The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Frank Miller, writer,
Lynn Varley, artist
(DC Comics, 2002)

Batman was in a bit of trouble back in the '80s, reduced to being a rather silly, directionless comic-book crimebuster. Frank Miller changed all that by returning the character to his roots with his four-part graphic novel series, The Dark Knight Returns, with artwork by Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson. It was heralded as a masterpiece, redefining one of DC's most vital characters by repackaging him in his original, grim and gritty guise. The series impacted on the comics industry like a hydrogen bomb.

In 2001, the time seemed right for a comeback. It was risky, however; it is difficult under the best of circumstances to maintain the original flavor of a book 15 years after its release. DC was probably counting on the book's enormous fan base to spark sales, just like Hollywood banks everything on a sequel living up to the original. It worked with The Godfather and Star Wars -- but The Dark Knight Strikes Again follows more in the footsteps of the Rocky and Jurassic Park sequels.

This Batman isn't the shogun of DKR, riding into battle one last time to find peace and save the world. DKR was a junkyard bulldog, foaming at the mouth with rage against American imperialism, singling out Superman's iconic status -- protector of truth, justice and the American way -- as being the most corruptible. In DKR, Superman had become a pawn of the state because he was already a too-willing servant for public good, a position that left him wide open for exploitation. The tone of the story was severe but forgiving. Superman redeemed himself in the end, as he always does, and Batman lived on to fight the good fight, as he always does. The rage was omnipresent but carefully controlled, and perfectly expressed in cut glass writing that made your eyes hurt to read it. It was pained yet hopeful, like a walk in a cold wind that steals your breath but wakes you up. Miller's unorthodox use of characters earned him cult status in an eyeblink, and he deserved it. He took characters and readers alike right to the edge, taking them no further nor allowing them to retreat a single step.

It was a perfect chronicle for cynical '80s, when life was all about doing whatever it took to win the game. Miller's targets -- American imperialism, TV's talking heads and unfettered consumption -- were rotten ripe and ready for the picking. DKR was a big middle finger to everything that Miller and most of the disaffected young adults felt was destroying their society, turning us into suburbanite mentalities with no real expectations. Batman, stripped down to his barest essence, was the last man on Earth with a heart who wouldn't give up because he simply could not. It was the graphic literary version of The Anarchy Cookbook, and it became, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Neil Gaiman's Sandman, a breakout literary event of the '80s, cutting across genres to become de rigueur literature for college students across America. DKR rightfully took its place in history as the pop culture iconic touchstone of the '80s.

But times dictate changes in attitude, and Miller plunked down a three-part sequel set three years after -- and a million miles away from -- the original.

Miller is still cynical, full of the old rage lit by new fires. But public sentiment has changed. The moment Miller had predicted in both books (DK2 was completed before Sept. 11 but released afterward) did arrive, but the response was one of surging belief in country and government. In the face of corporate scandals that were exposed by Miller long before they hit today's front pages, the mood is one of calm but definitive accountability, not flag-burning anarchy. The American public, instead of sliding into moral chaos, demanded laws protecting retirement assets. They went on buying homes and going to work, and violent crime decreased.

Mild Spoiler Alert....

In other words, the predictions came true, but it was the people and their attitude toward government that Miller misjudged, and it rubs raw from the first book onward. The Big Head of Luthor, de facto ruler of Planet Earth, seems out of place in today's world. Meanwhile Gotham, a vast sprawl of urban decay, is still a blight on the United States, as if Batman's earlier promise to reform was nothing more than words.

The possibilities inherent in Superman without Lois have been the subject of too many Elseworlds for the possibilities to be intriguing anymore. In any event, the violent love scene between two lead characters was not enough to save book sales, which slacked off as much as 40 percent between the first and second issues. But there are several reasons why many readers left after the first installment

The lead characters are caricatures, full of indefinable rage, the source of which is a mystery, and indicative of the basic failure of the series overall to create any sustaining relationship between cause and effect. In a complete cut and paste from the original, Superman is corrupted by a higher authority because of his good nature -- nothing new there. Old fights and Batman's screaming pontifications are rehashed, and interesting back stories are dangled in front of the reader only to be dropped carelessly. Batman is hardly present in the book, and he treats Superman in a manner that is just plain psychotic. Miller doesn't go to the edge, he crosses the line. The Batman's a killer? A former Robin is the new Joker? Why? Miller won't tell us. These superheroes pale in comparison to the emotionally torn but still hopeful heroes of DKR.

The plot is incomprehensible. I read the ending three times and still find it a mystery. Varley's art is colorful, but that's all that can be said about it. The first two books look like they were drawn with mascara brushes. The third, delayed without explanation for more than six months, bears a closer resemblance to the original series, but the writing has none of its neat, tough quality; it's as subtle as a stomach pump. The junkyard bulldog has become a bad-tempered cur intent on destroying its once favorite chewing toy, and by the end of the first book you begin wondering if Miller ever had a genuine beef with the world or if he just hates Superman.

Hope survived Sept. 11. That is the first clanging misstep in the book, and it reverberates throughout the series. Perhaps Miller, in his attempt to reach a more literate plain in the field of noir comics, forgot something essential about the human spirit: life goes on. Miller's predictions of environmental disaster and corporate corruption came true but not in a world on the verge of collapse; rather they are playing themselves out, with some peaceful resolution, in an unbelievably hopeful landscape.

Miller has diehard fans who refuse to believe he could write a bad sequel. They won't be disappointed, for there are indeed elements of his earlier fire here. Meanwhile, other Batman fans quickly started Internet polls to see who would even bother reading #3.

Comics book sales are enjoying a resurgence more than ever, perhaps in no small part because of Sept 11. We might be tipping the scales in our own favor, not through the vengeance of a lone wolf stalking through the Gotham night or because we denounce our heroes, but because we have tried to be more like them. That's what makes this first series Miller genuine and the second Miller lite: the difference is in spirit, and quite frankly, Miller's is lagging.

[ by Mary Harvey ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002

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