Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1–3 by Frank Miller
Frank Miller is undoubtedly one of the few big creators in the world of comic books. Whether or not he has created anything recently of note that hasn’t descended into unironic self-parody is another question. Although The Dark Knight Returns is a seminal piece of work in the transition of the superhero into the modern world in the mid-1980s, the same level of history will not be applied to its sequel. The only question to ask now is whether it’s entertaining.
The comic starts with one of Miller’s loves: television screens. He plasters the page with them, full of chat shows, news programmes, vox box, adverts, the easiest way to discover that the world of this comic book has gone to hell – no superheroes, the world controlled by the government but with the illusion of choice, and Superman is still working for the man. So Batman has to return. He rescues the Atom, we see the Question, Batman rescues the Barry Allen Flash (who is being used to power the east coast of America). There is some nice prose, as Catgirl talks about the Atom: ‘There’s laughter in his voice, not a trace of fear.’ Combined with some nicely constructed action scenes, and this is shaping up to being quite interesting. Admittedly, Miller’s art is gone beyond even the extremes of his Sin City style and the characters can look quite ugly, but the page composition compensates for this.
Back in the world, we discover that Hal Jordan left Earth, and that Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are still around but working for the man – who turns out to be Lex Luthor and Brainiac, who have taken over the USA and keep Superman hostage with the threat of what they will do to the millions of inhabitants of the Bottle City of Kandor (they do similar with Mary Batson and Captain Marvel, and Themyscira and Diana). They order Superman to stop Batman – which goes spectacularly badly for Superman (seemingly because Miller really, really doesn’t like him) as Bruce gives him a beating in the Bat Cave (with a little help from the Atom and the Flash).
Book two starts with more television screens, followed by three completely unnecessary double-page spreads to show Bruce attacking Luthor and the men of his administration, having the time of his life: ‘Life doesn’t get any better than this. God, I love my job.’ While smacking him about, Bruce tells him that he has destroyed all the databases that let him blackmail and terrorise the people who would oppose his hostile takeover of planet Earth. This is then followed by five splash pages of Clark and Diana shagging in the sky – you stay classy, Frank Miller: ‘The Earth moved. I’m pregnant again.’
With the aid of Elongated Man, Batman rescues Plastic Man from Arkham Asylum (Miller describes him: ‘He could kill us all, for him, it’d be easy.’ – this is very weird for Miller, talking about Plastic Man in this way; is he taking the piss out of superheroes?). I’m not sure why he did this, other than to allow Miller to draw Plastic Man in assorted shapes. Meanwhile, someone who looks like the Joker kills Guardian and the Creeper, the Question finds Martian Manhunter, and we discover that Diana and Clark have a daughter, Kara, who they have kept secret from Luthor, who now returns to help Clark in his time of need. At the same time, after a message from Bruce, Hal Jordan returns (on hearing the message, he says: ‘And he looks happy. That can’t mean anything good.’).
Book three is a huge mess of stuff – Kara and the Atom rescue the inhabitants of Kandor, who kill Brainiac. The Joker is revealed as Robin, who has been genetically altered so he can’t die after Batman gave him the boot. Catgirl nearly dies, Hal arrives to save the day, the son of Hawkman and Hawkwoman kills Luthor and everything is back to normal. It’s a hodge-podge and even uglier and messier than the rest of the book. The art is even blockier than Sin City, with the only the attempt at iconic imagery saving the visual style of the book. But it’s not pretty and extremely inconsistent – it starts out in an interesting way but gets lost in Miller’s personal fetishes and issues to grind. He does a good, tough Bruce Wayne, enough to match the hard-boiled dialogue (‘Striking terror. Best part of the job.’) but it doesn’t blend well with the superheroics and especially the classic characters. I can understand why this isn’t mentioned in the same breath as his original take on the character. God help when he gives us the Batman versus al-Qaeda …