With the long-awaited arrival of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice ready to burst onto the big screen just months from now, DC Comics isn’t wasting anytime greasing the lucrative gears that the first cinematic pairing of Gotham’s Dark Knight and Metropolis’ Man of Steel in what will no doubt become a huge blockbuster franchise. After a tepid – and for PC fans, botched – launch of the videogame Batman: Arkham Knight, the world’s most beloved crimefighter goes back to his most notable reinvention in Batman: The Dark Knight Saga Deluxe Edition, which collects two of artist/writer Frank Miller’s most notorious Batman tales.
Presumably, this won’t be the final ‘deluxe edition’ of Miller’s Dark Knight saga as it doesn’t include the brand new The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which, as it happens, just began publishing as this was released. Fancy that.
Let’s get the facts out of the way up front: this review won’t focus much on either comic’s story, plot, or characterization of DC’s beloved Batman – and Superman – characters. Think about it for a moment: here is one of the single most famous stories in all of comicbook history, and you’re on the internet. Endless conversation, debate, and heated arguments by self-appointed comic champions are but a search away. Go ahead and indulge yourself.
The Dark Knight Returns
Originally released in 1986, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns would soon become the template for not just reinventing DC Comic’s often silly, spandexed superhero set, but it would help lay the groundwork for what would become – today – the all-encompassing superhero glut that has dominated film and television. Miller’s too-serious approach to making his Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic ‘less fun’ and ‘more serious’ caught on, and it wasn’t long before those who would never fancy themselves a comic fan began wondering what all the hullabaloo was about.
One only has to look at Tim Burton’s groundbreaking 1989 Batman: The Movie, which featured stylistic influences directly from Miller’s Caped Crusader, right down to its emphasis on darker, more gothic shadowing. This gave way to what many – including yours truly – feels is the best adaptation of the Batman mythos yet created, the glorious Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990s.
Some will argue that much of what Burton and the series laid out was lost in Joel Schumacher’s hilariously awful – and awfully hilarious – Batman films (Batman Forever, Batman and Robin), but that’s not true; comic nerds will note that Miller himself embraced neon colors and gaudy pastels in his disappointing follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. More on this in a bit…
For all the talk and chatter about where The Dark Knight Returns sits in the pantheon of ‘best’ comic books and/or graphic novels, the reality is sobering; it’s a good comic, often a great one, but never a fully realized comic throughout.
The central concept of having an older, less physically capable Batman being ‘retired’ is great. In his absence, gangs of homicidal teens and other miscreants called Mutants have run amok, and it’s not long before our hero feels anxious to rejoin the world of daring do. But this world is anything but comic; Miller recasts Batman, Gotham, and villains like Two-Face and Joker as the truly insane killers they are, unrepentant and exquisitely dangerous.
It’s also here where Commissioner Gordon comes into his own as a truly formed character, on the verge of forced retirement yet – like his friend Batman – still capable of maintaining some of his old fire and spark. Batman/Bruce Wayne is soon joined by newcomer Carrie Kelly, a female Robin fanboy who’s barely a teenager yet willing to take on the hoards. We get hints that the old Robin met a gruesome end; yet Batman is still willing to take on underage apprentices, or as he calls them, soldiers.
What follows is a gothic, dreary fantasy that must have been truly shocking to comic book fans – and their parents – alike. Thirty years removed from the dreaded Comic Code that censored the artform into blase oblivion, Miller’s manic reinterpretation of the comic form was a sucker punch to every sensibility and good sense imaginable; here was Batman, twenty years on from Adam West, playing out in a fascistic wasteland that were anything but campy.
Now add Cold War-era paranoia and the inclusion of DC’s other beloved superhero, Superman, employed as a government stooge and you’ve got something a million years away from BAM! POW! ZIP! If there was ever a time when American comics claimed their independence, this was it. Tellingly, the whole affair was so utterly confusing – and potentially alienating – that DC eventually retconned the series safely away into an alternate universe.
No surprise, it’s been the movies where most of the ideas and concepts Miller dreamed up have ended up, some more pronounced than others. As a writer Miller has something of a love/hate relationship with film, from botched Robocop sequels to stylized Sin City adaptations to what would eventually turn into a solid relationship with director Zack Snyder on the CG bloodbath 300 and – we assume – Snyder’s commandeering over future Batman/Superman films.
