Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Mighty Blarg Strikes Again

The Dark Knight Strikes Again
 Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller
Published: DC, 2001

I figured, in my limited wisdom, that since I kicked off Ye Olde Blogge with a review of Frank Miller's 1986 masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, it would make sense to end my unofficial hiatus with a review of Frank Miller's 2001 ...piece, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

So, our story begins three years after the events of TDKR and, oh brave new world, things are rough. It is revealed that the President of the United States is a hologram! Who could be pulling the strings? None other than Lex Luthor, evil genius and arch-nemesis to Superman. Luthor's behind-the-scenes manipulations have led the USA to great peace and economic prosperity, but at the cost of the freedom of its citizens [the country has been in a state of martial law for nineteen months]. Through "President Rickard", Luthor has essentially become the dictator of Earth. He has imprisoned or enslaved most of the Justice League: Ray "the Atom" Palmer is trapped in a Petri dish; Barry "the Flash" Allen is powering half the country by running in a fancy hamster wheel; and Superman just does Luthor's bidding, whatever it may be.

Enter Batman, Carrie "Catgirl" Kelly [formerly "Robin"], Oliver "Green Arrow" Queen, and their small army of militants. For the past three years, they've been in hiding, but now Bats has chosen their moment to strike... AGAIN! 

no Bat Hair-Plugs in that utility belt?

Despite some glimpses of the great art/writing we know that Miller is capable of [perhaps making TDKSA all the more frustrating], I think this comic ultimately fails. There is just too much wrong with it. Death by a thousand cuts! And some blunt trauma. And a stroke or two. 


It is hard to believe that in three years, the USA went from President Reagan to a goddamned hologram. Really? Sure, it's a "cool idea", but how the hell did he campaign as a hologram? Did he start off as a lowly hologram mayor? A real person who is a figurehead just makes so much more sense. And in three years, we went from a slightly-more-sinister USA to an all-out dictatorship? Indefinite martial law? Nationwide curfews? Repealing the Bill of Rights? It would be a logical progression from TDKR if Bats was fighting against a sinister government that was trying to take things to a "1984" level, but it's just too much of a leap as is. There are other examples that I will forego in the interest of NO SPOILERS, but ultimately this book lacks cohesion with its infinitely better predecessor.

Not only that, it also seems to lack a fair amount of cohesion within itself. Some of that could be attributed to the larger scope of the story, but GOD DAMN things are scatterbrained in here sometimes. Stuff gets introduced randomly and then disappears randomly, without any significance to the plot. In the first book, "talking heads" in the form of news anchors, "experts", and people on the street would pop up here and there to raise questions, offer different points of view, or simply for expository purposes. That technique is increased tenfold in TDKSA, and although I feel like it does strike a chord in today's Internetty world of information overload, it isn't done with any panache. Most of the time, it is just people YELLING. Of course, maybe that was a point Miller was trying to make. It does, however, add confusion to an already bemusing comic.  

The writing is largely overwrought. I have said before that Miller lacks subtlety, but there is not a subtle bone in this book's body. "President Rickard's" National Security Enforcement Director is a fellow named Bill Prick. Seriously. This is the razor-sharp wit we are dealing with here, people. And one point we are treated to FIVE splash pages of Supes and Wonder Woman fucking. In space. Through their costumes, somehow. Five full fucking pages, which end with them crashing into the ocean and this:

being all that they can be!

So these two heroes just murdered a bunch of people who were on that aircraft carrier. Whatever floats their boat, right? [PUN INTENDED LOLOLOL] Which leads me to another problem with this comic: the characters. They don't act like themselves. The above is not the only time Supes is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of innocent people. Also, half of the JLA have been either knowingly working for Lex Luthor for fuck knows how long or just standing idly by as he rules over humanity, and they haven't figured out some plan to stop him yet? Supes is supposed to be a super-genius. His super-brain hasn't come up with anything? Really? I would believe it more if they were unaware Luthor was calling the shots and were convinced what they were doing was for the greater good.

Also, our titular protagonist doesn't seem like the same guy we saw in the previous book. In TDKR, despite his commitment to the fight for justice, he had doubts and internal conflict and things that made him a good character. He seemed more like a person. Here, he just seems like a bullheaded dick. He's not really likable at all. He's always right about everything and rubs it in everyone's face. There's a difference between being badass and being an asshole.


Oh god oh god oh god. This is painful. I think I can forgive most of the transgressions up until we start discussing the art. Some of it is quite good. Miller's trademark rough/gritty look can still deliver and create real atmosphere and feeling. But that's only when he remembers not to hold the pencil between his butt-cheeks.

"I move swiftly and silently on my child-like legs."

Ugh, I just can't get over how terrible this is. I am embarrassed for Miller that it got published. And there are many other examples of this shit.

I could go on for a while with the negatives, but let's try to look at some of the positives!

Like I mentioned above, the constant yammering of the masses does feel like idiots on Youtube that you see everyday, so at least it's realistic there [and somewhat premonitory! remember, Youtube didn't début til '05]. There's a prologue in the form of an article written by Vicky Vale [oldschool Bats reference] which I enjoyed and which serves as a semi-functional bridge from TDKR.

The Atom's intro is pretty epic. In fact, most of what he does is pretty great. His power is shown to be so much more than "gets small":  electron-surfing in one scene, bounding around in someone's inner ear the next. J'onn "Martian Manhunter" J'onzz has a small role, but is cool, as per usual. Plastic Man is good for some laughs and a memorable moment of writing occurs when he is released from his prison: "like a baby born without any skin-- like a soul puked up from the depths of hell-- he screams loud and long and vengeful..." Actually, I would say the supporting cast is much more likable than our leads, and I did appreciate the effort that was put into including many of the JLA's secondary characters.  

The moment when the precognitive Saturn Girl has a vision of Carrie's fate at the hands of a mystery bad guy was particularly effective and provided my GBM [Goose-Bumps Moment] for this comic. 

no eyebrows in the future?

The ending is somewhat deus ex machina, which isn't my favourite plot device, but it mostly works. The final page is appropriately sentimental and is practically the only time we see Bats not being a huge douche.

Oh, and we get to see the ex-Mutant duo of Don and Rob from TDKR, which I thought was a nice touch.

One explanation for this gaudy mess could be what I like to call the George Lucas Effect: basically, Miller was still a rising star when he created TDKR, so he had people around him that would shoot down his shittier ideas. Now that he's a full-blown household name in the industry, nobody dares tell him that it is really stupid to portray Hawk and Dove as a possibly incestuous gay couple.

I think the only way I can say that Miller hasn't lost his mind is that he was trying to be funny and/or satirize the story he created 15 years prior/comics in general/society. But that still doesn't make it good. I think Miller lacks the finesse that such satire would require. And in the end, nothing excuses some of the art in here. I can honestly say ten year-old Thor could draw better than some of this schlock.

Bottome line, America: I think this is a clear case of style over substance. But if you look at The Dark Knight Strikes Again with a sense of humour [as I try to view most things] and as a major departure from The Dark Knight Returns, and don't mind the lazy art, you probably won't hate it like some did. Me, I don't hate it. It is a failure, but a spectacular failure, and I think there is [some] value in that.

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