Friday, October 9, 2015

What About "Dark Knight Strikes Again"? - a follow up to the Frank Miller post

Someone online rightfully pointed out that in my previous post on DC Comics as a flat circle and why we should both be delighted and horrified by a new Dark Knight installment by Frank Miller, I forgot to mention the Dark Knight Strikes Again fiasco.  Their phrase, not mine, but, perhaps apt.

Let's discuss, shall we?

And, of course, that's right.  I literally forgot.  I knew what I planned to say, but I forgot to write it in there.*  So, look, here's a whole post, so I don't want to hear from any of you that I don't take feedback or get inspired by folks who do look at the site, Randy.

But, if I were to talk about Dark Knight Strikes Again, I'd have to do so in context.  So, here goes:

I was about 25 when Dark Knight Strikes Again was announced.  To have read DKSA during its release window was an interesting experience to say the least, and somewhat foretold of Frank Miller's inability to complete a project, as occurred with both Holy Terror and All Star Batman. DC seems to have carefully guarded against this eventuality for Master Race (AKA:  DKIII) by giving Miller co-writers, artists and, likely, assigning an armed guard to the man's front door.

But I was also 26 when a plane flew into the World Trade Center right in the middle of that run of DKSA , and I was waiting around at the comic shop a little puzzled when the book suddenly went dark and, when it resurfaced, we had a different Frank Miller on our hands.

If you want to see an artist experience a life-change mid-work, look no further than DKSA, everyone.

The hype leading up to Dark Knight Strikes Again was immense.  Kids like me who had felt our brains peeled open by Dark Knight Returns in the mid-80's were now in our mid-20's or older, adult-ish, and we'd seen the transformation of the industry up close and personal, from stuff equated with The Super Friends to the rise of Burton's Batman films to the "hey, comics aren't just for kids" movement that launched Vertigo (back when that name meant something) to the countless attempts to reclaim the magic of DKR in and outside of the Batman titles.

But nothing else was Dark Knight Returns.   And, the further we get from the book's release date, the more I've come to realize - as influential as it most certainly was and is, it's also absolutely a book of its time.  Reading what anyone under a certain age has to say on the book is a baffling exercise to those of us who were either there at the time or in the immediate aftermath (I was in the latter camp).  I imagine it's what folks who were there must have felt like when Revolver hit the radio.  Sure, you can like early Beatles better, but, you know, respect what happened there and understand how that changed things.

And, I kind of nod like a wizened old grandpa when I see comments about the art Miller put out for the new project (yeah, the dick-pic of Superman), because it all sounds a lot like the initial reaction to Dark Knight Returns back in the day, when mainstay artists were more like Jim Aparo or Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  From the sketchy art style to Lynn Varley's muted color palette, the visuals pushed a lot of buttons and cut through a lot of what folks expected in a comic.

If you followed Frank Miller to 300, then along the path of Sin City, you'd seen his art transform and change through the 90's.  On those books, Klaus Janson was no longer around to tighten him up, and Lynn Varley was not participating in those B&W Sin City books.

To a large extent, it was a logical progression when I cracked the first issue of Dark Knight Strikes Again and saw how the characters were now drawn.  Frank wasn't going to just repeat himself.  Even steadfast Curt Swan's style changed over the years, and we got something looser and sketchier from Miller's pencil.  Lynn Varley, meanwhile, had uncovered digital coloring and didn't really care what you thought the panels should look like.  The Dark Knight comics were not there as superhero comfort food in either volume.

DKSA looked to be a book about getting the band back together, to pick up the flag of anti-authoritarianism as authoritarianism was about corruption at the highest levels.  And, Batman, from Dark Knight Returns and Year One, had been about upending those power structures when it came to his mission as dictated by Miller.  His "war".

You can see the outline of what the story in Dark Knight Strikes Again was supposed to be.  At the time, DC wasn't as tied to deadlines as they have been since about 2008 when things got so sloppy we were seeing 6 month gaps between issues of ongoing stories and titles.  With a prestige book like DKSA, there was a time when I just expected it.  Writers and artists weren't working in advance, the books came out as they finished each issue.  Really, DKSA was my introduction to how close to the line they were really working.

To make a short story long, when the book came back with issue 3, it was a totally different comic.  I literally thought I'd missed an issue or two, but, nope.  After all, it'd been a while, right?  But the issues were consecutive.

Instead, 9/11 had happened.

Say what you will about Sin City, but it comes from a place.  Miller had created a singular world in which to tell the grittiest, no-holds barred crime stories he could imagine, and that's probably a discussion for another day.  His Batman work, 300, Daredevil, Martha Washington... all those series inform both the pre-9/11 work and what came after.

In the midst of all of the superheroics and world-crushing devastation, our heroes mourn.

When the kids so casually call Frank Miller a crazy asshole, I get it.  Given Mr. Miller's behavior in public and what he's said himself, not what he's put in his character's mouths, has been a lot of stuff that sounds like "crazy uncle who had too much to drink and is unloading at the Thanksgiving table".  I'm a little slower to throw some of the other labels on Miller, as sometimes I don't agree with the framing of the criticisms.

