Gotham is saved, the future finds hope, and the Dark Knight has returned. But when the world is at its worst, it’s time for the Dark Knight to strike again.
In 2001, Frank Miller returned to DC Comics for a belated sequel to his highly influential Batman dystopia Dark Knight Returns. The result was the three-issue The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a story that sees the aged Bruce Wayne continue his underground fight against corruption in a future world gone increasingly insane. But this time, Batman isn’t alone. He’s joined by the returning Carrie Kelley, now Catgirl instead of Robin, and a growing band of old Justice Leaguers, escaping imprisonment and retirement to fight back against the forces of Lex Luthor. And there’s also a new shapeshifting Joker, a terrorist Brainiac, and a media gone insane, but we’ll get to that later.
Comic book sequels are kind of historically disastrous. For every Secret Wars 2015 or Dark Victory, you get: Secret Wars 2, Spider-Men 2, Civil War 2, Infinity Crusade, Infinity Wars, Age of Apocalypse 2005, JLA Another Nail, Three Jokers, Doomsday Clock, and Death Metal, to name a few. But what happens when an author decides to follow up one of the most influential comic books of all time? The comic book they created? The answer is complicated.
Consider everything that happened in the time between The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, both in comic books and the larger world around them.
Tim Burton and Michael Keaton turned Batman into a blockbuster, which was followed by three sequels that flamed out. The Soviet Union, a major factor in the political tensions of DKR, collapsed. Ronald Reagan, lampooned in those same pages, had left the presidential office, with three more presidents following. Frank Miller gave Batman a new origin in Year One only to leave DC Comics for Hollywood and then Dark Horse for Sin City, Martha Washington, 300, and more. Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen had pushed mainstream superhero comics into the era of grim and gritty deconstruction, leading to the early 90s speculator boom and subsequent catastrophic collapse. And both Marvel and DC had narrowly avoided shuttering.
Comic books and the world they occupied were not the same, but The Dark Knight Returns seemed to loom larger than it ever had over the industry. And when Miller signed a deal with DC to return to the story that helped change comics, DK2 became one of the most highly anticipated comic books of all time. But anticipation and reality are two very different things.
Reception to The Dark Knight Strikes Again was negative, to say the least, with the comic quickly becoming infamous for being one of the great disappointments in the history of DC. But it was, financially, a hit, selling close to 200,000 copies of issue 1 and issues 2 and 3 staying at over 150,000 sold each, with a $7.95 price tag for its large prestige format meaning that DK2 has made DC Comics around $5 million when including its collected reprints. When you put a name like Frank Miller together with a vision of Batman that’s famous worldwide, you get a lot of money, especially in 2001 when Miller was still a respected and active author.
And this is why Dark Knight Strikes Again is infamous in the world of comic books. This is not a series that no one cared about. It was hotly anticipated and widely read, quickly turning vast amounts of readers sour on Miller. Decades and several follow-ups later, and DKSA is still shorthand for comic book disaster. But why?
How does Miller try to follow up one of Batman’s most iconic stories? What is The Dark Knight Strikes Again actually trying to say? How does this belated sequel fit into the larger story of Frank Miller? And what is the legacy of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, warts and all, in the ongoing Batman saga?
Returning to the Return
The Dark Knight Returns is about the balance of hope and despair in a future dystopia, but it’s also about Batman transcending humanity and becoming legend, moving from an old man who struggles to defeat a broken Two-Face to a hero that can go toe to toe with Superman. So what can a sequel do to challenge the transcendent? It must become larger than life in every aspect.
The future of The Dark Knight Returns is dystopic in a sort of “humanity’s worst impulses continue” sort of way. But the future of Dark Knight Strikes Again is a full-on police state, with the government controlling every element of the population. The president of the US is a hologram controlled by Lex Luthor, wars and invasions ravage the planet, superheroes continue to be outlawed and snuffed out. And it’s this escalation of horrors that brings Batman out of hiding.
According to Miller, “When I did the first one, I was very much rebelling against all the established stuff, like the old TV show. Just how lame all the stuff had become. This time, I’m finding that I’m playing around with DC’s whole pantheon of characters and trying to show them off in ways that feature the joys behind them.”
If Miller’s original was a stiff middle finger to the forces that control the world, DK2 is all-out war against them as Batman gathers an aged Justice League to destroy Luthor and his forces. But what starts as a war for freedom violently devolves into nonsense as Miller slams more and more plot developments down on the reader. Boom! Braniac attack. Bang! Superman-Wonder Woman love child. Kersplat! New shapeshifting joker. Blammo! Superheroine rock band protest.
