Chronologically Speaking: Frank Miller’s Batman Part 2

I’m a big fan of huge stories told over multiple parts. However, they can get a little tricky to figure out when you try to put them on a timeline. With Chronologically Speaking, I’m looking at multi-part stories not in the order they came out in, but in the timeline of the fiction.

When last we left Frank Miller’s version of Batman, I’d only covered one of the classic mainstays — Batman: Year One — along with a more recent add-on in Superman: Year One and the mostly skippable Spawn/Batman. For this second of three installments I’m hitting a few of the biggies, plus a more modern installment and the results are mixed at best!

Back in 2005, DC kicked off an awesome idea that absolutely failed, but still produced one incredible series. I won’t be talking about that one today though, instead, I’m discussing All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder. The company has tried to do this several times over (Earth One and all those pretty-good all-ages graphic novels they’re doing now) where they try to present an iconic story about a big-time character that requires very little working knowledge often with major creators in a book that would draw attention at book stores (back when those were a thing). All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is an absolute masterpiece, but All-Star Batman by Miller and Jim Lee…is not, in my humble opinion.

Last time I tried reading Miller’s Batbooks, All-Star’s badness actually made me give up on the whole endeavor. I didn’t let that happen this time around, but that is not to say I enjoyed it. Even though Lee’s art is gorgeous, this is probably one of the skeezier books I’ve ever read. The first half of the series features Batman saving Dick Grayson after his parents were killed and then berating him in a flying Batmobile for…who knows how long? There’s actually this weird moment where Clark Kent sees Dick’s face on a milk carton, but he’s still in the car! From there, Bats makes Dick kill and eat rats in the Batcave, which just goes to further the idea I landed on while reading Spawn/Batman: this version of one of my favorite characters is just an a-hole. And, unlike later installments, it’s not like the “hero” has this huge fascist force he’s trying to stop, instead he’s defending the fact that he kidnapped a child to heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. By the end, Dick Grayson — now Robin — nearly kills Hal Jordan. Sigh.

If you’re looking for connections to the overall Bat-world (also known as Earth-31), there’s a retread of the idea that Gotham is beautiful from the air, that silly trick where the Dark Knight calls a fleet of bats to swarm his enemies, that woman with swastikas on her boobs and butt and another door with an 80,000 volts sign that inexplicably turns out to be a lie (probably his weirdest recurring bit). Oh and there’s a continuation of James Gordon’s deteriorating family life. Real talk? I hope I read this post again if I ever get an inclination to read this book again so I’ll just skip it. Or maybe just flip through to enjoy the pretty pictures.

From there, I read the library’s copy of Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade which was written by Miller and Brian Azzarello with art by John Romita, Jr. who is clearly a big fan of Frank’s art. Debuting in 2016, this graphic novel showcases Batman’s final few missions leading to his retirement and Joker’s arrest. At the time, he’s feeling his age and working alongside the increasingly violent Jason Todd as Robin.

Meanwhile, Poison Ivy is out there using her talents to control some of Gotham’s most rich and powerful men, many who wind up dead. She’s got a surprisingly boring-looking version of Killer Croc working for her, a foe who definitely makes the aging Bats feel his years with every blow landed. The problem is that that story isn’t particularly interesting or compelling. That’s offset by various scenes of the Joker in prison where he’s stunningly (and eerily) calm even in the midst of ever-growing chaos. As you might expect, he gets out and then kills Robin…actually, it’s not even him, it’s his goons. I gotta say, this one was very forgettable. In fact, this journey through Miller’s Batman took me a few weeks and, so far, this is the only installment that I had to go back and read again because I forgot most of the details and my notes were pretty sparse. Aside from those creepy Joker scenes, this one is not a must-read to my mind.

And then you have the big dog of the pack, the jewel of the crown, 1986’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which Miller wrote and drew. I’m not sure how it is now, but when I was coming up in comics in the mid 90s — which consisted of me buying books from the excellent JC’s Comic Shop in Toledo and reading Wizard — this was always one of the major Must Read Books of the Comic Book Canon, up there with Watchmen. Both books came out within a few years of each other and revolutionized the major comic market by showing that these heroes could be taken more seriously (which was happening in independent comics, but not hitting as many eyeballs).

Contextually, DKR was also an interesting step because it’s darker tone takes place in a future reality wherein Batman of all characters has given up his crusade against evil! But then things get so bad that he drags himself out from the shadows and starts beating down the bad guys. This is a pretty standard frame for a Batman story these days, but again, this was groundbreaking at the time.

In the story, Bats has been gone for a decade. Superman works for the corrupt government, Green Lantern went to space and Wonder Woman secluded herself to Paradise Island. Gordon is still going, but the years — and all that smoking — have taken their toll. Harvey Dent’s face has been fixed and Joker remains almost catatonic in Arkham. Eventually Batman gets back in the action, teams up with new Robin Carrie Kelley and has major face-offs with the Joker, an army of gang members and the Man of Steel himself.

But, how is it as a story being read inn 2023? Honestly, I’m not a huge fan (this post is way more negative than I thought it’d be). See, I love the art and even the story, but this comic gets so unbelievably bogged down by Miller’s most off-putting storytelling convention: talking heads on TV news. I figure Frank is using this trope as a way to convey information without characters awkwardly explaining basic details of their everyday world to each other, but this never, ever works for me in comics because it feels like an absolute waste of my time and energy (not to mention feeling lazy on the writer’s part). I think it’s also in there to reflect society’s obsession with absorbing the worst parts of humanity (which Miller clearly was way ahead of the curve on), but my brain wants to shut down when I see this idea used over pages…and pages…and pages of material.

The main problem I had with the book was that it’s just so cynical. So few people in these Miller comics — especially this trio in particular — do anything out of kindness or goodness. People only change if new ideas are literally beaten into them. Even Carrie, who seems good, also appears to be drawn to violence for any number of reasons (we know her parents are old hippies). Speaking of which, there’s also an absolute disregard for anything even remotely liberal in this story in particular. Those with a left-leaning viewpoint are good-natured, but just waiting for nefarious elements of society to take advantage of them. To put it negatively, the Miller of the 80s seems incapable of imagining someone approaching a problem with their heart and succeeding. If I’m being more open-minded, he’s conveying the idea that this world of his can’t support such ideas.

And yet we end on a hopeful note. But does it actually lead to more hope? Come back in a week to find out! In the meantime, it’d be great if you used these Amazon Associate links to buy copies of the books for yourself. Hey maybe they’ll be your bag even if they weren’t mine! All-Star Batman And Robin The Boy Wonder, Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comes in a standard 30th Anniversary edition, a Deluxe edition and a black and white one called Noir.

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