September 2002

Karin L. Kross


The Dark Knight Misses

Back in the 1980s, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns cracked the superhero genre wide open, for better or for worse, with its powerful film noir sensibility and grim, cynical edge. Now Frank Miller and colorist Lynn Varley have returned to the scene of the crime with The Dark Knight Strikes Back.

If you've been paying attention to the buzz, you may have detected a certain amount of, shall we say, disappointment in the comics community, and not just due to the constant delays between issues. (Which, depending on who and what you believe, were due to either Miller's slowness in finishing the story or unhappiness on the part of DC's upper brass.) The series now complete, I feel the urge to chime in on the matter myself.

The Dark Knight Strikes Back begins three years after the events in The Dark Knight Returns. Things have gone straight to hell in a handbasket after Bruce Wayne's supposed death: though society seems as peaceful and hedonistic as ever, super-villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac have taken control of the government from behind the scenes, with a computer-generated puppet president in charge. (If you thought the riffs on Ronald Reagan in The Dark Knight Returns were a bit obvious, you ain't seen nothing yet.) Superman, last seen as a US government lackey, is still working for the government -- even though it's his arch-enemies who are running the show. Their hold on Superman: the last remnants of the people of Krypton.

Naturally the Batman takes a dim view of the situation. He's spent the last three years training up Carrie Keene Kelley and the former Sons of Batman gang members into a formidable fighting team. Carrie, Robin no longer, wears a leopard-print cat suit and calls herself Catgirl. She, Batman, and their team start off with a bang, springing superheroes from captivity and gearing up for a final showdown with Luthor and Brainiac.

It's hard to not enjoy the story opener: Carrie's solo raid on a government biology lab to free the Atom from his petri-dish prison. The momentum keeps rolling along, through the release of the Flash from the power-plant in which he's been keeping the Eastern Seaboard lighted, and even up to Batman vs. Superman Round Two (Smackdown!). But right about then, the reader starts feeling a little ... off. What's going on here?

It's in Issue 2 that things really start to go haywire. Pages and pages devoted to an airborne liaison between Superman and Wonder Woman. The appearance of the "Super-Chicks", a trio of busty girls in tights on the forefront of a superhero fad that seems to be taking over pop culture, in the wake of the high-profile raids conducted by Carrie and her crew. And Brainiac laying waste to Manhattan -- I mean, Metropolis, and commanding Superman to stand down and take it.

September 2001, anybody? It's almost impossible to look at the two-page splash in Issue 3, depicting Metropolis with a gigantic smoking hole in the skyline, without thinking of last year's news broadcasts, and it's nearly as difficult to not feel a touch of unease over Batman's repeated comment: "Striking terror. Best part of the job."

The story alternately leaps and shambles towards its conclusion, and the reader is left with ... what? A sort of empty, dissatisfied feeling, wondering what the point of all this smoke and fury and grandeur was. A seemingly random plot thread about the possible reappearance of the Joker (who you will recall meets his end in The Dark Knight Returns), initiated partway through Issue 2, is brought to an unsatisfying ending at the end of Issue 3; when you find out who the "Joker" really is, the subplot feels as if it should have been terribly important, and yet it rings strangely, almost false. Out of politeness, I won't spoil it for you here, but I will observe that, handled differently, it might have given The Dark Knight Strikes Back the warm, beating human heart that it needs.

Far be it from me to proclaim that an author has a "responsibility" to always make his or her fans and society warm, fuzzy, and happy. It's unfair to expect anyone, even of Frank Miller's talents, to repeat the genre-busting achievement of the first Dark Knight series. But if an author has a responsibility at all, it's to make his or her work as good as their talents can make it. If an author is going to revisit one of the brightest works of his career, he should at least take his task seriously.

Or maybe Miller was taking it seriously; maybe the paint-roller satire, deliberately simplistic (verging on crude) artistic style, and cartoony (in a very literal sense) characterizations were what he was after. Maybe the presence of another Republican in the White House and the chaos of the last year have reduced him to incoherent rage, hence the uncontrolled mess of the story. Maybe all of this is his new metier.

No, I'm not sure about that either.

If you've been avoiding superhero comics, or if by some twist of fate you've never read any of Frank Miller's work, do yourself a favor: get the original Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Go dig up Ronin or Sin City. And hope The Dark Knight Strikes Back was some sort of grumpy contractual obligation story, an unfortunate fluke, and that Miller will eventually get his stride back properly.

The Dark Knight Strikes Back Frank Miller and Lynn Varley DC Comics ISBN: 1563898701 (Issue 1), 1563898713 (Issue 2), 1563898721 (Issue 3)

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Frank Miller and Lynn Varley 224 pages DC Comics ISBN: 1563893428