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The Dark Knight Strikes Again 2002 (HC) 240 pages
Written and illustrated by Frank Miller.
Colours: Lynn Varley. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Bob Schreck.
Reprinting: The Dark Knight Strikes Again! #1-3
Suggested for Mature Readers
It's safe to say that The Dark Knight Striks Again (TDKSA) was one of -- if not the most anticipated comics projects of the last few years. Frank Miller was returning to the world of the Dark Knight Returns to present a sequel to that classic tale of a dark and gritty future and the aging Batman who emerges from retirement to combat it. Although The Dark Knight Returns was some sixteen years ago, this story is only set three years later. And while the original was a Batman story with a couple of appearances from other super heroes, TDKSA is better labelled as a JLA story. Batman is front and centre, but he reunites many of the old Justice League to help him.
I had written reviews of the first two chapters for the webzine PopCultureShock. Therefore, as an experiment, instead of writing a new, summary review, I've decided to just post the reviews in their entirety (as well as a new, closing review of the final issue). It may make for interesting reading, allowing for greater commentary...or it may just seem wa-ay too long. See what you think. But it chronicles my initial reaction to the series as it came out, and some of my shifting feelings towards it.
"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings."
I was reminded of that line from Shakespeare's Richard II while reading the first issue of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Frank Miller's much anticipated sequel to his classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (which had wowed the industry some fifteen years ago). The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR) was a "what if...?" story set in the future as an aging, slightly unstable, iconoclastic Batman emerges from retirement in a dark, gritty world of rampant street gangs and corruption. It wasn't really intended to foster a sequel, but here we are, picking up the story supposedly three years after that first mini-series.
Why that line from Richard II? Well, I regard TDKR as quite possibly the pinnacle of comic book storytelling, at least within the super hero genre. At the very least, it was one of the all time best. And I love much of Frank Miller's 1980s work, on Batman: Year One and Daredevil and even the uneven but intriguing Ronin. I once wrote in a review that though there were many great comicbook writers, Miller was perhaps the only great writer who happened to express himself in comics. I hadn't kept up with his later stuff, as he diverged into more commonplace genres that tended not to pique my interest as much (military fiction, film noire). But based on those earlier works, Miller was, in my mind, "de Man"...he was the King. And the king may well be dead.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or DK2 as it's listed on the cover) is bad. Just how bad, it's too early for me to say, having only just put this first issue down. I may need time to sort through my feelings. It certainly isn't good, let's put it that way.
Let's start with the art. I haven't really seen much of Miller's stuff in the last decade or so. I knew his work was getting increasingly stylized, increasingly raw and rudimentary. I just wasn't prepared for how raw, how crude. Figures are slapped onto the page with very little thought given to proportions, or proper line work, often amounting to a mess of thick ink lines that sometimes barely evoke a human figure. And the backgrounds are almost entirely non-existent. You frequently can't tell where a person is supposed to be, or how a scene progresses because there's nothing to orient yourself with. Ironically, one of the reasons I gave up on the childhood dream of becoming a comicbook artist (aside from a significant lack of talent) was because I never had the patience for drawing in all those doors, and lamps, and cars that you needed to put behind your heroes while they leap and run and do all the stuff that's fun to draw -- I guess that's no longer a criteria for comicbook art. Instead of backgrounds, we get colourist Lynn Varley spreading thick swirls of seeming fluorescent colours, giving the thing a vaguely psychedelic feel, as if to make up for Miller's missing pencil work. Between the crude figures, the non-existent backgrounds, and Varley's colours, which veer from the heavy psychedelia to bland, washed out colours, I found much of the book difficult to follow and it, literally, made me slighty queasy. I can take many things in art, but incoherence is not one of them.
Let's move on to the story.
Following from TDKR, Batman is still an iconoclast, while Superman is still a stooge of a corrupt system. It seems the current administration has been keeping certain old superheroes captive, or in forced labour, and Batman, with an army of disciples, including Catgirl (the Robin first introduced in TDKR) sets out to release them. Just as in TDKR, Batman's renewed activity arouses the ire of the authorities, who call in Superman to help curb Bats.
What's curious is the ways this mini-series seems to be slavishly imitating its predecessor...and yet also completely diverges from it. More on that in a moment.
Structurally, this first issue feels like a climax. We're thrown breathlessly into the story, with plenty of running about and fisticuffs, as if it's the culmination of something that's been building for a while. As such, instead of generating drama and tension, letting the story unfold carefully, and allowing us to viscerally feel the triumphs as Bats strikes back at the system, it seems rushed and soulless.
