BATMAN AND BOOMERS
After the Sci-Fi Channel announced it was canceling Dark Shadows (and in the middle of a story arc!), I turned for what has become my weekday serial drama fix to Bravo’s reruns of The West Wing. (True, the Sci-Fi Channel had been running Dark Shadows for most of the last ten years, and arguably it was time for a change. But I still suspect it will regret its decision if the WB Network picks up the projected pilot for a new Dark Shadows series, executive produced by Shadows creator Dan Curtis and, of all people, John Wells of The West Wing. It’s true: everything connects.) The West Wing strikes me as having particular appeal for Boomers who grew up in the 1960s: it presents what is in effect a Kennedy Administration transplanted into and updated for the early 21st century. The series is driven by a 1960s liberal view of government as a positive force for helping to solve the nation’s social and economic problems.
So how would I, a West Wing aficionado, react to a story in which Batman is a self-styled terrorist and traitor leading an attack on the United States government?
This is the premise of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, also known as DK2, originally published by DC as a miniseries in 2001 and 2002; the paperback collected edition was published last month. DK2 is the sequel to Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking works in the superhero genre in the 1980s. What might the sequel have to say about the direction that comics will take in this new century?
The original Dark Knight had a powerful influence on treatments of Batman that followed in the comics, movies and television, and, indeed, on mainstream American comics in general. However, many of Miller’s imitators seem not to have wholly understood Dark Knight or his intentions. Dark Knight thus helped spawn the “grim and gritty” school of comics, picturing gloomy, violent, flawed heroes in a bleak, depressing world.
In fact, from the 1960s onward, the superhero genre has repeatedly been revitalized (as the average readership grows older) by taking a more serious, realistic, and darker approach. The obvious example is Stan Lee’s Marvel revolution of the 1960s, but it has also happened several times with Batman. Editor Julius Schwartz’s “New Look” Batman circa 1964 was more realistic in look and writing than the cartoonier Batman stories of the early 1960s; at the end of the decade, in a reaction against the “camp” TV Batman, Schwartz went further, returning Batman to an updated version of his original dark avenger persona of the 1930s. Each step also entailed making the world around Batman seem more contemporary.
Miller’s original Dark Knight upped the ante to a startling degree: Batman became considerably more massively muscular, and more driven and severe in personality. The criminals in Gotham City were no longer the traditional thugs of previous decades, but violent street gangs that evoked the rampant urban crime of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead using newspaper reporters (who even play a major role in the 1989 “Batman” movie, Miller depicted a Gotham in the age of electronic media, with continual commentary on events via talking heads on TV screens. In the early 1940s Commissioner Gordon publicly deputized Batman, and ever since Batman had been portrayed as working openly with the police. Miller took Batman’s vigilante status more seriously and showed a post-Gordon police administration hunting him down.
The Dark Knight Returns was thought to be set in the future, since it portrayed a fifty-something Batman. There were those who believed that the original Dark Knight was part of DC’s main continuity and that it represented Batman’s destined future. That never made sense: Miller’s vision of Gotham City and the United States in Dark Knight was clearly his take on 1980s America: he even depicted Ronald Reagan as President.
I found it more helpful to think of The Dark Knight Returns as being about a Batman who had aged in real time since the point at which Miller and other Boomers had started reading about him in the 1960s. That suggests what I regard as a subtext of The Dark Knight Returns. How does a mature, adult creator of superhero comics, who read them as a child, make them relevant to himself and to other older readers today?
So it is that in The Dark Knight Returns, Batman himself had grown older. In his interview for the notoriously little seen documentary on which I worked, Sex, Lies and Superheroes, Miller explained that he felt obliged to make Batman older because he saw him as a “father figure.” Hence, Batman had to be older than Miller himself, and than readers who are Miller’s contemporaries.
At the start of The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne had retired from his role of Batman many years before, apparently after the second Robin, Jason Todd, died in action. As a result Wayne had sunk into an empty existence, with hints of alcoholism and a death wish (through his dangerous hobby of auto racing). The fiftyish Wayne had gone beyond midlife crisis into a form of clinical depression. Wayne could be interpreted as being a hollow shell: Batman was his true self. He comes to realize this, when he is effectively reborn as Batman. Through his memories, Wayne relives the traumatic experience that spurred him to become Batman: the death of his parents. Then the giant bat from his origin story, which originally inspired him to take the identity of a bat himself, reappears. Miller treats this bat as an omen of destiny, a herald out of Joseph Campbell, pointing the way to the quest that Wayne had been denying himself.
