Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

Comics Cabana

by Brian MacDonald

The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1

Writer/Artist: Frank Miller

Colors: Lynn Varley

December saw the first issue of one of the most anticipated events in comics in 2001. "Most anticipated event" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the entertainment industry, especially when the "event" in question isn't much anticipated at all. This time, however, we're talking about The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the sequel to Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's The Dark Knight Returns, a series that has been credited with redeeming Batman from Adam West's legacy, launching the Elseworlds format, and either revitalizing or destroying the entire comic industry, depending on how you feel about the "grim-n-gritty heroes" trend of the late '80s and early '90s. A sequel to a comic book that influential is bound to generate some anticipation, and has a heavy load of expectations to meet. I'm going to try to set those expectations aside for a little while and consider this issue as a stand-alone comic first, and a sequel second.

For a book entitled The Dark Knight Strikes Again (I hesitate to simply call it DK2, but that's what it says on the cover, so I'll go with it), there's not a lot of Batman to be seen. He makes a dramatic appearance toward the end, but throughout most of the book, he's an off-screen voice here, some internal-narrative captions there, but mostly he's nowhere to be found. Sure, Batman's specialty is sticking to the shadows, and leaving the spotlight to the folks in the brightly colored spandex, but usually the reader gets to see him. In the role of the central figure is Carrie Keene Kelly, Robin in the first series, now christened Catgirl, with at least two kitty-colored spandex outfits. Carrie is Batman's second-in-command, fully trained in combat skills, and capable of leading a troop of "Batboys" on a commando raid, but she's also a sixteen-year-old girl, who doubts her own abilities and stands in awe of the veteran heroes she's now working with. She's a great original character, latest in a long line of teenage sidekicks who came into their own as heroes, and she's portrayed convincingly here.

Batman's on a bit of a recruiting drive in his war, and so the veterans Carrie is working with include the Atom (Ray Palmer) and the Flash (Barry Allen, so you know you're in Elseworlds territory now). Both men are portrayed as confident and competent; they're sure of their abilities, and they show no fear. They even seem relaxed when they're in deadly danger. Their behavior is consistent for old-guard superheroes, and makes a nice contrast to Carrie's self-doubt, but it makes them come across as somewhat two-dimensional. I hope we get to see them more delveloped in subsequent issues. It's notable that Atom's costume is almost identical to his red-and-blue Silver Age outfit, but Flash has a new costume: black, with shorts and short sleeves. No real explanation is given, except that Carrie thought the red costume looked "old," and it's enough of a change to be jarring.

Batman's after bigger stakes than just cleaning up Gotham this time around. We're told right at the start (thanks to angry guerilla reporter Jimmy Olsen, still sporting a plaid bow tie) that the United States is now a police state where crime is virtually nonexistent. Batman isn't going to stand for that, so he has to start by taking down the government's invisible tool for keeping order: Superman, who's being blackmailed into his role as government enforcer by some of his old adversaries. Superman is clearly unhappy with the status quo, but he has one consolation: "I get to save lives." Superman has either been forced to compromise his ideals, or has done so voluntarily. Whichever, his position brings him into conflict with Batman. The shades of Kingdom Come are impossible to miss here: two men, both heroes, much alike but unwilling to admit it, who embrace different methods and are therefore doomed to collide. It's a good theme, but it feels a little thin here compared to Kingdom Come.

Superman has allies as well: Wonder Woman, whose affection for Superman seems to go beyond friendship (as in Kingdom Come), and Captain Marvel, who is portrayed as an old man, much older than the other heroes. That doesn't make any sense, and it's not explained, but Marvel only appears briefly, so perhaps it'll be made clear in a later issue. There's also a brief cameo by the Question, who seems to be channeling Rorschach from Watchmen in his paranoia. There's no way of telling whose side he's on at this stage.

That's about it for the story: Superman and his team unwillingly support a totalitarian government; Batman and his group oppose them. There are a couple of good action scenes, and a bunch of anguished internal monologue from Superman about how Bruce just doesn't understand the reality of the situation, but that's about all. The back cover states that this is issue 1 of 3, but from the amount of plot that takes place here, I would have thought it was a much longer series. At the end of this issue, the pieces are on the board, and the opening move has been made, but that's about all. I expect that there will be a lot more going on in the final two issues.