There's very little here that hasn't been done, and done better -- and done to death -- in a zillion other prestige projects. What's particularly disappointing is how pointless it all seems. What had separated TDKR from similar efforts like The Watchmen and Kingdom Come, was that TDKR seemed to be using superheroes as a way of commenting upon the real world and real world issues (what super hero comics should do) while comics in the last 15 years have largely been dominated by serious, impassioned, sagas that carefully and pompously analyze what it means to be a costumed super hero. At first, it seems as though Miller's sticking to his gutsier formula, setting the story in a future where human rights have been curbed in the name of social agendas (eerily echoing some of the concerns that have been raised by the post-September 11th legislation that has been pushed through by the Bush administration). But quickly it seems that Miller, too, has succumbed to the peculiar industry hubris of "dealing", not with real issues, but the fictional dilemmas of a fictional world. Whereas TDKR was an attempt (sometimes successful and sometimes not) to provocatively tackle serious issues, DK2 seems to have discarded all that for yet another story that's about super heroes, where the villains are not social and political factors, but super villains.
As such, Miller's rage -- and there is rage, a strident, sophomoric, childish rage -- doesn't really seem to be directed at anything...real.
Miller's handling of characterization -- once his greatest strength -- here is almost non-existent. There are characters, but most don't have personalities, and those that do have cardboard dimensions. And he writes all the characters in largely the same way, seeming uninterested in finding, or maintaining, a distinctive "voice" for each personality ("You and me, we're gonna have us a talk," Superman says -- believe it or not).
So, is there any good in this first issue? Well, Miller unabashedly ignores modern DC reality, and throws in Silver Age characters. The Flash is Barry Allen, and references are made to Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan still being alive, and reference is made to Superman's cousin, Kara. So for older fans, it has the potential for appeal. And whereas TDKR focused on Batman and Superman, with Green Arrow thrown in, here Miller trots out a lot of the old heroes, making this more like a JLA story than just a Batman story. And with better art, and maybe cut to half the number of pages, this could've been a mildly entertaining, if rather mindless, action-adventure.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again is mean-spirited, full of violence and BIG panels; it's ugly, it's loud, it's pointless. Worse, having failed to offer much in the way of plot or character threads to be explored, it doesn't even offer a hint that it might get better in the next two chapters. It might. I hope it does. I just doubt I'll stick around to find out.
When I was younger, I remember having a dream where I went into a comic shop and bought a sequel to TDKR -- and, of course, I woke up with a tinge of melancholy, knowing it was just a dream, that there was no such thing. Well, it's a dream no longer. It's more like a nightmare.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again #2
This is the second issue in Frank Miller's much anticipated sequel to his classic 1980s Batman saga, The Dark Knight Returns, about an aging Batman in a near future that has gone to Hell. In the new storyline, Batman has been gathering his old Justice League comrades in order to battle super villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac who secretly rule America. In my review of the first issue, I mused that I might not bother buying the rest of the series. So why the change of heart? I suppose because I retain such respect for Miller's 1980s work (on Daredevil, Batman, etc.) that I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
On the plus side: issue #2 is an improvement over #1.
On the downside: that isn't hard.
I went into the first issue remembering the Frank Miller of a decade and a half ago, a guy very much in his creative prime who was taking the industry by storm, and I giddily anticipated a sequel to the Dark Knight Returns that might be on the same level. Having been rudely disabused of such expectations by #1, I can settle back and read #2 for what it is.
It's still poorly drawn in a style that is no doubt meant to be taken as "minimalist", with crudely rendered figures against frequently non-existent backgrounds. Where two page spreads can be comprised of a couple of hastily scrawled key images...leaving colourist Lynn Varley to fill in the background as best she can with a garish assortment of hues.
The writing, likewise, goes for a kind of stripped down minimalism in which more is left unsaid than said. Just as the lack of backgrounds means the reader must try to figure out where the characters are, so there is a lack of detail to the story. In the opening sequence we are treated to a heated debate -- a debate between who or in what forum is unclear. Is it a televised debate, people in the street, a breaking of the "fourth wall" as characters speak to the reader or, as one reader of DKSA #1 suggested, a symbolic representation of an internet chatroom?
But I think I finally clued into what Miller is doing. It's a joke. Or, if you will, it's satire. Sure, there are bits that are meant to be serious, but whereas The Dark Knight Returns was a drama with satirical elements, DKSA seems more intended to be a joke out and out.