Resuming his Batman identity, he then has to reestablish himself in this new, darker and more contemporary Gotham. Through Batman’s success, Miller demonstrates how Batman remains an effective character in this more “adult” vision of the world. Times have changed, and childhood fantasies must become more sophisticated to satisfy older readers, yet Batman remains relevant.
To cope with enemies more savage and dangerous than the bank robbers of yore, Batman himself becomes more ruthless. But Miller does not turn him into a character like the Punisher or even Wolverine. A major dramatic point in the first Dark Knight series comes when Batman refuses to kill the Joker: there was a line he would not cross. And so Batman retains his importance as a moral exemplar.
MIller also revamps the concept of Robin, casting a young girl, Carrie Kelly, in the role. In devising the slang in which Carrie and the gang members speak, Miller underlines the fact that they represent a younger generation than Batman’s, not simply in terms of years but in their cultural differences. Right from the introduction of the first Robin, Dick Grayson, in 1940, Batman has been presented as a mentor and teacher, and Miller clearly sees this as important. Batman is, as he said, a “father figure,” and in Dark Knight Returns he became a mentor to Carrie and even to the gang youths he defeated, teaching them to carry on his mission. (Of course, Batman also “teaches” his view of morality to his readers.)
It has been said that between the third and fourth issues of The Dark Knight Returns, Miller read the initial issues of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and that had a considerable effect on his own series. Miller had already shown that Batman was considered an outlaw by the Gotham City government. Moreover, Miller was already introducing elements of satire through his media parodies in the first three issues and bits like his mockery of what he regarded as the ineffectual liberalism of Carrie’s parents. With issue four Miller’s stage expands from Gotham City to the nation as a whole, and Batman finds himself hunted by the federal government. Its champion is Superman, presented by Miller as a smug sell-out, a blindly loyal defender of the status quo. In the fourth issue Miller’s flair for political satire fully emerges; it would reemerge in later works like Elektra: Assassin and the Martha Washington series.
Having read Watchmen, Miller introduces other superheroes into Dark Knight, including the liberal Green Arrow, who aligns himself with Batman against the government that is trying to stop him. Whereas in issue one it seemed that Batman had retired entirely for personal reasons, now it appeared as if the government, as in Watchmen, had outlawed all superheroes (these metaphors for individual freedom), except those, like Superman, who were willing to work hand in glove with the feds.
Amazingly, Batman finds a way to best Superman in combat. But ultimately the opposition to Batman was too great, and Batman faked his own death. But he actually stages his own figurative death and resurrection. After Wayne’s funeral, Miller shows us that Batman lives on, deep underground in the Batcave (as if in the unconscious mind), teaching Carrie and the ex-gang members, the new generation who will succeed him.
In other words, the series ends on a very positive note: Batman put up a tremendous fight against overwhelming odds, besting even Superman, beat the system by escaping it, even survived apparent death, and founded a new movement that would perpetuate his vision into the future.
Subsequently, Miller revamped canonical Batman continuity with his Batman: Year One story line, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli. In this saga of the first year of Batman’s costumed career, Miller returned to a political interpretation, showing Batman opposing the corrupt government officials who controlled Gotham. It was Miller who established that on the night that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, they had taken Bruce to see The Mark of Zorro. In real life, the silent movie version was an influence on the creation of Batman, and Zorro’s main opponent was an government that oppressed the citizenry. Miller was reminding us that Batman was a latter-day version of Zorro.
In both the original Dark Knight and Batman: Year One, there is an important secondary lead character: James Gordon, who seems to represent Miller’s ideal of the good “ordinary” man, who does not operate on the mythic heights of Batman, but demonstrates his own heroism by maintaining his integrity in a fallen world. (Yes, Catholicism is a subtext in Miller’s work, too, and is explicit in his Daredevil stories.)
In the 1980s Gary Groth of The Comics Journal accused the original Dark Knight series of being fascistic. The Nazi brand of fascist philosophy found roots in Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch, the dark side of the superman concept.
