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The Dark Knight Strikes Again:
an epic review for a little less than epic storyline

At Comic-Con 2001, DC Editor Bob Schreck defended Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again by comparing it to sex. You can never recreate your first time, Schreck alluded, but you can still have times that are great. To that, James Robinson leaned forward and commented, "you've just made Frank Miller sound like a cheap hooker."

Now that we've seen the completed series, many fans are crying that Miller did that to himself. Though the long-awaited final issue was released on the eve of Comic-Con 2002, nobody really seemed to want to care to talk about it. It wasn't so much painful as just ignored, a far cry from the enthusiasm awaiting the first issue last December.

Perhaps we learned something from The Dark Knight Strikes Again and the competition's major event of last year, Origin. As fans of comics in general and, yes, superheroes in particular, we don't so much want hype as we just want good stories. This year at Comic-Con, there really wasn't a buzz about any particular project; perhaps the most came for The Obsidian Age, but that's a project happening within a regular series and (thankfully) not loaded with a lot of extra costs. (Yes, one smart-ass did ask Joe Kelly why anyone would want to look for Aquaman. Happy now?)

With all the hype and the cost involved in each individual issue, we expected something like the second coming. Instead we got a pretty good Elseworlds, and that seems to have ticked people off.

It's also true that Miller fell victim to his own legend. Even though he said at the outset of the project that he wanted to play, and was (at least temporarily) tired of grim and gritty in the DCU, nobody believed it. When he delivered a book with bright colors and overamped satire, we cried foul. Where was the grey?

As in every other facet of American culture, we love to build 'em up so we can watch 'em fall. But take a step back from the ire for a moment, and look at The Dark Knight Strikes Again as a whole. Yes, the story and art have their flaws. Occasionally, big deep ones. But there are moments in every issue that balance out the problems.

At heart, the book tells a nifty story, just not the one we thought we wanted.

I'll admit that after my first reading of the final issue, I had mixed feelings. And the more distance I had from the super-sex scene in issue #2, the more it bothered me. But upon taking a second look, some of the things Miller was reaching for became clearer. The Dark Knight Returns may have ushered in the grim and gritty age of comics, but The Dark Knight Strikes Again is about a struggle between ages, using the one character who has managed to fit in all of them without major revamping.

As a story, the book seems to have left a lot of people cold. The plotting could have been stronger, with a lot of dead ends as it is. But Miller also managed to pull off moments of greatness, with concepts and dialogue that deserve to be talked about.

Though I have grown tired of Captain Marvel being the Elseworlds' whipping boy, his death scene in the final issue befits his heroism, and leaves us with something to ponder: "…where's a wish go? Where's a dream go when you wake up and can't remember it?" We should all do so well as to go out saying, "it's been nice existing."

Everything about the new Saturn Girl has a creepy cool to it, in particular the mind-bending idea for this precog that she's the second Saturn Girl, even though the first one won't appear for another thousand years.

It may not be in vogue now, but the Superman that Miller works with here is the one with an emphasis on "super," not "man." Rendered near-messianic by writers in the seventies, it makes sense that the Last Son of Krypton (and his daughter) would finally reach the conclusion that they are beyond humanity. Granted, the same realization in the case of Hal Jordan just seems bizarre; why become an extra-dimensional play-doh man? But even that can be summed by the Superchix incarnation of The Star-Spangled Kid, "…that is so Silver Age." It was often a silly time, and once upon a time we bought into it. The Dark Knight Strikes Again serves as a logical extension.

For The Dark Knight himself, Miller may have provided the best moment of the year with his willingness to be beaten to death by Luthor, just to see the look on his face when the plan comes to fruition. Superman most often gets the credit as a Christ figure, but it's misplaced identification. To be Superman, he gives up nothing. It's easy to forget that Batman really has sacrificed just about everything in his pursuit of justice. Of course he would be willing to take the final step on that path.

