Comics of the Decade: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again

This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

By Thomas Thorhauge

”Striking terror. Best part of the job”, says Batman somewhere in the first chapter of Frank Miller’s long-awaited sequel to The Dark Knight Returns (1986). The line makes sense coming from Miller, because “striking terror” is kind of what DK2/The Dark Knight Strikes Again has done with comic readers (if we keep the scare quotes, naturally).

The New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks has described Frank Miller as an “internal writer”, i.e. a writer who composes from his gut, or perhaps more accurately his subconscious. By describing him thus, Horrocks wishes to emphasise that one never quite knows what to make of Miller’s stories. His “internal” approach results in ambiguous stories, in which the point is never really, well, the point. Actually, Miller does not seem really to have one most of the time. This, of course, is a characteristic shared by many artists, but it’s rare to see in comics the kind of creative rage Miller summons.

This was already clear in his previous significant work, 300 (1998), which told the story of the struggle at Thermopylae in 480 BC by three hundred Spartans, led by King Leonidas, against the overwhelming forces of the Persian King Xerxes. Several critics noted the admiring emphasis given their portrayal, as if they were martyrs, and concluded that 300 was a fascist celebration of strong-willed action (as history tells us, the Spartans lost the battle, but they managed to hold off the invading force for long enough for the dithering Athenians to assemble an army and repulse the Persians). Symptomatically, however, Miller subverts this “fascist” discourse through a subplot, which deals with the hunchbacked Ephialtes, who desires intensely to participate in the defense of his home by serving in Leonidas’ division. Unfortunately his deformities prevent him from holding his shield high, which makes him useless to Leonidas. In anger over his rejection, Ephialtes betrays the Spartans by guiding the Persian army through a hidden gorge, allowing them to attack from the rear and defeat them.

The “moral”, of course, is that arrogance leads to defeat. But on the other hand, Miller maintains his “fascist” tone to the end: the portrayal of Leonidas’ death in a swarm of enemy arrows (recalling the ending of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood) is an almost embarrassingly over-the-top display of violent visual hagiography. But the ambiguities persist: there is, for example, a controversial scene in which the Spartans express their distaste for the Athenians by describing them as “boy-lovers”, but Miller simultaneously clearly enjoys drawing the homosexually-charged heck out of their naked bodies.

DK2 takes these ambiguities to an extreme. One the one hand, it leaves the reader with the sense of having been taken on a brutally deterministic trip; on the other, it brims over with unresolved plot threads, unconvincingly motivated character action, gaping plot holes, incongruous flashbacks (which more often than not seem motivated by Miller suddenly having some new idea, or remembering that he forgot to include a scene earlier), and a general profusion of idiosyncrasies. So, how to think about DK2?

Before engaging that problem, it’s important to remember that DK2’s famous predecessor, The Dark Knight Returns, was also a provocative, even polarizing, comic back when it was first released in 1986. Its take on the Batman character was transgressive and highly ambitious, and its storytelling and rendering style were ahead of their time. With its subsequent canonisation, this has been forgotten — it’s now a classic, a highly influential exemplar of comics storytelling in the heroic mode. It was Miller’s attempt at the Great American Novel by way of superheroes. He took the genre seriously, integrating it into a dystopian projection of contemporary American society, and he made it work. We should, in other words, not be surprised that his sequel takes such unexpected form.

The Dark Knight has the kind of status in American mainstream comics that should give any author pause before attempting a sequel, fifteen years down the road. The news that Miller himself was going to undertake this task (rather than eventually letting the rightsholder, DC, concoct one independently of him) was broadly seen as a sign that he was at the end of his rope, creatively — that he did it for purely financial gain – or, conversely, that he was preparing a great epic, worthy of the name, promising a show-stopping comeback, after his ongoing Sin City series had reached a new low with Hell and Back (2000). This kind of rapt anticipation was to a large extent motivated by Miller’s own remark that he had had a sequel in mind since shortly after The Dark Knight was released. However, upon reading DK2, it seems clear that it’s made up entirely of new material; it’s in any case radically different from the original.