Miller has an idea of superhero characters who live in a world writ large, and DKSA was a call to comics to engage on a level that, frankly, is the opposite of what's become popular in the modern era.  Miller's Bruce Wayne is not going to have a "Pizza Dog" and have meet-cute's and whatnot.  He's too busy dismantling world power structures and fomenting social revolution by exploiting a mass audience's devotion to dumb pop stars.

I hadn't re-read the comic in probably 6 or 7 years, but I went to do some fact-checking, and wound up re-reading the whole thing, cover-to-cover.

Before we go just trashing the guy, Frank Miller better knows the DCU than anyone wants to admit.  There's an easter egg or reference on nearly every page.  Page after page, there's stuff that I know made no impact on me in 2001 when I was reading the comic the first time.  Secondly, it's far more prescient as commentary and what would spill out of 9/11 and the years afterward than I think any of us would realize.  And, third, it's at least trying, and it does so on a multitude of fronts.

It has it's issues.  The re-appearance of Dick Grayson as a sort of undead maniac, in particular, sticks out at me as a "where are we going with this, Frank?" arc that never really pays off except to answer a question no one was asking.  The two biggest crimes of DKSA are likely that tonal shift from chapter 2 to chapter 3, and the already hyperbolic management of page and narrative that went from frenetic to chaotic.

Miller, for good or ill, expanded on the multi-voice chorus he'd pioneered in Dark Knight Returns and directly inserted the multitude of images into the page.  And, unlike DKR, which only really recognizably used Ronald Reagan's face, DKSA went ahead and used real politicans, political appointees, television political commentators (people used to watch those shows.  I'm serious.), celebrities and MTV-style coverage that was taking root at the time and which would come to meld seamlessly into legitimate news coverage if you look no further than CNN and Headline News.  As much as DKR is a product of the mid-80's, DKSA is absolutely a product of the turn of the Millennium and Chapter 3 a product of 9/11.

But clearly that wasn't a delivery mechanism that worked for a lot of people.

I know that after I read the comic, originally, I was disappointed.  It's "problematic" in that film school or english-lit reviewer sort of way in that it has ideas that aren't entirely in line with the right answer for a post-Marxist literary survey class.  And it wrestles with those conflicting viewpoints on page, from panel to panel.  The war going on over the ideals is right there and written out for you by the hundreds of talking heads (which abstract into nattering faces more and more as the comic goes along), and that's all Miller.  Even when he's drawing exploitive images of women as objects, there's a deluge of ideas about that presentation surrounding the characters themselves.  Commentary upon the commentary upon the commentary.

Now, I don't know.  Is it a fiasco?

You know, maybe.  It's chaotic as hell, the art isn't going to be to everyone's liking, and it isn't a warm cup of cocoa to make you feel cheery.  It has more in line with the post-punk nihilistic storytelling that you could find as an undercurrent in the 1980's, certainly, and whose "no future" ethic has been all but lost in the modern era.  But, man, that pacing.  It's hard to wrestle with, and when you deal with the jump from issue 2 to issue 3, it really does feel like the whole thing is pulling at the seams as Miller roars to the end without caring how he gets there.

I don't want to be too in the bag for the comic.  But I'm old.  It's reflective of the stuff that got me fired up when I was 12-25.  For as much as I appreciate the book for what it is, I'd just as soon read a book that speaks to my own moral compass a bit more, like Kingdom Come, that also relied a lot more on traditional comic storytelling and manages to tell a clear tale.

But I also don't want for comics to feel static.  For all its faults, DKSA is using the characters, medium, etc... to say something perhaps deconstructive about the nature of superheroes, but also about the readers, politics, the world beyond the page.  Compare that to the Convergence event DC waved us all at this summer, and...  you know...  I want to feel like someone is trying.  Miller may be a madman in his dotage, but 15 years ago, he was doing something kind of interesting.

Now, if the internet is any indication, we wait with an angry curiosity to see what he decides to foist on us this time.

*You try pounding out these posts at this alarming rate and see how well you do.


Stuart said...

Jeez, man. You actually made me rethink my hatred of Dark Knight Strikes Again. That is no small feat. Dark Knight Returns was an article of its time, but it absolutely holds up in terms of delivering a satisfying and emotional story, complete and coherent with its own internal logic.

I was so in the tank for the sequel. I was so ready to be blown away again. And I think the deal is, I just never got over the stinging disappointment of it. But I have to admit, I would rather read a hundred ambitious failures than the pablum DC is putting out now on a monthly basis.

The League said...

Yeah, if DKR is tied to its time, it's in the Cold War-era setting and everything you'd understand about that if you were a Cold War kid. Also, government and media were both happily lampooned in a way that's either fallen out of fashion or our humorless political affiliations have drained us for the ability to appreciate satire. All the rest, though, absolutely.

I'd be curious to know what you'd think if you re-read the book. When I started the post, it was with a "yeah, that didn't work out so well" thesis. It was really in re-reading it that I felt like whatever happened to me between 2001 and 2015 unlocked the book for me in a new way. There's nothing new on the page, but as a whole, it actually sold me. Still not Dark Knight Returns, but then again, what is?

AnneS. said...

