I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the limits of creator’s imaginations, particularly when it comes to writing outside of your demographic.
In Frank Miller’s imagination, everyone loves the goddamn Batman.
Lately, I’ve found the best examples of both success and failure in writing outside one’s demographic in the world of comics. Successes include books like Trees by Warren Ellis, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue Deconnick. Failures include Strange Fruit, written by Mark Waid and drawn by J.G. Ballard. As J.A. Micheline points out on Women Write About Comics, the book fails because it falls back on tired, racist tropes. Micheline notes that when white characters say something racist, there is always someone there to contradict them or chide them for their racism, making it a magical fairy tale for white people. There is also a mute superman character, who is an alien, but looks like a black man, strong, silent, and animalistic. As Micheline says, there are real-world consequences to actual black humans when this type of trope persists: “This depiction of the superhuman black has led to dire consequences for a number of black youth in America, to name a few: Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. White police feel so threatened by black men, fear their purported strength, aggression, and animalistic tendencies, that they believe themselves justified when gunning them down in cold blood.” Micheline’s suggestion that perhaps a story like this should involve one or more black creators seems awfully apt. You can read her plea to white comics creators to create responsibly at Comics Alliance.
The comic I want to talk about today, though, doesn’t even touch on race. It’s entirely about white people. Which is a relief, because it still manages to be once of the worst comics I have read, and I don’t even want to contemplate what Frank Miller would have done if he’d tried to include people of color in this…well, as my podcast-mates put it during our review, this dumpster-fire of a comic.
What am I talking about?
Why, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, of course.
Pictured: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder
This nine-ish issue series came out between 2005 and 2008. It’s written by Frank Miller, who was in the process of going from a creator of respected, if pulpy comics to a person who writes white supremacist America propaganda and other fringe, ridiculous projects. The tragedy of the series is that it’s drawn by Jim Lee, and the iconic comic artist does a fantastic job at bringing Miller’s bullshit script to life.
All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder is set in an alternate storyline to any of the main, canonical DC universes. Batman is young, and just now “adopting” (read: abducting and brainwashing) young Dick Grayson (Robin) after his parents are murdered. There are plenty of scenes with lots of first person internal monologue from a wide variety of characters.
But what this book is really about is Frank Miller imagining himself as the goddamn Batman.
The panel that launched a thousand memes.
In the imagination of Frank Miller, the goddamn Batman is an unrepentant asshole who revels in the most toxic masculinity possible: he hates grief and loves beating the crap out of people. He gets all the ladies because they also love watching him beat the crap out of people. He makes Dick Grayson camp out in the Batcave and eat rats because it’s going to help him become “strong”. He tells people to shut up a lot. Heroic!
But the goddamn Batman is not the only character that Miller boldly ventures to explore: we get internal monologue from Dick Grayson, Vicky Vale, Wonder Woman, Jimmy Olsen, Superman, Batgirl, Black Canary, and more. All of it makes one thing painfully clear: Frank Miller cannot conceive of what might be going on the inside of an adult woman’s mind.
Vicky Vale does not get any deeper than this. She is not portrayed as a woman, but as Miller’s anima.
If you wanted insight into Miller’s train of thought when writing the Vicky Vale scenes, fear not:
This is not about Vicky Vale. This is about the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass. The male gaze, ladies and gentlemen!
But wait! Not all women are pointless sexpots. Some are straw feminists:
Goddess help him, I think Frank Miller thinks that feminists are constantly angry and only think about men and how awful men are.
This is Frank Miller trying his best to write a character who’s really different than he is. Unfortunately, he has only managed to write a weird shadow-self, a woman who rants about men and how incompetent men are and men and awful awful men, but then later makes out with Superman and shuts up for a while.
The goddamn Batman, then, becomes Frank Miller’s power fantasy. Women like Vicky Vale and Black Canary become his admirers; Wonder Woman becomes a foil that only serves to reinforce the role of dominant masculinity in the story. The goddamn Batman uses words like “retarded” and “shut up” to try and assert dominance over the other characters. It’s little wonder that one of the few characters who rang true to me was Jimmy Olsen, the horny teenager:
So what’s my point? Why am I showcasing the wretched failings of Frank Miller’s imagination?
Because it’s easy to see. And if we start out by looking and the goddamn Batman as an example of the limits of one person’s imagination when trying to write a variety of characters, then we can slowly expand our critical lens. It’s easy to see when Frank Miller writes women like sexy lamps, but it’s much harder to think about your own writing, and where you have blind spots. Did you just write a woman who has no thoughts or desires outside of the male main character? Are you basing your characters on media stereotypes of their demographics? Did you write a silent black superman wrapped in a Confederate flag?
We live in our own heads, and it’s hard to get outside of them sometimes. Showing your work to a wide variety of people and listening humbly and honestly to criticism is one way to expand your brain-horizons. Working with creators other than yourself, including those outside of your demographic, is another. You can also consider if you’re writing for an audience of people just like you (the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass; the white folks who want to be soothed about racism), or if you’re writing for a diverse audience.