What kind of comic is DK2? Not an easy question to answer, but it obviously calls for comparison with its predecessor: it’s simpler and more cartoony (some would say sloppy) in its rendering. It’s digitally coloured — Miller’s wife Lynn Varley has broken most of the tacitly formulated rules for proper use of Photoshop by unabashedly combining filters and breaking outlines as often and as wildly as seems possible. There’s very little in the way of ‘background’ to the story, both visually – foreground elements are largely surrounded by the surreal colouring – and in terms of the narrative. Gotham City and Metropolis are lumped together, and “normal” (i.e. non-superhero) people appear only occasionally in tiny vox-pop panels, commenting (or not) on the events of the story. The superheroes are everywhere and nowhere; Miller clearly doesn’t care any longer about such things as establishing a scene or a character before proceeding to do whatever he wants to do (or not — he drops the ball frequently) — why waste the time? As the Danish cartoonist Søren Mosdal once said, scriptwriting is for PUSSIES!

DK2 was published in three 80-page ‘prestige format’ comic books (as opposed to The Dark Knight’s four 48-page ones). Miller wryly spends the entire first issue describing how America has elected a president who is nothing but a computer-generated construct controlled by Lex Luthor, while Catgirl, the former Robin, rescues a number of variously — and ingenuously — imprisoned old superheroes.

Only on the least few pages do we get to meet Batman himself, in the Batcave, sporting his Dirty Harry attitude and wearing huge gloves made of green Kryptonite with which he sadistically beats the crap out of that stooge of the existing order, the greatest hero of them all, Superman (in the second issue, it’s Wonder Woman’s turn to be slapped around). After this beatdown, the creased-up Superman mumbles, ”Bruce… I just came to talk…”, to which Batman’s reply is: “I’m done talking. Get out of my cave.”

With the tone thus established, Miller dispels any hope the reader might have of seeing Superman withering away, pinkly, in an atomic cloud, or another angst-filled portrait of Commissioner Gordon, as he served them up so stunningly in his earlier Batman stories. The author has a different fish to fry here, though it is never quite clear what kind, or whether it is fish at all… or fowl?

In the second issue, he shamelessly reveals that Superman and Wonder Woman have a child together, secretly brought up by her mother. Her name is Lara and she wears the family crest, the Superman S. But, as she tells Luthor’s apocalyptic ally Brainiac: ”I’m not from Kansas, you son of a bitch. I’m an Amazon!”, after which fries him with her heat vision. Unsurprisingly, Luthor vies for world domination, and to that end he has pacified the three giants, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel, by means of extortion, holding hostage the Bottled City of Kandor, Paradise Island and Captain Marvel’s alter ego, Billy Batson’s sweetheart.

But Batman, frankly, doesn’t give a damn. He teams up with The Atom, The Flash, and Green Arrow and commences a full-scale assault on Luthor. He also recruits The Question and The Martian Manhunter, the latter of whom is suddenly attacked by somebody looking very much like The Joker (who killed himself in The Dark Knight) (there is no reason why not, I suppose, so he wears the costume of Cosmic Boy from the Legion of Superheroes). The issue ends with Batman taking the stage at a stadium concert and unmasking himself, revealing a skinheaded Bruce Wayne, who roars ”Let’s give them Hell!” He becomes instant cult.

Part three took a while to come out, reportedly because Miller wished to adjust the story after the attacks on September 11. I can’t imagine him adjusting it for political correctness, but it’s clear that he put some more effort into the drawing and storytelling. The issue opens with an ad hoc 9/11 scene, in which Captain Marvel is caught under the ruins of the World Trade Center, holding up the remains to save people. He reveals that he is no longer able to transform himself into his boy alter ego, Billy Batson, but nevertheless shouts his magic word “SHAZAM!” — the remains of the building collapse on him, sealing his fate.

Miller then picks up a couple of the plot threads laid out in the earlier issues, but leaves several more hanging. It’s suddenly revealed that Batman has been captured by Luthor, who punishes him corporeally in a scene that repeats dialogue from the Sin City story Family Values (1997). Then Hawkman’s vengeful kids crash through the window and beat Luthor to death with their medieval weapons. The reader is hastily reminded that Luthor killed their parents — an event mentioned only in passing in issue 2. But let’s just move on and not dwell on trivialities.

