Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most critically-acclaimed comic book series of all time, and for good reason; it’s the ultimate in badassery. A what-if tale set in a bleak future in which an older, retired Bruce Wayne forces himself to dust off the cowl and dive back into crimefighting despite the fact that he might not be up to it physically. It imposed a darker, grittier tone on Batman than anything that had come before, and the approach was so successful that comic scribes and filmmakers have been emulating it ever since. The Dark Knight Returns, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, popularized the phrase “graphic novel” (much to Moore’s chagrin) and made it culturally acceptable for non-geeks to be seen reading comics in public. Maybe. Jury’s still out.
Fifteen years later, when Miller released a sequel entitled The Dark Knight Strikes Again, anticipation was high. Phantom Menace high. And, like the infamous Star Wars prequel, the hype appeared to be inversely proportionate to the quality of the material. The two biggest problems:
1. The Art.
The characters in The Dark Knight Returns look like this:
The characters in The Dark Knight Strikes Again look like this:
Outlined in five minutes using a black magic marker and then coloured in later using some sort of Adobe product, by all outward appearances. The difference between The Dark Knight Strikes Again and its predecessor is that Klaus Janson isn’t inking this one, which is why everyone is drawn like they escaped from Miller’s Sin City.
Then there are the splash pages. Dear God, the splash pages. In The Dark Knight Returns, splash pages were used sparingly, giving readers a momentary emotional pause, as well as establishing a mood or creating an impact within the context of the story:
In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, there is a ridiculously large amount of splash pages, almost all of which showcase Miller’s blunt, simplistic lines, in addition to being wholly redundant. Here’s three (out of five) splash pages featuring Superman and Wonder Woman having sex:
Keep in mind that’s three (out of five) pages in a row showing exactly the same thing.
Then there is the double splash page: a single picture spread over two full pages of a comic. This is usually reserved for an event intended to be epic in scale, like every Legionnaire in history showing up in Legion of 3 Worlds, or all of the Lantern Corps banding together in Blackest Night:
These are images containing visual information that can’t be given on a single page without losing much of the impact.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again contains the following sequence of three double splash pages in a row. That’s six full pages devoted to this:
Is it even clear what’s happening here? No. Is Miller’s art so spectacular it needs as large a display as possible? Not really. There’s no narrative justification for this, nor does the content warrant using such a considerable amount of the book’s physical space.
The newest Batman and the Outsiders at its nadir (which would be the Batman R.I.P. tie-ins) also contained a lot of filler:
No more than one line of dialogue per panel. You can actually see penciller Ryan Benjamin struggling to fill the entire book, but nobody cared because nobody was reading Batman and the Outsiders anyway. The Dark Knight Strikes Again, on the other hand, was one of the most anticipated comic books of all time.
2. The Story
If you were looking to read a story about Batman, you’ll have to wait until the second issue of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and even then you’ll have to wade through over a dozen other DC heroes vying for the spotlight: Jimmy Olsen, The Atom, Carrie Kelly (who’s retired the Robin uniform and is now calling herself Catgirl), The Question, Green Lantern, The Flash, Superman, Elongated Man, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, the Joker (or is it?), Martian Manhunter, Captain Marvel, Green Arrow, Hawkman and Hawkwoman (maybe), and Lex Luthor. Oh, and Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter, Lara, who takes up way too much of this book considering how unflatteringly she’s written.
And then there’s this:
The Saturn Girl uniform makes sense, since the creepy little girl is a powerful telepath/psychic/whatever that can see into the distant future, but why is the Joker wearing a Cosmic Boy uniform? Why is an internet bimbo wearing an Ultra Boy costume? Are the Legion of Super-Heroes common knowledge to people in the past? If so, why include that moment where Saturn Girl explains (admittedly, in a very cool way) her wardrobe and codename choice?
There’s also this:
So Hawk and Dove are gay, I guess. If the nipples, prominent codpieces, and Hank’s ’70s porno ‘stache didn’t telegraph that loudly enough for you, there’s the “Just off Christopher Street” line. Christopher Street in Manhatten was the site of the Stonewall riots in 1969, an event that kickstarted the gay rights movement in the US. Christopher Street, for this and other reasons, is also probably the gayest street in all of New York. And if that weren’t enough, there’s the “Don’t ask” line down there in the corner. Not to mention the fact that Don Hall and Hank Hall are brothers. So they’re not just gay, they’re incestuous and gay.
Seriously though, what the fuck? Why does this panel exist? It can’t be what it seems. There’s no way editors at DC looked at this and said, “Yes, this is a perfectly acceptable thing to put in what will undoubtedly be one of the year’s most widely-read and highest-selling books. This certainly isn’t one of the most homophobic panels ever drawn by a guy with a fixation on gladiators.”
Not helping matters is the climactic battle between Batman and the Joker, whose identity is revealed and motives explained in a scene that makes the character seem like a spurned ex-boyfriend:
Is there anything to like in The Dark Knight Strikes Again? Sure. A bad Frank Miller Batman story is still miles ahead of, say, a good Judd Winick Batman story (pure hypothesis, of course, as a good Judd Winick Batman story has yet to exist.) Three elements in particular stick out. One: Miller ‘s drawing style actually works when applied to the Question, and the typewriter narration is a nifty trick as well. Two: Captain Marvel’s demise is unexpectedly poetic (his death can be read as a commentary on what happens to all superheroes when readers stop following their adventures.) Three: the little mutated orphans should’ve gotten their own subplot. They’re horrifying and adorable.
The storyline of The Dark Knight Strikes Again is pretty meh: anti-superhero sentiment in an Orwellian dystopia, with a pointless murder mystery thrown in for good measure. This would be a compelling storyline if our friends at Marvel hadn’t spent the last couple of decades running xenophobia into the ground. The matter of who the Joker really is and why he’s killing costumed heroes is touched on so infrequently it gets overwhelmed by the brighter, shinier, stupider elements rampant in Miller’s script, and it wasn’t terribly interesting to begin with.
Should The Dark Knight Strikes Again be judged on its own merits and viewed as a singular piece of work separate from The Dark Knight Returns? Maybe. But it was written and marketed as a sequel, so a comparison is unavoidable, and boy does it suffer in comparison. As a continuation of the first story, it’s worthless. Standing on its own, it’s a bloated mess. This book is basically the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of comics: an unnecessary follow-up, sloppily told, and capable of tarnishing your fond memories of what made you interested in the franchise in the first place.