And at the center of this hopelessly shattered narrative lies a real world tragedy.
A few years before writing Strikes Again, Miller and then-wife Lynn Varley had moved back to Hell’s Kitchen in New York, and in the midst of writing his return to Batman, the September 11th terrorist attacks happened – the smoke and death visible from Miller’s home. While issues 1 and 2 came out in December 2001 and January 2002, all of issue 1 and some of issue 2 had been written before September 11th.
Whatever Miller had originally planned was waylaid by his horror at the devastation. Instead, issue 2 diverges into an extended destruction of Metropolis as Superman is rendered powerless to stop Braniac.
There’s a striking double-page spread that directly evokes the aftermath of 9/11 in issue 3 of DK2, published in July of 2002. The rubble of Metropolis echoes first responders in search of survivors in New York, but it’s all made perfectly clear as Superman and his daughter fly off, the smoldering city split in half behind them. It’s one of the few images in the entire series that Miller bothers to give a detailed background and connects to the real world devastation.
Much like Miller would cite being mugged in New York as the inspiration for his paranoid, ruthless approach to Daredevil and Batman in the ‘80s, 9/11 would break Miller in the 21st century. The author’s Libertarianism, often on display in his individualist Batman, would morph into the hard right wing Islamaphobic viewpoint of “Holy Terror,” originally planned to be a Batman comic but disavowed by DC in 2006. So “Strikes Again” sees Miller in the midst of a personal political crisis, one that’s pushed through a psychedelic lens of conspiracy, superheroism, and justice, all embodied in a gleefully violent Batman.
In Miller’s hands, Batman is a monomaniacal furious ball of moral rage, pushed to the brink from a world the author sees as immoral in every way. And in a repeat of Returns, Bruce once again transcends his mortality, essentially asserting himself as beyond age by the end. I don’t know how or why, he just does.
Miller seeths beneath the surface of the comic, with Superman’s calm reason seen as the encapsulation of everything wrong with the modern hero. Near the end, Superman finally snaps, destroying multiple fighter jets and probably killing their pilots. But this isn’t framed as the fall of The Man of Steel, it’s his ascension. Now, Batman condones killing, aiding Hawkman and Hawkgirl’s son in murdering Lex Luthor. And as Superman becomes a furious god, a new religion forms around him, exalting a savior you can see and touch over one you can’t.
“Strikes Again” is a mess. I can’t deny that. But I find it to be a fascinating mess. And a much better experience when you immerse yourself in its madness instead of flipping through its pages. These panels hurt the eyes without adjustment. And while it’s not as bad as staring at the sun, it does help to let the pupils dialate accordingly.
DK2 is a pop art speedrace, hitting the gas immediately and red-lining before the first issue is over. Every installment is a mega-sized chunk of pages, but even with so much real estate, it seems like there’s never enough time for any of Miller’s ideas. Major characters of Returns, like Gordon and Yindel, are given no more than a single panel as the increasingly manic story vibrates with a billion screaming thoughts. By issue 3, the narrative is leaping tall buildings in a single bound, flashing back to forgotten moments and refusing to establish time or place.
Rage-filled rebels fire guns at unseen hordes as increasingly cartoonish talking heads gawk and groan like some sort of vox populi bobblehead from hell. Politicians, journalists, villains, soldiers, common people, artists – they’re all caricatures here, designed to echo a strawman argument for Miller to ruthlessly mock and tear apart. And when the President is shown to be a hologram, the people just shrug and accept it. If there was ever a time to use the term “sheeple,” it’s when describing Miller’s approach to the common man. And Batman is here to beat some awareness into them.
Actually, despite Batman being our titular character, he’s probably the least important. Carrie Kelley is given much more to do, acting out her mentor’s plans while the various returning members of the Justice League like The Atom, Plastic Man, The Elongated Man, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and more take up the fight. But if this is anyone’s story, it’s actually Superman’s. His romance with Wonder Woman, becoming a parent to his daughter, and moving out of the government stooge role that Miller is often criticized for in Returns, are the given way more page real estate than Batman, who acts as puppet master here. Batman is almost entirely absent from the first issue. His voiceover permeates it, showing us his plans, but he doesn’t appear until the very end, once again mercilessly beating Superman to a pulp. Batman is never wrong in the pages of Strikes Again, so how can he have any sort of arc?
