. But I hold very little attachment to DC's icons, and I do respond to the chortling that Miller infuses every page with. It makes me wonder why something like The Boys bored me so much, when Miller is arguably swimming around in a similar pool of self-reference as Garth Ennis was in his book. I think it's because Miller simply seems more energetic (and it helps that he's been way less prolific), and is aided rather nicely by the mainstream-as-it-gets superhero stylings of Jim Lee, who didn't seem to work well at all with the material early on, but has since become so much better at selling the grinning face of Batman, and the solemn constipation of the 'stronger' superheroes. Even water-treading sequences like that of a (once again!) shirtless Alfred reviewing Batman's origin while punching a bag (ooh, rugged!) become statuesque.

I'm sure a lot of readers will find that it's Miller who's really constipated, and that's understandable, really. He's not the same writer he was in the prime of his popularity, and he's clearly never going back. But hey, I'm the one who thought DK2 was the best work the guy had done in years, after too much Sin City boredom, and while All Star Batman is an altogether lighter, less ambitious, and less satisfying work, I still appreciate the unrestrained glee that Miller manages to convey, when he's on. He's more on with this issue than he was in the last. It's a strange irony that this rebel of comics, with all his tales of personal liberation, has found a financial and creative 'up' in working so much (this and two more projects on the way) on such an old, corporate-owned property.

Yet, his work on that property gets people agitated, on a scale he wouldn't manage otherwise in the Direct Market. What's your freedom, Frank Miller? What's your liberation?