Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns has become a piece of comics cannon, it’s the comics equivalent of Casablanca, justly hailed and lauded from inside and outside the comics world alike. So, fifteen years later, expectations were high for the sequel. Dark Knight Strikes Again is a work that’s far removed from the closely controlled original, a messy, expansive and insane work. It’s also a masterpiece, easily my favorite Miller work, a reimagining of the superhero for a post Dark Knight/Watchmen world that turns the grim and grittiness on its head by just going completely over the top. It takes a lot to really baffle me, but this work had me constantly asking what the hell is going on, and loving it.

Dark Knight Returns is about the encroaching, increasingly powerful media of the 80s. At this time, media meant TV news, and the work was primarily about the way society perceives the rebirth of Batman in the age of Reagan. It’s a great, great work, and I think it’s still extremely relevant today. Strikes Again is just as politically and socially relevant as its predecessor, but in a totally different way. Rather than try to replicate the world of today, it’s all about taking the changes in information and society and projecting them into the crazy future world of the DCU.

Rather than the closely controlled panel grids of the original, we’ve got a messy mix of media personalities all calling out for our attention. The officially sanctioned voices clash with rogue broadcasters in a cacophony of chatter. The voices are more extreme, all against vague electronic backgrounds, the internet incarnate.

Miller’s art is much freer this time, frequently drifting into abstraction. I love the style he’s got here, the energy of the panels. Things drift out of reality, starting with the great sequence where Carrie Kelly, now Catgirl, rescues the Atom. I love how Carrie changes costumes throughout the work, like Miller had too many cool looks to limit himself to one, or maybe he just got tired of drawing the spots, who knows.

Batman himself changes looks too. I love his first appearance here, wielding massive gloves for no apparent reason and whooping Superman to a pulp. I still haven’t read All Star Batman, but this incarnation of Batman practically demands to be referred to as the Goddamn Batman, or perhaps even the Motherfucking Batman. He’s the ultimate badass, disrupting the entire societal power structure and loving it. The intensely angsty character of Dark Knight is largely gone, replaced by a joy-filled, sadistic bastard. I love the opening sequence of chapter two, in which Batman assaults General Cornell Starbucks and confesses “My young charge enjoys herself more than she should. So do I.” No more “Sides aching, back on fire, I’m too old for this.” Batman is back and he’s just totally lost it.

I love works where creators just totally indulge their whims and tell stories that mesh together a massive series of messy, cool moments. This work is barely coherent, and certainly not as precise as Returns, but it’s such a rush, I don’t even care. There’s a ton of ideas here, a lot to analyze, but what takes priority for me is the sheer energy of the work. Batman ends the book by saying “I was sentimental – back when I was old.” That sums it up so much, this isn’t the nostalgic, conflicted Returns, it’s the glittering birth of a new world. Batman is reborn and he’s not feeing the pain. I love the way Miller draws him in the last chapter, his face a mess, the ears of the cowl sagging over, and joy in his eyes.

One of the things that amazed me about the work was the way Miller kicked it up a notch with every chapter. We start with batboys, the Atom surfing the internet, Superman beaten to a pulp and Batman kicking him out of the cave. From there, things go progressively crazier, culminating in a last chapter that blew my mind on almost every page.

When Alan Moore tried to reinvent superhero comics after Watchmen, he retreated back to the old patterns. He tried to revive the wonder and awe of the Silver Age, but books like Supreme and Tom Strong don’t really provide a new paradigm. We’re at a point where Tom Strong is enjoyable, but it’s not substantial. Kirby’s work, which is so frequently lauded in those comics, was not based simply on cool stuff and fun, there was great darkness there, but also a liberated craziness. In following Watchmen, many creators became bound by the need for realism, to shun the ‘comic booky’ things and try to be grown up.

This work presents a new paradigm, in which the grim and gritty world of Dark Knight is fused with the total insanity of Jack Kirby’s best work. Moore, though I love him, is never good at infusing his works with chaos. This work feels a lot like a Morrison comic, a furious collection of ideas spinning so fast it threatens to fly off the rails at any moment. I found myself laughing a lot while reading this comic, not because it was bad, but simply because it’s so insane, I’ve got no other way to react. I can definitely see Miller himself sitting around laughing as he draws the pages, just loving the ideas he’s come up with, and it’s a contagious enthusiasm.

What is this new paradigm? The work is essentially about heroes deciding that they no longer need to be bound by the rules of the ruling establishment, they’re free to remake the world as they see fit. It’s an interesting message, particularly considering Miller’s politics. 300 has been criticized as a fascist work, I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Sure, you could read it as an almost master race allegory, saying that the Kryptonians among us shouldn’t be bullied around by the weaker rulers, they should claim society and remake it in their image.