The grand finale has the mysterious Joker figure revealed as Dick Grayson, the original Robin. Characteristically, we are then informed that he was a coward who couldn’t deal with being a superhero, but was then granted immortality… Miller spends about as much effort on this (one would think) rather important subplot, as I have just done. Oh, but wait, Grayson is not totally immortal: being dropped into a volcano will kill him, of course. This is convenient, because Batman, who is getting fed up with Dick’s jealous attempts to kill Catgirl, turns out to have just such a thing under the Batcave — a bit like how, in the Carl Barks classic “A Christmas for Shacktown” (1952), it is revealed that, all along, there has been a bottomless pit of quicksand under Uncle Scrooge’s money bin.

The last panel of the story is circular, framing a roughed-up and rather ridiculous-looking Batman declaring that he doesn’t care that the Batcave and all its weird artefacts have been swallowed up by the volcano: ”I was sentimental – back when I was old.” And that’s the end of the messiest and silliest piece of nonsense in Miller’s career to date.

“It’s badly drawn”, “the colouring is amateurish”, “the story is incoherent”, “this is Miller mocking his readers, laughing and all the way to the bank” — those are some of the criticisms levelled at DK2 by its readers. They are understandable, but imprecise. The foundation of the superhero genre as it has evolved since the 60s has been continuity — causal relation between distinct works; it has ensured for otherwise fanciful (well, far-fetched) material a certain credibility, a sense of authorial responsibility, consolidated further by homogenous drawing styles and conservative inking. Miller contributed crucially to the renewal of these principles with his Daredevil stories in the 80s, which established a new standard for how to tell a superhero story. Now, however, he has done away with them.

When judged against convention, the verdict is clear: since Miller clearly does not care about the establishment of character or space and tells an incoherent, borderline rambling story, which is inconsistently drawn and told, DK2 is a clear disappointment. That he furthermore betrays the lofty ambition and epic tenor of his own previous masterwork merely adds insult to injury. Sorry, no good.

Are we done then?

Of course we aren’t. It may seem surprising that one could take a Batman comic this seriously (or perhaps not: The Dark Knight achieved precisely that), but DK2 poses a real challenge to the critical reader. As is evident from the many internet discussion boards devoted to comics, it’s a divisive work — and often it’s the very same qualities that simultaneously provoke derision and appreciation: “the drawings are sloppy and seem dashed off!” — “Yes, that’s what’s so great!”; “That Joker/Robin subplot is totally half-assed” — “Yes, that’s what’s so great!”; “It’s clear which Photoshop filters Varley used!” — “Yes, isn’t it great!?”, etc.

If you approach DK2 with a positive and relaxed attitude, however, it offers constant payoff. Miller’s jettisoning of conventional superhero aesthetics is carried by an anarchic and imaginative playfulness, clearly founded in a great and entirely unambiguous love for these superhero characters. Plastic Man’s rather unmotivated — but hilarious! — walk-on role in itself is all the evidence of this one could wish for. Of course neither anarchic playfulness, nor old love, inherently qualify anything as great art, if that’s what one is looking for. I would argue, however, that we are dealing with great art here, as much as in any recent work of comics.

There’s no doubt that DK2 fails to live up to the conventional parameters of comics as art, manifested in works like Maus, Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth, Safe Area Gorazde, L’Ascension du Haut Mal, or Ghost World (or even The Dark Knight Returns!) Those are works that cultured people more or less unproblemativally can accept as good, thought-provoking, touching, sober, serious, etc. Such a conception of quality in art is fundamentally conservative, if fully understandable, and even laudable, but sometimes there’s a need for a different kind of artwork — one that challenges on a fundamental level how one conceives of art. Works that in one fell stroke turn upside down one’s seemingly consolidated aesthetic norms. Such works are rarely pretty, they tend to be uncomfortable, and by nature they come out of left field.

DK2 is more than a superhero comic that cheekily subverts the genre’s norms. It’s a comic by an author intimately familiar with graphic storytelling. And this is where its qualities become apparent — where Miller’s “internal” voice speaks clearest. He knows the conventional principles of how to structure and tell a story — the kind one might read about in scriptwriting manuals, which encourage reasoning like, “how do I enliven this bank robbery? What if the robber discovers that he is out of ammunition? Or if a policeman randomly approaches the building without his knowing?”, etc. There are definitely ways mechanically to put together a story that works, but with Miller these qualities emerge naturally, in the storytelling, the drawing, the colouring. There’s an inner necessity to it.