Miller has also put a whole lot of comics' past into a blender to come up with this book. Several figure and facial designs come cribbed from Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Sheldon Mayer, and John Severin. Some of it is jokey, and meant to be. These guys all dabbled in humor comics as easily as they did in other forms. We're not so willing anymore to let our artists be that flexible. Where the cribbing becomes most jarring is when the anime look pops up, and though everyone involved denies it, yes, many of the pages do look rushed. When Miller gets lazy, the reader pays.

But in his overall design, Miller has dug deeply into pop culture (some might say kitsch). From the cover of #3, an obvious pastiche of LeRoy Neiman, to Saturn Girl's eerie china doll look, it's obvious that Miller wants a strange haze of the sixties to rest over the series. Even the placement of the Superman religion panel fits just where a DC house-ad used to go. Find God and the Palisades Amusement Park in one fell swoop.

Though the classic Legion of Super-Heroes uniforms are revived, Miller's design work isn't limited to the sixties. Superman wears an "S" right out of Siegel and Shuster's original design, and Lois Lane's (literal) cameo could have been lifted directly from one of Max Fleischer's cartoons. Furthering Miller's plea for us to know the history of this art, many shots of Wonder Woman could fit on a Grecian urn.

Of course, it's all pointless if not put in a modern context. Recalling Bill Jemas' infamous remark implying comic books' masturbation potential, many of the aforementioned Legion uniforms suddenly have nubile young women in them (many did originally, at least after Dave Cockrum got through with them), definitely posing for our pleasure. Thank heavens Miller has never been known for drawing attractive women, just designing them. But he also throws in the voice of an Ashcroft clone, commenting on "conspicuously ample breasts."

There's quite a clash between Silver and Modern age sensibilities, and it's still unclear where Miller really falls on the issue. When Barry Allen recoils at the savage killing of Luthor by "Hawkboy," Bruce Wayne grins, "Get used to it, Barry. These youngsters play rough." Sure, heroes don't kill, but it's important to remember that originally (and now infamously), Batman did.

Or is it all just a satire? Certainly, Miller has amped up that element. But when real world headlines place the movements of Angelina, Billy Bob, Brad, Jennifer, and Jason Priestley's back above continued unrest in the Middle East and a toxic brown cloud over Asia, it's not hard to imagine superheroes becoming just another fashion trend. Satire should have a pointed barb dipped in poison truth.

In some places, the satire does go too far. The doppelgangers for Ashcroft and White House spokesperson Ari Meyers are no worse than David Endocrine in the first tale, though they may be more obscure to Miller's readers. But pitting Green Arrow and The Question against each other on a political talk show may make a point, but it's a near criminal waste of the characters. In particular, it turns The Question into just an excuse to jab at Steve Ditko's objectivism, after build-up that promised to make him into a major player in the series.

Therein lie the most unsatisfying elements of the story. Many threads either lead to nowhere, or come out of same. The third act revelations of both Hal Jordan's and Dick Grayson's fates need a heck of a lot more explanation than we actually got, no matter how cool in concept they both may be. With Grayson, it seems that Miller didn't even read his own original tale, which held the implication that he had quit associating with Batman after Jason Todd was killed. Bruce's heart trouble feels tacked on for dramatic tension, rather than actually flowing from the story, especially since it really doesn't have anything to do with the denouement as it did in the original.

If anybody wants to complain about the tendency for the book to fall into big, empty art spreads, please go ahead. As stated above, there are moments of awful laziness sown amidst the good stuff.

When the collected edition comes out, it would still be worth recommending, preferably in paperback form. It's a good story in a great story's clothing.

Rumor has it that Miller wants to continue playing in his self-created pocket universe. (Which makes sense, considering how terribly open-ended this was.) If we can get back to letting the man just draw comics instead of having to carry the weight of the industry on his back, maybe, just maybe, we can have as much fun as he wants to have. In exchange, though, DC has to let us have those comics with a minimum of hype and pricing.

Derek McCaw

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