Through the end of March the cable channel TV Land was showing reruns of the 1960s Batman show at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. This series’ notorious mockery of Batman in particular and the superhero genre in general damaged on the image of comics for decades; even as American comic books grew more sophisticated, media critics and the general public alike continued to regard the medium as the juvenilia that the Batman show satirized. Nowadays, though, since the first two Batman movies and the recent animated series have established a more serious alternative image of Batman in the public mind, it should be easier for comics enthusiasts to appreciate the TV series on its own terms. (I even think that DC Comics would be well advised to do something to mark the show’s forthcoming fortieth anniversary.)
Watching the TV Land reruns, I was struck by how sharply the show declined in its second season, in part, I think, because it was busily casting guest stars as new, second-rate villains rather than primarily drawing upon the well-conceived, time-tested villains from the actual comics. The last two-parter that TV Land telecast was a brilliant exception from the second season, and it featured one of the comics’ prime villains: in the show’s tradition of rhyming titles, this was “Hizzoner the Penguin/Dizzoner the Penguin,” in which the Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham City.
That’s right: this is the source from which the second Warners Batman movie, Batman Returns, must have drawn its own Penguin mayoralty campaign. Since my impression is that Twentieth Century Fox owns the characters and story lines created specifically for its Batman TV show (which must be why, say, the TV villain King Tut has never turned up in the comics), I don’t know how Warners managed to reuse this plot, but there it is.
The premise of “Hizzoner the Penguin” is actually a variation on that of a first season two-parter, “The Penguin Goes Straight/Not Yet He Ain’t,” in which the Penguin not only pretends to reform but even becomes Batman’s rival as Gotham’s preferred costumed crimefighter. In this earlier story, the Penguin captures crooks in order to change his public image, lending the premise some measure of credibility. The second season story takes the going straight idea further while throwing out any believability: not only has the Penguin somehow served his sentence (which one would think would by this point be several lifetimes long) within less than a year, but as soon as he announces his candidacy for mayor, polls declare him the favorite to win the election! The Penguin’s rather extensive criminal record, including his repeated murder attempts on Gotham’s favorite heroes Batman and Robin, do not appear to matter to the electorate at all.
I know I’ve seen the “Hizzoner” two-parter years ago, but watching it in 2004 I was surprised and delighted not only by how much fun it is, but how witty and perceptive it is as a political satire. Determined to prevent the Penguin from taking over the city, Batman figuratively throws his cowl into the ring and campaigns against him. Batman thereupon becomes the model of the earnest but deadly dull candidate, at one point droning a campaign speech to a virtually empty room, as if looking back to Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and somehow foreseeing Al Gore in 2000. This perfectly fits Adam West’s deadpan delivery and portrayal of Batman as a mild-mannered idealistic square who happens to wear a bat costume.
In contrast the Penguin is a pioneer of political campaigning as show biz, staging a rally that is one huge party with entertainment provided by belly dancer Little Egypt (gyrating in a way not to be seen at a Republican convention) and mid-1960s rock group Paul Revere and the Raiders (!). Indeed, one can only rationalize the public support for Penguin’s candidacy by theorizing that he’s popular because he is a celebrity. (Why, the current Governor of California was once Mr. Freeze!) He creates photo ops in which he fights and captures criminals (secretly hired by himself).
The Penguin proves to be a master of what is now called “spin,” pointing out to the news media that he is usually photographed with policemen whereas Batman is usually found with criminals. Batman can’t truthfully deny this But the Penguin has “deniability,” leaving it to his henchmen to stick Batman in the inevitable death trap. And when the Penguin finds himself losing the election, he decides to ensure his victory by intervening in the counting of the votes. (Does any recent parallel come to mind?)
At the center of all of this is Burgess Meredith’s reliably, wonderfully funny yet convincingly crafty and malevolent portrayal of the Penguin, as if Charles Dickens had turned his skill at vivid caricature to superhero comics. I have thought in the past that it’s a shame that Meredith, who had a long, prestigious career in theater and film, is mostly known to the Boomers and subsequent generations for his work on Batman and Twilight Zone. But watching this two-parter, seeing him throw himself so enthusiastically into the part, it’s hard to believe that Meredith didn’t love performing this role. The 1960s TV Batman may not be “our” Batman, but to my mind Meredith’s Penguin is the real thing. (And I wish that DC Direct could make copies of those Penguin campaign buttons in the show.)
And as the Penguin’s popularity soared in the polls, I found myself thinking: the American electorate in this episode is just as stupid as they are in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
This is the last in my trilogy of essays on Miller’s recent Batman series, which is, like “Hizzoner the Penguin,” a satire on American politics, albeit a more serious one. Batman, Superman, and other superheroes and villains are engaged in a battle that will determine the fate of the United States government. And Miller’s Batman is no soft-spoken middle-of-the-road candidate for office, but a revolutionary and self-proclaimed terrorist. (Those who have not read the end of DK2 and wish to be surprised should heed this spoiler alert.)
The third issue begins entertainingly and puzzlingly, with a family of green aliens who seem to belong more to the world of cartoonist Vaughn Bode than to the superhero genre. It turns out that one of them is Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, now living in retirement with an alien wife and child.
So here is more evidence of the Neo-Silver movement in comics. In every artform one generation rebels against the preceding one in order to assert its own identity and achievements; the work of an older generation may fall from favor for a time, only to be reevaluated and appreciated anew years later. However consciously intended by their creators, much of the work at DC Comics from Crisis on Infinite Earths onward represented a rebellion against the Silver Age. That Age had ended around 1970, and it was true that efforts to continue in its path over the following fifteen years had in many cases lost their way and run low on creative energy.