But, that would hinge on there being an exclusionary message in the work. I don’t see that, it’s more about understanding that we hold the power, we can fight for a good cause and not sit back and watch corporations and lying presidents take control of our world. At the end of chapter two, Batman tells the masses to “Pull on your tights -- and give them hell.” It’s a call to revolution for everyone.

Using that logic, the superheroes are the societal leaders, the ones who set the agenda for the masses. Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are so fearful of what the leaders can do, they serve their agenda and remain silent. Superman in particular is so totally impotent at the beginning of the work, serving his worst enemies to protect the bottle city of Kandor. Batman’s beating pushes him to the edge and sets up one of the work’s most notorious scenes, the Superman/Wonder Woman cosmic fuck. I love the scene, the over the topness of Wonder Woman asking “Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?” It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s also exhilarating.

I can understand why people would have such a problem with the work. Dark Knight is hailed for its realism, for its groundedness. A lot of people have issues dealing with fantasy, they would say nobody talks like Wonder Woman talks in that scene. That’s true, but fiction isn’t about creating reality, a work like this is about building its own world, and in this world, that’s how people talk. It’s a heightened reality and as such, when Superman and Wonder Woman fuck, they hit 7.8 on the Richter Scale. It’s particularly notable that they flip over an aircraft carrier, those weapons are puny compared to the power held by the two of them, they can remake the world without opposition from the existing order.

Diana tells Clark that she’s pregnant immediately after that scene, it’s a moment that ties in with Lara’s appearance later in the story. Is she actually pregnant now? I don’t know, but it works on a metaphorical level, they have once again gained the ability to give life, to create the world they want. She tells him “You could populate a planet,” and in the end, that’s what they start to do, they make a world liberated from the oppressive order, where all can be heroes.

The work feels very relevant to the world we live in, particularly the post 9/11 reality created by George Bush. Bush was the perfect president to serve the larger agenda of the military-industrial complex. He’s a programmed president, just as much as the hologram we see here. And General Cornell Starbucks could just as easily be Admiral Steven Halliburton. And, even when he’s proven to be fake, people still like him. “Who cares if the president doesn’t exist? He’s a great American!” And, mid-way through the work, 9/11 happens, an alien attacks the country and Superman has to save us.

Only, Superman fails. The assault happens and chaos descends on the world. It is in this chaos that Batman begins his plan, to enlist the people, destroy the existing social order and rebuild it with the help of his superpowered compatriots. Lara is the only one who sees this at first. Clark and Diana have been prisoners of the existing social order so long, they forgot the power they have. For them, the connections they have in the world prevent them from acting. Clark wants to protect Lois, he wants to protect Kandor, but Lara realizes that trying to save Kandor is really destroying it. The bottle city is a great metaphor, aren’t we all in a kind of bottle created by society? Would we rather preserve the bottle and go on living small, insignificant lives, or burst the bottle and explode forth to remake the world. This desperate attempt to preserve what we have now may be precisely what’s stopping us from evolving.

That’s what Batman understands, he is the avatar of chaos in this work, instigating everything that follows, bringing the heroes back and starting the process of waking up the world. This is a work about revolution, about a character who’s not happy with fighting crime, with suppressing symptoms, it’s about seeking a cure for our greatest societal ill, destroying the corporate masters who enslave us and rising up to demand a new and better world. Batman isn’t actually in the book that much, he’s there mainly to jumpstart the other characters. I love the scene where hologram Batman calls out Clark, then says “I’tll be a bitch if we screw this up. Good thing we won’t.” This is the goddamn Batman.

The work that this book reminds me most of is actually The Matrix: Reloaded. In both cases, the original was a tight narrative that became an instant classic. Then, the sequel lost sight of traditional narrative and became a mix of totally over the top action and interesting philosophical ideas. In a lot of ways, that’s what I want most from any work, an exhilarating rush while you’re reading it, and a lot to think about after.

As the third chapter winds to its close, the cosmic hits. Green Lantern engulfs entire planet in his hand, and Lara merges with the citizens of Kandor to destroy Brainiac. This is what a superhero comic should be, really mindblowing, chaotic action. I remember watching action movies as a kid and loving those chaotic, layered climaxes, where everything spun out of control. That’s what this is, things in a mad rush of ideas and images, almost too much to absorb. It’s never ironic, it’s not retro, it’s taking that grim and gritty world and infusing it with the insanity of the Silver Age. The two are not mutually exclusive, that’s what this work proves.

