THE EPIC “ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER” RE-READ, Episode Four
Welcome to the Bat Cave, Robin. Hope you survive the experience. Here, have a rat.
Batman is a jerk. Robin is a petulant child.
I love this book.
At last, the Batmobile (“Stupid name,” says Robin) returns home to the Batcave, a jaw dropping, eye-opening piece of ridiculous architecture and clutter set in a cave. Robin is awestruck. His jaw dropped low and eyes fixed wide, he has a tough time coming up with anything to say in the face of this cavernous structure. When he has a second to recover, he reverts back to form, “It’s okay, I mean, I’ve seen better, but I guess this is okay.”
You know he’s lying. You know he’s putting on a facade for Batman. He’s being a little twerp, is what he is. That’s his personality. It drives Batman nuts. Batman is not a father figure. He doesn’t know the games kids like to play. He was so excited to show Dick his new home that it never occurred to him that the kid would be anything but grateful and amazed. (He is, after all, the GD Batman.) Instead, the kid plays it off nonchalantly. Jim Lee pulls off that panel beautifully, with Dick moving his mouth to one side with a slight hand gesture that perfectly sells the moment.
Oh, about that cave:
That’s right: This page doesn’t just fold out. It folds out again. And again. And again.
It’s for good purpose, too. This isn’t one of those large images just so Superman can punch a villain and look huge doing it. This is six pages packed with detail in both foreground and background. The layout gives the final image a lot of dimension, particularly with the costumes in the glass cases on the right side rolling away, and the Batmobile angled the way it is to point into the cave from the far left.
Alex Sinclair’s colors keep the image varied, too. It would be too easy to paint the whole cave with one brush, but he uses the items in the scene well to mix things up. You can see how the left side is dominated by the blues of the Batmobile. The middle part is peppered in green from the natural phosphorescent glow in the cave. The right part gets the yellows from the lights in the glass caves.
It’s a remarkable spread. It’s not at all necessary, but it’s a beauty. It’s the kind of thing a lower-selling book would never get, just because it would never earn back the expense. This issue was the same price as all the others for the series, $2.99. Now, to be fair, it counts as six pages of story. There’s the spread plus 16 other pages in the issue. But I can’t imagine the logistics necessary to configure the printing press for creating a fold-out of this size.
This was pretty cool, though, and I think it was worth it. I have no problem with a stunt like this here and there.
That just gets us into the Batcave, though. The fun hasn’t yet begun.
Batman, learning that Vicki Vale needs special medical help if she’s going to survive, sends Superman on a mission to France to bring back a specialist doctor. It’s a petty little nudge at Superman, who clearly has an antagonistic relationship with Batman. It shows Superman that Batman knows who he really is, but not vice versa. That’s why Superman is cursing as he runs across the Atlantic. As if the Jesus metaphor of Superman isn’t played out enough, here he is walking on water.
It’s only going to get better from here, but you’ll have to wait for next issue.
After some verbal back and forth, Batman cracks his knuckles and leaves to go fight crime for the night. It’s so theatrical, it’s beautiful. That’s what much of this series reminds me of: Broadway. It’s grand over-acting leading up to a gigantic musical number. Sadly, there’s never a song-and-dance number, but maybe that’s what delayed issue #11? I’m sure they were trying to secure the rights to Jim Steinman’s long-dormant Batman musical again…
The twist at the end here, though, is that after all this verbal jousting and all the mean things Batman and Robin say to each other, Batman walks out and Robin turns into a little kid again. He’s cold, he’s hungry, and he misses his parents. Batman’s response is basically, “You’ll figure it out. Go eat a rat.”
So Batman goes out to fight crime, only to come back to the Cave a page later to find Robin chowing down on a hamburger and fries, emerging from a blanket and wearing silk pajamas. That, of course, leads to Batman threatening Alfred.
“Alfred just told me to go take a flying leap,” Batman thinks. (He’s right.) “This little brat is going to ruin everything.”
I understand why some people didn’t enjoy this series. As I recap it, I see more and more of the “ugliness” about it. None of the characters are terribly sympathetic. Robin can be an annoying kid. Vicki Vale is opportunistic. Batman is a jerk.
Alfred is pretty heroic, though.
That’s the funny thing about the series. The star of the title is the least likable, which makes everyone else more likable.