The generational revolt, when it came, struck hard at some of the Silver Age’s signature characters: Crisis killed off Supergirl and the Silver Age Flash, who had started the great superhero revival of the later 1950s and early 1960s. At least they were allowed to die heroically. In sharp contrast, later, Hal Jordan was turned into an insane mass murderer and ended up dead. This may not have been consciously intended as a slap in the face of those who had worked on Jordan’s stories or their readers, but that was the effect. (”Post-Crisis” DC even removed many classic Silver Age stories from the canon of continuity, as if in an Orwellian rewriting of its history.) This phase of rebellion and rebooting at DC is itself now over fifteen years old, and so the emergence of the Neo-Silver movement at this time makes sense. It does not dominate comics by any means, but it is interesting to observe how many important creators are now doing work that falls into its scope.
Miller, in devising his own continuity, simply ignores the fates that DC meted out to Barry and Hal: they’re not dead, they have simply been away. In Hal’s case, he has retired from the role of superhero, at least on Earth, to devote himself to his new family. In short, he has settled down. Perhaps because so many of its writers are middle-aged, the Neo-Silver movement emphasizes the virtues of marriage and family life.
But though Miller portrays the appeal of Hal’s contented life away from the rat race of the neverending battle, he also, through Batman, criticizes it as a retreat from responsibility. Showing him the chaos ensuing on Earth, Batman accuses Hal: “This is the world you turned your back on, pal. These are the people you abandoned.” Hal’s new alien form is not just a clever Bode homage: it is also a visual metaphor for Hal cutting himself off from the human race and his responsibility to it. (By extension, Miller could be arguing that people in real life have the responsibility to work for political change, and perhaps even that comics creators must seek to remain active in mainstream comics.)
Alan Moore’s Watchmen is said to have been a major influence on the final issue of the original The Dark Knight Returns, and its presence can be felt here as well. In the first issue of Watchmen, Rorschach, a character inspired by the Question, seeks out his former colleagues who have retired from activity as superheroes, to issue a Campbellian “call to adventure.” In the previous issue of The Dark Knight Returns, the Question enacted a similar scene with the Martian Manhunter. Now, in the final issue, it is Batman himself who issues the call and the challenge to Green Lantern.
Like Rorschach, Batman serves as the voice of conscience to his fellow heroes: Batman points an accusing figure at Green Lantern for allowing Earth to fall victim to tyranny. (This may be DC, but Spider-Man’s mantra that “With great power must come great responsibility” lurks behind this.) In this series Batman is clearly the teacher of the kids, Catgirl and the Batboys, but notice how Miller also puts Batman in the position of Green Lantern’s mentor as well. “Watch. Learn.” Batman commands Hal, “And make your choice.”
In this sequence in which Batman shows Jordan what is happening on earth, Miller grossly caricatures many members of the public, none of whom have anything enlightening to say. (”They blowed up Captain Marbles,” burbles one.) This technique continues to disturb me: it dehumanizes the very people the heroes claim to be trying to protect.
With a lovely lighting effect by colorist Lynn Varley, Jordan reverts from his alien guise to that of the human Green Lantern.
Here one can see Miller’s skill with language: he subtly shifts into a sort of poetry, with short, simple but evocative phrasing that creates a verbal rhythm: “He used to need a ring. He used to need a lantern. Now he is one. He is pure will. Sheer power. Hal Jordan. Green Lantern.”
That poetic style continues into the next three captions, which set the scene: “Earth. Metropolis. The city of dreams.” This image of Metropolis as “the city of dreams,” appears several times in this issue. Miller’s Metropolis, I suspect, is not simply “the city of dreams” because it is the idealized big city in which a fantasy hero, Superman, dwells. I believe that Miller is also pointing to Metropolis as a fictional analogue to New York City, which for so long has been the United States’ business and cultural center, the place in the popular imagination where people go to turn their dreams into reality. Just why Miller should be preoccupied with the symbolic nature of New York City in this final issue shall become clear later.
First, though, Miller addresses the theme of the death of a dream. In superheroes’ cataclysmic battle against Brainiac, continuing from the previous issue, Captain Marvel sacrifices not simply his life but his existence.
Miller has the Captain contend that the boy Billy Batson did not transform into him, but that they simply exchanged places when he said the magic word Shazam. This isn’t true in actual Captain Marvel continuity, but it does resemble the situations of Miracleman and Marvel’s Captain Mar-Vell, both of whom were inspired by the original Captain.
Perhaps Miller’s real point, though, is to emphasize that as a creative concept, Captain Marvel represents a young boy’s image of himself as a superhero. Hence Captain Marvel is Billy’s “wish” or “dream” become reality.
Now that leads to the question of how Miller’s Captain Marvel could still exist if, as he says, Billy Batson died eight years before. (Then again, characters like Captain Marvel, Superman and Batman himself have continued long after the deaths of their creators.)
Wonder Woman asks Captain Marvel what will happen to him if he says “shazam” now. “Where’s a wish go?” the Captain asks rhetorically. “Where’s a dream go when you wake up and you can’t remember it? Nowhere.”
This, perhaps, is the point in the series that is the most despairing. Like Neil Gaiman in 1602 #7, Miller here is conjuring up the image of mortality that is definitely the end, with no hope of resurrection or afterlife. Moreover, the death of the “dream” that is Captain Marvel would symbolize the death of all he symbolizes: a positive world view that good will inevitably triumph over evil, that uncorrupted heroism is possible, that innocent virtue can exist.