I thought Groth’s charge of fascism was an overstatement, though I could see what he was getting at. In the original Dark Knight Batman was depicted as a superior individual who could be trusted to carry out his war on crime responsibly, and yet the Gotham City police and government could not allow such a potentially dangerous man to take the law into his own hands. Miller seemed aware of the moral ambiguities of Batman’s role with regard to society. Therefore, the series’ ending seemed right: Batman accomplished his goals, but at the price of the end of his career of vigilantism. However necessary his work, he could not be permitted to remain part of the society he had helped save from crime. It’s like John Wayne’s character at the end of John Ford’s The Searchers: he accomplished an important task for the community, but remains outside it.
But is Groth’s accusation more relevant to DK2? Wait and see.
STRIKING A MATCH
Fifteen years after the first Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is not what I expected, or, probably most people. Most of the audience probably expects a sequel to be very much a continuation of the original, not just in story but in look and tone and themes. But fifteen years is a long time, and creative people evolve and move on. One might come to dread too long a gap between the original and the sequel, since the creator may in the intervening time have lost touch with whatever it was that made the original work so great, without even being aware of it. (For example, consider the new Star Wars trilogy.) This suggests that after so many years, a creator needs to reimagine and reinvent a work rather than simply trying to continue it just as he had done before.
That’s the course that Miller has taken with The Dark Knight Strikes Back. In so many ways it is unlike The Dark Knight Returns, although, as we shall see, it takes various themes of the original in new directions.
For one thing, there’s the look of the new series. The heroes and various other important characters are drawn in a comparatively realistic style reminiscent of the earlier Dark Knight. Heroes when bruised and battered, though, intentionally turn grotesque, going further than even some of the distorted figures from the original.
The new series is much more broadly satiric than the original, and Miller does an assortment of caricatures of real life media and political figures, many of whom are listed above. They don’t match the style in which characters like Batman and Carrie are drawn, but they are admirably amusing on their own terms.
As the series progresses, there are more and more peripheral characters, usually turning up as interviewees or talking heads on TV screens, drawn in an intentionally crude, underground cartoony style that simply does not work for me.
Whereas the city was a continual, major presence, visually and thematically, in The Dark Knight Returns, it is visually absent for much of DK2. Backgrounds are often missing or minimal. It’s as if the surroundings were abstracted. But Gotham City, or the contemporary cities it represents, is not a subject of DK2. As with Book 4 of the original, the stage is the nation, or even the world. There are indeed memorable shots in DK2 of Superman in space, with the planet Earth behind him. More importantly, the visual focus of DK2 is on the characters, not their environment. As we shall see later, there is a major exception to this rule.
Also, the original Dark Knight looked very cinematic, with pages usually broken into multiple panels of the same size, like a sequence of frames in a film; the dialogue, as divided among these panels, read very much like a tightly edited screenplay, with all unnecessary verbiage cut out. The look of DK2 is much less rigidly structured, and much more loose, perhaps contributing to the sense that anything can happen in this story.
Miller seems much more attentive here to creating memorable, even iconic single images. There are numerous shots, each often taking up an entire page or a double-page spread, that show the pairing of Miller as illustrator and Lynn Varley as colorist at heights far beyond any of their work in the first Dark Knight. There’s the montage of full page images of Superman and Wonder Woman’s lovemaking in Book 2. There’s Book 3’s image of the new Supergirl floating ethereally above a begrimed, mournful Superman, who stands amid ruins, that was in the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art show that I reviewed months ago. There’s the amazing light show that Green Lantern and Varley stage above Earth in Book 3, and the extraordinary image of Wonder Woman, astride the mythological winged horse Pegasus, wielding a thunderbolt like Zeus.
Like the original, which imagined Batman’s future and yet was set in the present (then the 1980s), The Dark Knight Strikes Again plays with time. It declares itself to be set three years after the end of the first Dark Knight series. But it clearly takes place not at the end of the 1980s but in the early 21st century. Miller caricatures various contemporary personages from the news media: Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, George Will, Cokie Roberts, Margaret Carlson, Don Imus, Robert Novak (I think). Donald Rumsfeld is pictured as Secretary of Defense and a caricatured John Ashcroft as Attorney General. Miller’s President Rick Rickard looks something like George W. Bush. There are references to the importance of the Internet, which played no role in the supposedly futuristic original Dark Knight.
