This spring marked the 30th anniversary of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns: one of the seminal superhero comics of the modern era, still widely–if not uncontroversially–considered to be the definitive contemporary Batman story. And, don’t you worry, DC Comics knows it. As of this June, we’re officially two-thirds of the way through a Dark Knight Returns threequel by Miller and Brian Azzarello, charmingly subtitled The Master Race; that same month, Miller and Azzarello also released a one-shot prequel called The Last Crusade. And of course, we can’t forget about Zack Snyder‘s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—much as the critical establishment wishes we could–which launched a new cinematic universe for DC with a storyline and premise drawing heavily from the original DKR.
Aside from corporate self-mythologizing, however, does The Dark Knight Returns still matter? The question is more open than it might seem. Miller, whose reputation as a comics auteur was once as unassailable as those of his mid-1980s contemporaries Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, is better known these days as a bitter old crank whose political views are as unfashionable as his taste in headgear; who, when he isn’t descending irrevocably into self-parody or indulging in movie director fantasy camp with Robert Rodriguez, occasionally emerges with a cockeyed rant about how the “Occupy” movement is “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists” and we should all get off his lawn. His influence on mainstream comic books–and, by extension, on superhero media more generally–is undeniable; but in 2016, should we still be giving Frank Miller the time of day?
Personally, I think we should–but with reservations. Miller’s early Batman work is, to me, a clear example of the imperative that sometimes demands us to wrest a text’s interpretation away from its author; if the intervening decades have proven anything, it’s that The Dark Knight Returns in the hands of its readers is a much richer and more compelling work than Miller arguably ever intended. As for his more recent efforts…well, we’ll see about those.
Frank Miller got his big break in comics as a penciller and, later, writer for Marvel’s Daredevil series from 1979 to 1983: a move, he later explained, he saw as his “secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them.” He’d bring a similar sensibility to his work on Batman–though not, it’s worth noting, in his technical debut on the character. Miller’s first Batman work actually came almost six years before The Dark Knight Returns, on a Christmas-themed 10-page one-off story by Dennis O’Neil for DC Special Series #21. “Wanted: Santa Claus – Dead or Alive” is bog-standard “Bronze Age” Batman, only really remarkable for the fact that it was drawn by Miller–though even that element had very little in common with the wild, expressionistic art style he’d make famous later in the decade. You can see faint shades of that later work, however, in layouts like the one above: a series of two smaller panels depicting the mobster Matty Lasko as the shadow of Batman’s cowl emerges across his face, followed by a much larger panel of the Dark Knight looming directly over the startled criminal.
By the time Miller returned to Batman with DKR, he had already developed a more distinctive, avant-garde art style, heavily influenced by Japanese and European comics, with his original series Ronin (1983-1984). On The Dark Knight Returns, he reunited with his colorist for Ronin (and, at the time, his wife), Lynn Varley, as well as Klaus Janson, who had provided the inks and some pencil work for his Daredevil run. Varley’s work in particular lends a unique look to DKR: bold and high-contrast when it needs to be–as on the iconic first-issue cover, seen above, of Batman in silhouette against a lightning bolt–but at other times almost pastel and impressionistic with her use of watercolor. That look is a perfect match for Miller’s story, an insane dystopian fever dream in which an aging Batman reemerges from retirement to fight a new breed of criminals.
Looking back, Miller’s right-wing ideological perspective is obvious even at this early stage in his work. His Batman is a classic Randian hero: a radical individualist who is described repeatedly as being “too big” for the judgment of mere mortals, and thus despised by the masses he nevertheless deigns to protect. The narrative is overlaid by an endless series of media talking heads, many of whom–those who are critical of Batman’s unilateral brand of vigilante justice–fit the stock caricatures of weak, ineffectual liberals. Miller reserves a particular brand of venom for his original character Dr. Bartholomew Wolper: a celebrity psychologist whose belief that Batman is responsible for the criminal actions of his villains–a broad parody of media effects theories in liberal social psychology–results in the decidedly unrehabilitated Two-Face and the Joker returning to wreak havoc. If the author’s derision for the character wasn’t already clear enough, he even draws Wolper with a Hitler-like moustache.
Yet, if The Dark Knight Returns is meant as a conservative polemic, it isn’t a very successful one. Miller may sneer at the Wolpers of the world, but he also, bizarrely, proves many of the good doctor’s points: how else to explain the famous moment when the Joker emerges from a decade-long catatonic state upon hearing the news that his nemesis has returned? Or the “Sons of the Batman” gang, who emerge halfway through the series to dramatize Wolper’s early prediction that “a whole new generation, confused and angry, will be bent to the will of Batman’s pathological self-delusion?” Even Miller’s characterization of the Dark Knight himself plays into Wolper’s language of pathology. In one of my favorite sequences of the book (see below), Batman confronts his old friend-turned-enemy Harvey Dent, whose facial deformities have been fixed with reconstructive surgery, but whose mental scars–the real cause of his transformation into “Two-Face”–still persist. “I see…a reflection,” Batman confesses, all but admitting that his own psyche is as warped as those of the criminals he dedicates his life to fighting.
I’m not as impressed with The Dark Knight Returns these days as I was the first time I read it; its fascist under- (and sometimes over-) tones, which have been unpacked in great detail elsewhere, proved much harder for me to ignore in my 30s than they were in my 20s. Yet I also retain a resistant reading to the text. Miller’s prescient satirical approach to Gotham’s media–and even, in some of his most incisive moments, to then-President Ronald Reagan–make it possible to view his Batman through a similarly detached lens. Indeed, the book’s ideology is so haphazard and muddled, one is able to read its conclusion–with Batman and his youth-gang army going (literally) underground and preparing “to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers”–with a sense of dread, rather than the heroic identification Miller (probably) intended. That’s presumably the reading Alan Moore, author of the strongly anti-fascist 1986 superhero deconstruction Watchmen, had in mind when he wrote his introduction to the first trade paperback collection of The Dark Knight Returns in 1987. Today, of course, the idea of Alan Moore introducing a book by Frank Miller seems patently absurd–sort of like the idea of Miller penning a vision of fascist uprising he wasn’t actually on board with. But with The Dark Knight Returns, at least, it’s still possible to salvage the story from its reprehensible political subtext.
Also salvageable is Miller’s next Bat-project, Batman: Year One, which ran in issues 404 to 407 of the mainline Batman comic in spring of 1987. Perhaps because it was meant to fit into the book’s mainstream continuity, Year One was an altogether more measured work than its predecessor: even the art–provided not by Miller himself but by David Mazzucchelli, his collaborator on the previous year’s Daredevil arc Born Again— eschews the nightmarish expressionism of DKR in favor of a more grounded, realistic style. The result is a much more human story, but it’s also a much less ambitious one; I’d go so far as to say that contemporary readers may not be all that impressed by Year One, as its ideas have been adopted–and, arguably, improved upon–by everything from Jeph Loeb’s and Tim Sale’s 1996-1997 limited series The Long Halloween to Christopher Nolan‘s 2005 film Batman Begins.
Miller’s Randian tendencies are still present in Year One, but they’ve been mostly attenuated to dog whistle level. There’s a weird moment on the very first page, where then-Lieutenant Gordon is narrating his train ride into Gotham City as a metaphorical descent into hell; but the worst thing I can see in the panel above is a Black mother breastfeeding her baby, so I guess hell for Miller is other (poor) people. Later in the same issue, Bruce Wayne’s interior monologue describes Wayne Manor with apparently zero irony as “a fortress…to protect a fading line of royalty from an age of Equals.”
For the most part, however, squint hard enough and Year One almost looks progressive. Whereas DKR had pitted Batman primarily against the Mutants, a gang of teenage sociopaths who uncomfortably prefigured the discourse of remorseless juvenile “superpredators” in 1990s social science, the main antagonists in Year One are corrupt police officers and city officials. In this sense, at least, Batman: Year One may be more relevant than ever: with concerns over police militarization and brutality at an all-time high, Miller’s idea that a costumed vigilante represents a milder, less dangerous alternative to the state-endorsed violence of villains like G.C.P.D. S.W.A.T. Team Leader Branden actually makes a weird kind of sense.
After Year One, Miller took a lengthy break from the Dark Knight, and from DC, spending the first half of the ’90s on creator-owned projects like Hard Boiled, Give Me Liberty, and of course, Sin City. During this same period, however, Miller’s Bat-texts further established themselves as the fundamental contemporary interpretations of the character. Tim Burton, director of the wildly successful 1989 Batman movie, cited The Dark Knight Returns–along with Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke–as one of his main inspirations for the film; even Joel Schumacher‘s cartoonish 1995 sequel Batman Forever was originally pitched as an adaptation of Year One. Meanwhile, the influence of DKR in particular extended beyond its immediate protagonist, with a new generation of increasingly grim and gritty superhero comics coming to dominate the market in the 1990s.
It’s thus almost inevitable that Miller’s next Batman story would be hilariously of-its-time: an inter-company crossover (remember those?) between Batman and Spawn (remember that?), the decidedly post-DKR super-antihero created by Todd McFarlane (remember him?). Spawn/Batman, released by McFarlane’s Image Comics in 1994, is pretty much exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect it to be; an uncharitable reader might even point to it as a turning point in Miller’s work, the moment when his Batman’s ever-present element of self-parody officially took the wheel. I think, however, that that would be giving the book too much credit, when it’s clearly a goof that was never meant to be taken seriously. The premise that brings the titular characters together–a female villain from Spawn’s past using the decapitated heads of New York City’s homeless as brains for a cyborg army–is both paper-thin and almost certainly carried over from one of Miller’s rejected scripts for RoboCop 2. And Miller’s harder-than-hardboiled characterization of Batman is, one can only assume, deliberately over-the-top and two-dimensional: he calls Spawn a “punk” so many times, he sounds less like Dirty Harry and more like the annoying guy in your office who incessantly quotes Dirty Harry.
I don’t think it’s worth parsing the politics of a script Miller obviously shat out in less than the time it takes to read it–though I will say, my eyebrows raised at the idea of a seemingly benevolent homeless shelter serving as a front for a robot genocide plot; gee, Frank, tell us what you really think about the welfare state! It was also more than a little rich for Miller to give his villain a misanthropic speech about the people “sprawling across the planet, cluttering its natural perfection with endless flesh,” when he made it clear as early as The Dark Knight Returns that he shared in her contempt. In the end, however, my reaction to Spawn/ Batman is best characterized as a bemused shrug. Sure, it’s the definition of self-indulgent, as only a ’90s crossover comic can be, and its pervasive silliness is never particularly funny. Looking back, though, it’s almost a relief to see Miller poke some fun at his own low-rent Mickey Spillane schtick–especially as his work in the coming decades would only make it harder to tell when he was taking himself seriously.
The title page of Spawn/Batman billed itself as “a companion piece to DC Comics’ The Dark Knight Returns,” which was putting it kindly, to say the least. But a real companion piece did finally emerge in December of 2001, with the publication of the first issue of DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Miller’s first “official” Batman story in almost 15 years was greeted with all the fanfare of a returning legend–at first, anyway. Once critics and readers actually got their hands on the book, its reception was shockingly poor for a long-awaited sequel from the architect of modern-day Batman comics. The overriding concensus would set the mold for a familiar narrative in assessments of Miller’s latter-day work: the once all-but-universally-praised creator had seemingly lost the plot, and possibly even his most basic drawing and writing skills.
But the truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that. Like most attempts to recapture the magic of a beloved, genre-defining text, The Dark Knight Strikes Again undeniably falls short of the greatness of its predecessor. Even so, it’s not difficult to recognize as the work of the same artist; what makes DKR a flawed masterpiece and DK2 a, shall we say, “noble failure,” is mostly a difference in degrees. With the first Dark Knight, Miller slowly ramped up the craziness: beginning with a relatively grounded scenario of Batman coming back from his self-imposed exile, and only gradually building up to him galloping around on a horse and fistfighting Superman in full Bat-armor. The second Dark Knight, however, is at a fever pitch right from the start; it’s as if Miller re-read the ludicrous opening pages of DKR‘s third chapter, in which Batman dresses up like a bag lady to corner a gun-toting, transgender Dolph Lundgren lookalike with swastika pasties over her nipples, and decided to make that the tone for his whole next book.
Everything about DK2 is excessive: beginning with the plot, which pits Batman and a cadre of DC heroes both major and minor–Plastic Man, anyone?–against not only a government conspiracy engineered by Lex Luthor and Brainiac, but also the return of a vengeful, psychotic former sidekick (hint: it’s not the one you’re probably thinking of). The breathless storyline is such a clusterfuck, it’s more difficult than ever to make heads or tails of what Miller is trying to say–which may be for the better, as the few glimpses it provides of an underlying ideology are completely, well, batshit (let’s just say the alien attack that levels Metropolis at one point was an “inside job“).
Miller’s art is equally deranged, exaggerating the already-grotesque character art of The Dark Knight Returns into an incongruous, psychedelic grab bag of styles drawn from the whole history of American cartooning. To call it a virtuoso performance would suggest a level of control and intention that just isn’t present in the work; it’s more like Miller spewed his artistic id all over the canvas for 250 pages, and the result, for better or worse, was The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s a mess, obviously, but it’s a fascinating mess; and its strengths–the gonzo social commentary, the larger-than-life takes on classic characters, the brazenness with which it plays with and upsets sacrosanct notions of comic book “canon”–are much the same as those of its more reputable predecessor.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of Miller’s next dalliance in the Batverse: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, which ran for ten sporadic issues between July 2005 and September 2008. This, I’m a little embarrassed to say, is the only one of the books being discussed that I actually read at the time of its release; I distinctly remember picking up Issue #1 (left) and being horrified by the substandard quality of the writing, which reads like a bad Frank Miller impersonation by someone who recently suffered a closed head injury. Never a subtle writer, here Miller (or at least his concussed doppelgänger) confuses repetition for gravity, with whole pages of dialogue consisting of the same words and phrases repeated ad nauseam for emphasis.