Now, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is far from a work of despair: instead, it vehemently contends that moral heroism is possible and can triumph. But I theorize that Miller kills off Captain Marvel because to him the Captain represents an outdated sort of hero. The two Dark Knight series are in part about redefining the superhero to fit a more adult and morally complex worldview. Miller’s Batman even berates himself for having wasted time chasing bank robbers in the past instead of addressing greater problems in the political system. Miller’s Batman has redefined his mission against evil, and he teaches other heroes, both young and old, to follow his lead. Batman’s redefinition occurred in the first Dark Knight series; in this second series, it is Superman whom Miller seeks to redefine to fit today’s world.
Wonder Woman urges Captain Marvel to meet his end as a “warrior,” to “go out with a lion’s roar,” and he does (reminding me of Jack Kirby’s “The Glory Boat” in The New Gods). Even if Miller does not have Captain Marvel adapt to this new, grim and grittier world, he still salutes him by granting him a hero’s demise.
Meanwhile, Gotham City (another New York analogue) is “rocked” by “cries for freedom.” “We’re talking tights power,” asserts one grotesque media talking head, as Miller reiterates his metaphor of the superhero as freedom fighter. But for another perspective, look at what the next talking head says: “If this is treason, then treason rocks.” Are the superheroes and the political protesters in this series opposed to the usurpers of authority, Luthor and Brainiac, or are they, as the word “treason” suggests, opposed to the American system of government?
As for Gotham being “rocked” by “cries of freedom,” now the rock group called the Superchix reemerge in the series. The Superchix represent a younger generation’s attraction to the superhero myth, and their growing awareness of its political subtext of individual liberty. Appropriately, it is the Superchix who models herself after Batman who has the most insight into what this movement means. “Batchick” avows that “We’re looking at a seismic cultural shift here, with profound political consequences. That’s why everybody’s wearing the tights all of a sudden. It’s in the zeitgeist.” Perhaps Miller here is commenting on the resurgence of the superhero concept in real-life contemporary media, through, for example, all the recent superhero movies, and speculating as to why the audience responds so strongly to this imagery.
Batman addresses the young audience at the “Superchix” concert: “We aren’t here to rule. We aren’t here to bring chaos or anarchy. We’re here to end the reign of criminals.” Well, Batman (and Miller) is surely sincere in saying this. It is echoed by the Martian Manhunter in Paul Dini and Alex Ross’s JLA: Liberty and Justice, but there the Justice League appears to be acknowledging they serve at the will of the United Nations and the people of the world.
The majority of the American people do not back Batman’s American revolution; Miller even points out that the majority opposes it. At this point in the story Batman is gaining support from the younger generation, at least a segment of them, but this series gives me the impression that Batman would be out to topple Luthor’s rule whether Batman had any popular support or not. Batman may not intend to “rule,” but he and his allies are seeking to impose their will on the American government, which Luthor and Brainiac control. Batman says he does not intend to bring “chaos or anarchy,” but if one lops off the heads of the government, what happens next? Batman and company do not want to try to govern the country after they get rid of Luthor, so who will take charge?
So Batman and his allies take it upon themselves to intervene in the workings of a government, claim they have not come to “rule,” have no real plans for preventing chaos after they depose its leaders, and assert that they merely intend to “end the reign of criminals.”
Batman continues, “Luthor, Brainiac. This is only the beginning, tyrants. Your days are numbered. You can’t fight us – and you can’t find us. We strike like lightning – and we melt into the night like ghosts.” Batman is casting himself and his revolutionary movement as guerrilla warriors. Then again, one could describe terrorists the same way, and throughout this series Miller’s Batman characterizes himself as a terrorist. Yet next the story evokes the work of real life terrorists.
Miller shifts to a full page shot of silhouetted twisted steel girders amid rubble, and he repeats the phrase that Metropolis is “the city of dreams.” Miller has stated in interviews that he was working on this series when the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred, and this image inevitably evokes the remains of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero. The corresponding site in this story appears to be that of the Daily Planet building, likewise obliterated. Miller shifts back into his poetic mode of brief but vivid phrases for a description that could suit both scenes of devastation: “There are countless dead. But few corpses. Countless dead. Atomized.”
It’s odd: the World Trade Center attack was the work of malevolent terrorists striking out at the American government. The Dark Knight Strikes Again turns this upside down. Here the devastation is wreaked by the (secret) heads of the United States government, and the “terrorists” are the good guys, rebelling against it. If real life terrorists read American comic books, would this be how they saw themselves: as superheroic figures attacking a tyrannical, monolithic political establishment? Perhaps DK2 is not just seeking to revive the spirit of 1960s superheroes, but also the sprit of 1960s political radicalism.
Now there is a sequence of Superman and his daughter, Lara, the new Supergirl, amidst the ruins at Metropolis’s Ground Zero. The Dark Knight Strikes Again page that was in the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art show I reviewed last year is part of this segment. It evokes the difference between the father, who feels he has failed in his lifelong career and his daughter, just starting out on her own. In one large panel Superman stands surrounded by the rubble, and seems in a sense to be a part of it: Miller draws him as if his face and hands are smeared with grime, while Varley colors his normally bright costume in dark, somber tones. In contrast, Lara, here and throughout this sequence, floats above the rubble. Superman feels implicated in the disaster because he did not dare to fight back against Luthor and Brainiac; Lara has not yet been corrupted by the world and can hover above it, untouched by the catastrophe.
