WTF, DC? The Dark Knight Strikes Again

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.

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25 Responses to WTF, DC? The Dark Knight Strikes Again

  1. Gerardo says:

    I disagree with everything exept the splash pages (WHYTHE HELL ARE THEY THERe).

    The Art: for me is awsome, people dont like It and their reaction is like the one you get from a picaso or klee or any vanguard art, some dontlike It and dissmiss It, the fillers are something most writter could use, after all comic (as movies) try to tell a story with images, thats something many bad writters forget. Of course thats not an excuse for the waste of pages in useless splashes and double splashes (it would MAYBE work if the book were a colection of ilustrations)

    The Story: is comedy gold, uses a lotof extra characters for gags and mines everything serious about batman, and thats GREAT! Miller made the whole seriousness of Batman dark thing, now
    dissmiss all the incestuos thing, this hawk and dove are not brothers for what i can see, and that panel gets thelaught of everyone kind enough to laught at himself.

    Dont get me wrong, you cant say “oh is good because is a parody” that pissme off as any writter can say that to claim his/her story is just a joke so no big deal if is bad, but DK2 is good despite what Frank Miller wanted (good thing he is not theee to explain the book!), cause te orwellian dystopia and anti-hero stuff is the worst of the book (curious enogh that was what made the Dark Knight so awsome). It works as the antithesis to the previous book, Miller would work on an awfull third part that It wanted to be a mix from the two first (this is purely an hypothesis) and failed horrible but at least gave us the conedy gold line of “Are you stupid, Im the goddamned Batman!”

  2. this review was spot on, recently purchased the novel as a follow up to my huge enjoyment og TDKR and was disappointing to a ridiculous degree.

  3. Handshakes says:

    I just read DKSA, and I could be misinterpreting it, but I would have to disagree with your assertion that Miller was doing the same anti-superhero xenophobia thing that the X-Men have already mined to death. Miller *starts* to go down the anti-superhero path, but by the end of the novel he turns the idea on its head.

    *vague spoiler alert*

    By the end of the novel, Batman is the full-on bad guy. He even LOOKS like an ugly, demented freak by the end. Even more, he convinces Superman and all the other heroes to be baddies as well. I think that is kind of a neat twist that I certainly didn’t see coming (although it still falls in line with the Batman we see in Dark Knight Returns.).

  4. Jordan says:

    I had just finished the article and I literally had a “WTF?!?” over ten times before I was done reading. 5 alone were for Cassie being Catgirl……WHAT?!?! Most of the stuff I fully agree with, like the art and story for sure.

    However, there is one point that I completely disagree with in this article and that is the bit about Judd Winick. Sure, I’m not the biggest fan of the guy but I do have to give him props for his Red Hood story for Batman. Heck, it even goes on to be one of the best Batman animated movies to date. To say he hasn’t written one is a bit of a low blow considering and felt that it needed some pointing out.

    • The comic didn’t wow me, but I’ll check the movie out. Was there ever a reason given for Carrie being Catgirl, though? It seemed like such a waste to build her up as Robin in the first one and just arbitrarily switch her over to being Catgirl.

  5. Austin says:

    Guess I’m coming in a bit late.
    Honestly, I really loved this story. Sure, it’s terrible when compared to it’s predecessor, but I enjoyed it. On it’s own, it was still TOTALLY terrible, but that’s part of what I liked about it. But…I just don’t know what I did enjoy about it, like, I can’t put into words why I did, but I did.
    My main complaint was all the social satire. It was done well in it’s predecessor, but in this, it just stole the spotlight from the main story too often.
    It seemed that Frank was trying to reinvent Batman again, like he did in the ’80s. His vision of a new Batman was one that combined the most extreme parts of his gritty characterization and combined it with the campiness of the Adam West days….and this, I believe, led to All Star Batman.
    I’m not the first to have this theory, but I think it’s true. He made this new Batman he thought would be a hit, and everyone’s like “Hey, this sucked! Where was that deep, dark, gritty Batman you gave us so long ago?” to which he, with ASBAR, replied “….oh. you just want a gritty Batman? A dark Batman? Heh…heh. Okay. Fine. FINE. HERE IS THE GRITTIEST GODDAMN BATMAN YOU’VE EVER SEEN!!!!”

  6. PZS0012 says:

    I liked it. It was a big sloppy mess but I Fn liked it.

