I’m treating these two comics/days as one entry, as they’re essentially two sides of the same coin – and I find it legitimately interesting that I seem to hold opinions diametrically opposed to the prevailing critical opinion on both sides of it. (Plus, I’m a little behind schedule anyway – I’d originally intended only to use one “day” on this post, but since I’ve ended up writing about twice as much as usual in this post, I may as well allow myself to use two.) So here goes – my controversial opinions on Frank Miller’s two Dark Knight comics.
First of all: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. While my opinion on it has undoubtedly softened over the years – or, perhaps more accurately, gone from liking it as much as everyone else back when I first read it, to gradually developing a distaste for it in subsequent years, to then softening – the point still stands that I simply wouldn’t agree with vast swathes of comics fandom/criticdom in describing it as the greatest Batman story of all time. I wouldn’t even class it as the greatest Frank Miller Batman story (that honour would go to the pretty much faultless Year One – although even then the brilliance of that is largely down to the fact that it should really be called Jim Gordon: Year One).
It’s true that there’s plenty about DKR that’s great – at the time it was a genuinely original and challenging comic, and although the narrative style of much of it (tiny panels, using TV news to relay exposition) has been aped endlessly in the years since, you can’t hold its innovation against it. Carrie Kelley is a great character, and there are terrific moments – notably the final culmination of the Joker/Batman relationship, in which Bruce still can’t bring himself to break his “no killing” rule… so the Joker does it for him. But there’s also a lot about it that just makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s largely just being a Supeman fan, and thus having little truck with the way Miller treats the character – as a joke, basically – but there’s also the nature of the book’s politics, something I’ve never been able to fully reconcile. On the one hand, there seems to be a distinct jab at the then-current US government, and Reagan in particular – something which is also transposed to Superman, the lapdog of the government frequently drawn to look like its ageing leader – and yet at the same time, if anything the book is espousing an even more right-wing view (although it’s frequently heralded by supporters as doing the opposite, that just doesn’t come across in my reading). It turns Batman into a man who wants to stamp out crime in a near-totalitarian fashion by any means necessary – and that, to me, just isn’t the essence of the character.
Still, despite the Superman fanboy in me disliking the book, I can see the good aspects of it – as a self-contained story, it’s great, I just think it perpetuates a false perception of what Batman is and what Batman stories need to be. But if I’m going slightly against the critical tide in having my doubts about the lasting quality of DKR, then I’m actively fighting it in expressing my opinion of its 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Because, well… I actually kind of quite like it.
I don’t actually remember doing so hugely at the time – although there must have been enough in it that I felt it worth spending $7.95 an issue on it even after reading the first one – but certainly, as time’s gone on and the book has continued to be regarded as one of the most spectacular flops in the history of comics, I’ve held a sneaking regard for it that’s only grown as it’s become more apparent exactly what it was trying to do. Simply put – Dark Knight Returns was a comic that (among other things) appealed to people who didn’t necessarily already like comics. DK2 was a comic that could only ever appeal to people who did.
Not that it appealed to all of them, of course. Far from it. But look in more detail at what initially appears to be a garbled, confused, poorly-drawn, piss-taking mess, and there’s a lot more going on than initially seems. And looking at it from one perspective in particular, it becomes apparent why I have this slight affection for it – it’s Miller attempting to be Morrisonian. It’s not as good as a Morrison comic, of course – but it’s definitely coming from a place far nearer to the likes of Flex Mentallo, All-Star Superman and Batman & Robin than it is to Dark Knight Returns or even All-Star Batman & Robin (although the latter series, I think, was Miller trying to further expand upon the same “fun” ludicrousness but with far more devastatingly awful results).
What immediately sets DK2 apart from its predecessor, for one thing, is that it’s far more obviously a DC book than a Batman book – characters not even mentioned in the original series dominate its pages, while Batman himself is often shunted into the background. Again, this is undoubtedly a reason why many fans of the original disliked it – but for me, it works well, as Miller is taking characters he’s never written about before and applying a deliberately skewed perspective to them. But it’s the perspective of someone who clearly knows far more about classic comics than we might ever have given him credit for – he’s throwing a range of different eras into the mix, from Silver Age Justice League stories, to the ’60s Batman TV series, to Kingdom Come, to the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. If anything, rather than taking the “Dark Knight” part of its predecessor’s name, as a sequel it should probably be called something like The Justice League Returns – as one of the things it concerns itself the most with is an explanation as to just why there weren’t many other heroes around during the original series, before setting about rectifying that fact.
Crucially, it’s fun, and this is something I feel Batman comics generally need to be; people too often miss the point that Batman is inherently ludicrous in character, conceit and surrounding world. If you can’t admit that that’s the case right from the name downwards, then you need a reality check. You can do “dark” stories with him, and do them well, but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. The Adam West series shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all either, of course, but there’s absolutely no foul in drawing upon the myriad different interpretations and levels of seriousness, so long as you do it well (and, crucially, so long as you never step into outright parody – a mistake the reprehensible Batman & Robin film made). So what Miller is doing in DK2, having done arguably the definitive “dark” Batman story, is cutting loose and having fun in the garish superhero world the character spent some of his best decades inhabiting.
Of course, if there’s an element of DK2 that attracts even more flak and ire than the story, it’s the art. But again, in this instance I actually think Miller’s getting the short end of the stick based on people’s pre-existing expectations. And I speak as someone who, unlike many, isn’t normally a huge fan of the guy. It could be better-executed, there’s no question – it does feel rushed at times, and so frequently replacing backgrounds with colour washes is only forgiveable if you spend as much time drawing the foreground characters as, say, Frank Quitely does. But for all that, the visuals do deserve more credit than they’re often given – Lynn Varley’s colours are often astonishing, and even if you can’t always give top marks to the composition, you have to appreciate that the style is absolutely suited to the story Miller is telling. After all, the style employed in DKR would be as unsuited to DK2 as the other way around.
All of this is not to say the book is anything like flawless – about the kindest you can say is that it’s a failed experiment. But it’s a failed experiment that I actually enjoy reading, and unlike a vast proportion of Miller’s work (I’m just not usually fan of his style, subject matter or tone) I can say I’m pretty onboard with what he was trying to do. There are some truly standout ideas and moments – the government’s use for Barry Allen (and on that note, I find it amusing that Miller was criticised at the time for ignoring the fact that Allen and Hal Jordan weren’t the “present” incumbents of their roles and so shouldn’t be treated as the “future” versions either – it’s only taken seven or eight years for history to prove him right on that one), the death (and precognition) of J’onn J’onnz, writing the Question with Rorschach’s voice, just about all the Lex Luthor stuff, and of course every time Catgirl appears. Look past its nominal status as a DKR sequel and it’s actually a pretty darned entertaining comic – and certainly one that’s overdue a reappraisal.
Or maybe it’s just that I appreciate him actually treating Superman a bit better the second time.