Dark Victory

15 years later, Frank Miller once more dons Batman's cape and cowl

Dec 12, 2001 at 4:00 am
It is December 5, the day AOL Time Warner-owned DC Comics has been anxiously awaiting for almost 15 years--the day writer-illustrator Frank Miller once more dons cape and cowl to resurrect the Dark Knight, his fiercely rendered vision of an obscenely obsessed middle-aged Batman. Today, stores will finally open their doors to those waiting for The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in which Batman and the entirety of the Justice League--creaky, venerable heroes with names like The Flash, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and The Atom--brutally collide with the big blue Boy Scout, Superman, long portrayed by Miller as a confused and conflicted pawn of the United States government. The first time Batman is seen in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he's doing just as he did at the end of The Dark Knight Returns in 1986: beating holy hell out of Superman, trying to break the will of a man he cannot kill. "Well," says Miller with a laugh, "I had to get that out of the way." Unfazed by the day's forthcoming deluge of reactions, he sounds giddy, like a child given the keys to the toy store after closing. "I'm having a real rockin' time."

In 1986, Miller's four-part The Dark Knight Returns, along with a handful of other titles, turned comics into capital-A art, infusing them with pop-culture references (TVs everywhere), a sinister sarcasm and a hard-boiled pulp-fiction feel. Batman--hauled out of retirement to duel to the death with the likes of Two-Face and the Joker and his old pal Clark Kent--was out of the geek's Batcave and once more in the spotlight, standing in the glare of a Batsignal that heralded the hero's return to relevance. Miller, aided by inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley, was among the chief catalysts for the resurrection of the superhero in a medium that had grown stale and complacent, and his grimy, hyper-realistic influence even now permeates almost every panel of every page of every comic book published.

Since then, Miller has only toyed with the idea of returning to the Dark Knight: Sometimes in interviews, he would say yup, sure, some day; just as often, he'd insist no way in hell. (He did write Batman: Year One in 1988, but only because he'd worked through his own Batman origin story while doing Dark Knight Returns and didn't want to waste the effort.) Besides, he had moved on to the grim noir Sin City, about an ex-con's quest for justice, and Elektra: Assassin and Hard-Boiled and Give Me Liberty and 300 and so many other titles that had absolutely nothing to do with Batman and very little to do with superheroes at all. DC would call every now and then, he'd say, "Not yet," and the dance would continue--until last year, when it was announced Miller had, at long last, decided to do a Dark Knight sequel. The day the news came down, thousands of fanboys surely went to sleep grinning like the Joker.

"This time, the way I was able to get through was to just refer to it as my suicide mission," Miller says. "There's always gonna be someone who walks up and says, 'I don't feel like I did when I was 10 years old.' In which case, you gotta tell them they're never gonna feel like they did when they were 10 years old. So I'll just see how people react and hope they like it. Mostly, I just hope folks like the story...But as far as my expectations, boy, I always try not to have any."

Initially, DC shipped some 150,000 copies of the first issue of Miller's three-part The Dark Knight Strikes Again--all 80 pages of it, each luminously rendered--to retailers, making it the publishing-world equivalent of a blockbuster film. (The initial number might not sound huge, but at eight bucks a pop, the sales figures will be enormous.) And DC has treated the so-called DK2 as such, refusing to send out review copies of the book until the day of its release. DC was worried about advance images leaking to the Web--anything that might take away a single sale, especially after years of watching its fan base shrink or defect to rival Marvel Comics, which suddenly has hipster cache with bright young writers and illustrators taking on Spider-Man and The Hulk and Captain America. Even before The Dark Knight Strikes Again went on sale last week, DC issued a press release anointing the book "the best-selling comic book of 2001 in both dollars and units as well as the best-seller of the last five years," citing figures provided by Diamond Comic Distributors, which ships titles directly to retailers.

Yet the new book feels very little like its precursor: It's brighter, for one thing, thanks to Varley's use of computer coloring. And its use of familiar heroes from DC's stable makes it very much a fan's product: These are the costumed do-gooders of Miller's childhood, when he was 8 years old in Vermont and stumbling across his first issue of an 80-page Batman. He has resurrected heroes long dead or forgotten in DC's universe, where crime fighters have become as disposable and interchangeable as cotton balls. Barry Allen is still The Flash, Hal Jordan is still the Green Lantern, Oliver Queen is still the Green Arrow, and Captain Marvel is now a balding, bespectacled old man. Miller's comics exist as though the years 1965 through 1985 never happened in the comic-book industry; he's a man in his 40s romping with the icons of his youth. "I realized that what I was really out to do here was, in many ways, the opposite of the first Dark Knight," Miller says. "It was really about taking out the old toys and making them shine."

In 1986, he wrote and drew a grizzled, manic Batman wrestling with literal and figurative demons in order to "re-establish Batman as being a tolerable character and also to portray a world where a guy like that wouldn't just be a lunatic," as he says. In short, he wanted to answer a simple question: "What kind of world essentially needs a Batman?" And so he created a Gotham City overrun by murderous mutants and psychotic villains--none more so than Batman himself, an outlaw in hero's spandex. Miller's latest take on Batman and the supporting cast of heroes is mischievous, playful--a grim but giddy punch line sustained over 240 pages, at least by the time the final issue is published at the end of February.

"I didn't want to do a repeat," Miller says. "I thought it would be sad and pathetic to do a repeat of what I did when I was 29. Instead, I wanted to have a fresh take on it, and since I've been doing work like Sin City for the past 15 years, I've really been far away from superheroes, and it's made my eyes fresher. I guess my goal is to turn adults into 8-year-olds, if possible. Much of what I do is aimed at creating that same sense of wonder that all kids have. It's easy to do that with a little kid, because you believe in magic, but grown-ups have to be convinced. Or tricked."

Miller is the fan who grew up to become fan favorite, the student who outstripped his mentors. He began working on comics in the late '70s, after writing and illustrating his work in fanzines. Though he was never formally trained, his first real tutor was Neal Adams, whose illustrations in Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow during the early '70s restored to comicdom a vitality missing almost since the birth of the superhero in the late 1930s, notwithstanding the contributions of artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Adams used to lay tracing paper over Miller's art and show the kid where he'd gone wrong, and it was Adams who got Miller his first job at lowly Gold Key comics. By the end of the '70s, Miller was illustrating Daredevil, one of Marvel's struggling comics; in time, he would take over writing duties as well, transforming the comic into one of the era's most popular and enduring titles.

By the mid-1980s, seismic shifts were occurring in the industry: Creators began to push for rights and royalties, direct distribution to comics stores allowed fans to follow writers and illustrators and not only heroes, and the industry began realizing that it needed new voices to breathe life into a moribund form. DC brought in Brit Alan Moore to write Swamp Thing, then published Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, about self-loathing heroes who had been outlawed by the government. In 1983, upstart First Comics let Howard Chaykin do his own title, American Flagg, about a contemptuous anti-hero fighting the losing battle. And then came The Dark Knight Returns and, two years later, Batman: Year One, both of which would spawn hundreds of imitators, good and unreadable, and change the look and feel of the Caped Crusader for good.

"Dark Knight was part of a lot of different pushes that were going on creatively in the field," Miller says. "It was probably just the splashiest. The work that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were doing, that Alan and Steve Bissette and John Totleben were doing in Swamp Thing and a lot of stuff from England was all happening, and Dark Knight was one of these crescendos. But something was looking to break loose. There were a lot of people like me who grew up reading comics and loving them, and we wanted them to grow up with us."

Miller hints that perhaps he will do more Dark Knight once this three-issue run finishes; he's also made notes for a Superman tale that may or may never come to fruition, and he will return to Sin City very soon. For now he awaits the reactions to his child 15 years in the making. Though he insists he has no expectations, he sweats over them all the same--DC's, the fans', his own most of all. He suffered "stage fright" a few times--that "absolute horrible thing"--and tried to embrace it. "It focuses the mind," Miller says, comparing it to seeing the gallows in the distance. "The prospect of failure," he says, "is so dismal it keeps me very sharp."