Everyone outside of Batman, and maybe Carrie, is a moron, little more than a chess piece moved about by The Dark Knight. And no one suffers more in relation to Miller’s ubermench antihero than a late villainous addition.
Miller’s relationship to Robin is … strange to say the least, and even downright hateful at its core. At the time of Returns publishing, Jason Todd was still alive in the main Batbooks and Batman’s allusion to Todd being dead predates that character’s call-in mandated murder. Years after DK2, Miller would team up with Jim Lee for All-Star Batman and Robin for the origin of Dick Grayson, with Miller making him a violent little psycho whose training by Batman largely consists of verbal abuse. I don’t know if Miller intended for it to be more than that, All-Star never finished and no you can’t make me do a video on it. Carrie Kelley’s Robin helps Bruce move past the mental and physical roadblocks on his path back to Batman, but she’s become Catgirl by the time Strikes Again has started.
Returns never makes anything explicit, but it seems as if years of disillusionment and trauma have dissolved any semblance of the Bat Family. Where is Dick Grayson? It doesn’t matter initially. But in Strikes Again, the fate of Robin is critical, and it paints the dynamic of this duo in a terrible light.
Throughout these pages, a new Joker begins murdering heroes, revealed at the end to be Dick Grayson, seeking revenge against Batman for his abuse and firing years earlier. It’s completely unnecessary and is quickly solved by a decapitation and some lava. But why should we care? Miller has done nothing to give us an emotional connection to anything in DK2 beyond a twist for twist’s sake.
Who are these people? What are their relationships? Every character’s friendship, love, or hatred toward one another is only established through us knowing traditional status quo established by other comics.
Alongside its critique of political powers, Strikes Again also interrogrates our burgeoning relationship with technology. The human-computer interface is taken to an extreme through a constant barrage of information. A hologram president is the ultimate connection of political manipulation and technological abuse. Having a character like Braniac, covered in nodes and constantly changing shape, be the power behind Luthor’s control takes the critique to another level. Layers and layers of technology manipulating the world at large. All the while, Varley uses burgeoning technology to haphazardly slam layer after layer of Photoshop color down on the page, colliding Miller’s frenetic inks with a swirl of digital color.
And speaking of the art, DK2 is full-fledged late-stage Miller. After his evolution in conjunction with inker Klaus Janson (who didn’t return here) and his push into the heavily inked noir of Sin City (gone completely psychedelic by the final installment of Hell and Back), Miller moved into a much more sparse line work with harsh geometric interpretations of the body. Here, Miller’s panels are almost entirely devoid of backgrounds as each character floats through the void. The Gotham of Dark Knight Returns is famous for being a case for a more grounded, gritty realism in superhero stories. Miller, Janson, and Varley’s world in that original story was made up of cold hard concrete and dilapidated modernity.
What does the Gotham of Strikes Again look like? I couldn’t tell you. It doesn’t exist. It’s all just harsh colors and screaming heads. A howl of high tech horror that bears no semblance to the world we saw previously. And maybe that’s the key to understanding this comic. This is not a true sequel to Returns. There’s little here to connect the two outside of some returning characters. This is a different Frank Miller and a different dark future.
Miller’s art works best in splash pages here, creating one large image for the biggest impact and sometimes breaking it up with a scattering of small panels that give greater context. But it’s at it’s worst when trying to create a true sequential approach to action or emotion. All the detail is lost. The context is missing. The movements and desires of characters are almost impossible to parse at times as there’s no sense of pacing or flow from panel to panel.
The coloring by Lynn Varley is a hypercolored garish explosion. Unlike Varley’s coloring of Returns, which used gouache to provide a natural, textured feeling to a dilapidated future, Varley adopts an early Photoshop coloring here. The result is something harshly unnatural, filled with pinwheels of rainbow colors and at times heavily pixelated. When combined with Miller almost completely removing backgrounds, you become unmoored from any sense of setting or context. These are all characters adrift in an uncanny abyss.
In the midst of all this pop art excess, Miller tries to reassert the power of the superhero. But much is lost in both the messiness of an unfocused story and the years that recontextualized it in Miller’s career.
The Dark Knight Falls
When reflecting on his drive behind returning to superheroes to write Strikes Again, Miller said, “Fifteen years away from it has given me a much different perspective. I’m much more able to approach it like I’m 7 years old than I used to be able to.”