But you know what? This Batman is interesting. He’s not the “real” Batman, if that’s how you like to judge things. I don’t. I accept multiple versions of the character based on who’s writing him in which circumstances. This series is Frank Miller having fun taking Batman in a new direction. It’s not a social satire or a gritty urban cop drama this time. It’s an over-the-top ode to the superheroics, with Batman being the king of the grumpy-pants set, struggling with bringing in help to fight his war, but dealing with the reality that that help might have his own ideas. It’s Batman versus the World That He Needs to fight the World That He Hates.
That won’t sit well with some folks, and I’m fine with that. Do please let me have my fun, all right? This version of the character might seem buffoonish in some ways, like a sit-com’s clueless father, but the dark humor behind him brings a smile to my face with every page he’s on. And it only gets better from here.
Next issue: Wonder Woman! Shirtless Alfred Pennyworth! Robin makes himself at home! Batman laughs out loud! And more of Batman’s influence on the population of Gotham is felt.
PIPELINKS AND ONE-LINERS
- Todd Klein delivers what at this point has to be considered the authoritative history of computer lettering. I’m linking to Mark Evanier’s write-up of the series because he helpfully provides all the links you need to read all seven parts of the series in their proper order.
- This is a 2003 house ad for “Sleeper,” by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. It features four pull quotes from various review websites. Three of those four sites no longer exist today. The only one still alive isn’t a comic book site. I’m not sure that means anything, but it made me cringe.
- This Slashdot Q&A with Warren Ellis is worth a read, particularly the bits about “Planetary” in the middle. It’s another fine example of how you never know what’s going on behind the scenes.
- Bruce Timm is busy recreating the Batcave from “Batman: The Animated Series” for virtual reality. Sorry, the technical term isn’t VR anymore. It’s “immersive entertainment experience.” In other words, it should look good on an Oculus Rift.
Last week, I started re-reading “Global Frequency,” for fun.
This week, news broke that the property is back in play for a TV series.
For those of you who weren’t around in 2003, “Global Frequency” is an anthology series. It lasted twelve issues, with 12 self-contained stories, each drawn by a different artist, but all written by Warren Ellis. “Global Frequency” is a group of 1,001 people around the world who can be called on at a moment’s notice to save the world. Or a city. Or some important person. Miranda Zero is the boss, and Aleph is the first soldier, with a knack for multitasking and pulling together just the people necessary to save the day.
It’s a high concept that worked perfectly to give Ellis the chance to write stores about whatever crazy doomsday science or device he had dreamt up that month, or read about in some science journal. It is a series that could be fun, smart, edgy, action-packed, and quick-witted all at the same time.
It caught the eye of the television people early on, who had John Rogers (now of Thrillbent and TV’s “Leverage” fame) signed up to make a pilot for The WB. It starred Michelle Forbes (now on “Powers”) as Zero, and never saw any time on television. It was a missed golden opportunity. With the right search terms, you can find a couple clips on YouTube for yourself.
Fast forward a few years, and here we go again. Like “Powers,” it’s the TV option that just won’t die. Now, we have Jerry Bruckheimer producing, and “Farscape’s” Rockne S. O’Bannon writing it. This made me chuckle, because Ellis has mentioned “Farscape” in the past. I pulled a couple of classic quotes in which Ellis described the series:
“A lot of people recommended PAN’S LABYRINTH to me, but I looked at a trailer, and, you know, goth muppets. And if I wanted goth muppets, I could download an ep of FARSCAPE (“In space, no-one can hear your safeword in an Australian accent”).
“Global Frequency” seems like an obvious choice for a television adaptation. It ran as a series of done-in-one stories. It featured a couple of key recurring characters who, as a bonus, are both strong women. It’s not a superhero book, so you don’t need to have a bunch of buff good-looking people to play the leads. It might require some special effects, but it’s not anything a modern science fiction TV series couldn’t be expected to handle.
On the other hand, there’s one big nightmare for making this a TV series: There’s only two regular characters. The rest of the cast are in and out in one issue. They come in for a story, and then they’re gone. Expanding the core team out to more people would be troublesome. Part of the conceit of the series is that the Global Frequency responds quickly to trouble spots around the world, often with a deadline far quicker than anyone could transport there from out of state.
Multiple locations, lots of guest actors: Budget issues.
But, hey, they worked around that once nine years ago. I’m sure they’ll figure it out again. The comic is too cool to let those small details get in the way. There are ways of working around those things, most of which can come out of the writer’s room. As comics fans, we’ll have to deal with the “adaptation” changes, which would likely give the series more of a core cast.
