DC Comics is trying to pull back or destroy tens of thousands of copies of a new Batman comic book after a printing error put a barrage of especially obscene words on the pages.
The issue, "All-Star Batman & Robin" No. 10, was drawn by fan-favorite Jim Lee and written by none other than Frank Miller, the creator of "300" and "Sin City" who will be making his solo Hollywood directorial debut with a masked-man movie called "The Spirit" that opens on Christmas Day. Hero Complex reached Miller by phone as he was getting ready for a trip to Germany to promote the film, and he was shocked to hear about the four-letter crisis. "This is the first I've heard of it," Miller said. "I have no idea how this awful thing happened. It's just one of those terrible and glorious things that happen time to time in publishing."
Miller, of course, prides himself on being provocative -- he gleefully baited critics who called the film adaptation of "300" a fascist work, and his work on "Sin City" and "Hard Boiled" brought new levels of sexualized mayhem to comics -- so he let out a cynical chuckle over the fact that he has the first truly R-rated "Batman" comic book in the 69-year publishing history of the iconic DC character (traditionally, you don't see curse words in mainstream comics). That doesn't mean he wanted it to happen. "I didn't, of course. It's a mistake. And my first reaction is simple: I want at least three copies."
Get in line, Frank: The issue was already heating up on EBay on Thursday afternoon, with bids of $60 and higher for a comic book that hit stands this week with a cover price of $2.99. DC Comics has asked retailers to remove all copies of the comic from shelves, but, of course, that has only heightened interest with an audience that loves to hunt for rarities. DC, a New York-based division of Warner Bros. Entertainment, released a brief statement: "A printing gaffe has caused a problem with 'All-Star Batman.' As soon as the problem was discovered, we quickly asked retailers to pull the issue. We apologize to our retailers and fans for any offense or inconvenience."
What sort of "gaffe" leads to an F-bomb being dropped into a comic book?
Well, first off, it needs to be understood that "All-Star Batman & Robin" is not a comic book aimed at the youngest readers of the Caped Crusader.
The different Batman titles sold these days target readers of different ages, so the youngest consumers, who are also buying Batman Legos and lunch boxes, get a fairly tame version of Gotham City, while (presumably) older readers are buying books with a bleaker, more violent setting, one that dovetails with Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," the biggest film of the decade and a movie clearly not intended for the elementary-school crowd. "All-Star Batman & Robin" is aimed at those older fans.
"All-Star" follows Batman in his earliest days with Robin the Boy Wonder and details the young orphan's induction into the world of crime-fighting. It's more like a POW's ordeal than a training regimen; at one point, the "mentoring" Batman leaves the spooked youngster alone in the frigid bat cave with instructions to catch and eat rats. There's also plenty of curvy women and bone-breaking gutter brawls, which fits Miller's standard approach to comics.
To heighten the grit, Miller wanted the street thugs in the stories to use the ripe language they would in real life, but of course DC didn't want its venerable and extremely valuable property to be given a total "Pulp Fiction" treatment, so a compromise was reached: In every issue, the graphic language was blacked-out (think of the dark bars that cross out words in a redacted police report). The real surprise is that this was accomplished by putting the explicit words on the page and then actually crossing them out. Miller said it was the most practical way to do it.
"I wrote the actual words in the script and had them put on the page so the black bars would be the right size on the page," Miller explained. You can probably see where this is going. In this latest issue, the black-out bars are there, but on a few you can read through them; they're more gray than black. "It's a simple printing error. That's what it is."
An error that has the visible F-word even coming out of the mouth of (gasp!) Batgirl, who always seemed like such a polite young lady in the past (in her defense, she's giving it back to the street thugs).
All of this is a sour subject for DC. Comic-book circulation isn't what it used to be, and the toy aisles at Wal-Mart and Target are vital real estate; no one wants the mothers of America to blame Batman for teaching junior a new word when the Christmas shopping season is right around the corner. DC is also not thrilled with the publishing history of "All-Star Batman & Robin," which has been a problem child since even before it got a potty mouth. Miller's Hollywood pursuits have turned the once-monthly series into a bit of a joke (there was only one issue published in 2006), and reviews have been "love it" or "hate it" since Day One.
The real issue is the challenge for DC to keep the character truly elastic in pop culture, from Fisher-Price-friendly to rasping Christian Bale.
Miller asks the company to be kind as it looks to get back to the middle ground. "Tell them not to shred the copies," he said. "Please, a single plea, just don't shred them."
This item and others can be found at the Hero Complex blog at latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex.