All-Star Batman Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy was its unexpected level of violence. Clearly All-Star marks a Scott Snyder unrestrained, between the amount of pseudo-cursing, his merciless Batman reminiscent even of Frank Miller's All-Star Batman, and getting his Batman back in the cornfields a la Snyder's Batman: Zero Year. But the sheer volume of stabbings, torture, and other misdeeds surprised me, until I recalled that this all started once upon a time with Snyder's Batman: Black Mirror, which came with its own share of blood and dismemberment.
What this most recent All-Star is, in a certain respect, is a return to Scott Snyder, horror writer, which was not wholly absent in Snyder's mainstream Batman title but was surely toned down a little. And Snyder's All-Star is far from toned down; this is not a Batman cruel by any means, but mouthier than we're used to and with little patience for his enemies. And despite all of this, My Own Worst Enemy's themes are hopeful ones; those who follow Snyder to All-Star after his pantheon of "Gotham Is" Batman stories will certainly find those themes continued.
[Review contains spoilers]
It's been a while since we've had a meaty Two-Face story; Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn notwithstanding, we barely saw Two-Face in the New 52, versus his significant roles prior to that in No Man's Land, Gotham Central, Face the Face, and so on. Snyder eschews the character's trademark obsession with specific instances of duality for something more insidious, casting Two-Face as an information broker who facilitates people enacting their darker impulses. I found this lesser, at least in part because Snyder doesn't demonstrate what that means in practical terms -- what's an example of another of Batman's battles with this particular Two-Face -- though he does offer some explanation for "fun" Two-Face versus this one in terms of how Harvey Dent's influence waxes and wanes on his other half.
Indeed I'd venture Two-Face does not work in this story -- his neurochemical warring sides gets very complicated versus simply a scarred former DA who now enacts his own brand of twisted justice -- except in the way in which he relates to Snyder's larger Batman themes. Especially toward the end of Snyder's Batman run, he portrayed Batman as a symbol of the everyman, that the myth of Batman represents the human desire to right wrongs and not to give up. Here, Two-Face chides Batman for believing the people of Gotham are "rainbows and unicorn dust and twinkling souls" (rather a new accusation toward Batman). Batman's belief is tested when Two-Face puts a bounty on Batman's head and regular people come to collect, though humanity wins out in the end.
There's a tone to All-Star that's different than what we think of in a traditional Batman story. Early on Batman tells Killer Moth to "shut up and die"; he does not mean the threat, but the verbiage is unusual. Later Batman teases Killer Croc that his hometown wants "their fool back"; he jokes that he's infiltrated a villain's lair because it's "a good place to take a" piss. Obviously that's not the saltiest language ever, but it's on the strong side for Batman, and one wonders if precedent set by Frank Miller under the All-Star Batman umbrella gives Snyder license to swing his Batman out a little farther. At the same time, fortunately Snyder's Batman doesn't heap the same kind of abuse on his allies as Miller's Batman does, and his new partnership with Duke Thomas -- bantering about heavy metal music and such -- is one of the best facets of the book.
Snyder brings Batman villain KGBeast, now just "the Beast," into the present, and that's about the time the blood starts flying. Snyder's creativity is impressive as always, delineating beat by beat the Beast's muscular enhancements as he butchers Two-Face's henchmen; then Batman punctures the Beast's arm with sharpened "Bat-knuckles"; then later the Beast pins up Batman with a knife through his tendons. That's after Two-Face has poured acid in Batman's eyes, we learn Two-Face has kept his father prisoner so long his nails have grown through his skin, and then in the "Cursed Wheel" backup stories, Zsasz tortures his victims with a ghoulish procedure known as "stilling."
I would call it all shocking, but not egregious; if anything, Snyder's gore is a curious and probably intentionally ironic counterpoint to All-Star's mostly pastoral setting. What mostly bears watching is whether Snyder keeps up both the language and violence into the next volume -- whether all of this was just for the Two-Face story or if this is the hallmark of Snyder's All-Star. That's not a bad thing necessarily; the three Batman books have a good sense of individual identity right now, with Batman being the psychological "loner" series, Detective the team book, and seemingly All-Star the rare "mature readers" Batman book.
John Romita draws a hefty Batman who exudes power, and Romita's thick figures and basic shapes mesh well with the often-widescreen violence. The action comes through better in some respects as reduced to its simplest form (kind of like Francesco Francavilla drawing the most horrific parts of Black Mirror). The later art is stronger than the beginning; in the beginning, there's some awkward transitions (especially Batman remembering a conversation with Two-Face with Two-Face superimposed on Batman's cape), and also that Jim Gordon seemingly erroneously sports a beard that dialogue has to explain away. An image of the Joker is almost unrecognizable, but Romita's Beast is one for the ages, as is his Penguin a la Tim Burton.
At one point in All-Star Batman Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy, an acid-blinded Batman stumbles outside where a throng of bounty-hunting everyday people wait to rip him apart; Batman asks Duke, but directed at the reader, "What am I seeing?!" This kind of meta-reflection on a panel is distinctly Grant Morrison-ian, a further indication of Scott Snyder letting loose (that issue starts with Harvey Dent's father "hearing" the reader, too), not to mention the stylized NCIS-esque black and white panels that Scott Snyder starts and ends each issue with. Snyder has been a singular voice on Batman, essentially defining what a singular voice on Batman means for the modern era, and seeing him throw caution to the wind like this is a joy. It's a strong book, if not with the strongest antagonist, but I'm eager to see where All-Star goes from here.
[Includes original and copious variant covers]