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Dark Knight Strikes Again #1 By Orion Ussner Kidder
Itís three years after the events of The Dark Knight Returns, and the stakes have been raised. The world is under the iron-grip of a dictatorial president who is being manipulated by a few familiar faces, no heroes can work in the open, and Batman faked his own death (at the end of the previous installment of the story). Things are about to heat up, and this time the Batís not going to be nearly as subtle about it.
Right off the bat (sorry), I have to say that I wasnít a fan of The Dark Knight Returns. I thought it was overblown, that the art was mediocre, that the extreme violence was boring, and that the way Miller characterised Superman had no connection to the personality and physical characteristics we knew from Superman comics. But I swear I read DK2 with an open mind.
The first few pages impressed me. They put us in the world quickly and get us up to speed on the plot. I think Miller realised that it would be a mistake to exclude those who didnít read the original Dark Knight comics. Hence, the first issue rehashes old territory: Bats springs a couple of old friends (the Atom and Flash) from various nefarious imprisonments and they help him beat the living crap out of Superman. The confrontation is entirely necessary to the plot, and appropriate in context (Superman is being controlled by the aforementioned dictatorial government, and Bats is the only one with the will and ability to remove him from the playing field).
The thing you have to do to get into this story is abandon any pre-conceived notions about any characterís personality. This is not the DCU, itís the Millerverse. In this world, Barry Allen, Ray Palmer, and Oliver Queen are not only willing to help Batman viciously attack and cripple Superman, but delight in it:
ďHaving a very little man bounding about in your inner ear works hell on your equilibrium, doesnít it? Iíd feel sorry for youÖ but I donítĒ The Atom (p73).
Miller does his best to come up with reasons why these Silver Age characters would be so incredibly angry at Supes that theyíd radically shift their personalities enough to enjoy committing acts of extreme violence. The Atom is stuck in a petri dish for several years fighting single-celled creatures that appear (from his perspective) to be sea monsters. Flash is trapped inside a dynamo, providing electrical power for the United States under constant threat that his family would be killed. Ollieís arm was taken off before the events of the original Dark Knight Returns, and it was strongly hinted that Superman was the one who did it.
However, the thing to remember is that Miller created these justifications. It was his choice to make the Ďgood guysí violent, viscous, and nasty, and the Ďbad guysí the victims of manipulation and extortion. Superman is forced to do the Presidentís bidding on threat of killing the inhabitants of Kandor, the only Kryptonian city left in the galaxy. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are under similar threats. So, after watching yet another entire Kryptonian family killed as punishment for Batmanís activities, Superman goes to ďhave us a talkĒ (p65) with Bruce. The result is familiar. Batmanís marvellous, meticulous, machiavellian plans soundly defeat Superman. One wonders if he even breaks a sweat doing it. Saying that the Bat is justified in taking these actions and that it is entirely understandable that Flash, Atom, and Green Arrow are angry, is a moot point. He is. They are. So what? Miller constructed this situation on purpose. He deliberately rigged a story in which the Bat gets to beat Superman down with his (kryptonite gloved) fists, where we get several glory shots of Superman looking broken and defeated.
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The question we have to ask ourselves is, why? Why did Miller do this? What point is he trying to make? I have to admit, Iíve had to force myself to admit that he actually is trying to make a point at all, rather than simply reveling in his own constructed brutality. Be that as it may, letís step back a second and look at this: The protagonists are justifiably angry about serious injury done to them, so they turn to violence as their solution. The antagonists are also justifiably angry about personal threats and violence done to those they love, so they become docile and do as their told in order to avoid further persecution. Is Miller, perhaps, making a veiled comment about American society? Iím honestly not sure. If he is, then what heís done is create a fantastic representation of the extreme Ďconformity or revolutioní dynamic at work in American politics and culture. Obviously, Miller plotted this story long before the events of September 11th, but since then we have collectively watched in horror as every politician in the country either falls in-line behind the present administration, or gets labeled unpatriotic. There seems to be no room for what makes democracies great: difference of opinion, the fundamental right to question authority without fear of retribution, the freedom to speak oneís mind. Of course, it isnít just these troubled times that create such circumstances. The problem was there long before September, but like any extreme situation, the terrorist attacks on New York City have brought it up to the surface in a form we can all clearly recognise.
[Note: minor spoiler in the next paragraph]
While Iím on the subject, there is a sub-plot regarding the president of the United States that I canít help but mention. Instead of the ultra right-wing Reagonesque president from The Dark Knight Returns, this time around we have an ultra right-wing Dubya-like president who actually turns out to be a fully computer generated image that Lex Luthor has created in order to control America (okay, I spoiled the surprise, but Miller gives it away within the first 30 pages and doesnít really play it up for the shock-value it could have had, so I feel justified). Again, we have to keep in mind that he created this plot device point long before September, but in the light of what happened the commentary is all the more pointed: the President of the United States is a puppet being controlled by interests that nobody elected (which is doubly ironic when you consider that the American people didnít really elect Dubya).
But I digress.
Letís get back to the comic. The dubious morality of Batman and Supermanís position in this story reminds me of a teacher who once explained to me that a protagonist isnít always a good-guy and an antagonist isnít always a bad-guy. It is possible that Miller wants to show his readers that neither of these solutions, violent uprising or complete submission, are actually going to solve the problem. Iím honestly not sure if this is where Miller is trying to take us or if Iím reading a theme into a comic that doesnít really have one. This is only the first of a three-part story. Making assumptions at this time is unfair to the writer (who might have all sorts of things planned that I could never predict). So, I have decided to suspend my judgement and remain hopeful that Miller will pull a rabbit out of a hat at the end of this story, and end up making a profound point about politics, culture, and morality. Iíll tell you, though, Iím not going to hold my breath.
Last but certainly not least, art. It was good. Surprisingly good. Iíve heard a lot of people complain that Miller hasnít drawn anything in a long time and that maybe heís even lost his touch, but I didnít feel that way. The paneling is inventive and supports the feel of the scenes. The use of silhouette and shadow is particularly effective. Anything black in this story is flat black and has no contours whatsoever. The line between darkness and light is stark and obvious. In light of the themes I see in the story, the symbolic value of this artistic choice is clear, yet fairly subtle.
Millerís ability to depict movement and action is great. The opening scene of Catgirl breaking the Atom out of his miniature prison is minimalist, but manages to create a fully textured environment. The only complaint I have (and it isnít a small one) is that horrendous costume they have the Flash running around in. Even Miller himself was forced to admit how ugly it was through Barryís own reaction to it. ďYou changed my outfitÖ Kids, these days. Canít tell the difference between just plain old and classic.Ē (p48). Millerís incompetent punctuation aside, heís aware that black jogging shorts on Barry Allen are the wrong way to go, and he even shows that Barry doesnít like them, but he leaves the ĎScarletí Speedster in them anyway. This shows a fundamental lack of judgement.
All in all, I give The Dark Knight Strikes Again 3Ĺ Slushies out of 5. It was pretty good, but not great. There were a few highlights, but not enough of them to really make this comic worth $8 (CDN$14). The themes (if Iíve correctly identified them) were not well presented, and though the art was good, it was not good enough to justify the lack of content. I will, however, be waiting to see if it gets any better by issues 2 and 3.