Miller plays with time in another way that should be becoming familiar to this column’s readers. Like some other major comics creators, he has devised his own variation on continuity in which the superheroes of the Silver Age are still active. Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, is still alive. So is the Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan. Like Alex Ross and Paul Dini in their “JLA” books, Miller has Captain Marvel and Plastic Man work alongside the 1960s heroes. Like Ross and Dini too, Miller uses the bearded, politicized version of Green Arrow as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams reworked the character at the time of transition from the Silver Age to whatever we may call the period that followed. (O’Neil and Adams made Green Arrow into a 1960s liberal activist; in DK2 Miller pushes Green Arrow to a leftist extreme, making him a Communist. Well, Green Arrow is supposed to be a modern-day Robin Hood, so that arguably would make him interested in the redistribution of wealth.) Surprisingly, Miller even uses the Silver Age version of Kandor, the shrunken city within a bottle, which in the 1960s was populated by Kryptonians. (So here is another example of a major comics creator who finds use for a discarded element of the pre-Crisis Superman mythos.)
Miller also uses the Question, whom Steve Ditko created for Charlton comics. Ditko’s treatment of the Question was founded in his enthusiasm for Ayn Rand’s brand of conservative political philosophy. When DC acquired the Charlton heroes in the 1980s, the Question was recast as a liberal; I recall one “Question” letter column in which the editor argues that by that point DC had done more “Question” stories than Ditko, so their interpretation was by now correct. This seems a prime case of a character being radically altered from his creator’s intentions. Commendably, Miller returns the Question to his philosophical roots. Actually, Miller takes him further than Ditko did. The Question was the basis for the more fanatical Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a book known to have influenced Miller, and Rorschach, in his moral views and manner of speaking, seems to have inspired Miller’s Question.
A NEW AGE?
In this column I’ve already examined contemporary takes on Marvel and DC’s Silver Age characters by Alex Ross and Paul Dini (their JLA tabloids), John Byrne (Generations 2), and Neil Gaiman (1602), and there will be more to come: I intend to deal with Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, which depicts the Silver Age DC heroes in the 1950s, and perhaps more of Alan Moore’s ABC line. I hereby dub this creative movement the Neo-Silver Age school. These are creators who are reviving Silver Age versions of superheroes, or in the case of writers like Moore and Kurt Busiek, creating new heroes in the style of earlier decades. The “Neo-Silver” school attempts to recapture the positive, genuinely heroic, iconic aspect of the 1960s characters while making them relevant to contemporary readers.
Look at the following excerpt from the interview with Alex Ross that ran in the Feb. 5-11, 2004 issue of The Onion’s “A-V Section.”
ONION: Looking at your work, Bruce Timm’s animated series, Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line, and, to a certain extent, Grant Morrison’s turn on JLA, there seem to have been efforts to return to a Silver Age approach. Even Superman’s dog Krypto is back.
ALEX ROSS:… We grew up with this stuff thinking of it a certain way, and we’re rejecting what was kind of knocked around on us in the last few years. Basically, what still is going on. . . especially at DC Comics, is a rejection of everything they did in the 1990s to compete with the then-hip-and-happening changes coming from . . .what Marvel and then Image did. We’re sort of in a repairing stage. Those of us who are kind of these Silver Age purists who think you don’t need to fix what isn’t broken, we’re getting our way because more of us are in control at the moment.
There are other writers who try to reinvent the classic superheroes for new audiences by turning them into deeply flawed antiheroes. But this is not what the “Neo-Silver” school intends to do. In a December 2002 interview for Comic Book Resources, Darwyn Cooke criticizes the reworking of the Avengers in Marvel’s The Ultimates series. “The problem I have is the way they’re taking iconic characters and destroying parts of what they are. . . What is it about us as people that want to bring these icons down to this level?. . .Is it because we can’t even believe in the notion of people better than us who aren’t so weak?. . . I think that’s a horrible way to think.” He wonders aloud, “if maybe everybody needs a blazing story with some decent people wielding the power and if maybe that won’t be seen as refreshing after all this time.”
