Thee Comic Column #27: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

image courtesy of villains.wikia.com

Ah, Frank Miller. One of the greatest fall from graces in comics. Maybe not everyone realizes it, and I don’t want to stew about it too much here (I did a full-out rant a couple of years ago here) but if you had the misfortune to either hear anything Miller had to say about the Occupy movement or read even the first issue of his dreadful, dreadful All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder then you know the man is not where he was back during his creative hey-day. And you know, the guy did enough amazing work during that hey-day to earn some room to coast. But if we try to discern where exactly in Mr. Miller’s career the dividing line between hey-day and present day occurs things get a bit tricky. I’ve not read everything Frank Miller has done – most of it, but not all of it, especially when we get into the late ninties/early oughts where I pretty much checked out. If you follow the link above to the article on Chud a couple of years ago you’ll see that one of my readers left a comment saying though he more or less agreed with my assessment he felt that at least Miller’s writing on the Martha Washington series stayed consistent. That’s good to know – I do not want to dislike Miller or his work. However, good or bad information such as this also blurs the good Miller/bad Miller line even more. The most current thing I consciously remember reading and liking would have been Sin City: To Hell and Back. However, from what I’ve been able to piece together, in terms of the overall arc of his career the downfall is in the final installment of 2002’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

Recently in preparation for a viewing of the animated adaptations of Mr. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (referred to here out as DKR) I re-read the source material and afterward decided to go right into the sequel, the aforementioned Dark Knight Strikes Again, which I’d not picked up since it was published in 01/02. I dug it at the time it came out, but in the interim my opinion on Miller obviously changed. The impetus for this change was the aforementioned All Star series he did for DC beginning in 2005. Literally the first issue of that particular series was bad enough to derail me on Miller, causing me to even give away some of my Sin City’s and pretty much stop paying attention to the man for years. I don’t honestly remember now if there was something else at the time that put me off Miller’s writing but that All Star is bad enough to do it by itself. How? What exactly was it about All Star?

I’m happy you asked.

I can actually pinpoint the exact moment in the first issue (the only one I read) that killed it for me: Dick Greyson has just witnessed his parents die violently and Batman has whisked him away to safety in – if I remember correctly – pursuit of the criminals responsible. Dick is understandably traumatized and Batman turns to him and says, well you know what? Let me just show you:

image courtesy of toplessrobot.com

What do you say to that? Especially when upon publication of The Dark Knight Strikes Again Frank Miller declared that the All Star takes place within the continuity of his Dark Knight books. That was the whole selling point of the All Star book, the idea that we were seeing the earlier history leading up to DKR. Exciting yes, until you actually read All Star and see stuff like this page. Writing like this is an example of taking a style or theme too far. In Miller’s portrayal of Batman this manifests as his hard-boiled, super-serious, super-gritty Dark Detective becoming SO gritty he not only leaves the actual parameters of the character behind, but really just becomes a joke. I mean, how many people did this alienate at the time? And how many of those people thought, “No way, that Dark Knight stuff is untouchable!”

But is it?

Yes, before I continue, I consider The original, DKR 100% amazing. But Strikes Again? Well, the funny thing is after re-reading it last week I can definitely say that it’s mostly good, but the Batman who would call a child victim “retarded” is definitely the star of Strikes Again. He starts out very much the logical evolution of the Batman from DKR, but by the third and final book of Strikes Again he’s a bit of an ass. I believe this is where Miller loses the core of the Batman character and inserts into the iconic cape and cowl a creature of his own devising – a creature that really doesn’t jive with what Batman is at his essence. The entire scenario that ends Strikes Again, the showdown if you will between the maniacal Dick Greyson (gee, maybe he turned out that way because he was called a retard when his parents were murdered in front of him, hmmm?) and the tough-as-nails Batman is heavy-handed and ridiculous; a somewhat tainting capstone on an otherwise pretty good story. The series definitely starts out fantastic, the opening sequence where Ray Palmer aka The Atom is stuck in a monster-ridden foreign world that turns out to be a petri dish filled with weaponized bacteria is one of my favorite scenes anywhere ever. And it is a great introduction to the story that runs through the book, a story that sees Bruce Wayne and Carrie Kelly – now thankfully Catgirl instead of Robin – in a fairly logical place considering where they’ve come from. This ‘place’  is not so much a place as it is a fitting climate for the world introduced in DKR because it makes sense that this world has become that much more corrupt since the last time we’ve seen it, with all the heroes having been imprisoned or silenced, policed by Supe’s for the evil monsters Lex Luthor and Brainiac who pull his strings. Indeed part of good writing is inventing a certain ‘inevitability’ in a stories events and that’s definitely the case here – one looks at the totalitarian insanity of this world Miller has created and almost has to ask how couldn’t this have happened? After what we’ve already been given as a primer in regard to Clark’s relationship with the US president/military in DKR everything in the layout of Strikes Again seems completely inevitable. However, while all of this plays out in increasingly dramatic action and revelation, utilizing far more characters than were in the original series – Stikes Again is more a DCU Elseworlds tale than it is a Batman Elseworlds tale –  the Batman character is the character who so severely suffers; he becomes lost and mired down in Miller’s ham-fisted testosterone, replacing the iconic brains and skill of the character with the equivalent of a snarky lug head, a kind of hyper-intelligent version of Sin City’s Marv. Which really is a shame, because Marv is awesome, but he’s not Batman. No where can a better example of this be seen then in the Dark Knight’s aforementioned show down with a now-psychotic and physically malleable Dick Greyson – a show down that feels thrown in as an attempt to create some harmonic resonance with the regular Batman continuity of the day and pretty much fails completely. What’s more I really feel that the promise of the set-up that Bruce and Dick hadn’t spoken in ten years that we get in DKR is squandered with this confrontation, as if Miller forgot to make good on it until the last moment and then didn’t know what exactly their falling out had been, only to go with the first idea that popped into his head.

So does The Dark Knight Strikes Again fall in the Hey-day or Ho-hum era of Frank Miller’s career? I’d have to say with ne foot firmly planted in either side it must indeed be the dividing line itself.

But hey, what do I know, I agreed with most of the aesthetics behind the Occupy movement, so I suppose Miller’s hard-boiled Dark Knight would rather punch me in the face and call me a retarded communist than take any constructive criticism I might have to offer. Oh well…

…………………

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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