There’s more to the metaphor. Presumably inspired by those who lost family and friends in the 9/11 attacks, Miller establishes that the core supporting cast of Superman’s series – Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and even Lois Lane – perished in the annihilation of the Daily Planet building. It is not just his own moral compromises that link Superman to the disaster, but also his humanity, his personal connection to “normal” people. In this large panel Superman is looking at a locket he found amid the rubble: it is Lois’s, and holds joined pictures of herself and of Superman in his Clark Kent guise. The series has already established Wonder Woman as Superman’s lover and the mother of his daughter. There is no backstory given for the Superman-Lois-Wonder Woman triangle, so one can only speculate. One may presume that Superman’s feelings for Lois was his principal link to humanity. Indeed, though characters keep calling Superman “Clark” in this series, the only time that Superman is pictured in his traditional Clark Kent guise in DK2 is in this photo, significantly paired with Lois’s. Perhaps when Lois died, the death of Lois, Superman’s life as part of the world of humanity has died as well. Looking at the locket, Superman sees not only the image of the dead Lois but that of the “dead” Clark Kent, as if looking down at himself in a coffin.
And Lara floats above this, too. From one aspect this is a sign of her moral innocence. But in another, more disturbing aspect, this signifies Lara’s separation from the human race. As far as we know, the only people that Lara knows are her mother, Wonder Woman, and now her father. And as we shall soon learn, not only does she have no ties to humans, she has contempt for them.
In comics the deaths of loved ones can serve to motivate the hero to pursue his crimefighting career: Batman’s origin is perhaps the prime example of this. Put it another, more disturbing way: the deaths of loved ones frees the hero to embark on his new mission. The demises of Lois and “Clark” similarly function as the conditions out of which Miller’s redefinition of Superman will emerge.
Look at how Miller finds visual imagery to represent Superman’s strong, shifting emotions during this sequence. Enraged by the massacre, Superman is pictured as a living silhouette, his head totally black even though his costume remains in full color, with his eyes glowing a fiery red. Here is Superman overwhelmed by his own “shadow” side, his presumably long-gestating anger. (One might also interpret this as Superman “blackened” by his own guilt over not preventing this disaster.) There’s a similar image of a vengeful, enshadowed Superman, eyes ablaze, confronting Luthor in the recent Superman: Birthright #9; perhaps it was influenced by the power of Miller’s image.
In contrast there is the huge close-up of an anguished superman when Lara asks him about Kandor (the city of potential victims he has so far failed, but who remain alive). The raging Superman’s face was a black void; the face of the mournful Superman, looking at the locket, seemed obscured by grime; the anguished Superman’s face is entirely visible, as if his concern for others brings him out of the darker, withdrawn side of his own emotions.
Superman thinks, “Lara is everything. She’s everything.” This may signify not only that he hopes that Lara will succeed as Earth’s protector where he believes he has failed, but also that, with his Daily Planet colleagues dead, she is all he has left. The “human” side of his life is over, and he is left with his half-Kryptonian, half-Amazon daughter.
There follows another of Miller’s remarkable double-page spreads, this one depicting Superman and Lara flying against a cityscape, reminiscent of the lower Manhattan skyline, complete with a gigantic cloud of soot, that looks much like the one I could see out my own window on September 11, 2001.
One of the themes of DK2 is the relationship between fathers and real or surrogate daughters: Batman and Carrie, Superman and Lara. So it’s no wonder that Superman is startled when Lara abruptly asks Dad “So how about sex?” But no, there’s no incest theme here; Lara is merely asking about the facts of life vis-a-vis super-powered Kryptonians, though perhaps this links her with the open attitudes towards sexuality taken by other members of this series’ younger generation, notably the Superchix.
Apparently having read Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” Superman replies, “Never with Terrans. They’re fragile.” This may be the explanation of why Superman turned from Lois to Wonder Woman.
Perhaps wrongly assuming her father shares her opinion, Lara elaborates on Superman’s phrase “Fragile, puny, stupid. These humans – They don’t know their place.” Shocked, Superman tells her, “You’re very young. You don’t know the poison those words contain.” Indeed, Lara is voicing the bigotry of a female ubermensch towards her supposed racial inferiors. It should be remembered that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, were transformations of the Nietzchean concept of the superman, which Nazism would turn to its own purposes, into a democratic hero who would combat fascism and its master race ideology.
In DK2 Batman teaches his “daughter” Carrie, and now Superman, having long neglected his paternal responsibility to mentor Lara, seeks to become her teacher, to turn her away from her dangerous attitude towards humanity. “We don’t command the world, Lara,” he tells her, “We share it. At our best, we serve it.” This is exactly the position that J’onn J’onzz takes in Dini and Ross’s JLA: Liberty and Justice when he addresses the United Nations.
Lara not only disagrees but seems not even to comprehend why her father takes his position. “Why?” she asks in bewilderment. “The humans just make a mess of things. Look at them. When they aren’t killing their planet, they’re killing each other. For their own sake - why don’t we just take over and run things?”
Now there is an issue that a number of major works in the superhero genre have addressed over the last decade and a half: Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman, Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, Warren Ellis’s The Authority. If the superhero is the superior man or woman, shouldn’t he or she be running society? Each of these works finds a different answer to the question. For example, the Squadron limited series forcibly argued that even the benevolent dictatorship of its superheroes was impermissible, for even they violated individual rights. Notice that in both Squadron and Kingdom Come it is Superman (or, in Squadron’s case, his counterpart, Hyperion), who leads the superheroes who dominate the nation. Further, in both series it is Batman, or his Squadron analogue Nighthawk, who leads the forces of revolution against those superheroes in power. Batman is continually seen as a rebel, a revolutionary; Superman, the establishment figure, is seen as a potential ally of an oppressive political order, as indeed he was in the original Dark Knight series.
Here, in DK2 Batman is again a revolutionary, though he is acting without widespread public support from a populace that is mostly complacent or aligned with the established order, and Superman is being tempted by his daughter towards what he regards as tyranny.
Superman is appalled by Lara’s suggestion: “And do what?,” he exclaims, “Make them all slaves? That’s what the bad guys do,” he adds, slipping into simplistic language, perhaps suggesting Miller’s estimation of the depth of Superman’s philosophy.
