In honor of the fact that we are within a month of the release of the first issue of part THREE of the Dark Knight books coming out this fall/winter (in which Carrie might take up the Bat Mantle, bring it haters!), I’ve been thinking about Frank Miller’s Batman books. And in thinking about them, I thought I might write about them. Without re-reading them … feel free to correct me on my errors. I’ve not read Year One in a long time (at least ten years, if not more), and I’ve never read Spawn/Batman. But who cares about Spawn/Batman? No one. Moving on.
(Oh, and warning: SPOILERS.)
Technically, Miller Batman books exist all in one continuity. These books are (in continuity order):
Batman: Year One (1987)
Spawn/Batman (1994) (I’ve never read this one.)
All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder (2005-2008) (I’ve not read all of it.)
The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001)
Or (in print/writing order)
The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Spawn/Batman, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder.
It occurred to me, when listening to a ComicPop! Back Issues video of the (canceled) All-Star series that maybe, just maybe, all of these years, Miller was trying to tell us something.
We should hate Batman.
Now, on one level, this makes no sense. First of all, Frank Miller seems to really like Batman. It’s why he wrote Dark Knight as what it is in the first place. Make him older, because I don’t want to be older than Batman. Break up the Batman/Superman bromance, because Batman is cooler than Superman OR Because IRL these dudes would NOT get along. (Paraphrased quote from the Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked documentary, the video will start where you can pick up his reasons for writing the book.)
Secondly, the character in the book itself. In The Dark Knight Returns, obviously Batman is our “hero”. He’s coming out of retirement to save a miserable, broken Gotham despite being rather miserable and broken himself. He’s giving his health, his life for the city. Outside of Gotham, Superman (and fake Reagan on a proto-segway?) is our villain, because he has become a drone for the government, and is stupid.
But, on another level, let’s start instead with All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. It’s after Year One, when Bruce was just finding his feet, he’s sloppy, does some shaming, but is mainly unoffensive. But All-Star, now, it’s the last Miller wrote for Batman (until the as-of-right-now unreleased DKIII), and it gives some insight to everything that came after in two The Dark Knight books.
In All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (I keep typing this instead of copy-pasting, why?), Batman straight up kidnaps Dick Grayson. Kid’s parents die, Batman roars onto the scene like Godzilla in a Batmobile and snatches little Grayson right up.
Dick Grayson, age twelve (will make sense if you read it), who was being protected by Vicki Vale, age old-enough-for-money-shots.
(No, I’m not posting pictures of Vicki Vale’s ass. Moving on.)
Vicki Vale, beaten, car crashed, injured near to death, with only Alfred to attempt to save her… all while Batman, who is Bruce Wayne, who WAS HER DATE TO THE FLYING GRAYSON SHOW, speeds off with his abducted, recently orphaned minor to begin years of mental and emotional abuse.
So much for protecting folks.
Anyhow, Batman has Dick Grayson, age twelve, trapped in the Batmobile. Unable to leave. Telling him that he’s now stuck in hell and stuff. Just being a general horrible asshat. Which is fine – I guess – when you’re dealing with Two-Face – I guess – but not a twelve year old boy who just saw his parents get shot.
He’s also a total whiny butt when things don’t go exactly his way.
Batman is Dick’s villain in that Batmobile. He’s Dick, age twelve’s, nightmare.
But here’s the thing. Batman knows this.
And so does Frank Miller. People talk shit on the writing, and they’ve a reason. It’s alarmingly creepy and horrifyingly out of character, the dialogue is often forced, the pacing was terrible, and the book itself was eventually unfinished. But I’m not entirely sure that this Batman wasn’t supposed to be exactly what he was.
A horrible, horrible, horrible man.
And the future relationships between Superman and Batman, and Batman and Dick Grayson in the existing Dark Knight books prove this to be true. Meaning, all of them, including the much loved Dark Knight Returns Batman, are – if not wrong – not at all to be trusted. And quite possibly to be despised.
Let’s move to Dark Knight Strikes Again, the next place Dick really shows up. He’s mentioned in Returns, but briefly. Amounting to Bruce saying, “We haven’t talked in years,” and giving the impression that they parted on less-than-positive terms.
In The Dark Knight Strikes Again Dick Grayson, age much-freaking-older, is a bad guy. And a freaking lunatic. And who-the-bloody-hell could blame him? If you’ve seen any fan-theories about Jason Todd possibly being the Joker in the Suicide Squad movie (if you haven’t, they’re out there, trust me, and they’re bugnuts), people have some root for them in Strikes Again. Because – SPOILER FREAKING ALERT – Dick Grayson is Joker.
A Joker, I guess. Not the original Joker, of course, but he has lost his damn mind enough through various things and recent torture and (through the All-Star Robin prequels) Bat-orture (you’re welcome) that he’s gone full Joker.
What does Batman say to his “ward” – to the boy who was once Dick Grayson, age fucking twelve, orphan, kidnapped by a living nightmare, threatened with eating rats – when he shows up in the Batcave in his old costume?
Incompetent, pathetic, ugly, unemployed. Anything else? Oh, yeah…
And then Batman kills him.
Yup. See how great that worked out! That kidnapping stuff! WONDERFUL! Sure, eventually Bruce was like, WAIT! I should let the boy grieve! But not until the brainwashing had already started to seep in enough to get this shit going –
Yup, totally insane by this point, right? But let’s make it worse.
And yet, he genuinely seems to care for Carrie. His other Robin in Earth-Frank. Maybe it’s because she chooses him. Because she volunteers. Thinking about it that way, is a pretty powerful thing, I think.
There are several things in that single page that stand out to me. The “She doesn’t make a sound” line, such a moment of pride. Carrie’s in early-days as a Robin here. Very early days. She’s volunteered, not been drafted, like Dick and Jason were (more like Tim and Stephanie would). Her parents were negligent to the point of forgetting she existed, but still alive. She didn’t have any “shared pain” sort of experience with Bruce, and he didn’t expect her to.
So it wasn’t hard for her to be something to be proud of those first few days as Robin. She wasn’t recovering from murdered parents. He wasn’t forcing her to eat rats. He didn’t kidnap her. She went to him. SHE WENT TO HIM IN HIS MOMENT OF NEED. And he accepted it and her.
And you can see that genuine connection and concern he has with her as he pulls her up and holds her. This thirteen year old girl who threw herself into his world with nothing more than a slingshot and courage.
So you see, he can have some sort of goodness in him. You know, as much goodness as a man can have when praising a child he’s throwing into pitched battle … Aaaand having that small piece, with Carrie, makes the rest of it horrific. More horrific, that is.
More than once he talks about the things he knows, that he doesn’t tell others about. Like in All-Star he knows about Superman being able to fly, even though Superman’s still in his jumping stage. In DKI he talks about knowing more of the political and military situation than he lets on or than anyone else does. It’s why he’s more prepared than anyone else for the EMP fallout.
Which wrecks Gotham. And you may hate Superman, you may have good cause to hate Superman (he works for Proto-Segway President Reagan, I get it: Evil), but still. This:
is just an awful thing to do to anyone. And while, yes, I know Batman didn’t bomb Superman. He needed this to happen. I don’t care that Superman does recover, holy piss is that a horrible thing to have happen.
I know Wolverine says how in the end the only power worth having is the one that lets you get back up (paraphrasing from his Ms. Marvel appearance), but I’m not sure I’d want to get back up after that. And Batman then turns around and is like “YOU’RE A JACKASS! I HATE YOU! NANA NANA, I’M NOT LISTENING!” because he plugs his ear and hits Supes with sonics.
I’m no Superman fan, and I don’t like Superman in Dark Knight Returns, but it’s really hard for me to like Batman, reading it now, as an adult.
Then we get to Strikes Again and wow. Just wow. We have to go back to that top image. The art in this comic is rough to look at. Maybe he got sick, maybe he took drugs, I don’t know, but something happened to make Miller’s already odd art go completely horror show.
See how broken Dick is? See it? Maybe its the meds, but maybe it started before. Maybe it started that day he was kidnapped. And maybe, maybe Miller’s been telling us that all along.
Maybe, we just think he’s going batshit (HA!) insane and is terribly racist and stuff, but really he’s just super into an insane and racist character. We think it’s bad writing, but really it’s just…
I can’t even keep that going.
He drew and wrote that for Strikes Again. The nightmares, man.
Wrote and Jim Lee drew for All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Because a strong woman is a hard, man-hating bitch. Check this great io9 blog for other terrible art by FM!
I loved TDKR when I was younger. And nostalgia means I still love it today. Carrie Kelley is still my Robin (overall; main universe Robin is Jason). But the book takes Batman, who has always been a flawed character – made more interesting by his flaws, that darkness in him was what made him interesting in the first place – and makes him more of a know-it-all, you can’t do it without me, jerk. All while setting the situation up so that, yeah, in fact they couldn’t. He’s not wrong, but reading it now, it feels extremely contrived.
The Batman in Year One isn’t nearly as offensive to me, in this way, because he’s mostly partnerless. Some stuff with Catwoman, but compared to his treatment of Dick and the Justice League, no. Selena is more like Carrie in that regard.
Which is creepy. I don’t like that thought. Moving on.
ASBR shows you exactly how broken a man Bruce is. How taken by the “mission” he is, and the things he will do in his pursuit of that mission. Like stealing children. Which makes no logical sense. I think Frank realizes it makes no logical sense, but that doesn’t make it well written characterization of the Batman. Not with that dialogue.
Into DKII is, again, a horror show that brings ASBR home before ASBR was even written. Which is why I always look at the All-Star book twice. It’s TERRIBLE. But it explains Dick in DKII. The rest of that piece of crap book aside, Batman continues to show bias towards Carrie’s Catgirl (yeah, making that thought even creepier now), while hating on his original Robin. It is inexplicable. But All-Star Batman And Robin the Boy Wonder can fill in some of those gaps.
Batman is a monster. Of course his relationship with Dick Grayson didn’t stay good. It didn’t start good. Of course Dick goes crazy. Batman replaces Dick with a second Robin, Jason, who is murdered – which Alfred informs us (mildly hilarious, since Jason died in ’89 in regular comics and TDKR was released in ’86… good call, Frank). Can you imagine a Miller-verse Red Hood? Batman went solo after that, apparently, but he accepted Carrie without a moment’s hesitation.
Again, I love the girl, but: Courage and a sling shot. Some school gymnastics.
Throw the child into battle! But this time, I’ll hold her when she’s frightened, and compliment her when she’s done well. So that maybe, in a few years, she won’t try to murder me… like the other two have done.
So, yeah. I think Frank made it an actual point to make him a psychotic asshat. That video of the documentary above where he talks about how Superman and Batman would not like each other. He has a point. Thing is, he has a point about Batman’s behavior some of the time, too.
And the response to a lot of it is to call bullshit on Frank. Not that Frank is blameless. The terrible dialogue, the random inserts of florid prose, the insultingly bigoted stereotypes of races/religions/gender, the over-the-top and incredibly simplified bombastic politics… all can be laid at his feet.
But, in a way, Batman is a monster… and we should not worship him as we do. I don’t think any continuity better shows that than Earth-31, Earth-Frank, the Miller-verse.
In my own opinion.