Saturday, April 10, 2010

Out of the Vault - DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Part 1

As we've seen over the past few weeks, in 1986, Frank Miller blew the comics world out of the water with his amazing miniseries, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. He followed it up the next year with his "Batman: Year One" storyline. It would be 15 long years before Miller returned to the storyline that had helped redefine comics and superheroes for an entire generation.

In 2001, DC Comics and Miller came out with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, or DK2 as it said on the front cover. I eagerly snapped up the first issue to see where Miller's story would go next.

It's obvious from the first pages that this story will be very different from its predecessor. Dark Knight Returns (henceforth known as DKR) opened with Bruce Wayne in a car crash, then transitioned to TV news reports to give us some exposition and teach us about the world, with interesting details slowly and subtly filtered in.

DK2 opens three years after DKR, with intriguing full page layouts featuring several interwoven TV talking heads over Batman's face. But unlike the previous story, there's no subtlety here at all. Instead we get footage of President Rickard (who just happens to have the same last name as Prez, DC's teen president from the 70's) alternating with Jimmy Olsen screaming at us about civil liberties, as if Archie Andrews had grown up to become Howard Beale.

But don't think that just because Reagan's no longer President that things have improved. No, no. And that's why Batman is planning to end his self-imposed exile. He's done hiding while the world goes to hell.

Next thing we see is some dude in a loincloth battling a hideous tentacled monster in an endless sea. He manages to kill the thing, but is then grabbed by an even larger monster. All seems lost when he is bathed in light and begins to grow. Who is he? He's Ray Palmer, better known as the Atom, and he has been held prisoner in a petri dish for lo these many years. But now a 16-year-old girl in a cat costume (Carrie Kelly, the girl Robin from DKR) rescues him from his captivity, and we can see several more ways in which this story differs from its predecessor.

The artwork is cruder, for one thing. Miller did his own inks on this one, and while Klaus Janson had never been a graceful inker, he did manage to bring a certain consistency to Miller's artwork, and even occasionally managed to emulate a bit of the old Adams-Giordano flavor on certain pages (I sometimes wonder if the Giordano influence I think I'm seeing may not have been from Giordano pitching in to help meet deadlines--unfortunately, Giordano died recently, so I may never know). Miller's work in DK2 is very inconsistent, looking pretty good on some pages, blocky and rushed on others.

And unfortunately, Lynn Varley's colors don't help things this time around. In DKR, Varley's subtle use of airbrushing brought depth to Miller's chunky figures. By 2001, Varley had discovered the computer, so instead of subtlety, we get page upon page of flashy, garish color effects. DK2 is ugly.

And not just in art. After Batman sends Catgirl on another raid to free Barry Allen (the Flash) from federal custody, we learn the awful truth: the world's three remaining legal superheroes--Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel-- are all in fact helpless victims, working for the bad guys. Prez Rickard is a hologram controlled by the real power in America, Lex Luthor (portrayed by Miller as a Kingpin-sized ogre). Luthor, working in conjunction with Brainiac, is controlling the three most powerful heroes in the world by holding Mary Marvel, the island of Themyscira and the Bottle City of Kandor hostage.

Because, you know, it's not as if Superman didn't save Kandor from Brainiac in their very first encounter, back in 1958. No, this is the post-Crisis Superman, held hostage by fear of what Brainiac will do to those poor helpless Kryptonians. Superman's whipped.

Luthor's not happy about Atom and Flash being freed, so he sends his boy Superman down to take care of things once and for all. So Superman shows up in the Batcave, at which point we get a reprise of the climax of DKR, only instead of a tragic final battle between friends who are both convinced they are right, we get this extended brutal beatdown of Superman the stooge, because Supes sux and Bats rulz, y'all. Oh, and this time, instead of a simple cameo from Green Arrow during the battle, we get Atom and Flash and GA all taking great glee in beating the shit out of their former teammate before Batman steps in to take things to a whole notha' level with a pair of kryptonite Hulk Hands.

Yeah, you read that right. Batman hits Superman with a giant KOKK. By the end of this first issue, we see that Miller has managed to ignore almost everything that made DKR great. DKR took place in a larger world illustrated through media clips, but was ultimately about one man's struggle with aging and mortality and his place in the world. DK2 was Yet Another Loud Comic Book About Guys With Powers Beating Up On Other Guys With Powers. In DKR, what made Superman's final battle with Batman great was that Superman was a good-hearted guy doing what he thought was right, and Batman was a totally outgunned underdog using his wits to triumph, barely. In DK2, Superman was a chump working for the bad guys who never stood a chance against Batman's army. DKR worked political satire subtly into the background. DK2 had characters screaming polemics at the audience.

The other problem was that it just wasn't as fresh the second time around. DKR had succeeded in large part because Miller overturned the conventions that had been stifling a stale character, took things in a darker direction than most other comics of the time, and made a lot of clever changes to established characters and relationships. But 15 years later, Miller's darker approach had become the stale convention. And Miller's plot twists, like making Luthor the power behind the President, weren't fresh anymore (at the time in the DC canon universe, Luthor actually was President).

There was still some cool stuff in there. It was nice to see Ray Palmer getting some play, because he was a character that no one at DC had known what to do with for a long time. The scene where Catgirl shoves him into her mouth was icky, but clever. The action scenes had some punch, and there was still hope that Superman would join the side of the angels again and help justice triumph.

What I'm saying is that, though it appeared as if Miller was betraying the characters as they had always been portrayed and as he had previously written them, there was still a chance that he could pull it out and make everything turn out all right. You couldn't just write him off after one issue. Sure issue one wasn't great, but it could have been worse.

It got worse. But that's issue 2, next week.

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