Miller was never a particularly talented draughtsman (like Moebius or David Mazzucchelli), but he has acquired a confidence with a range of different rendering styles. He knows how to give a drawing finish, to make it “pretty”, but that doesn’t interest him — just like Varley is uninterested in delivering another professionally executed, tasteful and sensitive gouache colour job; no, let’s see what these Photoshop filters can do… Let’s apply as much counterintuitive logic as possible and see where it takes us!

In this respect, DK2 is Miller’s most extreme work. He seems to run with any idea that occurs to him, until another one pops up — keep drawing ‘em while the inspiration’s kicking! Batman cuts a Zorro ‘Z’ into Luthor’s face, which he then sports for the rest of the story; Plastic Man mocks The Elongated Man for only being able to stretch, and not change into things; Superman’s appearance changes from panel to panel; Jimmy Olsen is introduced with much emphasis (along with the Question, whom he resembles), but is quickly forgotten again; The Flash has hairy arms and yearns for the plains of Utah; Green Arrow and the Question are positioned as bickering opposites in a manifestation of the author’s own contradictory sympathies for left- and rightwing radicalism; The story ends with a bizarrely happy big bang.

This is an approach to creative work that is easily copied, but hard successfully to bring to fruition. Miller’s talent and experience lends to it an authority and credibility that are hard to emulate. Only because he has internalised classic narration, one senses, is he able to ignore it and nevertheless make things work. ”Who would have thought Miller would be so much ahead of us all?” asked Dylan Horrocks; not many, I should think, considering his erratic Sin City years. That he has showed himself capable of producing such an energetic, unpredictable, transgressive, innovative, and plain exciting comic as this, which has managed so decisively to divide its audience, is one of the great surprises in American comics culture in recent memory.

An unexpected and unlikely masterpiece.

Published in 2002 on the Rackham website. Other installments in this series: David B.’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic), Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Sammy Harkham et. al. Kramers Ergot 4, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory. Read also our review of Miller’s The Spirit and his career over the last decade or so.

3 Responses to “Comics of the Decade: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again”

  • Sweetness indeedy! Skud ud til Rackham!

  • Entertaing article, and I enjoyed reading it. It does seem that the fans of DK2 (and I’m not quite sure where I fall; half of me thinks it’s crap and the other half thinks it’s a fun Silver-Age-by-way-of-the-Modern-Age romp), Frank Miller channeling his own twisted versions of Kurt Busiek and/or Mark Waid sensibilities. While you articulate that schism rather nicely, I would have preferred a bit more detail in your conclusion/wrap-up here about why you praise it so highly.

    From what I remember, there’s no doubt that the book has clever concepts and a fond nostalgia for the characters (especially Miller’s use of the Ray Palmer Atom and Barry Allen – seen here long before their Geoff Johns-inspired returns to the spotlight). And it just may be that the wackiness of the whole thing works, in a bizarre way. Or at least is entertaining in a stream-of-consciousness way, as you point out. “Great art,” though? “Masterpiece”? Hmmm… I can’t quite agree there, although it is fun.

    I’m long overdue for a re-read of DK2. Thanks for the article and thanks for the reminder to check it out once more.

  • Hey Tony — thanks for your comment! Thomas is away on holiday, but may get back to this next week and answer for his words! What I can say is that it was written on a reader’s high when the comic was still fresh in the world.

    My esteem has only grown for DK2 since it came out. It’s really original balls-out cartooning that manages to grasp many of the things that are great about superheroes, without even seeming to try that hard. Lot’s of fun and really quite weirdly creative — sad that Miller hasn’t really managed anything like it since, despite trying to replicate the formula.

    Another thing that struck me is that Miller, once again, defined a new subgenre here — the irreverent, counter-intuitive, ‘art’-superhero comic. There’s been lots of those since, and currently that Neal Adams trainwreck is garnering the kind of accolades DK2 only saw a few of when it came out.

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