All-Star Batman & Robin Vol. 1 review

The oft-hated Batman sidekick gets a gritty new identity in a Frank Miller-helmed re-imagining of the Dynamic Duo...

All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, Volume 1

The cultural complexity of the relationship between Batman & Robin has grown alongside mischievous sexual interpretations and social changes. There was a time when the caped crusader and his boy wonder became the template for the many heroes – such as Capt America, Green Arrow and the Flash – who all gained teenage sidekicks.

However, for the Dynamic Duo to maintain its credibility, it becomes necessary to untangle years of the continuity in order to reinvigorate the characters and indeed, to pay attention to wider social and cultural changes alongside evolutions in comic book narrative and art-style.

So who better to be charged with reinventing the wheel than two giants of the industry, Frank Miller and Jim Lee? Especially since both have already been involved in adding dramatic new dimensions to Batman as a character – Miller through his revolutionary Dark Knight Returns graphic novel and Lee through his myth-bending Hush series in the monthly book. The results of their collaboration is All Star Batman and Robin, an on-going monthly series, whose first nine issues are collected in this volume.

The story takes us back to the origins of Dick Grayson’s first encounter with Bruce Wayne as he witnesses the murder of his parents before being whisked away by the bat-eared masked man. Since these are still the formative years of Batman, his motives are unclear and he’s accused of kidnapping the young boy. Yet, he doesn’t introduce his young ward to a life of comfort, he’s kept half-starved in the Batcave, making him fend for himself. Alfred at least takes sympathy for him. In the process, Robin is shaped into a dark version of his captor/ mentor turning him into a feral boy isolated with his loss, loneliness and anger. Within these pages, there’s also the emergence of a number of other heroes who will have a increasing role in their lives – Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern and even Batgirl. Naturally, the villainy of the Joker and Catwoman lurks in the shadows too.

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Miller’s lasting legacy to the character has not been forgotten, and whilst he has previously reimagined the early days in Year One, this time he is retelling the birth of the Dynamic Duo, giving it a darker, grittier edge shot through with cynical wit. It all adds a psychological dimension to Dick Grayson, a familiar part of his various characterisations across the comics universe. In one case, there’s a tang of abuse about Deck’s confinement in the Batcave, which erupts in an unexpectedly savage fury. When the pairtake on the Green Lantern together, it’s a baptism of fire for Robin, earning his credentials as the Dark Boy Wonder and sealing his fate with Batman’s. Vicki Vale plays an equally pivotal part in events, first as Bruce Wayne’s date to the circus, and then as crash victim to recklessly driven Batmobile.

Whilst the narrative is distinctly Miller, the art is rendered in masterly style by Jim Lee’s pencils, along with his long-standing collaborator on inks, Scott Williams. It’s brighter and glossier than Miller would have drawn himself, with dynamic full-page panels bringing big-screen experience, interspersed with closely-knit panel groups, taking us through frame by frame expressions.

Such layouts, complete with the darker shadings, echo the structure of Dark Knight Returns in a ‘School of Miller’ style. Lee adds the brasher and brighter dynamics so familiar in his work, including his wide-eyed teenagers and his unfeasibly curvaceous heroines posing in erotic temptation. Whist Miller’s script is moody and violent, the art gives the series a more dynamic dazzle, whilst the tits and bums scarcely disguise its juvenile appeal. This leaves us with a kind of ‘Two-Face’ identity that’s both adult in theme and adolescent in tone.

To purists, it might seem that this all plays fast and loose with the legend, but the lasting magic of the character is the endless number of stories he can give birth to, especially when DC has staged an infinite number of earths inhabited by endless variations of its heroes, playing constant games with continuity. However, in this instance, like Marvel’s Ultimate books, the All Star series is set apart for an audience less hooked up on rigid continuity and more enthralled by reading good stories by some of the industry’s top talent (The companion Superman book has Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly).

Climb on board and enjoy the ride as one dynamic duo are driven by one another into brooding action adventures. This is just the beginning…

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