As for the art, Miller's figures are stylized and chunky, and his lines are so thick that it's sometimes hard to make out what's going on. It's a fitting style for characters who lurk in dark shadows, but there are a lot of colorful heroes in this book, and I wish they were drawn more cleanly. Varley's colors are simply breathtaking throughout, from Jimmy Olson's bow tie to Superman's cape to Carrie's different cat-suits. There are a handful of full-page images that you'll want to stop and stare at for a while. There are also a lot of computerized effects; some overt, other subtle, and almost always appropriate in context.

Taken on its own, DK2 #1 is a decent beginning to a short series. There's promise here, but not a whole lot of delivery yet. What you can see is enough to make you want to read the other two issues, if only to see if the resolution measures up to the set-up. However, even calling the series DK2 reminds you that this isn't a brand-new standalone series, it's the sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, and when you compare the two books, some problems become apparent, particularly in the characterization of the heroes.

The problems begin with Batman. Specifically, he's still Batman. The Dark Knight Returns ends with Batman's identity exposed, and the world believing him dead. On the very last page, Bruce refers to Batman as "a crimefighter whose time has passed" and he's shown leading his new group of young people, not in costume, but in civilian clothes. The first chapter of DK2 makes that look like a mistake, or a temporary lapse. Maybe Bruce had a change of heart, or maybe DC knew that Bruce Wayne Strikes Again wouldn't sell as many copies. The original series ended on a note of finality; Bruce Wayne's work wasn't done, but Batman was. Even though he may have "lost" his final battle with Superman (and you could easily read it either way), he triumphed over his personal demons, and didn't need to be Batman anymore. DK2 makes Batman's death just a clever ruse.

Superman's character has changed dramatically too. In The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a man who thinks he's doing the right thing, but doesn't have Bruce's depth of vision to see that his power has been corrupted, even though he's still saving lives. Superman still sees things in black and white, where Batman sees gray and darker gray. It's a perfect contrast, and sets the two up as archetypes. In DK2, Superman is forced into his role by blackmail, and his differences with Batman are a question of methods, not intent. Superman thinks he has the situation under control, and he sees Batman as an uncontrolled factor that must be nailed down. That can be a great conflict, as shown in Kingdom Come, but here it just diminishes their conflict in The Dark Knight Returns.

The presence of the other heroes is another sticking point. The Dark Knight Returns was confined to Gotham; Miller is now expanding the conflict to the United States, if not the world, so he's getting the JLA involved. So we have appearances from a bunch of Silver Age heavy-hitters who didn't appear in The Dark Knight Returns. The only comment about other heroes from The Dark Knight Returns is Superman's comment that "Diana went back to her people. Hal went to the stars." I think he might have mentioned "We're keeping Barry and Ray captive, but I'll try to get them out eventually." Changing a voluntary retirement to forced servitude seriously weakens Superman's position.

Even the storytelling in DK2 seems weaker when compared to The Dark Knight Returns. The first chapter of The Dark Knight Returns was a complete story as well as an introduction. That issue has a complete story of Batman's conflict with the recently released Two-Face, complete with some great action sequences. It also includes a recap of Batman's origin story, the reasons why he retired, and his decision to put the cowl back on. It deals with Gordon's retirement, sets up the Joker's return, and introduces Carrie. DK2 doesn't have the overwhelming amount of text and tiny panels that The Dark Knight Returns had, which is an improvement, but there seems to be a lot less story.

The art suffers in comparison as well. On first glance at the art in DK2, I thought that the blocky figures and murky backgrounds were necessary to maintain a continuous style with the original. However, the art in The Dark Knight Returns is actually much cleaner, the figures are more fully rendered, and the backgrounds are more detailed. The computer effects I mentioned earlier weren't around at the time of The Dark Knight Returns, but they wouldn't have been appropriate in the original's noir-feel Gotham anyway.

On its own, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a decent beginning to what looks like an interesting story, provided Miller can avoid making it a clone of Kingdom Come. Unfortunately, like many sequels, it diminishes the original rather than expanding it, and that's a shame when the original is one of the best Batman stories ever. It's still a good read, but you may want to wait to see if the other two issues fulfill the promise of the first before you pick these up.

My Vote: 7 out of 10

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