Another moment I absolutely love is crazy messed up Batman telling Luthor “Heads up. That window behind you is about to explode. And you’re about to die.” He’s such a badass, totally tortured, but still leaning back and watching Hawkman rush in and crush Luthor’s head with a mace. Then, fucked up Batman tells him “Way to go, kid! That was great!”

But, the Goddamn Batman’s got one last mission, defeating his old pal, Robin. The implication here seems to be that Robin was holding him back, he didn’t have the guts to change the system, so Batman replaced him with Carrie Kelly, who does share his desire for revolution, and love of sadistic violence. Things spiral further into insanity when Batman cuts off Robin’s head, and the head tells him “Damn you, I love you!” Batman calls him pet names, playing on the whole homoerotic thing, before shoving him into a lava pit.

Old Dark Knight would have died here, as he says “This…would be a grand death…couldn’t ask for any better.” That Dark Knight was tired, and seeking to go out as best he get. This Batman doesn’t want to die, he’s just started a revolution and he’s ready to see it through. That’s what I love about the final page. He’s blown up the past, those are all just symbols, baggage. It’s the idea that matters, the revolution inherent in these heroes. On a metatextual level, you could see the whole work as Miller calling for people to discover the revolutionary impetus that created all these heroes. Superman was fighting exploitative factory bosses as much as he was fighting criminals, it was about social justice, but that got lost along the way with the giant pennies and the robot tyrannosaurs.

Here, Batman says fuck that. “I was sentimental – back when I was old.” It’s a perfect summation of the work. He used to be dying, now he’s better, he takes a beating and keeps on going because he’s going the fiery spirit of a young man. It was society that was killing him and now that he’s liberated it, he’s ready to go back to work. You could argue that Batman isn’t so much a man as a spirit, he was being oppressed by the society, close to death, but now he’s surged back to life. He killed the ultimate tie to his past, Robin, and now he’s ready to build the future. It’s a perfect closing line.

For me, this work is easily the best comic of the 00s by someone not named Moore or Morrison, and one of the greatest comics of all time. It’s messy, and joyous and crazy and exhilarating. Reading it is reading a revolution, a call to arms. More than anything, it was a rush to wonder what the hell Miller would bring out to top what’s come before. After chapter one, I thought there was no place crazier to go. I was wrong, Miller tore our society a new one with this book, and I think it’s going to take a while for us to catch up. I just wish the Batman of this book would come into our world, wake up the heroes and take the power back from General Cornell Starbucks and his illegitimate government.


David Golding said...

I read this as it came out, and took great pleasure in it a) as, ultimately, a response to 9/11, and b) as a big "fuck you" to everyone who thought DKR was meant to be a respectable comic.

Continuing on from my DKR/Watchmen comment...

If Moore thinks Superman (Dr Manhattan) could never be bound by politics, Miller in DKSA thinks Dr Manhattan (Green Lantern) could never be truly beyond human concerns.

To me, the biggest failure for DKR/Watchmen was in trying to critique (then) modern superhero comics when they took their starting point from Golden Age elements: crimefighter(s) plus one superman. DKSA does take us forth into the Silver Age, where there is a profusion of interacting superheroes. Miller then is casting his old self and Moore, who previously kept the superheroes under lock and key, as Luthor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reviewing this one, Patrick. I always HATED that DKSA receieved such a negative backlash. No one seemed to understand the satire/social revolution themes of the miniseries. I loved it. Thanks for commenting on the analogue of Bush being a hologram controlled by Big Business(represented by Lex Luthor here.) I agree that Miller wrote this as an indictment against the 'grim and gritty' comics that followed DKR, too. He seems to be saying 'There's a place for that, but there's a place for Atom being trapped in a petri dish for years and the Flash powering a city, too. And besides all of this, you are right, there are some incredibly "epic" moments that just make for plain fun comic reading. Great comic. (I still think Year One is Miller's best work ever, though.)

Patrick said...

The thing I love is that he doesn't tone the grim and grittiness, he just throws in all this superhero craziness on top of it. I think that's a big part of what troubled people, the fact that Miller took his 'realistic' universe and turned it into a comic book place. DKR was the kind of the book you could show a non comics reader and say, see comics are realistic and meaningful. This one would be more, look, comics are seriously insane! But, still very meaningful, full of post 9/11 significance.

Mauricio said...