But Neo-Silver creators may still differ sharply on just how to adapt that positive spirit to contemporary times, and Miller’s method hardly constitutes a return to childhood innocence. “Just like old times, hm?” the Atom asks Batman in issue one. Batman replies, “No, Not like old times. It’s a whole new ballgame.”
Although the first words of issue one of DK2 are Batman’s, he himself does not arrive onstage until its final pages. The whole first issue builds to his arrival; Miller knows how to give his lead actor a grand entrance.
My overall reaction when I first read this first issue is that Miller is a master storyteller in a sense that is widely absent in today’s comics. People act as if Marvel’s great revolution in the 1960s was almost wholly in its more complex characterizations, its greater sense of realism, and especially the heroes’ flaws and the unhappier aspects of their lives. But Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and company were also master entertainers, who could seize the audience’s attention and, in this static medium, frozen in panels on paper, take them on a roller coaster ride of thrills and excitement. They knew how to stage stories and action sequences entertainingly, and so does Miller. Grim and gritty, hah! After reading the first issue, I wondered why other comics writers and artists can’t seem to create as much sheer fun as I had in reading this.
The initial pages set up the basic premise. president Rick Rickard, who looks and speaks something like George W. Bush, addresses the nation over one of Miller’s ubiquitous video screens, proclaiming that the United States has become a virtual utopia. Rickard places especial emphasis on the country’s prosperity. Obviously, Miller started this project before the boom went bust, but seems not to have been taken in by those who glorified it as the start of a new and better age.
A middle-aged Jimmy Olsen, on his own video screen, meanwhile accuses Rickard of “repealing the Bill of Rights” and turning the country into “a police state,” which is way more than one could expect could ever happen in the real United States. Eventually Rickard proves to be only a CGI image, like Max Headroom, I suppose. Even considering the large degree of suspension of disbelief required of readers of DC Universe titles, this story device in itself signals that this story is not meant to be taken realistically. As we watch this year’s primaries on television, it should be clear that no one could become President without coming in personal contact with many thousands of citizens. To a far larger extent than the original Dark Knight, this new series is a satire. Whereas, say, Ross and Dini take pains to place their superheroes in a realistic world, Miller takes the opposite tack: since superheroes are fantasy figures, he feels free to use unrealistic exaggerations of political reality to make his satiric points. One of my favorite lines in the new series comes when a blindly loyal citizen asks, “Who cares if the President doesn’t exist? He’s a great American!”
Sometimes, though, Miller’s efforts at satire seem more heavyhanded than witty: he refers to “National Security Enforcement director Bill Prick.” That’s a little too obvious for my taste, though in the same tradition as the name that Steve Gerber gave a corrupt businessman in his 1970s Man-Thing stories, F.A. Schist.
Jimmy asks if people just think of superheroes as “costumed clowns” and declares that they were actually “men and women. . .with unbridled courage – who battled tyranny and defeated it at every turn! What happened to them? Where are they? Where are our heroes?”
So, like the start of the original Dark Knight, or, for that matter, Watchmen, this is a world that no longer has (active) superheroes and needs them. Beyond the literal level of the plot, through Jimmy, the now middle-aged superhero fan, Miller is again raising the question of how one makes the superhero myth relevant for older audiences. Through Jimmy’s reference to “costumed clowns,” perhaps Miller is pointing to our culture’s widespread dismissal of the superhero genre as juvenile trash. Later in the issue a woman named Attorney General Snark (before Miller replaces her in Book 3 with the real life John Ashcroft) says, “There’s been quite enough talk about these so-called superheroes. Isn’t it time we all grew up?”
But Jimmy and Miller are insisting that the courage and moral passion that the superheroes represent is something that society needs. One can also read Jimmy’s speech as an evocation of the more positive, hopeful comics of Miller’s youth, the ones that portrayed the superheroes as such positive forces, and asking whatever happened to them. Terry Gilliam, who once intended to direct a movie version of Watchmen, described the retired superheroes of that series as symbolic of 1960s political activists – of the same decade as the Silver Age – who regain their fervor for bringing about change. In Olsen’s evocation evoking the lost superheroes, Miller also seems to be asking for a revival of the spirit to stand against political wrongdoing.