  7. Jackson "the JOKER" crowe says:

    So yeah. I agree with most of this. Exept the art being bad. I liked the art. Mostly cause it looks like mine -.- . But the thing with [spoiler alert] being the joker? Wtf? It worked in batman beyond. It COULD have worked here. Could have. It didn’t though. I was like: dat ending….WHAT THE ACCTUAL HOLLY MUSICAL FUCK BATMAN?!?! Srsly. I can understand batman showing nothing but hatred for [spoiler alert], after reading all star batman.

    The way i see it: “year one” and “returns” are in the same universe, and “allstar batman” and “DK2” are in the same verse.

  8. There are spoilers in this, so be warned if you haven’t read DKSA… then again, be warned and just don’t read DKSA.

    If you are making a piece of art, a painting or sculpture, it’s okay to have an image be puzzling, to have people stare at it and take their time to decipher and digest it’s content. If you are using art for SEQUENTIAL STORY TELLING, and especially when the art is so basic and stark, then your art has to be easy to understand. If it’s not, you yank your audience out of the story. They are looking at your pages like some “Magic Eye” poster from the 90s, trying to figure out if they are seeing a sailboat or Batman advocate murder.

    Yeah, Carrie/Catwoman beats some discipline into one of the S.O.B’s turned Batsoldiers because he killed some security guards. Batman and his disciples do not kill… But by the end of the story Bruce sits and drinks tea as Hawkman’s kids brutally mace Luthor to death.

    This story telling isn’t clever, it’s not a deconstruction, it’s not a sly rebuttal to Miller’s fans not understanding his vision. It’s the work of a man who was once very talented and very skilled as a creator, but who now rides along on his reputation and past glories. This is the man who emphatically stated that only HE could do justice to the Spirit movie, and then turned it into …. well… whatever the hell that was. He tried to give us Batman kills Osama but DC was smart enough to balk at it… so he removed the ears and bat symbol, colored him red, and voila: Holy Terror was foist on the public.

    As great as Miller WAS, his work on Daredevil, his additions to Wolverine, the early Batman stuff, Sin City and so on, were a long time ago, and he just doesn’t have the chops like he did. It’s like seeing your favourtie old rock band come out of retirement, just to find out that they are washed up, burnt out, and tone deaf. The Dark Knight Returns is legendary, and deserves the fame and attention it has garnered. DKSA is just fodder for internet critics and anyone angry enough to realized that they actually paid money for it. The review on this page is accurate and tries to be fair. Linkara at Atop The Fourth Wall has done a lot about it, and raises even more points that show that this work it.

    • Peter Milligan, I think, might serve as a better example of a comics writer whose mainstream work has slid from inventive, daring, and original to personality-free blandness, though part of me thinks he may have had more freedom in the early ’90s and editorial mandate/shareholder interest might be the driving factor behind his wholly unexceptional work as of late.

      Frank Miller, on the other hand…I’ve read Robocop, Spawn vs Batman, Sin City, All-Star Batman and Robin, and I can’t say I was thrilled with any of them. Extreme violence feels pretty hollow in Miller’s hands, and what TDKR had was a novel concept, emotional stakes, an involved history (the previous 50 years of Batman stories), an aesthetic that was unique, and violence that felt necessary to the story, rather than just window dressing/padding, which is what DKSA feels like (and Robocop, and Sin City, etc.)

      Why DKSA fell flat for me: the “future Batman” concept had been done to death by the time DKSA was released, there are so many characters and Bruce/Carrie are so different from their previous incarnation that it’s hard to care about them (they’re strangers), there’s so much going on that the plot doesn’t grab a hold of you or involve you in any way, and the art is terrible (TERRIBLE!). It felt like a really small amount of unfocused, inconsistent story spread out over three giant-sized books.

  9. I just read Peter Milligan’s New52 Stormwatch run, and I fully expect to see that title get ripped apart by reviewers as soon as they realize it exists. There were strong points, and sometimes the story stayed consistent, but then out of the blue it would just flop and flail like a fish on a pier. I can’t tell if it was Milligan just not caring, or if he had to change his story to follow DC Editorial Mandate and just gave up.

    It was like Courtney Love’s America’s Sweet Heart album. A few great tunes, then you can actually hear when she started using drugs far too much and it all goes down the tubes.

    Oh, and “chin spike”.

