Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

The Dark Knight Returns The Dark Knight Strikes Again

Finished reading Frank Miiler's The Dark Knight Strikes Again last night. This is the sequel to Miller's ground breaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.

The story almost reads like a comic book: In the mid-'80s, the comic book industry was dying. Sales were down, comics were ignored by mainstream culture and superheroes were impotent in the face of real-life villains such as recycled plots and tired characters.

But just when things looked darkest — look, up in the sky ... — Frank Miller appeared with his groundbreaking graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns." Miller grafted modern angst onto comic book mythos and created a genre-defining piece of literature. Batman became a dark vigilante in an apocalyptic Gotham City, fighting crime, the police and anyone who compromised with evil.

Time and Rolling Stone praised Miller's book as high art. Director Tim Burton credited the graphic novel as the inspiration for his 1989 hit movie, Batman. Because of Miller, comics began to explore new artistic directions, which brought a new generation of readers into the market and helped push comic sales to all time highs. For a while, the comic book world was once again safe and sound.

Now fastforward to 2002 and "The Dark Knight Strikes Again," Miller's sequel to his original classic. Initially, the release of "DK2" (as the sequel is called, in parody of recent movie-title trends) attracted more media attention than any other comic book in years. The publisher, DC Comics, forced reviewers to look at advance copies under guard in DC's New York offices. Major magazines trumpeted the return of Miller's Batman.

The reason Miller struck a cord in the mid-'80s with "The Dark Knight Returns" is that comic books weren't living up to their potential. American culture had long valued visual arts, such as movies, and literary arts, such as novels, but the mixing of the two was considered the stuff of adolescent boys.

Miller refused to accept this. Instead of emphasizing hyperkinetic action over plot and character development, as comics had done for years, Miller created complex characters to whom readers responded. Bruce Wayne went from a silly playboy to a borderline psychotic obsessed with dying a good death. His nemesis, the Joker, became a demon bent on fulfilling a perverse love for the Batman by killing him.

In many ways, "The Dark Knight Returns" mirrored the new way America viewed heroes. It was like seeing an RKO cowboy serial from the 1940s suddenly turn into Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Unforgiven.

Yet the revolution Miller started has gone to excess, as today's comics have grown increasingly dark and serious. Call it the Dark Knight syndrome — a belief that today's superheroes must be even grittier than Miller's Batman in order to succeed. This means that the joy comics used to provide — such as imagining how much fun it would be to turn invisible, or to fly — is lost. And this, in essence, is what Miller is attempting to provide with "DK2": a return to joy in comics.
At first glance, "DK2" is an odd candidate for joy. Set three years after the events in "The Dark Knight Returns," America is now a police state where the Bill of Rights has been repealed, people are powerless and a holographic president is controlled by business tycoon Lex Luthor.

Worse, most citizens don't worry about the freedoms they've lost — they're too busy watching sex shows and holding candle-light vigils when pop music groups break up. By asking if it is better to be happy and enslaved, or hurting but free, "DK2" takes on some thematic weight.

The only real weakness of "DK2" is that it lacks the character development of Miller's other works. But satire has always taken liberties with this aspect of storytelling; many times characters in "DK2" are there not for who they are but for what they stand for. Because Miller is dealing with characters who are familiar to readers simply by virtue of our media-drenched society, he can get away with this.

But overall this is also a style defining graphic novel.

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