This time Miller characterizes the news media as show biz, often of a sleazy kind. It’s not all exaggeration, either: Miller’s News in the Nude is surely based on the actual Naked News from Canada, available on the Internet or cable television. The luridly sexual commercial for “Uforia Investments” on page 3 seems another satiric jab at the mindset during the late ’90s boom. Miller emphasizes tawdry sexuality on television so much that it begins to seem puritanical. But his attitude seems to be more complex by the time he gets to the Superchix in Book 2.
Miller shifts to a handsomely illustrated sequence that turns out to be portraying the Atom as a sort of naked, primal warrior battling a monster in a watery realm. It turns out that he has been deprived of the costume that enables him to change size and was trapped, in shrunken firm, in a petri dish. But this also seems to be Miller’s tribute to Gil Kane’s Sword of the Atom series, which recast the Atom as a swordsman hero in a miniature world.
The Atom is rescued by Miller’s new Robin, Carrie Kelly, who has changed her identity to Catgirl, in a nod to Catwoman but also a declaration that, at 16, she has outgrown the identity of an apprentice like Robin. There follows one of Miller’s entertaining action sequences, as Carrie and the Atom try to escape the bad guys’ headquarters. Seeing Carrie reminds me that Miller was a pioneer of the now familiar figure of the woman – even the young girl – as action hero. Perhaps Carrie’s Robin in the 1980s was another influence on comics aficionado Joss Whedon’s creation of Buffy. (Carrie says her full name is “Caroline Keene Kelly.” Is this a joke on “Carolyn Keene,” the pen name of the “Nancy Drew” authors, as an ironic indication of how much teenage heroines in pop culture have changed?)
DC’s 1960s The Atom series, edited by Julius Schwartz, written by Gardner Fox, and drawn by Gil Kane, continually came up with memorable, iconic visual images, featured on covers, that took inspiration from the Atom’s tiny size: for example, the Atom trapped in a lightbulb, or stuck to a spinning tire. Miller is just as inventive, and with a sense of humor. The Atom, who could shrink down and ride electrical impulses through telephone lines in the 1960s, in this series can do the same trick with wireless cellphones and over the Internet. Later the Atom succeeds in helping defeat Superman by shrinking enough to enter his inner ear and play havoc with his sense of balance. The Atom even hides in Carrie’s mouth and accidentally gets swallowed!
After President Rickard is exposed as a CGI image, Miller reveals who is really the power behind the throne: Lex Luthor. Together with Superman’s other classic archenemy, the alien artificial intelligence Brainiac, he controls the United States government, and by extension, it seems, the world.
Now this provides an interesting parallel to the official DC continuity, in which Luthor, despite his public record of nefariousness, somehow got elected President of the United States, and the superheroes just stand by. (In real life, of course, even lying about having “sexual relations with that woman” can nearly get one disqualified from the Presidency.) Did Miller develop this idea independently, or is this his criticism of current Superman continuity?
Miller’s take on Luthor is very different from the other familiar versions. Usually Luthor has not been portrayed as seeking to rule the world. Traditionally he has been portrayed as a scientific genius, a man who is cerebral and intellectual by nature. As revamped by John Byrne and Marv Wolfman, Luthor became a corporate colossus, masking his criminality behind a facade of social respectability. (Actually, in this they seem to have been following Miller’s lead in his revamp of the Kingpin for Daredevil, the forebear of all the corporate villains in comics who followed.) Much as he wants to eliminate Superman, the comics versions of Luthor are not into committing mass murder. As we shall see, Miller’s Luthor is willing to massacre millions, even billions of people to achieve his ends. (Can it be that Miller is drawing on the otherwise ludicrous movie version of Luthor, who was willing to destroy California to increase the value of his real estate holdings?)
Though Miller calls DK2’s Luthor a genius, he does not seem particularly brilliant. He actually comes off as a low-rent version of the Kingpin, fat, grotesque, speaking in vulgar threats, physically beating up a captive Batman in Book 3. He seems apelike both in stance and manner. There is no complexity to the personality of this version of Luthor. Like the inhuman machine Brainiac, he is pure evil; he is more like a symbol of political oppression than a multidimensional character.
