The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a big ugly sloppy mess. It’s also my all-time favorite comic, and one I reread every few months to studiously and exhaustively analyze. And now, in a truly bizarre turn of events, Frank Miller’s much-reviled, gloriously trashy masterpiece of a comic is getting a highly anticipated mainstream sequel. Yes, despite getting a prolonged standing ovation when he took the stage at NYCC, any mention of DK2 was met with awkward silence. If Frank Miller had a relationship status with comic fans, it would be “it’s complicated.”
But whatever your opinion on the man and his art, here’s something I wish all readers could agree on: Frank Miller’s work deserves to be studied. And so I’m going to break down each issue of DKIII as it’s released to find what works and what doesn’t, what’s good and what’s bonkers and what’s both at the same time. And as a sort of warm-up and introduction to how I approach Miller’s work in general, I’m going to kick things off early with a breakdown of the first piece of Miller art released for the project, the already controversial cover of The Atom mini-comic included in the first issue.
But first, a word on Godzilla. There are lots of different ways to like Godzilla. There’s the Mystery Science Theater -style fan who laughs good-naturedly at the obviously fake rubber monsters and bizarre storylines. There’s also fans who take their Godzilla more seriously, who appreciate his origins as a metaphor for man’s hubris and self-destruction in the atomic age, and his evolution into a strangely heroic and enduring pop-culture icon. Personally, I love it all. I love cheering on some classic kaiju vs. kaiju destruction. I love the awesome and inventive monster designs. And at the same time I genuinely love the cheesy, uniquely Japanese zaniness of it all.
I bring this up because understanding Frank Miller’s work means understanding he loves comics the way I love Godzilla. He loves it all. And that means, despite what Denny O’Neil will tell you, he necessarily loves superheroes. He loves the mythic storytelling tradition of gods and monsters they evolved from. He loves a good, academic, post-modern deconstruction of the genre. And yes, he loves the juvenile and often sexist male power fantasy that dominates so much of its history. Well guess what? I love comics too, which means I necessarily love Frank Miller. So let’s get started!
Hoo boy. Okay. I don’t like this. But like much of Miller’s work, even when it’s bad, it’s bad in an interesting way. So here we go…
Let’s start with what works.
Master cartoonist Kyle Baker has a simple rule when it comes to character design: Cartoon characters look like what they really are. Smart guys look smart. Dumb guys look dumb. Selfish people look selfish. With just one image, you know a lot more about Spongebob Squarepants than just his physical appearance.
The same is true for Beavis and Butthead, or Charlie Brown, or Peter Griffin. It’s Cartooning 101, but also something we don’t see enough of in mainstream superhero books these days.
Take a look at Jim Lee’s cover for All-Star Batman and Robin:
Does this image give any hint that you’re about to read a story about a deranged, sadistic, Looney Tunes version of the goddamned Batman? Not really. Costume change aside, this could easily be an issue of Batman: Hush, a story that couldn’t be more different in tone and characterization.
Now how about this one?
Or this one?
As with Spongebob, the internal psychology of Miller’s Batman shines through in a single image. We’re able to glimpse something of his demented inner life, beyond the shallow characterization of “dark and brooding”.
Going back to the Superman drawing now, Miller takes this idea a step further, not only informing us about his character’s personality, but also giving us insight into the thematic focus and personal perspective of the artist himself. Clearly, this is not the noble, champion of the people Superman we’re looking at. This is Superman as a MAD Magazine parody, as a political cartoon – tarnished, compromised, grotesque.
There’s more than irreverence on display here; there’s downright contempt. Superman’s gritted teeth look less like physical exertion and more like the expression of pain that would realistically accompany someone with such disfigured and monstrous proportions…and it’s easy to imagine Miller reveling in that pain. Even Superman’s costume looks uncomfortable. For all the awkward proportions and oversized appendages, it’s fabric that Miller chooses to portray realistically (another element I wish more comic artists would pay attention to). We can sense how cumbersome that cape would be and how itchy and irritating those pants and underwear are, and that draws attention to how inherently absurd the very notion of costumed superheroes really is.
Contrast all this with the simple rendering of the Atom, whose pose and anatomy are much closer to what’s seen in a traditional superhero comic, and it’s clear who we’re meant to be rooting for.
Okay, now for the bad.
I’ve already touched on the conceptual value of bad anatomy, and I do get a kick out of the idea of Miller deciding that Superman isn’t worthy of the effort it would take to give him proper proportions. Still, there are some things here that are just plain awkward. Superman’s left shoulder/pectoral thing is very distracting and I can’t imagine how it would actually work in motion. What’s more, the image doesn’t pass what I call the “mirror test.” Flip it and you’ll see what I mean:
Yeesh. Reversed, the skewed distortion that can often naturally occur when illustrating is plain to see, and all it would take is a few seconds of editing in Photoshop to fix that.
But by far the most egregious element of this image is the coloring. Sorry, Alex Sinclair. Frank Miller’s drawings have always been about line quality and shape. They draw attention to their flatness and are best enhanced with bold washes of color, as the brilliant Lynn Varley knew. More recently, as Miller has become increasingly interested in abstraction, a color palette completely removed from reality or three-dimensional form suits his work best (see the “Batman punching a cop” image above). Sinclair’s attempt to impose natural lighting on the drawing is entirely inappropriate and completely ruins Miller’s inks. I only want to devote one sentence to the lazily rendered sky and bafflingly awful bat signal.
But don’t think I’m letting Miller off the hook either. All of the positive qualities I’ve attributed to this cover have been done by Miller before in better and more interesting ways. A sense of movement and kinetic energy, usually a strong suit for Miller, is almost entirely absent here and without the white motion lines, I wouldn’t even know that Superman is swinging his right arm. Sinclair’s colors may be bad, but Miller’s work here is mediocre.
It seems with a little more effort and a very different presentation, this illustration could have been something pretty appealing and interesting. Part of the problem is the way it was revealed, a single image spread across the internet by DC Entertainment™, trumpeting the first piece of art from the legendary Frank Miller for his much-anticipated return to the Dark Knight universe.
Keep in mind that when it’s actually released, this comic will only be about the size of a postcard. Think about that format and then imagine it colored in an appropriately sloppy and outrageous style with bold, hand-scrawled titles on the top. Kind of like the variant covers of DK2:
It’s not a stretch to think that when Miller was designing this mini-comic, he was envisioning something more akin to an endearingly shitty punk zine or Tijuana Bible than a polished press release-ready major mainstream event. Presented in that context, this cover could have been exciting, fresh, and wonderfully subversive. But that is not the format we’ve been given, and so, judged on its own merits, this image does not work.
So there you have it.
I’ll be back in a month to give you my breakdown of the first issue of Dark Knight III: The Master Race, out on November 25th. Will it live up to expectations? Will Miller haters give Azzarello all the writing credit? Will I spend way too much money on a variant cover?! Find out next time! Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel!