In Praise of Bad Batman

“Bless me Father Jack, for I have sinned.  It’s been . . . well, this is my first confession.  Actually, I’m not even Catholic.”

Father Jack puffed on a cigar and squinted.  “Well, this ain’t exactly a church either, now is it, kid?”

I glanced around nervously as the cars whizzed past.  We were sitting on a bench that was positioned dangerously close to the curb.  It was exactly where the guys at the comic shop had told me I would find him. Father Jack always holds court by the East exit ramp on a little bench by the curb.  I felt a little like I was being sent on a snipe hunt, but sure enough, when I got to the exit ramp I saw him, just as they described, right in front of the sign, sitting on a little bench by the curb under the “E.”

He was shorter than I imagined, and I was beginning to doubt that he was really a priest.  He talked like somebody from an old Jimmy Cagney movie, clenching the cigar between his teeth and pounding his fist on the bench for emphasis.  Clearly if he was a priest, he was more Karl Malden than Bing Crosby.  But the guys at the shop assured me that when it came to hearing confessions, Father Jack was “King.”

He took another puff on his cigar and looked me square in the eye.  “You look nervous, kid.  C’mon, give it to me straight.  What’s bugging you?”

“Well, I don’t know how to say it, but . . . I think I like . . . bad Batman.

“Bad Batman?  Hmmmph.  Never paid much attention to Batman.  But from what I understand, lots of kids like their heroes bad these days.  You know, torturing people, cracking skulls and stuff.  I wouldn’t worry too much.  You’ll grow out of it.”

“No, you don’t understand.  I’m not talking about stories where Batman does bad things.  I’m talking about bad stories.”

“You mean the stuff after the Comics Code?  Alien planets and Bat-Mite?  You shouldn’t be too hard on those guys.  It was a tough time for everyone.”

“No, no. I’m talking about new stuff.  New stories by really respected creators.  Some of the very best people in the industry.”

“I thought you said they were bad?”

“Oh the books are.  They’re horribly bad.”

“But you like them?”

I looked around nervously again.  “Yes.”

“Well kid, tell me when it started.”

“It was about five years ago.  The book was called All Star Batman and Robin.”

“That’s kind of a stupid name.”

“I know!  It was written by Frank Miller.”

“The Daredevil guy?  Yeah, I heard of him.”

“I’m not surprised.  He’s a legend, although he’s been a little erratic lately.  But he wrote and drew one of the greatest Batman stories of all time.”

“That’s this All Star book?”

“Oh no.  All Star is terrible.”

“You keep saying that.  What’s so terrible about it?”

“You name it.  The characterizations are all off, the dialogue is clunky, the plot is implausible, and the swearing—”

“Oh, I heard they get to swear now.”

“Sure, but the swearing in this book is all wrong.  It’s like Spock in that movie with the whales.”

“Okay, so I get that the book ain’t great.  What do you see in it?”

“It moved me.”

“Sounds like it could cause a movement all right.”

“No, it genuinely moved me.  I don’t want to go into all the details, but there’s a moment when Batman hugs Robin—”

“Now wait a minute.  That’s why they brought the Code down on us in the first place.”

“No, it’s not that.  It’s a paternal hug.  And it provides a huge catharsis.  The early issues move very fast, and neither Batman nor Robin is very likable.  But in this one moment . . . I don’t know.  It just felt like suddenly everything paid off.  All the violence, all the irrational behavior . . . It was all a cover for this incredible sense of pain both those characters were in.  I’ve been reading comics for most of my life, but that moment is still one of the only times I’ve ever been genuinely, emotionally moved.”

Father Jack blew a long puff of smoke.  “Yeah kid, that just sounds beautiful.”

“You’re patronizing me, aren’t you?”

“Is this your only bad Batman book, or have there been others?”

I hung my head and sighed.  “Well, there was this one called The Widening Gyre.”

“’Zat one by Miller too?”

“No, Kevin Smith.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s a filmmaker—a great screenwriter.”

“But no good at comics?”

“Oh, he’s done some good ones.  A little wordy sometimes, but good.”

“So what’s wrong with this book—Riding the Wire?

The Widening Gyre.  It’s a Yeats reference.”

Father Jack started fiddling with his watch.

“Never mind the title.  But this particular story really made a lot of people on the Internet angry.  I mean, some of the stuff people wrote about it—”

“Like what?”

“Well there were complaints about the art, for one thing.”

“There always are.”

“Well yeah, but there was even more anger at the writing.  The biggest complaint was probably when Batman starts talking about one of the most famous scenes from a classic story, and he reveals that during that moment he had . . . well, he calls it a ‘bladder spasm.’  In the costume!

At this point I heard a snorting sound coming from the back of Father Jack’s throat.

“Are you laughing?”

“Course not.  Course not.  Nothing funny about that.  Just . . . got some phlegm caught in my throat.  Stupid allergies.”

“Maybe we should talk about another book.”

“Fire away, but make it quick.”

“Okay, just one more.  It’s called Batman: Odyssey.  It’s by Neal Adams.”

“Adams? Now him I definitely know.  I always thought he was a fine Batman artist.”

“Oh sure. He’s actually my favorite.”

“Used to work with that hippie writer.”

“Denny O’Neil, yes.  He’s great.”

“Didn’t know Neal was a writer too.”

“Um, yeah.  Well, he . . . wrote this book.”

“Why you acting so skittish, kid?  What’s wrong with this Odyssey book?”

“It’s . . . it’s just . . . stupid.  Horribly, laughably, incomprehensibly stupid.  He introduces characters with no context, he withholds information for no apparent reason—”

“But you read it?”

Devoured it.”

“Well it can’t be all bad if you enjoyed it.”

“You don’t understand, Father Jack.  It was indescribably bad.  It had . . . well, I don’t want to spoil it.”

“Kid, I ain’t read a funny book in more than a decade.”

“Okay,” I said, and I leaned in and whispered, “it had dinosaur people.”


“No, people!  Evolved from dinosaurs!  Half human, half dinosaur!  One of them was a Robin.”

“Well, they say dinosaurs may have evolved from birds, so maybe this little robin—”

“No, it was a . . . a Robin, Robin!”

Father Jack drew his chin toward his chest and chuckled.  “Kid I was just messing with you.  You need to lighten up.  Seems to me there was something about these ‘bad Batman’ books that appealed to you.  You just gotta figure it out.  Do you read a lot of Batman stories?”

“Not much anymore.  I used to.  A few of them are still interesting to me.  Grant Morrison wrote a long, bizarre series of stories that I liked pretty well.  And there’s a run by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo that I like.  But for years now, most Batman stories have left me bored.  Don’t get me wrong.  They’re mostly all well done, polished and professional and all that, but most of them just stopped making me care a long time ago.”

Father Jack leaned back on the bench and cracked his knuckles.  “Kid, lemme tell ya a story.  Long time ago, probably before your time, there was a really famous artist who worked for one of the other companies.  Well, one day he got tired of making them rich and getting no respect, so he quit and joined up with the competition.  Started writing and drawing one of their Superman books.  Only thing was, he didn’t really draw Superman the way the company wanted him drawn.  Didn’t fit their ‘house style’.  So you know what they did?  They erased all his pencils of Superman’s face and had some other artist re-draw them so they’d look just like all their other books and toys.”

“That’s terrible.  I guess the guy must’ve been past his prime.”

Father Jack smiled sadly.  “Well I dunno.  Those stories he created for them launched a whole slew of new characters and plot lines that they’ve been using ever since.”  He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed his forehead before adding, “Some people think it’s the best work that artist ever did.”

“Well, that’s a sad story, but I don’t see what it has to do with—”

“Those regular Batman stories you haven’t enjoyed, those that you said were professional and polished . . .”


“Well the new Superman face they drew on all his books was professional and polished.”

“So you’re saying it’s better to have things a little weird?”

“I’m not saying anything.  Just telling you a story is all.  That’s what I do.”

But he had done a lot more than that and he knew it.  So did I.  “It’s true I guess.  It’s almost always more interesting when a creator does a few things ‘wrong.’  Especially with the really familiar characters like Batman.  When the creator gets things wrong—”

“What you and your friends call a bad story?”

“Right.  When they get things a little wrong, it keeps you from getting too comfortable.  It’s like when you were eight years old and you poured over some random comic, desperately trying to understand it all.”

Father Jack raised an eyebrow.  “Now, you’re not one of those fanboys who wants everything like it was when you were a kid are you?”

“No, that’s not what I mean.  The mistake a lot of us make is that we think we want the same stuff we read when we were kids.  You know, the return of a favorite villain or an old costume or something.  But that’s not what we want.  We don’t really want to read the same stories we read as kids; we want to feel the same way we felt when we were kids.”

“And that’s how these ‘bad’ books made you feel?”

“In a way.  When you’re a kid, lots of things in the stories don’t make sense.  It makes the story feel a little disorienting and strange.  The strangeness of it all is part of what makes it fun.  And with a corporate character like Batman, it’s hard to recapture that sense of strangeness unless the creators risk doing a few things wrong.”

Father Jack smiled.  “Sounds like you’re starting to figure it out, kid.  You oughtta write it all down and put it on that Internet contraption.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.  I’m pretty sure no one would ever want to read an article in praise of bad Batman.”

Tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Nick Ford says:

    I will join you in liking “All Star” though I only like it as a sort of “fascinating” bad sort of thing.

    Good article. I hadn’t heard of these other two and now am tempted to check them out. :P

  2. Greg –

    This is arguably my favorite of your contributions. Voice and tone are really well done, and you don’t sacrifice characterization with artificial criticism being injected into the discussion. Couching literary criticism within fiction? Hell of a creative idea. I hope to see more like this from you!

  3. “Right. When they get things a little wrong, it keeps you from getting too comfortable. It’s like when you were eight years old and you poured over some random comic, desperately trying to understand it all.”

    “When you’re a kid, lots of things in the stories don’t make sense. It makes the story feel a little disorienting and strange. The strangeness of it all is part of what makes it fun. And with a corporate character like Batman, it’s hard to recapture that sense of strangeness unless the creators risk doing a few things wrong.”

    These two parts, right here, really stuck out at me. I was that kid, looking through old comics from the 60s, 80s, and 90s and trying to figure out what was going on. In fact, I was just like that with a lot of old books: pouring sequels, literature, and magic books and trying to figure out how they all worked and could affect the world like the eldritch lore I thought they were.

    But I think another reason why you liked those stories so much, much in the way that I would, is that despite all the errors, and weirdness–or because of all of that–they are just plain well …


    When something gets too serious after a while, and I don’t mean occasionally shaking up general continuity by adding new factors or interpretations, but seriousness to the point of dogma it just isn’t fun interacting with it any more. And I think that all of these examples of strange, weird, Batman stories work for you because they are just that: strange, weird and flat-out fun.

    They can also be seen as nice examples of reconstructionism if you consider what Grant Morrison did in returning all the parts of pre-Crisis DC: at least in Animal Man. When you hearken back to that spirit, you can definitely find fun again if you are good and enthusiastic enough.

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Matthew. Glad those sections resonated with you. I can think of few things that are as intense as an 8-year-old pouring over comic book pages that reflect a slightly older and partly incomprehensible world.

      And I think you’re right about the “fun” aspect too. I certainly don’t mind “dark” or “grim” stories–I was raised on revisionism and that’s still my preferred style–but what I really like are stories that feel like they’ve somehow slipped through the corporate editorial control.

  4. This was great Greg! You should read my “interviews” with Superman and Darkseid. I tried to do something like you did here.

  5. I never comment but felt the need to say what a fantastic read this was! I’ve been experiencing a malaise with comics these days and have been going through the motions. This has inspired me to step outside my comfort zones and try some stories that other fans have warned me away from. What you experienced with All Star is exactly what I’m looking for and have been missing. Thanks for the article!

  6. I firmly believe that one can be just as inspired by bad art as good art, albeit in different ways. When a piece of art is made cheaply or poorly, yet manages to do something unexpectedly special, it seems all the more spectacular. The greatest sin a piece of art can commit is to elicit no reaction from the viewer. If a comic (or novel or film or song etc.) inspires a strong negative reaction, it still succeeds in engaging its audience better than one that is taken in and then forgotten. For better and for worse, no one who has read it can ever forget All Star Batman an Robin the Boy Wonder.

  7. I enjoyed this a lot; excellent format to get your point across!

    I love All Star Batman & Robin- I think all the characterizations make sense when taken in context with the rest of the Miller Bat-verse (if one takes it as a separate continuity). That hug scene hit me as well!

Leave a Reply