Expectations were high when All-Star Batman was announced. It was to be the flagship issue of DC’s All-Star line, their answer to Marvel’s Ultimate line. The All-Star line would feature DC’s top characters written by the biggest names in the industry. All the stories would be clear of the years of continuity of DC’s regular line, making them ideal for attracting new readers.
When Jim Lee was announced as artist on All-Star Batman, people took notice. One of the most talented artists in comics today, Lee was coming off a successful run with Jeph Loeb on Batman and was bringing a loyal fan base with him. But expectations reached a fever pitch when Frank Miller was named as writer.
Frank Miller has become synonymous with Batman. His version of the character in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns revitalized the franchise and is widely acknowledged as not only one of the best Batman stories, but also one of the best stories in the history of comic books. Miller came back the next year to revamp the character’s origin in the “Year One” arc of the main title, creating a version of the character that inspired all versions of the character that appeared in all media from that point forward.
The pairing of the best artist in the business with the author of some of the best Batman stories ever had created what DC needed for its new line—excitement. Two creators with successful runs on the character almost guaranteed that All-Star Batman would be a success from the start. But perhaps the raised expectations explain why the series seems so disappointing.
Three issues have been released to date but not much of the story has been told. In the past, three issues would have been enough to tell an entire story. Many mini-series only had three or four issues to get the point across and they succeeded. With All-Star Batman, we get the feeling that even after three issues the title has yet to begin.
One might think Miller is employing the currently popular “write for trade” style, the way modern comic storytellers stretch four issues of story over eight or more issues to make a more appealing trade paperback. But what Miller is doing is worse. It seems like he’s expanding four issues of story over 20 issues of the book.
Most of the problem might lie with the fact he is writing for Jim Lee as an artist. The panel structure does not add to telling a cohesive story. Each issue is filled with more than one splash page, some times more than one double page splash. Even pages that aren’t splashes feature at least one panel that takes up more than half the page. This allows Lee to create a lot of beautiful artwork, but doesn’t advance the plot at all.
However, the panel structure is not the only thing hampering plot advancement. A book full of nothing but splash pages could advance the plot depending on what you write on them. What does Miller decide to use the big, pretty panels for? Well, in the first issue, five pages are devoted to watching Vicki Vale lounge around her apartment in her underwear and try on evening gowns. Just the kind of action you expect from a Batman book. The second issue is an issue long car chase; this would barely be exciting in a movie and is definitely not in a comic.
The third, and by far most annoying, issue introduces the All-Star Black Canary into the book, a character that has little or no connection to what little is known of the plot. Fifteens pages, featuring five full-page splashes and one double page spread, which appear to be in the book only to allow Jim Lee to draw an attractive woman in fishnet stockings. The main characters are relegated to four pages in the back of the book, two full page and one double page splash, which continue their drive in the Batmobile. The final two pages do not give us hope for any further plot development in the next issue as they lead us to believe that the All-Star Superman will be making an appearance.
What little plot that is provided revolves around the introduction of the All-Star Batman and Robin team. Miller is in full Sin City mode here. The action is definitely more bloody and violent. Dick Grayson is left looking at his parents lying in pools of their own blood, caused by somewhat graphic bullet wounds shown on the page before.
The characterization is also in the Sin City mode, to the detriment of the series. When Bruce Wayne refers to Dick Grayson as a “brat” midway through the first issue, you get the feeling that he would be right at home hanging out with Dwight, Marv and the other denizens of Basin City, but you don’t see him as Batman. I know the All-Star line is supposed to provide fresh takes on the character, but making Batman into bigger jerk than he is in his regular book is not the way to go.
Batman isn’t the only character to be portrayed in a negative light. Dick Grayson is quick with the wisecracks, showing remarkable coping ability after just watching his parents getting killed. The cops show a tendency to punch women and kill children (they’re corrupt, in case you haven’t guessed). The book is filled to the brim with one negative character after another, which wouldn’t be a problem if they were developed more and written better. But instead of being hard-boiled, they’re half-baked.
Jim Lee must have been paid a pretty penny for the artwork on the title, and probably will make a lot more when he sells his original artwork considering the amount of splashes in the series. Good for him, he deserves it. His work is beautiful, as always. However, the art cannot make up for the writing or the holes in the storytelling.
The quality of the art means that All-Star Batman & Robin is not a disappointment on every level. What is disappointing is the writing of Frank Miller. One is puzzled as to what happened to the Frank Miller who gained his fame on Daredevil, Ronin, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Is this the same man? If so, what happened to him? Can he come back? Because until he does, All-Star Batman & Robin should be avoided at all costs.