Now one might think from his earlier speech that he is not out to “rule” that Batman would take Superman’s side in this argument. But now Batman appears as a voice on Superman’s head, and he instead castigates him for his shallow thought processes. As if he were his teacher in logic, Batman scolds Superman for “Working backward from a dumbass conclusion. Repeating whatever Ma and Pa told you without giving it a damn thought.”
Having physically beat up on Superman at the end of issue one, Batman has not yet finished mentally beating up on him as well. Thanks to a device he had the Atom plant inside Superman’s ear, Batman can now speak to Superman from far away, and transmit his image to him as well.
Batman has literally become a voice in Superman’s head, as if he really were Superman’s conscience. Batman has become like Superman’s guardian angel, albeit one who deals in tough love, trying to batter down his psychological defenses in order to set him on what he believes is the right path. Perhaps we can even view Batman and Lara, shown in one large panel on opposite sides of Superman, as, symbolically, his good and bad angels, one encouraging him to aid humanity and the other trying to persuade him to rule them.
Perhaps this image of Batman as a voice in Superman’s mind might even lead us to regard Batman and Superman as being like two sides of the same personality. Batman has become Superman’s Jungian shadow, representing a side of himself he has so far suppressed.
There is an interchange between the two sides. Studying the passive Superman, Batman finally figures out what has stayed Superman’s hand from attacking their enemies: the fact that Luthor and Brainiac hold the people of Kandor, the miniaturized last surviving city of Krypton, as hostage. As though continuing the concept of Batman and Superman as two sides of the same mind, Batman comes to realize Kandor’s fate without actually being told about it. And Batman now takes on some of Superman’s sympathy and concern for the stolen city.
But Batman does not let this stop him from waging his war against Luthor and Brainiac. The “Batman side” of the personality now asserts its dominance over the “Superman side”: Batman decrees, “From here on out, we don’t debate a damn thing… you work for me.”
Then the “shadow” figure of Batman tries to impose control over Superman’s dark anima, Lara, as well: “The same goes for you, young lady. You work for me.” But she angrily rebels, refusing to cede her independence to what she considers a human who doesn’t know his subservient place.
But this is Superman’s turning point: he sides with Batman, the shadow figure he had previously rejected: “The bastard. He’s our only hope.”
At this critical point Luthor triggers a long-range power surge that causes Batman’s image and voice to vanish. Lara believes that Batman is “dying.” But Superman for the first time in this series, smiling, denies it and tells her, “You don’t know Bruce.”
Well, Superman knows that Batman has already “died” and returned to life in the first Dark Knight, so it would not be a surprise if he were resurrected again. But why “kill” Batman off at this point in the story? Simple: by accepting Batman’s influence, Superman has incorporated the “shadow: element that Batman represented into himself. Batman the teacher has died only to be resurrected in the form of his student Superman’s new determination to fight back against Luthor. Lara may not “know Bruce” but now Superman truly does: Batman and Superman are now in agreement on what to do.
The story shifts to a full page shot of Batman hanging upside down, in something of a fetal position, attached to the figurative umbilical cords: the wires he was presumably using to transmit his image and voice to Superman. Is this a nod to the imagery of The Matrix, another saga of rebirth and revolution?
On this page, the supposedly dead Batman wills himself back to life: “Not just yet, old man… One more job to finish.” Batman’s sheer will and spirit will triumph over his physical limitations, even it seems, over death.
Elsewhere Batchick continues her slow but steady process of enlightenment, recognizing that they are “in the midst of a political crisis of global proportions” and that hence “It’s incumbent upon us to put our sudden notoriety to better purpose than shaking our butts.” The first Dark Knight series was in part about turning rebellious children – the male street gangs – to better goals; DK2 continues the theme through raising the consciousness of these apolitical, hedonistic girls.
The news media refers to Batman’s forces as “terrorists” as they storm an orphanage being used by the government for genetic experimentation on children. As noted, Miller’s Batman revels in the idea of being a terrorist, but by this point it’s clear that this is the label that DK2s” American government uses for anyone who opposes it by force. Again, the idea of the terrorist as hero seems particularly strange at this point in our history.
As for the genetic experimentation, this not only reflects the fact that genetic engineering, for good or bad, is becoming a reality, but also ties in with the series’ continuing theme about parents and children. Here is the government, an older generation, horribly mistreating the country’s own children. It also reminds me of Marvel’s recent Captain America series, Truth, which draws on actual reports of American medical experiments on unknowing test subjects and compares this with Nazi human experimentation; I note further that Miller is mentioned in the Truth paperback’s appendix as having provided advice on the subject.
On his way back to Earth, Green Lantern provides another variation on the theme that Batman is the “shadow” figure whose views the other superheroes had to assimilate in order to defeat the greater “shadow” of Luthor and Brainiac’s tyranny. Calling Batman “The mean one. The cruel one. The one with the darkest soul,” Green Lantern thinks wonderingly, “How strange that you, of all of us, would prove to be the most hopeful.” While other superheroes engaged in moral compromise (Superman) or retreated from the fray (Green Lantern), Batman’s idealistic fervor proved as powerful as his rage.
Next the third issue brings back a major subplot from issue two, the mysterious new Joker who murders superheroes, and one of the previous issue’s major themes, the question of determinism versus free will. Carrie meets a precognitive girl who has adopted the name and costume of Saturn Girl of the 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes. (This is a clever bit: the fact that she knows about a woman who lives a thousand years hence is proof of this girl’s ability to see into the future.)