The Question, when he appears, reiterates Miller’s theme about the lulling effect of prosperity: “The people are so intoxicated by luxury that they have forgotten everything that makes us more than house pets,” including “freedom.” The puritanical streak turns up in the sexual imagery that the Question uses: “Evil has seduced mankind. And mankind has shown all the chastity of a three-dollar whore.” The Question, though, will not compromise his own ideals: “Yet I will not yield. I will not bend. I will not accept the corrupt new way of things.” He intends to “document” all the wrongdoing he opposes, calling it “My challenge to any free mind that may find it.” Hey, that’d be like writing The Dark Knight Strikes Again, wouldn’t it?
The Question also touches on another of Miller’s themes when he says, “The mind of man must be reclaimed – if not by this generation, or by the next, then some day.” With the aging of the Boomer generation of comics creators who were originally inspired by the comics of the 1960s, the question (so to speak) arises as to how they can make the superhero genre, so long considered to be for children, relevant as a form of personal expression by the middle-aged. (Keep in mind that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were themselves middle-aged when they revolutionized the genre in the 1960s. It’s a question that one sees rock musicians facing as well as they grow older.) One method seems to be the theme of one generation mentoring the next, showing them the way. In DK2 Batman is doing just this, with Carrie, with the former gang members she calls the “Batboys.” who soon make their entrance in DK2, and in the next issue, other members of a new generation who have embraced the trappings of superheroes as a “fad.”
Miller’s version of the Question, like Rorschach, comes off as a fanatic in love with the sound of his own preachments, and his grasp of reality may not be entirely firm: he is soon raving that “computers can’t be trusted.” But he also makes points that Miller appears to approve of. In fact., when Batman’s voice reenters the first issue (only a page after the Question’s scene), he reiterates the Question’s attitude about moral commitment. “No more compromises,” Batman states. “No more deals. . .Not one more lie. Damn the consequences. The war begins.” Perhaps Miller’s Batman has become something of a Ditko/Rand-style hero himself.
In the course of what a newsman terms Catgirl and the Batboys’ “terrorist attack” on a power complex, one of the boys, Spike, “crosses the line,” in Batman’s words, and kills a guard. Later, Carrie criticizes Spike for doing so, and he protests that “they were the enemy.” She counters, “They were the enemy’s slaves. We don’t kill slaves.” But the attentive reader will note that Carrie is speaking on Batman’s behalf, and Batman is not ruling out killing in all cases, as will become clearer in later issues. This is a big change: Greg Rucka in “Batman: The Ten Cent Adventure,” reviewed in an earlier column, emphasizes the traditional interpretation of Batman as refusing to kill.
The Atom and Catgirl, after witnessing some astonishing Varley color effects (like the gigantic fingerprint-like pattern on page 44 and especially the explosion on page 46), find Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, who has literally been enslaved by Luthor’s government, forced to run in a kind of wheel “like somebody’s pet hamster” to generate electricity. (Like Luthor’s other captive, the Atom, Allen was kept naked. Miller is using the superhero costume as a symbol of power, identity, and personal freedom.)
Interestingly, Carrie presents Barry with a new, black version of his costume, saying the old design “was really. . .old” The Flash responds, “Kids, these days. Can’t tell the difference between just plain old and classic.” Only three pages later one of Miller’s sleazy female newscasters announces the return of the Silver Age Flash: “If you don’t know who this hunk is – ask your Dad!” And Miller then repeats the Flash’s line about “old and classic.” It looks to me that once again Miller is dealing in a neo-Silver subtext, telling young readers that this isn’t an “old” (and by implication, dated) version of the Flash but a “classic” one, who still has worth and vitality today.
Miller reminds us in the Flash scene of Barry’s marriage to his Silver Age leading lady, Iris West. In last week’s column I noted the emphasis that Ross and Dini placed on Barry and Iris’s marriage. Perhaps this is another sign of the Neo-Silver Age: older writers and artists praise marriage and the family, in contrast to the traditional superhero’s single life. (And it was Lee and Kirby who pioneered the concept of marriage and the family in superhero comics through the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards and the birth of their son.)
