16 October 2015

Brunch Review: Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Strikes Again."

In 1986 Frank Miller changed comic books forever. He (along with constant creative companions, Lynn Varely- she of the pretty colors and Klaus Janson- he of the perfectly weighted inked lines) wrote and penciled what certainly one of the most important comic books in the history of the medium. That story, contained in four mind blowing, super sized issues, was called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It is safe to say, especially of the Batman universe, but also of comic books more generally, that everything was different after that. Everyone, including the popular press, saw that comic books offered a larger suite of story-telling possibilities than was generally assumed. It was all gloriously different.

It was Frank Miller who realized (along with a few others) that kids were probably the smallest portion of the comic book market, and that an author could tell really any story they wanted. With Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Miller didn't just throw down the gauntlet, he hurled it, like some angry god from on high. "Follow me," he seemed to say. And we readers and creators alike, continue to follow that Frank Miller, he of 1986, to this day. As Stephen King said at the time, "Probably the finest piece of comic art ever created."

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: A necessary synopsis

Miller gave us a slightly dystopian future. Bruce Wayne is, let's say 60. He has hung up his kevlar weave, and abandoned the fake gin and tonic for the real thing. In fact, all the heroes seem to have faded into the stuff of legend. In Miller's future Gotham it is a world of soft people, parent groups and a deep antipathy toward greatness. Some of the thematic elements present in Miller's world view and will later blossom and turn the once great author, and artist into a depressingly crankish character, but here, the contempt for public apathy, and faux patriotism (it was the height of the cold war was it not) seems pitch perfect. Miller has a great, and justifiable contempt for post modernism, but he would later become something of a poster boy for its general contempt for beauty in art. I get ahead of myself. 

Miller's Bruce Wayne cannot dull his obsession, his need to personally right the wrongs of his city. Even at 60, his inner locutor, (the real person?) won't let the mask that is Bruce Wayne conceal him. Batman rages, and demands justice, and in the end cannot be kept in. The dark knight returns. In Miller's hands we see plausible sides of long beloved characters that are startling. Clark Kent is a bit prone to taking orders from paternalistic nationalistic authority figures (one in this case that looks suspiciously like one Ronald Reagan). His Kansas upbringing has left him a tad to trusting of authority. Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow) is a bit of a terrorist, and a Marxist. The youth of the future crave heroes, and one them, brave Carrie Kelley, becomes one. Many of the rest turn to crime and the security of gangs. Miller doesn't shrink from the implications of a teen side kick either. Batman always dealt with the most horrific of DC's villains, and throwing a child into that thresher isn't exactly a moral act. Miller lets us deal with that. It isn't comfortable. The other important contribution, almost prophetic on Miller's part, was his depiction of the popular press reaction to a world in which gods actually do walk among us. It is in his examination and exploration of the media in which his biting critique of the America of 1986 is sharpest and most accurate. His media is an example of the Crossfire trend. Talking heads arguing as if that was information. For me, his treatment of the media and popular press,  even more than his brilliant and novel interpretations of DC icons, is maybe the most important thematic element in the whole of The Dark Knight Returns. That should be enough to get us started, -Old Man Batman, Old Man Superman (both giant larger, than life), time as a finite and moving element and media critique. Go read it if you have not. 
look at the size of them!

The Review Strikes Back!
In 2001 Frank Miller returned to his future Batman with a dismal something called Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It picks up the story of Old Batman three years after the events of the The Dark Knight Returns. Between the two endeavors though lies about 15 years of changes in the author, and, depressingly, it shows. When I read it in 2001, I honestly couldn't get through the first issue. I considered the whole endeavor, just another excuse to kick over people's favorite apple carts, even his own master work. Almost every portion of the book was ugly. Not even the subtle color palette of Lynn Varley could save any image. Gone were Miller's larger than life motifs. All the heroes looked sickly, thin, with the exception of Carrie Kelley, no longer the girl just hitting puberty, here she is built like Miller's Sin City strippers, in Catwoman's body suit. Chew on the psychology of that for a moment and see if you can look at old man Batman as favorably as you might have in the previous installment. In 2001 one, I refrained from buying the book. I thought Miller was giving us all the finger, so I gave it back and I gave up on Frank Miller.
From The Dark Knight Strikes Back