The new Saturn Girl foresees that Carrie will be attacked by the new Joker. Can Carrie change the course of events, or is it predestined? In a flashback Carrie recalls her previous encounter with Joker II, in which he was garbed as Mr. Mxyzptlk. That’s appropriate: the Joker and Mxyzptlk are both evil trickster figures. Carrie thought she had killed the new Joker, but Saturn Girl warns that he cannot die. Is that because symbolically, he is Death? Miller draws his head as a skull behind a mask.
Next we learn that Marine gunships are heading towards Gotham to suppress Batman’s rebellion. Superman unleashes his powers against the oncoming military. Even though earlier Batman and Lara had seemingly taken opposite sides on the question of whether Superman should participate in the rebellion, Superman has now adopted and synthesized both their points of views. He has joined Batman’s rebellion to free humanity, but he also apparently accepts Lara’s belief that they should take charge of human affairs. “Lara, you are right,” he thinks; “This time is ours. The power is ours.”
Meanwhile, Lara tells Brainiac that she will submit to him “body and soul” to save Kandor. The subtext of sexual surrender is pretty explicit: though one might think that Brainiac, a computer intelligence, is asexual, he leers that she is “lovely” and talks about inserting his “nanobots” into her. Brainiac hooks her up to wires to keep her complacent, in perhaps another borrowing from The Matrix. More importantly, Brainiac’s description of how the nanobots will work on her “pleasure centers” to induce a state of “bliss” should remind readers of how issue one contended that prosperity had soothed the public into political complacency.
A media talking head states that polls show “a groundswell of public support for the President’s military assault on domestic terrorism.” Several pages later we are told that Congress has unanimously voted to authorize the President to use military force “to confine domestic unrest.” The President’s press secretary, who looks much like George W. Bush’s former press secretary Ari Fleischer, notes how high the President’s popularity is. So Miller is emphasizing that most of the American public disapproves of Batman’s revolution; he is leading a minority in trying to topple the current regime. One of the Superchix asks, “Are we just spreading our legs to executive power?” continuing the imagery linking rape to political domination in the scene between Lara and Brainiac.
Superman, demolishing a military aircraft exults, “This is getting good to me.” This is a sign of how much Superman is absorbing the attitude of the missing Batman, who earlier demonstrated his joy in battling government forces.
A hero’s main villain represents his dark side, so it should be no surprise that the story now cuts to Luthor, who is also enjoying himself inflicting violence. His target is Batman, who we last saw on the brink of death: he doesn’t seem that much better off now, having been captured by Luthor, who, looking and behaving like a seedy version of Miller’s Kingpin, keeps punching him in the face.
Luthor repeats the line about “Metropolis. The City of Dreams” in the course of babbling about how he is going to destroy the city within ten minutes, and he and Batman discuss Luthor’s evident plans to trigger earthquakes that would kill millions of people. (Is that last part a reference to Luthor’s scheme in the first Superman movie?) Some pages later, Luthor indicates that he and Brainiac intend to kill off all but one billion of the Earth’s population to make it more “manageable,” though that makes little sense.
Luthor just seems to want to perpetuate the murder of millions out of sheer bloodthirstiness. This has nothing to do with any previous characterization of Luthor that I know. He is a cerebral character; so what sense does all of this destruction make? It is a commonplace that no one thinks of himself as evil, but always finds rationales for his actions; hence, in real life tyrants and terrorists have ideologies. If Luthor is just killing millions of people Because He Can, how can we take this character at all seriously? And if we cannot take the Luthor of DK2 seriously, then how, even in a work with a strong satiric streak like this, can the character be used to make a serious critique of government?
Now Superman makes an important speech, in which he redefines himself and his role on Earth: “Ma. Pa. You were wrong. . . . I am not one of them. I am not human.” He rejects his traditional mentors, the two foster parents who taught him traditional American values, and chooses instead two different teachers: “It took my own daughter and my darkest rival – my despised opponent – to teach me – I am not human.” Batman himself has learned from the young: it was Carrie who formulated the political strategy at the end of issue two. Wonder Woman criticized Superman for not acting as Lara’s mentor, but instead Lara has become Superman’s mentor, in a reversal of the normal order. Superman continues, “And I am no man’s servant. I am no man’s slave. I will not be ruled by the laws of men.” This is the complete opposite of the conclusion of JLA: Liberty and Justice, in which the superheroes acknowledge the authority of human society. Is Superman arguing that to serve man is, in effect, to serve Luthor or the mindset he represents? Superman is saying that to obey “the laws if men” is to be a slave, to possess a slave mentality. He is sounding very much like the Nietzchean superman, indeed.
The American superhero has a dual nature: he is both human and superhuman, and it is the human side that ties him to the rest of mankind, and that restrains him from perceiving himself as superior to them.
The destruction of the human side of Superman’s dual life is complete with his rejection of his parents’ teachings. The restraints are now gone.
Superman’s head again turns to a silhouette, hiding his human features, as he angrily fires heat beams from his eyes. He declares, “I am no man. I am Superman.”
As a moment of comic relief, there is a vignette with Steve Ditko’s characters, the original Hawk and Dove, “just off Christopher Street,” a famous gay neighborhood in Manhattan. So, does Miller mean that the Hawk and Dove are a gay couple? (But they were brothers!)
Much better is the next sequence, with the size-changing Atom appearing as a giant in the shrunken city of Kandor. Putting the Atom in Kandor is such a good idea I am surprised that no one (as far as I know) had done it decades ago, when the Kryptonian bottle city was still part of official DC continuity.
It turns out that Batman allowed himself to be captured (and punched repeatedly) by Luthor to distract him. This seems rather masochistic on Batman’s part, but, in fact once he had converted Superman, his active role in the revolution was over. Batman had set all the players in motion, so no wonder Miller could let him “die” and vanish from the scene for awhile. Once Green Lantern arrives and strikes (in a Lynn Varley light show of green color), Batman can relax. He repeats his mantra from issue one, “Striking terror. Best part of the job.” It would seem that according to DK2, “terror” is a good thing if it is perpetrated by the right people. (Though somehow I suspect that, say, Osama bin Laden is as confident of his own rightness as Batman is in this story. Real life villains aren’t like Miller’s Luthor, who considers himself evil and is happy about it.)