Let’s talk about the comic, though. Ellis created this series in a way to play to all of the strengths of the comics format. Each story lasts one issue. That necessitates setting up and paying off a story very quickly.
By the very nature of the Global Frequency, there’s always a ticking time bomb working. Writers love that trick. It gives the story a sense of urgency for the main characters to be fighting against a deadline, no matter how arbitrary that ticking clock might seem. It forces characters into more drastic actions than they would otherwise. With a rotating cast, that also allows the writer to write stories with more finality. People die. They can, because they’re not action figures yet and because they’re not necessary to the next issue of the series. It gives each story added suspense.
Aleph can be used to push through all the necessary exposition in the story. She brings various points of view together, and with that dialogue can be the one to explain the story or facilitate someone else doing the same. Rather than just a single super-smart person knowing everything, making those brain dumps be a snappy back-and-forth between multiple viewpoints keeps the story more interesting. It’s a trick more writers should learn.
The series has no denouements. The story ends on page 22 with the last panel. Cut. Story over. There’s no congratulatory back-patting after the climax. There’s no room for that. And since this isn’t a series reliant on character development or character-based drama, we don’t need to know the after-effects of a given issue’s story on the participants. Push the story right up to the end and then walk away.
Issue #11 pushes that so hard you almost want to include a “To Be Continued” on the last panel, until you realize that this isn’t a book that provides those kinds of answers and back story. The story is what was just shown. Why it happened and what they’ll learn from there doesn’t matter. “Global Frequency” is all about living in the current moment, and getting to the climax as quickly as possible.
To help emphasize this, the credits always occur on the last page, across three panels. This is a book that never had time to take a break for a splash page opening to hold the credits, anyway. Get in, get out.
The art is by a stellar list of popular artists, both British and American. I found myself enjoying the issues drawn by the Americans more. There’s probably a cultural thing at work there.
The all-star list for the series includes Jon J. Muth, David Lloyd, Steve Dillon, Roy A. Martinez, Garry Leach, Glenn Fabry (with Liam Sharp), Lee Bermejo, Simon Bisley, Tomm Coker, Jason Pearson, Gene Ha and Chris Sprouse.
As with most anthology series, your enjoyment will ebb and flow with the style being presented. With only one exception, none of these artists fail to tell the story well. It’s a matter of personal opinions that will guide which issues work best for you, or which stories grab you the most.
I liked Chris Sprouse’s issue, in which Miranda Zero is taken hostage and the Global Frequency is in a race to save her life. She’s tied to a chair in a plain white room, giving Sprouse a spotlight on his acting and staging skills.
I liked Jason Pearson’s focus on Aleph, as she fights for her command against gun-toting thugs in the sewers. Gene Ha’s issue is the most inventive, with sprawling seas of text representing Aleph’s stream of information creating a motif for every page. He made me wish for a second season of the book with an issue by J.H. Williams III.
Lee Bermejo’s issue deals with a horrific situation, which he handles well. Mutated bodies bunched together in hallways are creepy enough; Bermejo’s shading and imagination bring it to life brilliantly. Bermejo has always been strong with the lighting in his art; drawing a creepy issue with a guy walking around a dimly-lit hospital of horrors brings out the best in his work. Ellis wrote the right script for him there.
Jon J. Muth’s brushed ink line suggests so much in the way of textures, light sources, and depth. At first glance, it seems so simple; pay attention to it for a little while and the dimensions will emerge.
The only issue that fell flat for me was #10, drawn by Tomm Coker. I’ll go into more detail on that next week, though.
There’s one last thing to mention when it comes to this series: Every agent in the field carried a GF satellite phone. It’s a great sign of just how much the world has changed in just the last ten years. This super phone was the model of futurism in in 2003, able to make phone calls, send live video streams, and more. This is Glenn Fabry’s drawing of it:
It looks positively ancient, doesn’t it? Check out the old style power off and on buttons, the tiny screen, and the flip lid over the microphone at the bottom.
This is an easy problem to fix for a television show or any future comic book, but it’s a good reminder of how drastically the world has changed in the last ten years in ways we already take for granted.
“Global Frequency” is the sum totality of Warren Ellis’ writing powers in the early 2000s. It incorporates many of his favorite topics, drops them into the middles of large action sequences, and adds in a big name list of artists. It’s much more hit than miss, with a winning record far beyond what any book set up like this would ever have. I would love to see more of it, though I’m not holding my breath. But, hey, if the TV show is a big hit, maybe something could happen…
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