I couldn't wait to read this. It sold like hot cakes, but often to readers like me who'd heard how bad it was and had to see for themselves. Internet reviews might start with "OH...HOW...I...HATED...THIS...BOOK!! Mr. Miller, you have done violence to noble American icon and have earned both my enmity and a well deserved NUCLEAR FAIL..."
The storyline's not bad, actually, but it's also threadbare and doesn't end. It's not so much a narrative as a bunch of scenes with people. The release was famously erratic and the series was eventually abandoned. Today, it's still incomplete.
The characterisation is so crazy and alarming that you'll worry about Miller's mental state. He divorced Lynn Varley in 2005, didn't he? Same year as this. Uh-huh. This Batman absolutely loves beating up, crippling and possibly killing. He throws a Molotov cocktail into a crowd. He's one step from "serial killer". There's an online Villains wiki that includes him. That said, though, I might have accepted this hilarious characterisation if his universe hadn't been agreeing with him. Everyone else here is just as bad. Black Canary, Batgirl and even twelve-year-old Robin are almost sexually excited by ultra-violence, if they start committing it. "And I enjoyed every second of it. More than I've ever enjoyed anything."
Every woman who sees Batman's scary mega-gore will fall in love on the spot and offer herself to him. The comic's sexuality is uncomfortable in general, in fact. The male gaze is very noticeable, with Miller clearly telling Lee to draw arse shots. Batman and the Joker have sex with girls they're not interested in. Batman merely dumps and forgets about his partner (they both kept their masks on), but the Joker strangles his lady to death. Ewww. He also has a topless Nazi henchwoman with swastika breast pasties, although she's a reference to other Miller books. "Queer" is used as a derogatory term by both Robin and Black Canary... and yet this awkwardly, abrasively heterosexual comic also has dialogue like this:
(a) "Nuts? You want nuts? I'll show you nuts!" (Batman means "crazy".)
(b) "Fast hands, my little Robin. Fast hands, big mouth." (They're painting a house yellow to surprise Green Lantern.)
Wonder Woman is a raging man-hater who calls men "sperm banks" and is furious because the superheroes disobey her order to kill and decapitate Batman. Jim Gordon's cheating on his miserable, alcoholic wife. The only character who's likeable, paradoxically, is Robin, and that's largely because Jim Lee draws him charmingly even when Miller's dialogue isn't a million miles away from the irritating Robins you'll tend to meet elsewhere. Batman sneers at the Justice League and calls them ineffectual morons, which in Green Lantern's case is because he doesn't use his superpower to change the world. (You could say something similar about Batman and the Wayne billions. Also, the Justice League hadn't been wrong in calling Batman a loose cannon and asking him to cool it.)
Nonetheless, to some extent, I'm willing to defend some of this. It's early in Batman's career, in a story that's presumably meant to show how Robin humanised him. It fits beautifully with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, although probably unintentionally. One can also draw lines from this to sane Batman lore, e.g. in which he does indeed believe in scaring criminals, while furthermore some of his behaviour here is an act to shock Dick Grayson out of grief and into crime-fighting. (I'm not convinced that that's good therapy, but then again I don't go around beating people up.) You'd write this characterisation too if you: (a) hypothesised that Batman loved doing all the dark stuff he does, and, um, (b) wanted to take the piss.
Alfred worries that his master might be going mad. To some extent, what's here is a deliberate game plan. I like it. What breaks it is the context, i.e. everything else.
To be honest, this comic is less luridly terrible than I'd been hoping. You'll worry about Frank Miller, but I was willing to go along with Batman's axe-crazy characterisation for the sake of seeing where the story took it. (Answer: into cancellation.) This was the launch series for an All-Star DC Comics reboot label, reinventing heroes for a new age, like Marvel's (more successful) Ultimate line. It died. As well as this, it saw only the Morrison/Quitely Superman and, over a decade later, Scott Snyder's All-Star Batman that he emphasises has nothing to do with Miller's.
I like Miller/Lee's Robin, who even becomes funny when he and Batman are winding up Green Lantern in ep.9. Lee's working hard on the artwork. It's memorable, despite the non-plot and overuse of dumb, repetitive dialogue. The world, though, hates this comic.
"What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I'm the Goddamn Batman."