  10. Luis says:

    LYNN VARLEY!!!! She was equally amazing on DKR and horrible in the DKSA. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like she just learned Photoshop. I get there may have been a tongue and cheek moment in there somewhere, but I couldn’t join the parade of DKSA defenders. I have to say that there may have been a couple or so pages that looked okay, but it was toward the very end of the series. Too little too late. Miller’s art was just unlabored. Like he drew on napkins and pasted it together and put it under a light table and inked it. No way Janson could have saved it. No way. I think he would have not even taken the assignment. Sad to see these things happen to beloved masterpieces and masters of a craft, but Miller’s not the only one it’s happen to a lot of other artists out there from the 90’s.

  11. Ed says:

    The more time passes, the more this book becomes a prophetic piece of art. Every time I read this book it gets better.

  12. Watching you says:

    How dare you little shit criticize Frank Miller!!!!
    DK2 is awesome!!! You go to hell mister!

  13. Carlos Carlos says:

    Has anyone considered that Miller was just trolling the entire world?

  14. Brian says:

    I can’t say the art in either book impresses me. The earlier book is “better” but only because, I guess, something has to be. But both just seem very amateurish and similar to something I would draw on the cover of my spiral-notebook in high school. Frank Miller has been losing his grasp of sanity for decades, I suspect he has some-kind-of non-cancerous, but still impactful, brain-tumor that’s somehow gone undiagnosed since Reagan was in office.

    • I like TDKR’s art, but possibly only because of Klaus Janson’s inks and Lynn Varley’s colouring abilities (at the time). Varley and Miller just simplified the process to the point of stupidity in TDSA.

  15. giovannivonpalilla says:

    Reblogged this on I read much of the night and commented:
    That’s exactly what I thought after reading DK2…WTF?!

  16. The art, the panels, and the constant social criticism out of sync seem to me quite intentional. DKI reflects the 1980s, when journalism and the news and opinion polls were very popular, such as the Cold War in the end and the Gang Wars. DK2 deals with the world of 2000s, with Internet, where a news loses importance in 2 minutes, where everything is image, and the colorization of adobe perfectly emulates the internet environment. Even the attitude of the heroes shows a youth that does something by simple impulse, without any need for rationalization. And Orwelian World is simply our Internet world. A puppet president of globalist powers (Brainiac and Luthor). What really breaks the story though was that during the publication, occurred 9/11. And Frank Miller was deeply traumatized by it – to the point of later publishing “Holy Terror”. For him, DK2 lost relevance at that moment, he wanted blood, and from that point you see him discounting all that in Batman, the beating that Lex Luthor gives in Batman, and the attitude “now we kill” that Batman suddenly assumes , Totally contrary to the character. If the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had never occurred, the last edition would have been quite different.

    • You raise very valid points, but there may be a little something you didn’t know.

      When Miller was working on DD, and made the jump to DC and started on Batman, giving him the darker, edgier tone, he was living in NY and was mugged. Twice. It was what led him to want to see criminals punished in a more severe way. He has been quoted about it, I don’t have one handy but you can look it up, and his attitude about using violence against “bad guys” has not toned down since.

      So, with his history of being a victim of crime, and his being in New York during 9/11, and the way he reacted to it, can we agree that it seems that tough guy Frank Miller, fedora wearing, angry talking, blood and thunder Miller, is actually a delicate flower who is easily psychologically scarred by any negative experience he has?

      For all his bluster, for all his manly man swagger, this writer never got involved and made a positive change after bad circumstances. He instead let it dominate him, let it control his attitudes and colour his work as a result. He just got on his word processor and wrote fantasy stories about violent retaliation against perceived enemies. We’re lucky the Occupy Wall Street movement ended when it did, or Miller, who was vocal about his opinion of the protesters, would have tried to give us ” Holy Terror 2: First Amendment Fear. The Fixer fixes modern hippies”.

      The more I read of his modern work, the less respect I have for Miller as a creator and as a human being. People face adversity all the time, they deal with trauma in all kinds of ways, but not Miller. He reverts to an angry high school kid writing revenge fantasies about whoever was mean to him

  17. Anaëlle says:

    You said it all, I never agreed more with an article.
    I opened the book, I looked at the illustration, I froze for a few seconds, looked at the rest of the book..and was like…wait ? What the hell is this ? Why is it like that ? This is ugly as fuck. (I’m sorry I don’t mean to be disrespectful that’s just my taste) I’m going to try reading it later but if the story is meh too, well that doesnt make me want to read it..too bad, I loved the Dark Knight Returns. It was amazing, really. I was looking forward to know how things were going to turn.

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