And there’s something both fun and thickheaded about that approach. Seen one way, and you can easily view the comic as a silly throwback to the Silver Age, where heroes were bright and weird and the stakes had little to do with reality. Seen another, and you face all the heavy real world issues that Miller infuses his story with, colliding an immature approach with recent tragedy.
There are loads of ridiculous moments throughout Strikes Again. But comics can be ridiculous and still work. It’s all about establishing a world and tone and then working well within it. If the entire world is ridiculous, then ridiculous things can happen and feel right.
The problem with Strikes Again is that it never quite understands how it’s trying to operate. While Returns had elements of satire in how it portrayed the media and government, everything in DK2 is ridiculous to the point of unintentional self-parody.
Superman and Wonder Woman having earth-shaking insta-pregnant MEGASEX highlights just how outlandish Miller is willing to get. Everything here is cranked up to its most extreme caricature. The greek chorus of talking head reporters are slammed into any scene at random, with highly sexualized women giving the news in the nude. In fact, every woman, even 16-year-old Carrie Kelley, is sexualized, it’s just that Miller’s coarse geometric shapes lack any sort of human sensuality. Right wing controlling politicians are now all puppets in a sort of conspiracy theorist’s ultimate fantasy. Batman is now the perfect man, always 10 steps ahead and never wrong in his assessment of the world around him.
In Miller’s 21st century eyes, the world is one big, ugly cesspool of corruption and it must, at all costs, being violently cleaned up. Is this righteous anger? Not really. More like decades of pent up rage given life in a medium meant to inspire. Yet Miller would later dismiss the effects of political ideology given life through art, saying “I don’t know many people who get their politics out of comic books. The notion of doing that scares me most of the time. I’m just throwing my stuff against a wall to see what happens. I don’t think anything I’m doing could affect things on such a broad basis. I don’t think anybody doing fiction could.”
Maybe that’s partially true Frank, but art is the gateway into a greater worldview. Maybe no single comic has ever changed a person’s entire belief system, but it’s likely caused them to consider a different viewpoint. Given enough reinforcement, and their beliefs can change. Of course, any sort of beliefs Miller had about politics and art would be tossed out in the days of “Holy Terror” and a one man cartoon war on those he hated.
If DK2 left bad taste in your mouth, don’t read this book.
In response to “Holy Terror,” Grant Morrison would later say, “Cheering on a fictional character as he beats up fictionalized terrorists seems like a decadent indulgence when real terrorists are killing real people in the real world. I’d be so much more impressed if Frank Miller gave up all this graphic novel nonsense, joined the Army and, with a howl of undying hate, rushed headlong onto the front lines with the young soldiers who are actually risking life and limb ‘vs.’ Al Qaeda.”
In the long, convoluted arc of the story, “Dark Knight Strikes Again” is the reassertion of the superhero, bending back the totalitarian leanings of the world through sheer force of will. What that means for each reader likely depends on how willing they are to look past its fractured plot, strange sexualizations, homophobic tangents, and real world paranoia.
For all its loopy political ideaology and mid-writing identity crisis, Strikes Again is actually a hopeful book. One that presents a global crisis of staggering proportions that collides decades of man’s worst impulses with the failings of our political system and believes that we can still pull ourselves out of the muck. It just may take lopping off your genetically modified shape shifting former ward’s head to do it.
Unlike so many elements of Dark Knight Returns, Strikes Again has not entered the iconography of Batman. Whereas things like the tank Batmobile, the power armor, the Mutant gang, Carrie Kelley Robin, the brick shithouse of old Batman, and so many iconic panels that were created by Returns have been reinterpreted by other comics, movies, and tv shows, the inventions of Strikes Again have bounced off popular culture and have never really been reclaimed. Its immediate rejection gave it no chance to permeate the larger culture. And you know what? Thats ok.
It would be another nearly 15 years until the world of DKR would have a full-fledged sequel in Dark Knight III: The Master Race, co-written by Miller and Brian Azzarello. While some elements of Strikes Again influence part 3, like Superman and his daughter, the entry largely ignores it.
But what could you really do to extend DK2’s world?
The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a work of pure anarchy. Anarchy in content as superheroes embrace their outlaw nature to topple the secret rulers of the world. Anarchy in form as Miller and Varley throw away any traditional structure in favor of pure thought brought to life on the page. The result is a sloppy, strange, insulting, captivating, confusing, brilliant, and braindead, all at once.
And despite some changes in political idealogy and art in the decades since, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was the death of Frank Miller’s career.