Miller just seems to be having a ball, playing with his childhood toys. And playing out arrested adolescent fantasies of nihilistic violence, machismo and sex. In the movie "Mallrats", there's a joke about a comicbook fan who seems unhealthily obsessed with the genitalia of super heroes. Here Miller treats us to what amounts to eight pages of (seemingly rough) sex between Superman and Wonder Woman that causes earthquakes and tidal waves and ends with the punchline "The earth moved". Some people might question whether such a trivial sequence warrants so many pages, or whether Miller should really be living out his macho fantasies of how He-Men make love to their women in such a public forum ("Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?" muses WW) But I think that's the point. Miller's just having fun. That's why the plotting -- such as it is -- is half-assed, veering from one half-articulated sequence and extended fight scene to another, and why logic and continuity isn't always given priority, such as Superman and Wonder Woman communicating telepathically. Since when did Superman or Wonder Woman have telepathic powers? you might ask. Miller's response, presumably, is "Who cares? Just go with it."
This perhaps explains plot lapses like why Batman had an army of operatives in issue #1, and in this issue...they're nowhere around.
Viewed in that light, we can better understand why the characters often don't act or sound anything like their established personalities. Batman speaks in colloquial slang, and J'onn J'onzz (in a cameo) talks uncharacteristically like a hardboiled gumshoe out of Miller's Sin City stories. Actually, most of the characters slide into patois that sounds like it's lifted from a parody of bad film noire (Atom saying "doll" in issue #1 -- when has the Atom ever called a woman "doll" in his life?).
It's either that -- that Miller sees it all as a lark -- or we have to assume that Miller is so cconvinced of his own genius that he no longer believes in editing himself; who is he, he might ask, to second guess the Great Man? As such there's a kind of automatic writing approach to both the story and art, as if Miller is just making it up as he goes along, not caring if it holds together with any coherence, or has any respect for the characters (in issue one, Flash gleefully helps beat up Superman...in issue 2, he insists he respects Superman).
There are supposed to be serious aspects to the story and there it remains weak. The Dark Knight Returns was powerful in its ability to filter the story through the characters, Miller remembering that "character is everything" (as he once insisted in an interview). But in DKSA, characterization is minimal. There's a scene between Superman and Wonder Woman (just prior to the sex) that hints of the old Miller, and there's an ideological debate between Batman and the Flash that could get interesting...but suffers because Miller has put so little effort into fleshing out either character. But that's about it for "character" moments. DKSA isn't about people or motivation, it's about action and more action, told, admittedly, at a breakneck pace.
In the Dark Knight Returns Miller seemed to be positing a challenging question, which was how do you fight evil, if the evil is not a convenient super villain, but societal and political corruption? Here, the answer seems to be, by discovering it really is a convenient super villain after all! I'm a big defender of the notion of "metaphor", and I realize that Lex Luthor can be read as a symbol for something else. But for all that there is a palpable rage permeating these pages, for all that Miller revels in his depicted violence as though exorcising particularly painful personal demons, the concrete issues remain kind of...vague.
In an interview Miller gave prior to this series' publication, he expressed regret for the violent, nihilistic, style of comicbook anti-heroism that he (and peers like Alan Moore) fathered in the 1980s. He seemed to promise DKSA would be a reaction to that. If that was his intention, he failed. DKSA is brutal and nasty and violent, a story where Batman thinks how much he loves his job even as he dismembers and seemingly disembowels his opponents. Or where he refuses to intervene as a giant robot rampages through the city, killing (one assumes) hundreds, because it is strategically inadvisable (that's what leads to the argument with Flash). Or where various second string heroes are brutally, and cavalierly, killed off by a mysterious villain. The violence is, at times, unrelenting, rendered palatable only once you assume, as I did, that Miller's tongue is in cheek.
The series still fails to present questions that demand answering. Sure, we know the next issue will bring the final showdown, and there's a half-asked question as to who the fellow is who's killing old heroes, but I can't exactly say I'm on the edge of my seat with curiosity. So far the series has racked up 160 pages, but most of that's because of all the big panels and splash pages. Content-wise, it seems like half that -- less even.
Ultimately, The Dark Knight Strikes Again remains a sorry
successor to The Dark Knight Returns, but I've made my peace with it. It's
still determinedly dumb, loud, simplistic and ugly...but I think that's
on purpose. It's fast paced and I enjoyed this installment at least more
than the last one.
I'll admit, I've just about exhausted things to say about this series (hence why my reviews of chapters one and two are just reprinting reviews I did for PopCultureShock). But this look at chapter three is brand new.
As I mentioned in my review of chapter 2, I've mellowed some to the series. Recognizing that Miller isn't offering anything particularly sophisticated, and that his tongue seems to be very much in cheek, I can just flip through it as a breezy read. But it's still frustrating how Miller seems to have very little regard for character logic, or continuity, happily giving characters personalities, powers -- and introducing ideas -- that seem to come from nowhere with no explanation.