Even when they’re speaking more or less coherently, the characters in All Star Batman & Robin tend toward cornball exclamations–the Dark Knight says “Cool” on multiple occasions–and schoolyard insults: there’s a running joke, if that’s what you want to call it, with multiple characters informing Batman that the Batmobile is a “queer” thing to name his car. Batman himself is neither Year One‘s grim avenger of the night nor the Dark Knight series’ quasi-libertarian revolutionary, but a bipolar, cackling maniac–literally, he laughs hysterically in almost every scene–who abducts 12-year-old Dick Grayson to draft him into his war on crime minutes after the boy witnesses his parents’ murder. Miller, ever the devotee of Koike Kazuo’s Lone Wolf and Cub, is clearly trying to portray a macho, hyperviolent father and son relationship between Batman and Robin; this could be interesting (if still unavoidably daft), were the book’s tone not so wildly inconsistent, its characters so ungrounded in even the barest semblance of reality. As it is, All Star is best read (if it must be read at all) like Spawn/Batman, with tongue planted thoroughly in cheek: if nothing else, the Caped Crusader’s repeated self-characterization as “the Goddamn Batman” has been a boon for Internet memes.
All Star just sort of ground to a halt after its tenth issue. There was talk around 2010 of Miller and artist Jim Lee continuing the series under the new title Dark Knight: Boy Wonder; this never materialized, however, and the fact that no one seems to be clamoring for the unfinished story’s conclusion speaks volumes about its inessential nature. Nor was this the only Miller Bat-project to be aborted in the mid-2000s: an ill-advised “Batman vs. Al-Qaeda” project was announced in 2006 with the admittedly awesome title of Holy Terror, Batman!; this of course was eventually released, sans DC characters, as the 2011 creator-owned graphic novel Holy Terror. I briefly considered writing about it for this feature, as the book’s origins as a Batman story are obvious even without knowledge of its background; but quite frankly, there’s only so much late-period Frank Miller a normal person can take. Maybe someday.
That leaves us with this year’s DKIII and The Last Crusade. The former I’ll mostly reserve judgment on, as there are still four issues to go and I’ve only read the first. It’s certainly better than All Star Batman & Robin: Azzarello, one of Miller’s best-known acolytes, is clearly a tempering influence on his collaborator, reigning in his worst excesses while staying true to the outrageously pulpy Dark Knight “universe.” The art by Andy Kubert and Janson is similarly evocative of Miller’s work for DK1 and 2, with the rougher edges notably sanded down. But that’s just the thing: as readable as it is–which, after All Star, is not to be taken for granted–DKIII feels like “Dark Knight Lite.” It sacrifices the sheer demented energy of Miller’s earlier work for a more mainstream, easily palatable sensibility. I’m sure it will be much more successful with fans than The Dark Knight Strikes Again; but so far, at least, I’d rather have that book warts and all than this airbrushed version.
I can speak with more authority on The Last Crusade, which appears to be finished in spite of the fact that little of note happens until the last five or so of its 62 pages. Pitched as a prequel to the original Dark Knight Returns, depicting the story of why Miller’s Batman retired in the first place, it barely feels like a Dark Knight story at all; were it not for a few cornball lines of warmed-over noir dialogue and some more-violent-than-usual action scenes, I wouldn’t have even pegged it as a Miller book. This may sound like a ringing endorsement in 2016, but it’s actually not: The Dark Knight Returns has so completely saturated the aesthetic of contemporary Batman stories that, at this point, Miller’s insane quirks and violations of good taste are the only things that set the original apart from the copycats. The Last Crusade thus feels like the worst kind of corporate contrivance: a prequel with no reason to exist, aside from generating revenue and marking the 30th anniversary of a lucrative brand.
And that, in the end, is why Frank Miller still matters–despite the undeniable decline of his artistry and quite possibly his mental faculties; despite his objectively terrible politics; despite the fact that most of what’s ugly and terrible about contemporary superhero comics can be traced, in whole or in part, back to him. Love him or hate him–and I certainly vacillate between the two–Frank Miller is an auteur: something that’s a lot more scarce, and thus precious, in mainstream comics today than in 1986. His vision of Batman may be borderline repellant, but at least it’s a vision; one that can’t be fully defined or contained by the character’s corporate identity. In this era of tightly-controlled transmedia megafranchises, that kind of individual flair is something to be cherished.
So, while I may not be in the majority, I’m hoping for something a lot crazier from the inevitable DKIV. Something that makes those stuffed shirts at Time Warner sweat a little over their sales projections. Something only Frank Miller can do. Because he’s bigger than us. Too big. And he does what needs to be done. These days, there are plenty of Dark Knights; but there’s only one Goddamn Batman. Thank god for that. But also, thank god for him.