This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).
If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.
“Punk” is the name of Brewdog’s flagship IPA, and not without reason. Their founding brewers, James Watt and Martin Dickie, definitely espouse a punk philosophy and spirit, starting in 2007 by brewing their beer in tiny patches, bottling it by hand, and selling it out of the back of their van. Their beer got noticed, and couldn’t remain underground and grassroots forever: in only seven years, they were brewing 90,000hL of beer in a year, compared to the 1,050hL brewed in their first year. With 14,568 shareholders as of 2014 (surely with more as of the time of this writing), James and Martin have their own TV show, which has them traveling the United States and collaboratively brewing beer with a who’s who of American craft brewers. Though they remain fiercely independent (their rapid growth is funded by crowd-sourcing), they have the unique distinction of not just being among the boldest and most creative breweries out there, but also having the most recognizable and famous brewers out there.
All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder represents a similar contradictory dichotomy – Frank Miller and Jim Lee are both among the most famous names in comics, but both reached that status by being distinct, uncompromising talents in comics, not by following the mainstream trends. Instead, both were trendsetters in their respective eras (Miller in the ‘80s, Lee in the ‘90s) and by the mid ‘00s, when All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder began publication, the “All-Star” distinction in the title was well earned. Because that was the only conceit of DC’s somewhat ill-fated All-Star line of comics: giving some superstar writers and artists the chance to handle the publisher’s most iconic characters, unhindered by ongoing continuity. Of the three “All-Star” titles initially announced, only Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman ever saw completion (and ranks among my favourite superhero comics ever, I might add.) An All-Star Wonder Woman, by comic book pin-up artist extraordinaire Adam Hughes, failed to transpire altogether, while Jim Lee and Frank Miller’s collaboration remains on indefinite hiatus since 2008.
The fact that it remains incomplete is just another obstacle in discussing the merits of All-Star Batman & Robin. Even prior to cracking the spine, the book comes saddled with some pretty hefty expectations: first and foremost, it’s a Batman book by Frank Miller. This is the man, after all, who tore Batman down in The Dark Knight Returns, and then completely rebuilt him in Year One. Frank Miller’s impact on Batman, for good or for ill, cannot be downplayed. The story, too, tackles an iconic chapter of Batman mythology, re-imagining the origin of Robin. Such an iconic story in the hands of one of Batman’s most definitive creators? Anything less than Year One would seem a disappointment. These expectations are now, of course, tempered by fan and critical responses to All-Star – because, if you’ve spent even a little time on any comics-related websites since this book debuted, you might know that All-Star Batman & Robin is famously considered terrible.
Thus, there is a lot to expectation to overcome before even answering even the simple question, is it good? Brewdog’s beers come saddled with similar expectations: I watched their TV show before I ever had the opportunity to try any of their beer. On their show, James and Martin have a tendency toward gimmickry, brewing bold and creative beers using unconventional ingredients in bizarre circumstances. It makes good television, and upon reading a little about their brewery, their philosophy and their business model, I was wholeheartedly a fan. Thus, when at a restaurant in Toronto last summer, I had the opportunity to try one of their beers (their Five AM Red Ale), I was almost hesitant to try it. But I tried it, and it was fantastic. Not long thereafter, I noticed their Punk IPA in my local liquor store, and checked to make sure their red ale wasn’t some onetime fluke.
Brewdog’s Punk IPA stack up much better against expectations than All-Star Batman & Robin does. Punk IPA is a pretty much perfect IPA – it delivers on the implicit hoppiness of an IPA, without going so far as to become unpalatably aggressive. It’s more piney than citrusy, though some grapefruit notes are present, ending on a pleasantly bitter note. When I want an IPA, chances are, I’m thinking of something exactly like a Punk IPA. That, I think, is maybe the most important regard where All-Star Batman & Robin fails: when I want a Batman story, I really, really don’t want All-Star Batman & Robin. Which is not to say that it doesn’t showcase some great Jim Lee art (which it does), or that it isn’t a satisfactory work of Frank Miller pulp (it’s adequate in that regard).
Really, I don’t know what to make of All-Star. I would not be wrong to criticize its depiction of Batman as an abusive, cackling psychopath, and I could happily tear into the book for it’s rampant sexism in its portrayals of Vicki Vale, Wonder Woman, and Black Canary (both in art and in writing). But other commentators have remarked upon these things with greater nuance and focus than I am prepared to here, and thus I would rather address the simple matter of whether this interpretation of Robin’s origin really adds or illuminates in some way that no other version does. And, quite simply, it doesn’t. It might not be surprising, given how much of Frank Miller’s sensibilities inform all of Zack Snyder’s films, that I am reminded a little of Man of Steel when reading All-Star Batman & Robin. Not because they are at all similar in style, tone or content, but because both seem to approach their protagonists as a problem that demands a solution. Superman is often criticized as a hero is simply too good, too kindhearted and benevolent to be interesting; he seems old fashioned, his detractors say, and too powerful to be relatable. In making Man of Steel, Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer seemed convinced of those arguments, and set about to make a Superman that is morally ambiguous, tormented and dangerous, rather than listening to what people actually like about the character and building a film around that. All-Star Batman & Robin gives Robin the same treatment, pushing the story to such over-the-top grim-and-grittiness that it almost plays as farcical.
To summarize this book: Bruce Wayne attends the circus on a date with Gotham Gazette reporter Vicki Vale (her hobbies include loitering about her penthouse wearing lingerie), where they witness aerialists John and Mary Grayson get shot in the head right in front of their son, Dick. Batman rescues Dick from police custody, cajoles him, calls him an idiot and a retard, and deposits him in the Batcave without light or food. This, inexplicably, takes four issues to unfold. Then, for the remaining five issues, absolutely nothing of consequence happens. A proto-Justice League of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Plastic Man express concern that Batman’s violent actions are tarnishing the reputations of all superheroes. In Gotham, Batman inspires imitators, like Black Canary and Batgirl. These imitators don’t really do anything, though Batman and Black Canary do have sex at one point, which isn’t really relevant either.
Because the book doesn’t really reach a conclusion, it is impossible to say if these are plot threads which will be paid off in the final six pending-for-seven-years-and-counting issues of the series. Regardless, the book suffers from some serious pacing concerns, and while its conclusion suggests that Frank Miller might have a more uplifting trajectory in mind for this singularly dark and psychotic version of Batman, I’m not sure that what-ifs are enough to forgive the book’s flaws. Really, Frank Miller and Jim Lee would be better served to take a leaf out of Brewdog’s book: It’s not enough to be the biggest deal in your industry. It’s better just to be really damn good.