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.

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Review: Batman – The Killing Joke

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My rating: ★★★★☆

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

The Basics: In one of the most famous Batman graphic novels, which navigates around a twisted past, the Joker launches perhaps his sickest scheme yet to prove to Gotham that even the sanest are just “one bad day” away from his world of madness.

In-depth: To feel the part in New York City last October I equipped myself with a New Yorker Magazine for a princely $8. In the Goings On About Town section I noticed an exhibition entitled ‘Superheros in Gotham’ at the New York Historical Society. Caught up in my moment of serendipity I convinced my friends to give it a try (it didn’t take much) and we walked through Central Park to the Society.

Unfortunately the exhibition wasn’t as good as we were hoping. It was frightfully small with a no photography policy strictly enforced by over keen security guards. The one highlight was seeing the actual Batmobile from the original Batman TV show. Walking back slightly disappointed I spotted some impromptu book stands where I came across The Killing Joke. My mood improved as soon as I started reading it.

At just 46 pages it did not take long and having recently re-read it I decided to review it on this blog. Admittedly it is the first graphic novel I’ve read and it was the perfect choice. “One of the greatest Batman stories” the friendly guy at the stall told me and he was 100% right.

The story is beautifully simple and as quick as it is intense. It centres around perhaps the Joker’s most disturbing scheme. To prove that Gotham can not and should not maintain it’s perverse commitment to law, order and indeed sanity by targeting it’s leading light Commissioner Jim Gordon and by doing this thereby drawing out his arch nemesis: the Batman.

The recently escaped Joker intends to prove a point by driving Gordon mad and show the world that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” It is some bad day for Gordon as the Joker ambushes and shoots his daughter Barbara before his very eyes. Putting a bullet through her spine and having his goons kidnap the distraught Gordon, the Joker then completes what he thinks will be his coup de grâce by undressing the wounded Barbara and photographing her in lurid positions mercifully mostly left to the reader’s imagination by the artist Brian Bolland. It is no surprise that this passage, particularly the use of Barbara as merely a prop to get at her father, caused such a storm after many feminist readers were aghast at its overtly sexist nature.

Having the beaten and stripped Gordon paraded around his new recently acquired fairground, the Joker explains to him his simple choice. He can either suffer the trauma of his memories which through his rationality he still clings to, or choosing the ’emergency exit’ of insanity, flee into the freedom of the chaos which forms the basis of the Joker’s existence and Gotham’s unjust world.

What perhaps makes this novel so famous is it’s revealing of the Joker’s past. Before becoming the Clown Prince of Crime it depicts his failed attempts at being a stand up comedian as well as the crippling anxieties of his fear of failing to support his pregnant wife. That Alan Moore and Bolland are able to present this so deeply in such short spaces shows the intelligence and skill which lies behind every word and sketch in the Killing Joke.

One of my favourite frames is the jump between a tragic past as a failed comedian and husband to the Joker’s scheming at his violently acquired fairground. The (almost)

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The Joker’s past? Deep. Very Deep.
colourless past reaches out to his beautiful wife who is laughing at an accidental joke of his with the reflection of himself in the mirror behind revealing his inner torment of another day of failure. In the next colour filled frame, savagely jolting the reader back to the present, the Joker is instead, in perhaps a rare lapse of sentimentality, reaching out his gloved hand to a ‘Laughing Clown.’ He is met by a reflection errily similar to the previous frame.

The lack of colour in the scenes from the Joker’s past is also significant. Bolland brilliantly chooses single objects to possess the increasingly rageful red which builds up via fly-trapping sticky tape, shrimps and the red-hood worn during the botched robbery where the scared predecessor to the Joker flees the Batman only to fall into a vat of chemicals which produces the Clown Prince of Crime.

The scenes from the past are also deliciously mixed up by the Joker himself, who confused by the madness which now inhibits him, reels off the various other possible personal histories of what sent him over the edge. Such as his wife being murdered by the Mob (in this she supposedly dies in a once in a million electrical accident) or his brother being carved up by a knife welding mugger. This cleverly buys into the wealth of speculative interpretations which exist about the Joker’s past.

Back to the present and after mentally torturing Gordon and believing he has indeed driven the Commissioner mad the Joker gets what he really wants; the arrival of the Batman. After a desperate fight which involves trap doors to doom, knifes, a hall of mirrors and a pretend pistol the Batman eventually wrestles the Joker under his control.

Pleading with him to not continue their duel down the route which will only lead to one of them dying, Batman attempts to reach out to the Joker, briefly hinting at his own knowledge of suffering due to a tragic past, by offering him rehabilitation.

The Joker’s response is, as ever, a joke. Significantly it is about two men trying to escape a lunatic asylum where one offers the other an escape over a bridge of torch light. The joke being you’d have to be crazy to trust the other prisoner to keep the torch on, as oppose to believing you can walk on light.

The Batman then grabs the Joker with the light of the approaching police cars visible. The Joker’s laughter, then uncharacteristicily joined by the Batman’s, fills the night and the final two panels offering an almost completed bridge of light which in the next panel disappears into darkness. Some have interpreted this as the Batman finally killing the Joker, the incessant laughter does suddenly stop, but this is wonderfully left to the interpretation and imagination of the reader.