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Dark Knight Redux

 

The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1

Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

DC, 2001

Rating: 3.9

 

Posted: December 31, 2001

By The Gentleman

When Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns first appeared in the mid-1980s, it seemed to spark a transformation in the superhero comic-book genre practically overnight. True, to some extent, the genre is still reeling a bit from the profusion of "grim and gritty" anti-heroes that dominated comic store racks in Miller's wake. But TDKR did more than just re-conceptualize the pajama-clad ruffians of our youths as dangerously unbalanced psychotics. It also helped to revitalize the idea of comics -- even superhero comics -- as a legitimate medium of artistic expression. It also helped pave the way for Hollywood's current acceptance of superheroes, from the Batman franchise to the X-Men and even such diversions as The Mystery Men.

The truth is, of course, that Dark Knight didn't achieve this alone. At the same time, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen was similarly stretching the limits of the superhero tale, as was Moore's work on Swamp Thing -- and as had Miller's previous work on Marvel's Daredevil. But for all intents and purposes, TDKR has arguably had the more immediate impact. Epics of the size and scope of Watchmen just aren't attempted that often, while the influence of Dark Knight is seen everywhere, both within the comics field (out-of-continuity stories such as Kingdom Come) and without (who can doubt its influence on Tim Burton's first Batman film?).

So it goes without saying that a sequel to such a pivotal work faces something of an uphill climb. By revisiting the world so completely realized in TDKR, Miller risks diluting the impact of the original. After all, it's highly unlikely that The Dark Knight Strikes Again (which we'll hereafter refer to as DK2, as the cover of this first issue does) will have the same impact as its predecessor. The comics world has changed drastically since TDKR first hit shelves, and there's no attendant groundswell of envelope-pushing work with which DK2 could claim kinship. And frankly, Miller's style hasn't evolved all that much in the interim. What we're likely to get, if this first of three issues is any indication, is more of the same -- only different.

DK2 picks up a mere three years after the events of TDKR, and civilization is still riding a fast train to hell. At least, we're asked to accept that it is, largely on faith -- the deterioration of society is only broadly hinted at, rather than etched in grim detail. During this time, Batman has been figuratively underground, training his growing army of warriors, getting ready for all-out battle against the establishment. Carrie Kelley, the precocious young female Robin from the earlier series, has matured into Batman's aide de camp, and evolved out of the Robin role into her own identity as Catgirl.

As this issue opens, Carrie begins carrying out a pivotal component of Batman's plan -- rescuing some of the world's other superheroes, who have been captured, banished and/or enslaved by the shadowy Powers That Be. In the process of liberating Ray Palmer (the Atom, who's spent the last few years in a Petri dish), Carrie sends a clear signal to those powers that Batman's legions are on the rise, her use of her costume a direct slap in the face to this dystopian, anti-hero establishment.

This sets up conflict between Batman and Superman, who was revealed in TDKR to be working for the government. In DK2, however, things are much more sinister than that. Superman is nothing more than a bitter puppet, doing the bidding of his masters (who include a scarred, misshapen Lex Luthor) out of blackmail. Indeed, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel seem similarly in thrall, as does Barry Allen, the Flash, whom Palmer and Carrie later liberate from his task of generating most of the United States' power supply.

While the inevitable clash of titans offers a certain thrill, its underlying foundations are weak. First, it stretches plausibility that Superman, a god among men, could not somehow find a way to save the innocents that Luthor threatens in order to ensure his service. The idea that he and Wonder Woman, of all heroes, would simply buckle under to their new masters is disingenuous at best, and clearly the only reason this situation exists is because Miller's plot requires it.

Secondly, and more critically, there's a thread of fascism in Batman's actions that Miller doesn't seem to see fit to address -- at least, not yet. Granted, Superman is (in this tale, at least) a tool of the evildoing establishment and deserving of scorn, but the glee Batman and the Atom take in stomping the poor boy a new mud-hole seems out of character. It may very well come to pass that Miller plans at some point to address this -- the idea that Batman is, on the face of it, no better than those he seeks to vanquish. But based on his previous body of work, including (but not limited to) TDKR, that seems unlikely.

But let's give Miller the benefit of the doubt -- there are still two installments to go, after all, and we don't yet know where he's taking us. It's early yet, but it appears safe at this point to predict that DK2 will fall far short of its predecessor in terms of revolutionizing comics. Which is to be expected -- one can't always expect lightning to strike twice. But it's slightly disheartening to note that unlike Dark Knight, DK2 is so far shaping up to be merely another tale (albeit exceedingly well-executed) of super-baddies slugging it out.

And while we can't begrudge Miller his right to have fun playing soldiers with DC's characters, and we're very likely to greatly enjoy the results, it's difficult to suppress a sigh wondering what might have been had this acclaimed creator sought to aim a little higher.

Related Links:

Batman: Bruce Wayne: Murderer?

The Dark Knight Strikes Again #3

 
Grist For The Miller
No one should attempt to read The Dark Knight Strikes Again without first savoring Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which raised the quality bar so high most comics today still don't come close to approaching it. Follow that up with Batman: Year One, a refining of the Dark Knight Detective's origin with fabulous pencil work by David Mazzucchelli.
More Miller's Tales
Miller's Sin City series of mini-series is an uneven but often compelling read, with Miller stretching out artistically (stark, almost impressionistic black-and-white drawings) even as he happily colors within the lines of crime-noir genre conventions. The first two collections, Sin City and A Dame To Kill For, are must-haves. Likewise worth owning are Daredevil: Born Again and Marvel's Visionaries series highlighting Miller's early Daredevil work: Vol. 3 is the most recent.

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