Just as the Atom appeared in Kandor as a “colossus” who brought “salvation,” so now Green Lantern looms in outer space as a colossus who closes his fist around the Earth, in a gesture that mirrors Batman’s clenched fist signifying revolution on the cover of issue 1 and the last page of issue 2. Green Lantern’s gigantic size and power suggests that DK2 presents him, like Superman, as a being superior to ordinary men.
Also like Superman, Green Lantern now embraces the “shadow” side of superherodom that Batman represents. Green Lantern says that Batman was right: “Of course we’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals. On this planet we have to be criminals.” In other words, the superheroes cannot cooperate with human government; they must stand in opposition to it.
Even in the original Dark Knight, Miller’s Batman drew the line at killing. Not any more, although, significantly, Batman leaves it to a member of younger generation, the son of Hawkman, to kill Luthor. Batman exclaims, “Way to go, kid! That was great!” The Flash objects, but Batman counters, “Get used to it, Barry, These youngsters play it rough. It’s a whole new ballgame.” This is the second time we’ve read that line in DK2. Like Superman, Batman is learning from members of a younger generation who seem more ruthless than their elders were. And yet was it necessary to kill Luthor once Green Lantern had wrecked his plans? (And have we all forgotten that Batman could have captured Luthor when they met early in issue 2, thereby preventing many of the deaths that followed?)
Brainiac’s holding the Kandorians prisoners in their bottle parallels Luthor’s domination of Earth. Just as Batman and his allies liberate Earth, so now Lara liberates Kandor by smashing the bottle open. Joining their heat vision powers together, Lara and the Kandorians incinerate Brainiac. “And the monster screams” says a Kandorian: in destroying Brainiac, Lara and the Kandorians are enacting the mythic role of the dragon slayer.
As Lara rests after the battle, the Kandorian says, “Our savior sleeps,” perhaps making Lara a Christ figure; Christ symbolically slew the “dragon” Satan. But Lara is a wrathful demigod. Brainiac is destroyed by “fire,” and Miller three times gives us the line: “And hell comes to Earth.”
That is an ominous phrase. Is this a Last Judgement, in which Brainiac is consigned to the flames of hell? Does this make Lara, the one who sent him there, an analogue to Christ the Judge or to Satan, ruler of hell?
With Luthor and Brainiac destroyed, this leaves the Joker II subplot that seems borrowed from the “cape killer” mystery in Watchmen. Amusingly, Miller shifts to the subplot over two pages divided into many tiny panels, as if in acknowledgement that he hasn’t got much space left to wind this all up.
The second Joker murderously attacks Carrie, and so the prophecy has come true, although the new Saturn Girl left the matter of whether Carrie would die unresolved. Joker II pronounces Carrie to be “the daughter” that Batman “never had,” thereby making the father-daughter subtext explicit. There is a clever nod to various actresses from the 1960s Batman TV show (so, you see. my opening review in this column was not so far afield from the main topic).
And the new Joker turns out to be Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who in Miller’s alternate continuity, apparently never graduated to become Nightwing of the Teen Titans. Now perhaps his masquerades in Legion of Super Heroes costumes makes sense: in the Silver Age the Legionnaires, like Robin, were teenage superheroes. Maybe Miller is trying to lump all these “kid” heroes together. And while Miller certainly loves his own creation, Carrie Kelly, the female Robin, he definitely does not like the original version.
Whether by accident or not, this plot twist parallels the one in Warners Animation’s Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, in which a new Joker likewise is revealed to be a former Robin.
Batman tells Grayson he “fired” him for “incompetence” and “cowardice,” which are not traits associated with the Dick Grayson we know from the comics. Grayson’s hatred of Carrie is a lethal form of sibling rivalry, resentment of the “daughter” who displaced him as Batman’s sidekick, heir and surrogate child. “Damn you! I loved you!” the DK2 Grayson tells Batman. This is the cry of a rejected adopted son, or perhaps even, in a nod to the late Dr. Fredric Wertham, that of an embittered sufferer of unrequited love of a different sort. But could the Grayson of past continuity ever conceivably become a serial killer?
The Robin subplot is clearly important to Miller; the extreme close-up of Batman’s grim eye as he wields an axe against Robin is even used for the cover of the DK2 trade paperback. But why? What purpose does it serve in the series? What is the point?
Perhaps it is no more than what Batman tells Grayson: “You were always pathetic. You’re still pathetic.” Maybe Miller just really dislikes the kid sidekick characters of past decades, and created Carrie as an improved version.
What I find to be the most startling part of DK2 is Batman’s utter hatred towards Grayson. Batman must have cared for him once, and Grayson has clearly gone insane. But Batman shows not the least iota of sympathy for him or regret that Grayson turned out this way. Instead he ruthlessly tries to destroy him. Whether you think of Batman and Robin as father and son, big brother and little brother, teacher and student, or even as lovers, this is shocking.
First he tries to drop Grayson into the lava of an active volcano beneath the Batcave. (A what? Gotham City is a fictionalized New York, and New York State is not known for volcanic activity.) Grayson saves himself, so Batman beheads him with an axe, commenting that “I’m no Thanagarian, but it’s a good, clean cut.” (So it seems that Batman is following the example of Hawkman’s son and is now willing to kill.) Thanks to genetic alterations he underwent, this doesn’t kill Robin, who merely sticks his head back on. (What, is there Velcro attached?) So instead Batman throws himself at Robin, hurling them both towards the lava. “Let’s die,” Batman says, though he knows full well that Superman will rescue him. Having become more like Batman, Superman doesn’t bother with saving Robin, who is incinerated in the lava, as if he were Tolkien’s Ring at Mount Doom. The scapegoat, Robin, perishes, while Batman undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection.