I agree with your view: it was refreshing to see the DKR going insane. The vulgarity of the senile Batman is very very funny. The problem I have with the book is the art: it feels extremely lazy. I mean, you could justify it by saying such sloppiness is in tune with the deranged and absurd world of the DKSA (actually, sometimes the drawings feel like Mad parody of the DKR origianl ones), but that would be extremely condescending towards Miller. He's just being extremely lazy in the execution of what I think was a good concept. By the way, do you imagine this deranged world drawn by someone like Bill Sienkiewicz? Whatever happened to that guy?

David Golding said...

I think the art's wonderful. In fact, looking at it now, I like it even more than when it came out. It's dynamic while conveying the age of most of the characters.

Sienkiewicz provided art for Gaiman's uninspired Endless Nights in 2003, so he's still kicking around.

Patrick said...

Some of the art is a bit 'sloppy,' and I think the random cutin people in the later issues definitely feel like Mad Magazine style. But, on the whole, I love the look of DKSA, the messy craziness fits the book perfectly. I like how Batman inexplicably changes appearance from the Dark Knight style of chapter one to the beaten up, floppy ear Batman of chapter three.

I really like some Sienkiwicz, but I don't think he'd fit the aesthetic of this book as well as Miller. Miller's figures here are big and blocky, almost like that cel shaded Zelda game or Powerpuff Girls, while Sien is all about flowing images. I've really got to check out Elektra and see how those two did working together.

And Dave, I agree with you that the art's aged really well. I read the first chapter when it came out and was just confused, and not impressed. But, going back, everything looks great.

Mauricio said...

You should read that Elektra book. It's almost like a pop parody of Daredevil. It's absurd and vigorous. The art is amazing and it conveys those feelings in a wonderful and deranged way. I remember that Sienkiewicz did a very entertainig series of cards named Frienly Dictators: each card had a friendly dictator (of the USA) with stats and data. Very cool cards. Man, I'm so old! Ha ha.
P.D. Cool review of Baise Moi
P.D. Harmony Korine was here in México city for a series of lectures and a retrospective of his films. I saw Julien Donkey Boy and Gummo. Amazing stuff! In particular Julien Donkey Boy, an extraordinary film. Are you familiar with them? You should check them out.

S.B. Werb said...

Well, I definitely need to read DKSA, and I haven't read DKR in about 8 months. It seems that DKSA is completely different than DKR, going forward to sensationalism with zeal as opposed to DKR's methodical and bleak outlook. Also, I'm of the party that does not like the art...It feels skewed and twisted, a form of chaos. I'm all for chaos plotwise, butI can't handle a whole comic of it...that's what turned me off form DKSA when I tried to read it.

wanderingstu said...

Brilliant thoughts, man. Really helped me firm up my own swirling brain as i finished reading this book. (by the way, her name is Lara)

Patrick said...

Ah, so it is. I've edited the post to give her the correct name. Though, I do think that Kara-El is a better name than Lara-El for her.

Chris Donner said...

Disclaimer: I never was/will be a "comic-book" nerd. Not that I'm implying that here to any of you, or meaning the term in a derogatory manner. I became casually interested after the 1989 Batman, then the animated series. Only in university did I discover the quote-unquote graphic novel. I'll admit the only ones I bought/own are both Dark Knights and Watchmen. The only "comic" I was an avid fan of as a child/teen was Calvin & Hobbes. Which DKSA's styles remind me of the high quality paintings and Sunday strips of Bill Waterson, especially Calvin's imaginations of his world. In short I'm a fan of any great creative creation, in any medium. I remember when I bought DKSA, I started reading it on the subway ride back home, almost missed my stop. It was actually the first Graphic Novel I read/bought, even before DKR, totally blew me away.

Patrick said...

I think that gets to a lot of of what makes the work so tough for people, the fact that it doesn't really match up with the stylistic expectations that people have for a serious comic. Miller's art becomes abstract, and very cartoony at times. I love it, but I think people who were expecting the same generally serious vibe of DKR were not ready to deal with it. I actually think it's pretty close tonally to DKR, but people pick out the pieces of DKR they like, and ignore the way that this work builds on a lot of what's already laid down.

Kapil Joshey said...

Hey, really awesome review. I avoided DK2 till yesterday, then read about DK3 happening, so figured I'm gonna have to read DK2. And whoever gets offended by DK2, or the art (ok, yeah, the art IS bad, small misstep though), well, "It's a different ballgame" as Batman reminds you repeatedly. There are so many modern, real world issues and conspiracy theories out there (fake president, Brainiac's nanobots controlling everyone {IRL, mass media works this way}, Lex Luthor holding the real power) it gets mind boggling! Really an awesome read, if you can understand the subtext.