The scene shifts to Superman, who is not the smug, clueless, self-satisfied government flunkie that he was in the first “Dark Knight.” This time round Miller treats him both more harshly and more sympathetically. In his initial scene in DK2 Superman is infuriated by Batman’s war on the government. Superman too addresses the theme of moral commitment, but he takes the opposite position from Batman and the Question. “Never an inch of compromise for Bruce Wayne,” Superman fumes. Superman sees the world not divided into moral absolutes of black and white, but into grays (which is considered a more mature approach, though not in this series). “We who live in the world of men have to consider the greater good – and come to terms with the way things are.” Miller has Superman repeat that last phrase, separating it into individual words: “The. Way. Things. Are.”
Miller pegs this as Superman’s excuse for not rebelling against the system. I can see his point: I’ve had conversations about negative aspects of the comics industry at present with friends who say, rather bleakly, that one just has to resign oneself to The Way Things Are.
Superman and Batman’s contrasting points of view on this issue are one aspect of a larger issue that Miller raises in the later issues of DK2, that of determinism versus free will. Can individuals alter “the way things are” or are they helpless to defy what seems to be the workings of fate?
Remember Superman’s phrase, “We who live in the world of men.” As we shall see in Book 3, Miller does not regard this as Superman’s proper place.
Next Miller introduces us to Green Lantern impostor Wilfredo Mendoza and praises the Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, who has “vanished.” Can this be a comment on DC’s replacement of Hal with current GL Kyle Rayner?
Then former Police Commissioner James Gordon, a major figure in the first “Dark Knight,” makes his only appearance in the new one: it is no more than a cameo, but a powerful one. Furious at the state of the country, Gordon defiantly takes pleasure in the superheroes’ return. Yet another nude newscaster tells us that Gordion is the author of “Triumph of the Pygmies: Why We Killed Bruce Wayne.” Wayne, as noted, feigned his own death at the end of the first Dark Knight: the first issue of DK2 depicts his figurative resurrection. Study the title of Gordon’s book carefully: he is proclaiming that Batman is a far superior man to the rest of us, “we,” “the pygmies.” This theme, with regard to Batman and Superman, too, will also continue through the rest of the series, with some disturbing implications.
Superman meets with Wonder Woman, who hasn’t aged, and Captain Marvel, who has, aboard the Justice League’s satellite. With his tufts of white hair, Captain Marvel now looks amusingly reminiscent of another character from his mythos, Uncle Marvel.
As Miller turns his “camera” on Superman from back to front over three panels, he depicts the Man of Steel as utterly sunken in depression. In other words, Superman in Book 1 of DK2 finds himself in a similar mental state as did Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the original “Dark Knight.” (Or, for that matter, Matt Murdock midway through Miller’s “Daredevil: Born Again” story line.)
Miller gives Superman an understandable reason for supporting a morally corrupt government: Luthor and Brainiac are holding the population of Kandor, all ten million, as hostages. Similarly, they are keeping Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel in check by threatening to kill people they care about. The image of Luthor’s face hovering outside the satellite, spying on the heroes, evokes Orwell’s all-seeing Big Brother.
Showman that he is, Miller succeeds in topping the battle between Batman and Superman in the first Dark Knight with the colossal combat between the two heroes here. Batman first softens up his opponent with attacks by other heroes, a fake tyrannosaur (presumably the one from the Batcave trophy area), and even a robot that looks and talks like the 1960s version of Bizarro (yet another Silver Age reference). Then, at last, in the last three pages of the first issue, Batman makes his grand entrance to deliver the knockout punches: the final page shows Batman standing triumphant, his “resurrection” complete.
As subsequent issues will show, Batman’s beating of Superman is actually the first step in knocking some sense into him (from Batman’s point of view, anyway), much like Miller’s character Stick thrashing his student Matt Murdock. Those readers who came to DK2 expecting to see an exploration of Batman’s psychology are looking in the wrong place.
In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, there is no real character evolution for Batman: he is steadfast from start to finish in knowing and pursuing what he wants. The major character arc here is that of Superman. This series may be named after Batman, but as the next two issues will show, this may actually be more Superman’s story than his own.
As so often happens, I’ve got much more to say about a topic than will fit into a single installment of this column. But you’ll have to wait two weeks for the rest of our Dark Knight discussion. From time to time I will be acting as a reporter for IGN FilmForce on events relating to pop culture. So next week you’ll be seeing my report on Toy Fair, and then I will strike again at The Dark Knight Strikes Again the week after that.
-Copyright 2004 Peter Sanderson
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