Written by Joel T. Lewis
I can’t quite explain to you, dear reader, why it’s taken me so long to write my final review for Scott Snyder’s All-Star Batman series. Perhaps I was disappointed that it didn’t quite stick the landing for me, maybe I grew to begrudge Snyder’s panel choking dialogue, exposition, and narration, but I think if I’m really honest with myself it’s because I was so sad to see it go so soon. Tom King is writing an exceptional Batman, and I believe that his tenure on the flagship title (‘The War of Jokes’ and ‘Riddles’ arcs especially) will go down in history as one of the most important periods in Batman’s history, but no Batman run that I’ve ever read has been as fun as All-Star Batman.
All-Star Batman was a slightly lighter Dark Knight, and what a breath of fresh air that was. He quipped, he smiled, and you really got the sense that for this Bruce Wayne his mission wasn’t just a burden he’d taken on to keep his promise to his parents, it was something he was good at, it was something he loved to do. Pirates, Ice-Zombies, Snyder even gave us Shark repellent. And while the dramatic conclusion of this swashbuckling pirate arc ‘The First Ally’ fell a little flat for me with the revelation that the man behind the Black Knight was an Alfred clone and Snyder beating the Pirate story analog to death, this arc and its conclusion was a lot of fun and had a hell of a lot of heart.
Snyder thoroughly explores the power and familial dynamics of the father-son relationship through the multigenerational pairings that he’s set up over the course of this final arc. The tension between Alfred and Briar, who’s possessive and manipulative influence on Alfred is in direct and extreme contrast to the aloofness of Alfred’s actual father culminates in Alfred’s violent rejection of Briar’s Black Knight mantle. This rejection by a promising pupil, and in a very real sense, a surrogate son, drives Briar to create an imperfect clone of Pennyworth whose own father-son relationship with Briar is even more unhealthy. Constantly compared with and never living up to the original Alfred, the clone, turns on Briar in a last-minute epiphany which, funnily enough, fulfills Briar’s own twisted hopes for Alfred. By killing Briar, the Black Knight rejects and frees himself from the only familial attachment he had (however traumatic an influence that attachment was). This was the key to becoming Britain’s purest servant, the Black Knight, at least as far as Briar was concerned, and his second surrogate son surprised him by fulfilling that criteria.
Snyder also gives Alfred closure as he discovers a stack of letters addressed to him but were never sent by his real father Jarvis at the same moment he is introduced to Bruce Wayne for the first time. This cycle of father-son dysfunction and equalization is skillfully executed and adds yet another layer of intimacy to the Bat-Family dynamic. One that, in my opinion, was a long time coming. The love and understanding conveyed in that final embrace as Bruce and Alfred stand in the shadow of the Batcave is completely earned and really satisfying as a devoted reader and fan of Batman.
While juggling these intricate and complex paternal dynamics, Snyder manages to pepper in some of the best lines Alfred has ever spoken. I loved, ‘Ahoy @#$%! I got your Tea right here!’ in particular as Alfred swoops in via biplane to respond to Briar’s comment amount the domestic turn Pennyworth’s life has taken. But there’s one line in particular that hammers home Snyder’s understanding of the power of the Batman narrative in popular culture and shows his skill when wielding it. Sitting behind a bristling biplane-mounted machine gun Alfred tells his former mentor, “Well, there’s a saying in this country, Briar. ‘Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman.’ But sadly, I can never be Batman. Because Batman doesn’t use guns.” Never in my life would I have thought I would get to hear the words of a meme of all things come out of Alfred Pennyworth’s mouth. It was glorious and it shows again how comfortable Snyder is writing Batman. He knows that character, he knows the character’s fans, and knows how to balance fan service and serious content.
I loved All-Star Batman, not because every issue landed for me, or because it’s the purest representation of the Dark Knight, it’s because it’s featured the Batman who’s had the most fun and I’m going to miss it. Until next time, Geek On!