A Miller's tale

Apr 10, 2002 at 12:00 am

Even Batman needs a hero, and he's got one in Frank Miller.

Fifteen years ago, when the dominant public image of the Caped Crusader was still TV's wooden Adam West and his ridiculous bat-gadgets galore, artist and writer Miller refiled the old flying mammal's once-sharp teeth and recaptured the dangerous violence and nocturnal spirit of the ambiguous superhero with The Dark Knight Returns. Set in the near future, the four-issue, 196-page "graphic novel" (not comic book, please) imagined an aging and bitter Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to don the cowl for one last go-round. Gotham City crime spirals out of control, Commissioner Gordon is forced into retirement, a towheaded young girl becomes the new Robin, and Superman is revealed to be an extension of the U.S. military.

Cinematic, densely plotted, and genuinely thrilling, The Dark Knight Returns won raves from comic-book geeks and pseudo-intellectuals alike. It broke through to mainstream media coverage in Time, The New York Times Books Review, and elsewhere before becoming the biggest-selling English-language comic book (sorry — graphic novel) in history. The subsequent complete trade-paperback version has never been out of print. Perhaps most importantly to the military-industrial-entertainment complex, though, Miller's re-envisioning of Batman helped jump-start the stagnant, never-ending discussions about the character in Hollywood, and led to the cash-cow franchise of Warner Bros. Films — which weren't all that good to begin with and got steadily worse.

Now, a decade and a half later, after George Clooney, Joel Schumacher, and the OnStar Corp. have once again devolved Batman into a bad utility-belt joke, Miller has returned for another rescue mission. But he doesn't quite see it that way.

"Actually, when I first called up [publishers DC Comics], I told them, 'I'm ready for my suicide mission,'" Miller says by phone from Manhattan. "I know that no matter what I do, there's going to be a lot of, 'It wasn't as good as the first time.' Well, at least nobody can say it's the same."

He's right on both counts. Miller's long-awaited sequel, DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again — the third and final 80-page installment of which is due in stores later this month — is nothing like its predecessor in plot, tone, or appearance. And, at least so far, it's not quite as good.

Where The Dark Knight Returns had the plot developments and pacing of a great pop novel, DK2 reads like a kick-ass comic book. Set three years after the end of the first series, which ends with Batman presumed dead, the sequel finds a complacent America turned into a (in Miller's words) "kinder, gentler fascist state" from which all the superheroes have mysteriously disappeared. Batman finds and rescues them one by one and in the process discovers that some are, reluctantly, working to keep the steel-fisted government in charge.

With one issue to go, it's clear that the Bat's angling to be Castro in a cowl, leading a grass-roots revolution to overthrow the Man. Or, in this case, the Superman, depicted here as a a manipulated and angst-ridden puppet of the hopelessly corrupt establishment.

"After 15 years of not doing the guys in tights, I'm basically attacking the whole DC pantheon and all it stands for, with everything I've got," Miller says. "Structurally, I'd almost call Batman the villain, because he's throwing up roadblocks every step of the way, while Superman gets more of the spotlight."

Saying comic-book heroes "occasionally need a reboot," Miller says he was able to look at the characters with "kids' eyes" again after many years writing screenplays (a couple of Robocop movies and one of the potential scripts for the next Batman flick) and nonsuperhero comics (most recently, 300 and Sin City, both from Dark Horse Comics).

"When you get so close to it, you forget the obvious," Miller says. "I realized that the Atom's cool because he's small. Flash is cool because he can run so fast.

"Superheroes are the only genre created for comics and that, by and large, only exists in comics," he continues. "Westerns, crime, romance, they've all become comic books, but they originated somewhere else and prosper somewhere else." Transferred to other media, he says, superheroes "get watered down . . . and borrow too much from the wrong genre, and they end up melodrama or camp."

But Miller has become so entranced with superheroes that he's hungry to put his touch and spin on as many of them as possible, and it eventually gets to be a bit much. So many superheroes play a role in DK2--some well-known (Green Arrow, Captain Marvel), many fairly obscure (Martian Manhunter, the Question, the Creeper) — that the developments feel forced and the plot overly busy. After a while, you're waiting for Miller to toss in Kitchen Sink Man, just because.

The sense of chaos isn't helped by Miller's increasingly stylized artwork, an unexpected weakness. Shadowy grays and murky grit were the appropriate approach for the first Dark Knight story, which took place mostly in Gotham City. It effectively balanced pages crammed full of words and small panels with occasional full-page splashes to accentuate the action. This time, there are rarely more than four or five panels a page, a lot more full-page and two-page splashes, and the colors are garish. Worse, the drawings are often crude and sometimes disproportionate to any sense of reality. There are a lot of oversized feet.

There are also oversized political ambitions. While Miller's work has consistently been skeptical about government power, the domestic response to last fall's terrorist attacks inspired more overt and specific targets for his wrath.

"When I was working on the first chapter, I didn't know who was going to be president, before we learned all it took was five votes to have a new president," Miller says. "I turned in the second chapter just after Sept. 11. This is one of the rare cases where the story has changed because of events. Now that we're so merrily repealing the Bill of Rights, I'm amazed there isn't more political satire [in comics]."

DK2 openly parodies the media's talking-head culture with caricatures of Chris Matthews, George Will, Cokie Roberts, Don Imus, and a variety of other opinion-makers debating issues like vigilantism and freedom in simplistic terms, as well as providing narrative briefs that help move the story along. Man- (and woman-) on-the-street panels are occasionally tossed in to provide a feel for society's take on a given issue as it relates to the story.

One funny example reveals a lot about Miller's insights on the U.S. population: When the president is revealed to be nothing more than a hologram, and one dogged reporter (a mature James "Jimmy" Olsen, journalism's lone voice of reason here) points it out, the rabid response is, "So what?! He's a great American!"

That pretty much sums up Miller's feelings about humanity, as reflected in DK2. We're jingoistic sheep, looking to blindly follow our leaders, whether they're politicians or superheroes. It's a distressing shift from the original Dark Knight Returns, where Batman's re-emergence inspires some Gotham citizens to stand up and defend themselves. Of course, Miller's still got time to surprise us with part three.

Tom Siebert writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].