Witness Burton’s truly darker Dark Knight to Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy, which managed to splice as many of Miller’s ideas as possible: think mass street carnage, atomic explosions, and a largely Batman-free adventure in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
And Warner Bros isn’t done aping the source material: the metallic armored suit Batman dons to take on Superman is genuinely cool, and looks exactly like the one Ben Affleck’s gruffier Dark Knight dons in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie. Speaking of that heroic mash-up, did I mention that has roots in Miller’s original, too?
The only attempt to bring the original story, in all its violent, psychopathic glory to life was the decent 2012 direct-to-video release Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which only served to remind even the most diehard comic fans that some stories work better on the printed page.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again
The best thing that can be said about The Dark Knight Strikes Again is that it manages to retroactively make its predecessor look like a masterpiece in comparison.
The artwork ranges from merely OK to catastrophically, earth-shatteringly awful. No, that’s not strong enough; much of the artwork in this Batman comic wouldn’t be fit on a Deviantart fanboy post, let alone position itself against one of the most heralded comic prints of all-time. At times the coloring, attributed once again to Miller’s frequent collaborator Lynn Varley, looks like it was rendered using MS Paint. It’s really that bad. I wonder how much of this was due to the loss of Miller’s previous inker, Klaus Janson, or the absurd reliance on amateurish digital coloring.
In his introduction Miller states he was halfway through completing the comic, whose original storyline had Batman flying his Batmobile into a skyscraper, and would include a giant robot gutting Metropolis. Then 9-11 happened… and everything changed.
He also mentions, interestingly, that it was “first a Batman story, a superhero story.” He’s right about the last part, as there’s plenty of superheroes running around this sequel, though Batman really isn’t among them.
The central character here is Carrie Kelly, who’s given up her Robin fetish and now goes by the name Catgirl, fitting given her new full body catsuit. With boss Batman is still in hiding it’s up to Carrie and her trained army of Batboys (the reformed Mutants from before) to set things right, even if that means getting down and dirty. From the shadows, Batman may be playing the long game, and what that might be is anyone’s guess in Miller’s continuing dismantling of the popular Batman hagiography.
Miller’s concept of superhero enslavement, which began with a dimwitted Superman aiding the US government previously, is amplified all to hell here with virtually every major DC hero under the heel of oppressive baddies. Popular Justice League faces like Flash, Atom, and Plastic Man are all prisoners, each locked away for various reasons and needing help.
Eventually, other DC regulars like Wonder Woman, fresh off a steamy affair with Superman (an affair which produced a daughter) and Captain Marvel, each slaves to their respective masters, as the trio form a reunion of sorts in outer space. Main villains this go around are a grotesquely deformed Lex Luthor and gigantic Brainiac, the latter holding the last surviving citizens of Krypton captive in a glass jar – in miniature form – as protection against a threat by Superman.
As with The Dark Knight Rises, there are scads of great ideas and concepts here, so many that we’ve already begun seeing traces of them in other media (to name them would spoil surprises, so you’ll have to trust me). The main concept would have to be uniting Batman and Superman with DC’s third major hero, Wonder Woman, which we’ll finally be seeing in the upcoming film.
But where the previous adventure had some relative grasp on reality that non-comic fans could latch onto, there’s nothing remotely relatable here. From the bonkers psychedelic storyline to the smorgasbord of comic book heroes and villains alike, many with vast backstories that have been carried over or created out of cloth for this series, Miller might as well have been speaking an entirely different language.
Moreover, there doesn’t seem to have even been an effort to let newcomers in, almost like he crafted this bizarre fantasy to intentionally keep the growing glut of ‘normal’ comic fans out of the hen-house. In short, this isn’t a fun read, or even a good one. It’s just bad storytelling, and bad execution all around.
No gripes about the incredibly good print quality, hardcover binding, or translucent protective cover; this is premium stuff and the serious collector will get their money’s worth. Another great add are the obligatory bonus material which includes tons of great sketches, character designs, story treatments, issue covers, notations, and commentary from Miller.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Batman: The Dark Knight Saga Deluxe Edition, as it’s a collection of older comics that have, in their own way, influenced the worlds of comics and film more than most. The rush to accredit them as ‘masterpieces’, however, may leave those more objective readers with having to explain the bipolar nature of comic fandom. Miller’s first story is a genuine classic, the second…not so much. The Dark Knight will, as always, persist.