Miller, Frank

AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:

3.5 out of 5

(4 books)

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

(Art by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson)

Ten years after the disappearance of the Batman, Gotham City has devolved into criminal chaos once more, with a city-wide gang of youths called the Mutants terrorising the streets.  The rise in crime is not lost on the retired Bruce Wayne, who has spent a decade wrestling with his Bat-shaped demons and finally decides to give in and unleash them against the criminals.  But Batman returns to a changed world where the aged Commisioner Gordon is being replaced with a young woman who has no tolerance for vigilantes and where supervillains like Two-Face and the Joker are treated like victims by the media.  Finally, and crucially, Superman is now in the employ of the President and is tasked with both averting nuclear war and simultaneously putting a stop to the return of the cult of superheroism.

The 1980s were a time when comics were turning their eyes inwards and deconstructing the tropes and concepts that had been with them since the 30s.  The real world had moved on and comics writers decided it was time that superheroes did too.  This book is one of the high points of this move to reevaluate and, in doing so, reinvigorated the world of superheroes ('Watchmen' by Alan Moore was another and it's no coincidence that my edition of this book has an introduction by Moore).  Here Miller literally moves Gotham on ten years into a more modern political setting, where the very real issue of nuclear war hovers over the inhabitants of that city as it did over the writer and readers themselves.  Batman is treated as an anachronism, a symbol from a bygone age struggling to become relevant once more and in the process we get what may be the best ever exploration of the psyche of Bruce Wayne.

But it's not just Batman who gets reevaluated and here we get some great scenes exploring the ideological differences between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel.  Superman is trying to be a very different kind of symbol by working within the established framework of government, his methods so vastly different and opposed to Bruce's that a conflict is inevitable.  Added to Supes are other famous faces from the DC Universe who all get the 'where would they end up?' treatment, including Green Arrow and Catwoman.  For me, the best of these revisited characters was the Joker, who we learn has been completely catatonic in Arkham since Batman disappeared a decade before.  The moment when the news reveals that Batman has returned is brilliantly shown in the Joker's reaction as a smile slowly spreads across his face and he exclaims "Darling!".

I have to admit that I avoided reading this book for a very long time due to its towering reputation; I frankly found it intimidating.  However, if you find yourself feeling the same way I can assure you that it's really worthwhile to give it a go.

5 out of 5

 

Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

(Art by Frank Miller)

The sequel to the iconic 'The Dark Knight Returns', set three years after Batman's apparent death.  In the intervening years a totalitarian government has risen to power, secretly controlled by Lex Luthor and Brainiac, which keeps the populace happy and ignorant whilst stealing their civil liberties.  Worse, Superman is complicit in this government's activities and all of Earth's other heroes are nowhere to be found.  However, Batman is very much alive and is finally ready to put his masterplan and his secret army into action.

I've seen a lot of negative reviews of this book, but I think it's fair to say that they almost all focus on its inferiority to 'The Dark Knight Returns'.  And it definitely is inferior by a huge margin, but that doesn't mean its as bad as some say when taken purely on its own merits.  You have to view this not so much as a sequel as it is an Elseworlds story where the set-up is largely the same as DKR.  Here the story focuses on the larger former Justice League and how Batman reunites them to overthrow the regime of a dystopian future.

There are definitely plenty of things to enjoy in this book, including things like the revelation of Superman and Wonder Woman having a daughter or the way in which Carrie, formerly Robin but now Catgirl, steps up as Bruce's trusted right hand.  For me the best bit was seeing the former JLAers team up to take down Superman, who is being blackmailed into serving Luthor, and Batman revealing that, whilst far less powerful than Superman, he's far smarter.  In fact, it's fun to check in with so many familiar characters in this alternate future timeline, including Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel (before DC rebranded him as Shazam), Martian Manhunter, the Question, the Atom and the Flash.

However, there's also a lot of annoying things in this book too.  The media interludes are often irrelevant or nonsensical and they rapidly become tedious interruptions to the narrative.  There's also a subplot in which a Joker copycat starts offing superheroes which is never given the time needed to really develop it considering that the revelation of his identity and his final confrontation with Batman is the book's climax.  Really this either needed to be the main plot or left out altogether as it does nothing but detract attention from the story of the overthrow of the government.  My other major gripe is just how sex-focused the whole book is; not something I thought I'd dislike on principle but here it's just weird.  There's the news coverage by a naked woman, the sexualised and innuendo-laden Superchix, the scene where Superman and Wonder Woman cause a tsunami whilst shagging and Carrie, who is only sixteen remember, putting the Atom, who is naked at the time, in her mouth and then saying "Gross.  I swallowed."  Also, for some reason the very first thing the new Supergirl asks her father upon meeting him is about sex.  It's just a weirdly inappropriate thing to bring up first (the gist of Superman's response is that humans are too fragile to be shagged by Kryptonians, by the way, in case you wanted a particularly disturbing mental image).

3 out of 5

 

Batman: Year One

(Art by David Mazzucchelli)

Two men arrive in Gotham City who will have a dramatic effect on the crime-ridden urban sprawl.  This first is police Lieutenant Jim Gordon, who is struggling to do his job in a police department riddled with corruption whilst maintaining a difficult relationship with his pregnant wife Barbara.  The second man, just returned to the city after having been away since childhood, is Bruce Wayne.

This is the book that inspired much of Christopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins', showing both Gordon and Wayne as men determined to make a difference in a city which is drowning in its own darkness.  They make for perfect protagonists too; Gordon is very much an imperfect individual and the struggles of his personal life echo those he faces as a police officer.  Meanwhile, here we see Bruce Wayne as an amateur, needing plenty of trial and error before he gets his crimefighting MO perfected. 

This is a purer and simpler Batman story, showing the Dark Knight before his many famous adventures, before his membership of the JLA, before Robin and before the rogues gallery of supervillains.  Although, having said that, we do get an appearance by a prostitute called Selina who decides to change her career to one of catburglary.

This is an iconic book and a widely-recognised classic Batman story that explores the origins of the Caped Crusader's career, as well as that of the eventual-Commissioner Gordon.

4 out of 5

 

Spawn/Batman

(Art by Todd McFarlane)

A crossover between the titular superheroes from Image Comics and DC Comics.  Batman and Spawn both discover that someone is murdering vagrants to use their brains in killer cyborgs but when Batman follows the trail to New York he immediately comes into conflict with Spawn's deadly approach to justice.

This should be a great crossover between two dark and moody superheroes, written and illustrated by two of the most influential people associated with those characters.  Unfortunately, it's not.  It's a shallow and childish book which spends the majority of its not-great-length having the two main characters bicker like nine-year olds.  Seriously, there's a "Did not!"/"Did too!" quality to the dialogue between Spawn and Batman that is endlessly annoying.

It's not all bad and sometimes the better aspects of Miller's unique take on the Batman shine through (this book calls itself a companion piece to 'The Dark Knight Returns').  Also McFarlane's art, whilst mostly over the top, does give us some truly great images of the title characters, not least in a double-page spread just after they've decided to team-up.

2 out of 5

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DC Comics (here)

Image Comics (here)