Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

250px-BatmanDK2Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Basics: Frank Miller’s sequel to his seminal The Dark Knight Returns series sees Bruce Wayne set his sights on liberating a decadent America ruled by a shadowy dictatorship led by Lex Luthor.

In-depth: After recently finishing the excellent and inspiring The Dark Knight Returns (DKR), of which you can read my review here, I naively rushed into purchasing this sequel. However soon after I became aware of the universal disappointment with which this graphic novel is held, which appears to have been constant since its release in 2001, and I definitely share it.

The plot leaves plenty to be desired which I will get to below. What really stands out, even to a amateur admirer of graphic novels such as I, is the shockingly poor quality of the artwork. The sharp and glorious frames of the DKR are long gone; replaced with heavy, over-cartoonish and what appeared to be very rushed drawings which do not make you want to continue reading. Many pages are simply wasted on over futuristic streaks of colour and massively over-sized simplistic characters.

There is also a troubling streak of sexism evident in this novel series. Carrie Kelley, the former Robin in Dark Knight Returns, is now Batgirl in a skin tight lycra suit with accompanying roller skates whilst uttering a weird reference to “swallowing.” This theme continues with largely irrelevant and bizarre TV sex themed news channels filling much of the novel’s narration, in stark contrast to the news readers which were hilariously and mercilessly mocked in the DKR. Wonder Woman is also depicted in perhaps one of the worst frames in the novel.

Regarding the plot; Bruce Wayne, known to the world as Batman but believed dead after his faked death at the end of the DKR, has completed training his army of Batboys, who were the former members of the Mutants gang. Aided by Catgirl and the Batboys, Batman breaks into a number of government buildings to break out imprisoned superheros. The DC universe is fully mined with appearances from many including Atom, Flash, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Green Arrow and Elongated Man; the worst of this sad series of unrealistic and second rate characters who merely flood the pages and take vital space away from the cover character who is simply not in this enough, make up the ranks. Superman and Wonder Woman are relegated by their blackmailing into upholding Luthor’s rule.

After a fierce battle and the successful neutralising of the Government stooge Superman, who is motivated solely by the threatened destruction of his home city of Kandor, Batman unites all of the other heros to overthrow Luthor’s rule which is fronted by the US administration of President Rickard, who is merely a hologram hiding Luthor and his ally Brainiac. This produces an end times battle which consumes the cities of Gotham and Metropolis. Little care is produced by this clunky plot that is so large it is difficult and tiresome to follow at times. It may sound a strange criticism to say of a Batman graphic novel but the story is far too unrealistic and all encompassing, as is the futuristic and undeveloped artwork, and only goes to reinforce an unwelcome contrast to the gritty realism of the DKR. It really is genuinely difficult to believe this series came from the same Frank Miller who also produced the DKR and Batman: Year One.

The one saving grace for me is the interesting, but crowbarred, ending where the former Robin, Dick Grayson, suddenly returns to emulate the Joker with a mad killing spree of Batman’s allies. Grayson then attacks Batman’s closet friend Carrie and nearly kills her before Batman returns. This idea of a former ally driven insane through Wayne’s harsh and abusive training regime is a worthy one, particularly when that former ally then aims to copy and become the Batman’s greatest rival, however it is a late addition to the plot and feels deserving of more attention.

In conclusion Batman battles Grayson but quickly realises that his newly acquired supernatural self healing powers means he will need to take himself down with Grayson into the lava filled void underneath the Batcave. At this point it is Superman; Batman’s external rival in Miller’s universe, now freed after Luther’s overthrow, who comes to Wayne’s rescue, leaving Grayson to his fall into oblivion.

Have you read this graphic novel? Were you as disappointed with it as I was? Were there any saving graces in it? Please leave your comments below.

Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

*Warning this review contains potential plot spoilers*

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: In one of the most famous graphic novels of the 20th century an ageing Bruce Wayne returns as the Caped Crusader to save a Gotham overrun by a murderous new gang called the Mutants. His renewed crusade against crime soon attracts all sorts of attention including from past foes, a new police commissioner and even the US Government backed Man of Steel himself.

In-depth: I’ve felt very underwhelmed by the negative reviews of the recently released Batman vs Superman film. Several friends have also complained of its near meaningless as it descends into a massive CGI fest with the only positive outcome, for its makers, being it’s high takings at the box office. I instead decided to purchase the recently published 30th Anniversary edition of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller et al.

I had heard before hand that this four part series formed the basis of the modern, darker and gritty version of Batman (by far my own personal preference) that we have grown accustomed to largely due to the excellent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight films. During reading, this is clear to see in the wonderful, highly self conscious internal thoughts of the characters which make up most of the dialogue.

The story is built up from the crime and violence infested ground of Gotham City. The first part, which gave it’s name to the whole collection, sees an aged, slightly unhinged Bruce Wayne internally fighting the urge to put the Batsuit back on and clear up the city.

From this basis the collection covers much ground and narrative depth; Batman’s origins; Commissioner Gordon’s eventual retirement; the failed rehabilitation of Harvey Dent and his relapse into Two-Face; a first woman commissioner, Yendel, zealously obsessed with bringing the Bat to justice; the recruitment of a new Robin; the return (and gruesome death) of the Joker; a wide array of new technological weapons and the general descent of Gotham into savagery. Even over four issues this is a lot and it offers any Batman fan or newcomer plenty to sink their teeth into.

The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps most famous for its capturing of the Zeitgeist of the time when it was published in 1986. The United States, which here includes Gotham and Metropolis, is racked by Cold War paranoia represented by an escalating crisis firmly within the American sphere of influence on a fictional South American island.

This is coupled with the almost provocatively modern insights which hint at the weakness of civil society. Be that theorists of criminal psychology, represented by psychiatrists defending the Joker and Harvey Dent and instead attributing all blame for their crimes to the Batman. Or the defeatist City Mayor willing to negotiate with the ruthless Mutants gang leader who is instantly slain as soon as he tries to do so. Or the well off lawyer, who of course has never lived in the crime ridden City of Gotham, but defends his clients civil rights against the violence of Batman’s vigilantism.

All these attitudes and characters are satirised and juxtaposed with the reassuringly simple crusade of the Batman. This harks back to the America of the Second World War which was convinced of its role and worth in the world. One can imagine how effective, but also controversial, these reactionary themes were in the 1980s and remain so today.

Batman, like many other superheros, initially served as a form of escapism from everyday life. However Frank Miller’s work dragged Batman, and superheros as a whole, back toward the realities of the real world allowing them to satirise and make cutting political statements whilst entertaining readers.

This underlying ambition is best demonstrated through Superman, here a stooge of the US Government. He is eventually called in to take down Batman after the Government’s disapproval of his vigilantism and its results. However when he is distracted by a nuclear missle launched from the USSR, heroically diverting it from hitting the US, Gotham is thrown into darkness and chaos. My favourite frames are in-fact those after Superman denonates the nuclear missile and is half dead due to his lack of access to the sun.

After the gloriously depicted recovery from this, the final scenes are given to a showdown between Batman and Superman which very almost sees the Man of Steel defeated. Wayne then pulls a concluding trick in convincing the world that he, and the Batman, are dead. The novel concludes with Wayne plotting with Robin and other characters from the DC universe for some grand comeback. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I can’t get my hands on the sequel, the Dark Knight Strikes Again, quickly enough.

Have you read this graphic novel or any others which are similar? Please leave your comments below!