Comic Book Feature Review

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Frank Miller's vision of Batman returnsbut is it worth the hype?

By Tony Whitt     December 10, 2001

Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS heralded a new age in superhero storytelling.
© 1986 DC Comics
By the time you read this, you'll probably have read several other laudatory articles on the influence of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and how it changed the way we looked at comics in general and Batman in particular. You may also have read that THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN (which DC insists on calling DK2, bringing to mind the name of some hip-hop hamburger joint) has all the makings of a similar paradigm-shattering comics event. I'll probably be called a heathen for saying this, but don't believe everything you read.

Direct market cover to THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN #1

You can of course believe what you've heard about the effect Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS had when it first came out in 1986. The '80s were the decade that invented the word "reimagining," especially as far as DC was concernedthis was, after all, the same decade that began with THE NEW TEEN TITANS, and both WATCHMEN and CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS were released within a year of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (or, as we'll grudgingly call it, DK1). It was a decade made for looking at old heroes and comic book concepts in startling new ways, and Batman needed this re-envisioning more than almost anyone. Although the character still consistently placed in the top ten list of most popular heroes, Batbook sales were way down, and Batman himself had become downright boring.

Frank Miller had a simple formula for revitalizing the Bat: look forward in time, but look backward for inspiration. The Batman of DK1 would be much closer to the original character set out way back in DETECTIVE COMICS #27: a dark crusader, with no special powers, who would fight crime with his fistsand by scaring the pants off criminals. Then Miller set DK1 in the futurealbeit a future very much grounded in contemporary '80s cultureat a time when superheroes have been declared vigilantes by the government, except in cases where those heroes work for the government in a secret capacity. It's a violent, terrifying time in which crime runs rampant and the threat of nuclear war hangs over the world like a shroud. All in all, it's the perfect time for an older, somewhat colder Bruce Wayne to resume his caped crusade against crimeeven if a slightly more superpowered friend thinks otherwise.

Batman, the aged avenger, in the 1986 classic The Dark Knight Returns

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS has aged extremely well, despite the many dated references to the Russians, Ronald Reagan, and other words that begin with "r" from the '80s. In fact, it speaks better to our times than to its own, and reading DK1 shows us how little our world has really changed. There's still the sharp tang of war in the air; there's still the nationwide obsession with the media, an obsession that has only increased in the last fifteen years; and there's still the sinking feeling that the police can't completely protect us from what's out there. DK1 taps into all these feelings and more. It also calls into question the idea of heroism, especially critiquing the contrast between the kind of clandestine, government-sanctioned, "safe" heroism that Superman engages in for a doddering old President more interested in his image than in his leadership, and the vigilante justicefar more effective yet potentially more disruptive to the social orderthat Batman practices. DK1 makes no bones about which side is right, eitherthough Clark may win the battle, Bruce ends up with everything he needs to win the war, including an army of the Knight. It's a haunting ending, and it's no wonder that people have been clamoring for a sequel all these years.

DK2 picks up three years after the first novel leaves offsort of. A lot has changed in those three years: the Russians and the threat of nuclear war are gone; our obsession with sex has gotten so bad that our newscasters report in the nude to keep our attention; our President is a computer-generated image; and a police state has sprung up where freedom and justice once reigned. Bruce Wayne decides it's time to come back from the dead, but first he's got to release a few friends from prison and take care of a certain superpowered Boy Scout...

The mainstream cover for THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN #1

The first thing you'll notice when comparing the new book to its predecessor is a certain lack of control. Klaus Janson's influence on Frank Miller's artwork isn't all that noticeable until it's missing, as it is in DK2. Miller's solo artwork is frenetic, spastic, and sometimes downright hard on the eye. Some images are hard to get your head aroundthere are whole pages after which you'll be asking "What the hell just happened?"and some, such as Miller's interpretation of Wonder Woman, that you won't want to get your head around. The second thing you'll notice is that this book hits the ground running. This is probably one of the most action-packed books produced this year, and you'll be amazed at just how quickly the experience goes by.

But if the first issue is anything to go by, THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN won't be changing the face of comics the way its predecessor did. For one thing, all the philosophical nuances of the first book are missing herewith any luck, they'll come back again in the second and third issues, if the rest of the series doesn't commit itself to the action quite as completely as this issue does. For another, the theme of the series has subtly changed, and not necessarily for the better. In THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the real threat is us: it's our own jealousy and fear of those more powerful than us that brings the heroes down and causes even Superman to have to work in secret. In THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, we soon discover that the threat which has taken our heroes out of action is the same as in any other comic series and that we have no control over it. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS raised a fascinating question: how much of our problems can we attribute to our own actions? THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN takes that question off the table completely, and it's a lesser book for it.

There's still a lot of good in this sequel, of course. The Atom and the Flash have never looked this good, for instance, and it's especially heartening that Miller has ignored the continuity police and put Barry Allen back in the speedster suit. And Bruce's sidekick Carrienow dressed in a ridiculous outfit and calling herself Catgirlcontinues to be a fascinating character, one whom we hope Miller will show us more of as the series goes on. But will DK2 once again change the way we look at Batman, as the first series did? Probably notnot unless it makes us look at him as a messiah, and I doubt even Bruce would want that. And here's the bigger question: does it tell a story on the same level as the first series? No, not yet. So far, this is not a great book, but it is a good book. As one of Miller's own characters puts it, "You media folks have blown this all out of proportion."


Grade: B

Issue: No. 1 (of 3)

Author(s): Frank Miller, Lynn Varley

Publisher: DC

Price: $7.95



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