You mention the gap between #2 and #3 as being related to 9/11, but I believe even issue 1 came out 6 months after, in Feb. 2002. It was HIGHLY anticipated by everyone, so the final product was almost bound to disappoint in some way. I remember reading it, looking for the good in it, looking for redeeming quality. For me, it just fell so short in so many ways of what I wanted that it was hard to judge it on its own merits. I do not remember the plot, or even a single line of dialogue from the book. I remember the look of it, lots of chunky bodies drawn with thick lines. It was different. It was "messy", verging on abstractness in my mind. The lines were blurred, it wasn't clear cut.

I remember when the #3 deadline and ship date came and went, because I remember being in the sales dept. at DC when it came out. I remember retailers being so mad at the company and me personally for the delay, but we couldn't say a thing about it. One retailer who was trying to set up a Miller signing on the day of #3's release who called me all sorts of names and accused me of incompetency and giving him the run around and being in general a stupid person who was trying to ruin his business, and all I could do was take the heat and continue stalling on setting up the signing because we had literally no idea when the issue would be ready.

So, I still remember it as a fiasco because it made my customers angry and disappointed in their sales, despite all of the recurring printings. And they would frequently tell me why they didn't like the book and what was wrong with it. The overall impression I was left with was one of disappointment and frustration over the missing joy they had hoped to feel upon having this new Batman Miller story.

I'm sure you're right, that 9/11 created a new world, and subsequently a new perspective on everything, so it's natural that Miller would have wanted to take time to rethink the story he was telling. Maybe people just weren't on his wavelength, or they weren't ready for the opinions that he was laying down. I should go dig up my copies and reread them, keeping your observations in mind.

The League said...

yay! Hey, Anne!

I'm wondering how my memories line up with 9/11, vis-a-vis the delays, etc... I just looked it up, and it seems the first issue came out Dec. 2001, shortly after 9/11, and issue 3 came out in July 2002. That's a long stretch for three issues.

What a hell of a position to find yourself in. As much as I would have loved work in comics at some point in my life... man. You're a better person than I would have been in the situation.

I likely won't revise the post and hope folks read down this far so I can correct the dates, etc... here. What I recall was the lengthy delay between issues, the clear 9/11 imagery, and the certainty that issue 1 was done well before 9/11, and issue 3 reflected the world we finally realized we were living in.

As per the dislike of the actual execution - that one's a bit tougher. I'm pretty comfortable with it all, especially now. But to hear what was going on at DC proper during all that had to have been really depressing. I don't know how you separate that experience in sales from the book.

AnneS. said...

I'm sure you are right on the timing, but I wonder if the cover date is December 2001, but the actual day of release was later? I tried to look it up for myself and couldn't get a simple answer.

The DC Wiki for issue #1 says February 2002 (maybe it's referring to the cover image? Maybe that's a reprint cover they're showing?)(, but the Dark Knight Returns overview page on the same Wiki says, "The series was originally published as a three-issue limited series (November 2001 - July 2002)" (

Regarding separating my sales experiences from the books themselves, they don't really affect my feelings about the stories in the long run. I also have good memories from the #3 release because I was fortunate enough to help out with the eventual signing that took place, and it earned me the chance to go out to dinner afterwards with Mr. Miller, Ms. Varley, and a selection of other comic people. I think it may have been a consolation prize for all of the crap I'd had to put up with before. :)

I have a lot of wonderful memories of my years working in a comic store, and I also have some good ones of my time at DC, but I also have a lot of bitterness about it too.

AnneS. said...

Oh, and I should mention that was not the worst thing a retailer ever said to me. One "gentleman" refused to speak to me at all, insisting that he speak with someone who actually knew how to do their job. *eye roll*. I can laugh now, but at the time I was very emotionally strung out and once I hung up I wound up taking off my headset, throwing it on the desk and loudly declaring that the person was an asshole before bursting into tears. He wasn't even one of the stores I was responsible for, just some guy who heavily ordered on a book (I don't remember what) and was freaking out, thinking he was about to be totally screwed over if he couldn't sell them.

After working comic book retail for... about 7 years, I always tried to be sympathetic to retailer needs, but some people just wanted to be mad. Side note, as a result of all of my sales time, I'm still one of those people who bends over backwards to treat clerks, cashiers and shopping cart wranglers with respect and genuine attempts to make their lives easier whenever possible.

The League said...

Yeah, I literally just pulled those dates off of Wikipedia and trying to piece together my own memory of the era.

I do remember buying at least the first two issues when I lived in Austin before I moved to Phoenix for a stint in June 2002, as I remember what shop I bought them at, but it looks like I must have picked up issue 3 after the move.

Having dinner with Miller and Varley must have been a really terrific experience. I hope it was. I'd hate to hear otherwise, so let me have my fantasy.

I have run helpdesks on and off for various tech areas in higher-ed, and, yeah... some folks really, really do want to just yell. I do try to be as sympathetic as possible. I can appreciate some exasperation, I can even sympathize with when I start getting someone's life story. Can't help you when you're just coming in looking to belittle and bellow because your folks never taught you not to act like a drunk pirate when things don't go your way.