With the release of DK3: The Master Race, the third instalment in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Trilogy, being released at the end of the month I thought it would be a good idea to analyse the first two instalments. First off I talked about Miller’s 1986 classic The Dark Knight Returns which holds up rather well to this day and revered as one of the finest examples of the medium by many. In this subsequent piece I’ll be talking about the 2001/2 follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While I had plenty of great things to say about The Dark Knight Returns the same can’t be said about this comic which fails to live up to the original’s legacy.
While I tend to not be very negative on How to Love Comics this is one of those instances where a lot of the points I make here will be. This is not out of snark or to “sling shit” on this comic or creator but more because sometimes it’s good to talk about bad comics and to understand what makes them bad. You could almost say the original is a great examination as to what makes comics good, while this is an example of what can make them bad.
Set 3 years after the original story, this sees Batman’s underground movement begin to strike against a corrupt government who is more sinister than they appear to be. In order to this Batman recruits his past allies to help him in this cause including The Flash, The Atom, The Elongated Man, Plastic Man and others. Parallel to this is Superman who is having a personal crisis when he begins to realise the world isn’t exactly what he thought it was and is put in a very difficult situation.
The comic reflects many of Miller’s well publicised political views which are reflected in an extreme manner. We’ve got Batman and his group attacking the government and anyone who gets in their way with extreme violence. While Batman isn’t a stranger to a bit of violence this seems like he has gone over the deep end and in a way he becomes no different to all the villains he has fought in the past, apart from justifying it as being done for the greater good. Miller also throws in some uncensored swearing, which in the context DC Comics’ superhero comics feels out of place and is intended to shock. Unfortunately, by going to such extremes it leaves the comic feeling a bit dumb as there’s no sophistication to the motivations. It feels like a superhero V for Vendetta cranked up to 11 minus the smarts.
In comparison to the original The Dark Knight Strikes Again is of much larger scale. It has a much larger cast, featuring more than dozen heroes and then a batch of supporting characters. With the large cast it almost becomes more a Justice League story as Batman has a less of a focus, but instead becomes the driving force and leader in the story as opposed to the star. This frees up to explore other characters, mostly Superman, who gets far more exploration than in The Dark Knight Returns. The wider world is also explored in much more detail, expanding out further than Gotham City. In the context of the story and characters this works well as it allows more freedom to explore the characters and gives the story a greater impact. If it was just set in Gotham City it wouldn’t work in the same extent and characters, especially Superman, would not receive much character development.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again is in no way a pretty looking comic, but in my opinion this was done intentionally to reflect the world of the comic. Miller brings everything down to a more basic and geometric form letting what’s left tell the story instead of creating distractions around. This works well half of the time as some panels look a bit static or in poses which seem a bit off. This is particularly true with many of the female characters, including Carrie Kelly, who are drawn in sexualised poses and tights outfits. Especially in Carrie Kelly’s case, considering she is only meant to be 16 years old. Instead of having Klaus Janson return for the sequel Miller inked all of the art himself which helps add to the ugly world aesthetic. This gives the world a griminess to the book reflecting the ugliness in the world.
Returning for the colouring duties is Lynn Varley who pushes the boundaries for digital colouring for the time. In the early 2000s digital colouring looked pretty much all the same, but Varley took digital colouring to another level by experimenting with textures, gradients and other techniques to create something unique for the time. While it might look dated and if it’s time today, you’ve got to commend her for pushing boundaries and experimenting with the software that was available at the time.
As I mentioned in The Dark Knight Returns piece, Miller used his panel structure and sizing to great effect when it came to pacing the story, but in the The Dark Knight Strikes Again a lot of that has gone out the window. Miller adopts for mostly larger panels, closer to what you would see in a more contemporary comic and uses spreads and splash pages more freely. Although, the panel layout in The Dark Knight Strikes Again feels wasteful. For example there is a string of 3 two-page spreads in succession which don’t have much impact. In any other comic these pages could’ve easily been condensed into one page, maybe two. While The Dark Knight Returns used large panels and splash pages for impact this comic doesn’t capture the same effect when implemented. I don’t know if it was Miller trying to conform to a more contemporary layout or perhaps attempting to be cinematic, unfortunately most of the time it didn’t work out.
While I didn’t hate The Dark Knight Strikes Again it gives a feeling similar to most belated film sequels – disappointment. Miller’s original was powerful and well crafted comics wish pushed the medium forward, but The Dark Knight Strikes Again fails in comparison even as it widens its scale and cranks the extremes to 11. This comes down to the lack of sophistication in character motivations and themes explored which are which could of used more refining. In the art department Miller’s more geometric forms work well in displaying the ugliness of the world, but sometimes feel static because of it. With the addition of Lynn Varley’s experimental colours The Dark Knight Strikes Again offers an interesting, and almost alien aesthetic, to everything else coming out at the time – even if some of the techniques used now feel very much of it’s time. Overall, I wouldn’t put this is the same list of essential reads as The Dark Knight Returns but would suggest it only as a curiosity or if you’re completionist who HAS to read this before DK3: The Master Race.
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Trevor Van As
Trevor Van As is the founder of How to Love Comics and has loved comics all his life. When he's not reading or talking about comics he can be found eating frozen yogurt and dancing like no one is watching.