This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 10, 2016.
Superhero comics might be my favorite drug. They’re an expensive habit I picked up in my teens that led me to try harder, more experimental stuff later, and as time has passed it has been harder to obtain the initial thrill I found with them. That’s why the primary emotion I felt reading All-Star Batman #1 was relief. At its core, this is simply a damn fine superhero comic.
This success is structured in the right combination of creators and ideas, all of which evoke and enhance one another’s best qualities in this first issue. Nowhere is that more clear than in the work of John Romita, Jr., who has never looked better over the past decade. While it is possible to point elements of Romita’s biggest inspirations in this work, it is clear why he is considered a significant influence by so many younger comics artists.
Romita’s layouts are explosive. Characters regularly push against the fourth wall of panels as if filled with too much momentum for a two-dimensional surface to contain. There’s a constant sense of motion with characters getting throw into or pulled out of scenes in most pages. This constant forward grind is established right at the start when Batman is flown through the windows of a diner, shattering a restful scene. It is perfectly setup by a the idyllic introduction of said diner in a repeating panel that transitions from black and white. This is the introduction to something relentless, establishing a status quo (complete with milage counter) that will not be restored. From that point on there are always losers and winners on each page, and peace is a constant presence in the loser column.
Even when given a moment of rest, characters pop with Romita’s new designs. Killer Moth and Firefly make for a well matched pair, resembling a fusion of sentai warriors and space marines. They are raw mechanical power and effusive detail in suits designed to kill. While these power suits offer plenty of seems and parts, there is no element that feels over-designed or gratuitous. Lines serve a purpose and balance with large canvases of color. The only character this sense of design is really lacking from is Batman himself, still wearing the costume designed by Greg Capullo at the conclusion of “Superheavy”. Whereas there is never a question about why his villains are dressed as they are, his costume seems to raise only questions. Romita still poses Batman in ways that distract from this inelegant design. One moment in which he is seen far below, his face cloaked in shadow and a chainsaw in his hand, is particularly effective summoning fear and joy in equal parts – just as Batman ought to.
Danny Miki’s inks on Romita’s pencils bring out a level of finesse that has not been apparent in recent work onSuperman and Dark Knight III. He sharpens Romita’s lines in a way others have not, finding the key elements of each form and bringing them out without losing any sense of energy. The big moments and explosive actions are just as impactful, if not more so. More importantly, the smaller moments in Romita’s storytelling are enhanced. A single panel close up on Two-Face’s eye behind a bag reveals layers of burned tissue and Batman’s reflection. It’s a stunning, quiet image enhanced by a blend of sharp, streaking lines and thick curvatures.
Dean White adds additional depth and texture with his colors. Blended lines upon bodies reflect Romita’s use of overlapping, smaller lines to create coherent overall forms and patterns. He also reduces any messiness to the work with strongly contrasting palettes and a great ability to focus the eye on darkness. The overall result of Romita, Miki, and White in collaboration are some of the boldest superhero action sequences and surprising moments (even when seen a mile away) coming from any publisher. Each of their tools sharpens another for a striking overall effect.
Even if these talents had been utilized on an uninspired script they would make it well worth reading, but that is not the case. Scott Snyder, freed from the pressures of writing Batman proper, is more focused on character and less on spectacle here. All-Star Batman #1 seizes on the ability to do things like incorporate lots of minor villains, run away from Gotham City, and dive deeper into the psyche of a rogue while letting Batman just be Batman. There’s a clear sense of fun here and while thoughtful the issue appears to be freed from many of the demons that fueled previous Batman stories in Snyder’s career.
The issue presents a natural evolution for Snyder’s exploration of the Batman character and mythos, moving ever further from the darkest roots of Gotham in Detective Comics and character defining epics of Batman and into a story that combines superhero fun with an exploration of unexpected material. That exploration is focused on Two-Face here in a manner that makes perfect sense and opens the character in previously unexplored ways. Harvey Dent’s obsession with duality and dark sides is turned into a parable on the power of information and secrets. It touches on the thematic core of a comic like The Private Eye while using the bombastic strengths of its own genre. Snyder’s take on Two-Face is already the most interesting the character has been since he appeared inBatman: The Animated Series, and it fuels the rest of the story well.
This plot mechanics of this story resemble an engine being assembled. All-Star Batman #1 is surprisingly heavy on ideas even with its relentless pacing. The merged concept of a road trip, discoveries from the past, and a chase by bounty hunters all become a clear narrative in the final pages, but it takes some doing to get there. Snyder smartly scatters the exposition throughout the issue in various flashbacks so that no stint of dialogue requires too much space.
Balancing the fun and colorful adventures of the lead story is a backup tale drawn by Declan Shalvey and colored by Jordie Bellaire that is simply horrifying. It reads like a Silver Age story through the eyes of Thomas Harris as a villain with a schtick leaves vague clues in a mystery about material importers. A sadistic form of torture twists this and is brilliantly deployed by Shalvey in the final panel. Bellaire’s subtle colors do more to suggest what is happening than reveal it, leaving the pain where it is most effective in the reader’s imagination.
In this backup, Snyder also works through some of the thematic material from his lead story. Concepts of grooming are raised, and it is suggested that Harvey Dent was Batman’s true, first protege. A color wheel is used to great effect and the first concept of who Duke is within the Batman mythos is welcome. However, the most effective elements of the story all center on the horror-mystery surrounding the villain’s actions. The rest feels associated for convenience rather than an integral part of the plot.
Plenty can be said about the thematic hooks and character pieces set up in All-Star Batman #1, but it is a comic that is at its best and most interested in its genre. Even the exploration of secret histories, redemption, and mentoring all are core themes to the genre itself. This is a comic filled with great costumes, thunderous fights and chases, and plenty of bigger-than-life concepts. It is a comic that even at its darkest revelation is still fun (at least in the lead story). It is a comic that looks every bit as cool as you want a Batman book to look. In that regard, it has the potential to be the best Batman comic any of these creators have ever worked on as it possesses a clear understanding of both the character and the world he operates in. It is far too early to make that sort of declaration, but it is exactly the right time to check out All-Star Batman.