Review of The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller

(Originally published in Flak Magazine, 2002)

The story almost reads like a comic book: In the mid-'80s, the comic book industry was dying. Sales were down, comics were ignored by mainstream culture and superheroes were impotent in the face of real-life villains such as recycled plots and tired characters.

But just when things looked darkest — look, up in the sky ... — Frank Miller appeared with his groundbreaking graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns." Miller grafted modern angst onto comic book mythos and created a genre-defining piece of literature. Batman became a dark vigilante in an apocalyptic Gotham City, fighting crime, the police and anyone who compromised with evil.

Time and Rolling Stone praised Miller's book as high art. Director Tim Burton credited the graphic novel as the inspiration for his 1989 hit movie, Batman. Because of Miller, comics began to explore new artistic directions, which brought a new generation of readers into the market and helped push comic sales to all time highs. For a while, the comic book world was once again safe and sound.

Now fastforward to 2002 and "The Dark Knight Strikes Again," Miller's sequel to his original classic. Initially, the release of "DK2" (as the sequel is called, in parody of recent movie-title trends) attracted more media attention than any other comic book in years. The publisher, DC Comics, forced reviewers to look at advance copies under guard in DC's New York offices. Major magazines trumpeted the return of Miller's Batman.

But then the public actually read "DK2." Reviewers called Miller's minimalist artwork "hastily drawn." Lynn Varley's super-bright digital colors were described as "green, flavored mouthwash." Worse, readers didn't like how Miller mocked the very mythology of superheroes that made his original book so powerful. As Bob Lipski, a cartoonist who works at DreamHaven Books and Comics in Minneapolis, says, "A lot of fans feel that Miller wrote ["DK2"] as a big 'f*#& you' to everyone."

This isn't exaggeration. In one widely viewed image on the Web, the cover art of the first issue — which shows Batman's gloved fist making a power-to-the-people salute — is altered so that Batman's middle finger is extended.

Which is a shame, because in between the hype and the hate, "DK2" makes as revolutionary a take on what troubles the comic books industry as Miller's original novel did.

The reason Miller struck a cord in the mid-'80s with "The Dark Knight Returns" is that comic books weren't living up to their potential. American culture had long valued visual arts, such as movies, and literary arts, such as novels, but the mixing of the two was considered the stuff of adolescent boys.

Miller refused to accept this. Instead of emphasizing hyperkinetic action over plot and character development, as comics had done for years, Miller created complex characters to whom readers responded. Bruce Wayne went from a silly playboy to a borderline psychotic obsessed with dying a good death. His nemesis, the Joker, became a demon bent on fulfilling a perverse love for the Batman by killing him.

In many ways, "The Dark Knight Returns" mirrored the new way America viewed heroes. It was like seeing an RKO cowboy serial from the 1940s suddenly turn into Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Unforgiven.

Yet the revolution Miller started has gone to excess, as today's comics have grown increasingly dark and serious. Call it the Dark Knight syndrome — a belief that today's superheroes must be even grittier than Miller's Batman in order to succeed. This means that the joy comics used to provide — such as imagining how much fun it would be to turn invisible, or to fly — is lost. And this, in essence, is what Miller is attempting to provide with "DK2": a return to joy in comics.

At first glance, "DK2" is an odd candidate for joy. Set three years after the events in "The Dark Knight Returns," America is now a police state where the Bill of Rights has been repealed, people are powerless and a holographic president is controlled by business tycoon Lex Luthor.

Worse, most citizens don't worry about the freedoms they've lost — they're too busy watching sex shows and holding candle-light vigils when pop music groups break up. By asking if it is better to be happy and enslaved, or hurting but free, "DK2" takes on some thematic weight.

But while most writers would plumb the depths of human despair with this storyline, Miller's approach is to make serious points while having fun. Yes, horrible things happen in "DK2" (such as the destruction of half of Metropolis, the aftermath of which Miller showcases in several spreads that hauntingly recall Sept. 11). However, just as life is a mix of horror and joy, so too is Miller's world. When Superman first meets his 17-year-old daughter, Supergirl asks him to explain sex to her. Superman tells her to avoid sex with humans, because we break too easily.

But it's not only the writing that makes the story fun to read. With "DK2," Miller and colorist Lynn Varley have taken a completely different route from the dark, sublime art of "The Dark Knight Returns." Miller's illustrations are sparse and lacking in background detail (a style he perfected in his award-winning Sin City series). When combined with Varley's digital colors and special effects, the result resembles a fun Tex Avery version of Japanese manga.

All of which presents Miller with the perfect medium for his satirical look at modern American society. In the second chapter, Batman crashes his airplane into Lex Luthor's skyscraper, slices a Zorro-style Z across Luthor's face, then says, "Striking terror. Best part of the job." If "DK2" had been grim and serious like most of today's comics, that scene would have provoked outrage from post-Sept. 11 readers. But by mixing humor with satire, the scene asks questions about what constitutes terrorism that no other recent writer — either of comics or serious "literary fiction" — has come close to posing.

Miller's wit spares no one. In one scene, a John Ashcroft caricature addresses a press briefing as a superhero makes rabbit ears behind his head. In perfect mimicry of Ashcroft's morally outraged voice, the caricature states, "The Department of Justice has not given anyone in this room permission to indulge in unsolicited and inappropriate laughter."

Miller also takes on America's obsession with sex and a youth culture. When a group of sexed-out wannabe heroes called SuperChix discover they've actually changed the world, they break up under the strain of accomplishing something outside of being sexy and good looking. ("What's a Zeitgeist?" one of them asks, striking a sexpot pose. "It sounds like a disease?")

The only real weakness of "DK2" is that it lacks the character development of Miller's other works. But satire has always taken liberties with this aspect of storytelling; many times characters in "DK2" are there not for who they are but for what they stand for. Because Miller is dealing with characters who are familiar to readers simply by virtue of our media-drenched society, he can get away with this.

Most comic book fans are upset with "DK2" because Miller dared to approach one of their favorite superheroes in, well, a comic-book manner. But why shouldn't he? If Batman is on some serious-minded pedestal, it is because Miller put him there.

Just as "The Dark Knight Returns" opened a comic book door to the darker aspects of human life, so does "DK2" show how to return fun to comics. It also makes a kind of tangled sense. In a world where Sept. 11 happens and the Justice Department wants postal workers to monitor un-American activity, perhaps the only way a superhero can save the day is to look around, have fun and laugh.