Miller finally brings Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) into the story -- remember, this isn't based on modern DC mythos (wherein Hal is dead and his spirit the new Spectre). I say "finally", because Miller had made a passing reference to Hal having gone to the stars in The Dark Knight Returns. We knew he was out there, and since TDKSA has been more like a JLA story than a solo Batman story, it was logical Green Lantern would show up. But again, Miller's complete disregard for, well, logic, is at play, with Hal evincing God-like powers...with no explanation for how or why. That might not be such a sticking point (Kingdom Come also imagined that heroes and their powers might evolve), except, here, it's crucial to the story for a Deus ex machina climax. In other words, Batman's plan would fall apart if GL didn't have God-like powers...but Miller doesn't explain how he has those powers! Likewise, the way Lara defeats a villain is also rooted in a kind of ill-explained, wishy-washy ability.
Miller's whole approach to the story seems to be that the normal rules that apply to comics, or any narrative medium -- decent visuals, plot, characterization -- don't apply to him.
Then we get to a bizarre climax that involves, not Luthor, not Brainiac, but another villain entirely (who had briefly and enigmatically appeared in chapter 2). I mentioned in my earlier review that Miller seems to be exorcising some personal demons, but that I'm not entirely sure what they are. The climax is a case in point. I'm not sure what Miller has against this particular character, or why Miller seems to despise him (and assume that we, the reader, shares his contempt). Like everything else about this series, it just seems, well, half-assed. As if Miller is having such a ball, logic and narrative and coherence be damned.
What's saddest about all this is that in a way TDKSA seems to be Miller at his rawest, his most primal -- his essence. Stripped away is the smokescreen of eye catching art and innovative panel arrangements, gone is the window dressing of character-driven introspection and expertly juggled voices of diverse characters. This is Miller at his core. Loud, violent, fascist, incoherent, peurile. It ain't pretty.
To be fair, maybe I've just out grown Miller. I don't mean that pejoratively, as in, everyone should out grow him. I just mean that in my own, personal, life progression, Miller doesn't speak to me like he used to. While waiting the many months between issue 2 and 3, I re-read some of the classic The Dark Knight Returns. And it didn't impress me as much as it had.
To be sure, it's light years a head of TDKSA, and it still stands as a great work. But the underpinning rage and machismo, that swamps and capsizes TDKSA, is also prevalent in The Dark Knight Returns. And where once it struck me as exhilirating, now it seems a little...strident. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a mellow person. I still get enraged by social injustice, but Miller's rage just seemed a little too...theatrical. That doesn't mean I'm changing my glowing review of The Dark Knight Returns (found here). After all, I've read it so many times over the years, of course it would lose some of its bite when I can recite half the lines before I read them.
What's most curious about TDKSA is to wonder what Miller's true intent was. In at least one interview given prior to the series' publication, Miller had seemed to be decrying the dark n' gritty phase comics went through following a trail blazed by people like himself and Alan Moore. He seemed to be promising a return to a more glorious age, a celebration of heroism and fun. So was he lying in that interview, or does Miller think he delivered? Sure, the tongue-in-cheek aspects of TDKSA would indicate Miller saw the series as fun, as would his lack of attention to details of plot and characterization -- it's meant, at least to a degree, as a llark (and the exchanges between Green Arrow and The Question are funny). But this is a violent, brutal, nihilistic series. It is the counter argument to Kingdom Come (a series about old school heroes trying to control the violent, out of control next generation). In TDKSA, when the Flash blanches at an act of brutality perpetrated by one of Batman's younger allies, Batman encourages the act: "Way to go, kid!"
This isn't a book meant to denounce the dark n' gritty comics. If anything it seems meant to kick start that era up again, as if Miller is chafing at the slide back to more restrained comics. After all, it's curious that both Moore and Miller have gone on record as being critical of the dark n' gritty, anti-hero phase the industry went through in the 1990s...while both seeming unaware that mainstream super heroes have, more or less, emerged out of that period on their own. In fact, it is Miller, with TDKSA, and Moore, with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, who seem locked in a time warp, last years men still convinced violence and nihilism some how make them "sophisticated" writers.
In the end, TDKSA is a staggering disappointment. Sure, taken more for what it is -- a breezy slugfest, with brief, firefly flashes of the old Miller -- I'll probably like it better a second time. But it's pretty bad on most levels. And any desire I had to try Miller's Sin City has been utterly negated. Worse, seeing Miller naked and unadorned this way, I worry I may not even be able to go back and re-read some of his 1980s classics the way I did. And that would be the greatest tragedy of all.
And I never even commented on whether there's any kind of weird psycho-sexual sub-text to Batman's sidekick, Carrie. In The Dark Knight Returns she was dressed as Robin, normally a boy's role (and one that had already led some pundits to infer, without much basis, a homosexual subtext to early Batman stories). In this series, Carrie, still barely more than a minor, is now decked out in a Catwoman suit -- the costume of Batman's former love. Uh...?