A short necessary backstory

This year (if you are reading this in the far future, it is 2015 as I write this) it was announced that Frank Miller and a new creative team would be returning to that increasingly dystopian Gotham in a book called, Batman: The Master Race. I knew that I would not be able to resist reading the new book. The tragedy of Frank Miller has become a bit hard to avoid looking at. If nothing else, it will, I thought, provide some content for the always easy to write negative review. As such, I felt I must bear witness to the book I rejected fifteen years ago. Thus, with a heavy heart I ordered it. With a heavier heart I read it and bore witness to disaster. 

A few things happened. The first was that I had to eat a little crow. While the book is still an unmitigated disaster, I realized that I was wrong in 2001, Miller didn't phone in the book. I think it represented, and honestly, his approach to comic book story telling. 

His art is pared down, and his approach is to embrace ugliness, with the notable exception of a few of the book's key women. 
Wonder Woman

The daughter of Wonder Woman
and Superman, whose skirt is always threatening to reveal her lady parts.

For Miller composition, context and organization in his panels is, he suspects, unnecessary. Whie he doesn't exactly reject the agreed upon narrative convention of the American comic book (images flow from top to bottom, left to right generally, like reading an english sentence) he doesn't organize his panels in very coherent ways, and the book has a very jumbled, disorganized feel. It is more like the impression of a narrative than the actual thing. The action rarely makes sense, and Miller's Batman has morphed into a kind of joke- unintentionally I think- about Batman rather than the considered creation he gave us in his two great Batman stories.

The basic plot, though fairly boilerplate as comic book stories go, had strong potential. Lex Luthor and Brainiac, drawn as ugly as you could ever imagine, both zit faced, warty and obese, have captured and held hostage the Bottle City of Kandor- the last remnant of Krypton, a city in miniature complete with a living populace. It is this hostage that has bought Superman's obedience. They don't make him do anything against his nature, except maybe stay out their fiendish plans. But that causes a lot of damage too. For it means he cannot rescue the Flash, who powers the world on the cheap, chained to a tread mill. The Atom too is imprisoned, though why we don't learn until much later. 

That basic skeleton of a story could have been a fun exercise in exploring the sequel. There is laced throughout the piece an Alex Jones level of conspiracy and paranoia which doesn't really fit or make sense given what has happened in this world before. Lex and Brainiac, and their corporate backers reap the rewards of being the powers behind the scenes. They control the president (a computer generated image). Miller's media critique, once brilliant, misses the mark enormously, perhaps entirely. He seems to believe that American sensibilities are distracted by sex in the media. All his female correspondents are nude, spout propaganda, and demand that people look at them during commercial breaks in which they speak in innuendos. That isn't the case of course. Popular media is an extension of the talking heads shows Miller skewered in 1986. The format has expanded to include whole ideologically motivated stations that distort facts to suit specific political narratives. Miller, distracted by sex, and still somewhat focused on point vs point "debate" shows, seems oblivious to this trend in media. His future imagines a populace distracted by news run by porn sites I think. Other troubling trends, confined to the back ground in previous work, but impossible to miss in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, present themselves. 

The most troubling of these to me, is what appears to be Miller's general contempt for intellectuals, and deeper contemplations of the just city. Those who question the morality of Batman, or Superman,  are depicted as middle or upper class, often somewhat jewish or "gay looking" are, not infrequently, from San Fransisco, whereas the supporters of our protagonists are generally salt of the earth, working class. Miller's analysis is uneven at best, but generally he is just wrong, appearing as it does, to be little more than a view through crankish  lens of an old man who more often than not doesn't grasp a world that has moved on.  And everything is just so relentlessly ugly. The ugliness isn't an accident.  Miller's work has been evolving in this direction for decades. There are always some beautiful women, often naked or mostly so, but every one else in Miller's books has become uglier. I think it is just how he sees the world as an ugly place with weak people and one that needs fascists to protect it.

Miller peaked a long time ago. Lets hope for his latest return to his dark Gotham that he has found his way back, at least a little, from the paranoia and ugliness that has characterized his work for the last twenty years.

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