The result of Batman’s revolution seems all too simple. He did not actually overthrow the government, but his forces removed the two “criminals” in charge, Luthor and Brainiac. The threat supposedly gone, Miller (through the Flash) pokes fun at two leading government officials, who are clearly caricatures of real-life Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft. So I suppose Batman’s goal was not so much revolution as assassination.
But wait: if “President Rickard” was a CGI fake, and Luthor and Brainiac the secret powers behind the throne, surely they must have had accomplices to execute their orders through the government and military. The top administration officials must have been working hand in glove with them. If in the world of DK2 Rumsfeld and Ashcroft were working for Luthor and supporting his policies (like mass murder), has Batman really saved America by leaving them in power?
The presence of Rumsfeld and Ashcroft further suggests that Miller means for Luthor’s government to symbolize the real-life federal government, and the current Bush administration in particular. But one cannot seriously accuse the actual Bush administration of literally committing the kind of atrocities that Luthor’s regime perpetrates.
So what is Miller’s actual beef against the U. S. government? What are his actual criticisms of it? How does he think that things could be run better? Towards the end Miller presents another Crossfire-style debate between Green Arrow, representing the left, and the Question, representing the right, that goes nowhere. There are no answers offered.
Does Miller just not like big government and the prosperous public that supports it? Is he just writing out of the sort of gut feeling he has against Dick Grayson?
Inspired by Batman’s victory, Batchick enthuses, “We could be witness to a profound change in human history here! This is totally millennial! These heroes offer us a fresh start – toward a better world! A brighter tomorrow!” The Superchix’s Wonder Girl sneers, “God, that is so Silver Age!”
Actually, that should be Neo-Silver Age. Miller does seem genuinely to see Batman and the other superheroes as symbols of individual freedom as providers of hope for a better world, as forces for positive change. In this way Miller’s versions of these DC superheroes really does recapture the spirit of the Silver Age, rejecting the cynicism, irony and pessimism of other recent comics.
But then there’s DK2’s last look at Superman and Lara, hovering above the planet Earth. (Just previously, Miller shows us that there is now a church that worships Superman as a god.) Superman, ceding the role of mentor to his daughter, asks her, “What exactly shall we do with our planet, Lara?” Lara watches silently, with an eerie look in her eyes. She reminds me of the Starchild at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the man evolved into a godlike being, contemplating the Earth. What will he – or Lara and Superman - do next?
Is it in keeping with the spirit of Silver Age comics to have a Superman who renounces his humanity and intends, effectively, to control the world? Is a Batman who murders Robin have anything to do with the Silver Age philosophy? Or heroes who so disdain democratic processes? No, no and no.
In “Dizzoner the Penguin,” Robin, Commissioner Gordon, and virtually everyone else thinks the Penguin will win the election easily. Only Batman trusts in the ultimate wisdom of the people, and by the episode’s end he is proved right. As a good West Wing watching liberal, whose sensibilities have been shaped by the politics and the comics of the’60s, I prefer this show’s attitude toward democracy to that of DK2. Batman has changed since the ’60s in more ways than one.
Perhaps I can postulate the existence of another school of contemporary comics writing, one that flirts with the dangerous dark side of the superhero myth, with the concept of superheroes who put their own moral codes above those of society, and who believe it is their duty, not just to save people from harm, but to impose their “higher” morality upon them. In honor of Warren Ellis’s The Authority, I could dub this the Authoritarian School.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again sets out on two different routes simultaneously, one towards recapturing a heroic, idealistic past, and another towards a particularly grim and gritty ideology. Which path are the comics of this first decade of the 21st century more likely to take?
It is quite possible that, as Miller had the Question say in the first issue, he is not out to propound answers, but merely to ask the “question.”
Having set up this dichotomy between popular ideals and elitist ideology in DK2, perhaps he intends to explore the subject further. I, for one, would like to see what Superman and Lara do next, and if they do decide to take control of the world, how Batman would respond to that. In other words, I hope we do not have to wait another fifteen years for DK3.
Speaking of hope, thankfully, The Dark Knight Strikes Again ends on a positive note as Batman, so ruthless towards the first Robin, expresses his genuine warmth and love towards his “daughter” Carrie. He seems humanized at last.
Carrie is surprised that Batman has blown up the Batcave, including the familiar relics of the past, like the giant penny. “But it’s your history. Your whole history,” she protests. Now maybe this is the real reason DK2 kills off Dick Grayson. Miller makes a point of reviving the Silver Age heroes in DK2, even ones that DC officially killed off, but he recasts them in contemporary terms, discarding what he feels no longer works. Perhaps the Dick Grayson version of Robin fits into that category.
On this final page of the series, having endured Luthor’s beatings and the rest, Batman looks battered and grotesque. He may be physically old, but through his actions he remains spiritually young; through redefining himself he has been reborn. He no longer needs the “souvenirs” of an outdated past because he has regained his vitality in the present. His last words in DK2 are “I was sentimental back when I was old.”
For still more about the Batman mythos, I direct readers’ attention to editor Michael Eury’s new Back Issue #3, now on sale from TwoMorrows publishing. This new issue’s cover feature is an article by yours truly about the history of the Joker, containing interviews with six writers and artists who did landmark work on the character: Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Jim Starlin, and Brian Bolland, who contributed the stunning and macabre cover.
-Copyright 2004 Peter Sanderson
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