The Selected Batman Re-Read, Part One — The Goddamn Dark Knight

My Batman re-read’s going to be a little different from my massive Amazing Spider-Man re-read. Where with Spidey, I had pretty much every issue from the first volume of the series, my Batman collection’s a little less well-stocked. Instead, what I’m going to do is focus on groups of books that are either tied together thematically or by a creator.

And I’m gonna start with a doozy.

For better or worse, the name most commonly associated with Batman, besides Bob Kane, is Frank Miller. And the Batman comic most commonly associated with Miller is The Dark Knight Returns.

Within the context of its time, TDKR was hailed as a cultural milestone. It returned Batman tonally to his darker roots, turning the tides away from the campy Adam West series.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not as perfect as the hype will lead you to believe. Visually, it remains a masterclass in storytelling. Miller’s dense panel layouts and sporadic splash pages are prime examples of how to pace a story. His line work, together with inker Klaus Janson, during this time — arguably his hey day — is tight and fittingly gritty when that word actually meant something beyond a descriptive shortcut.

But his writing here, while maybe revolutionary for its time, has not aged well. It’s heavy-handed and clunky, it’s kinda cheesy at times (as much as the then-much maligned Adam West show, I’d argue), and it reads, in hindsight, like a juvenile take on political satire.

I’m not saying it’s bad per se. I’m saying that TDKR, beyond just the art, works best these days only when you’re a certain age.

But then… well, with the next few books, The Dark Knight universe seems to become more and more of a parody of itself, and I’m not sure how much of that was intentional.

Spawn/Batman can be read as a piss take on both Batman (what with him seemingly punctuating every sentence with the word “punk”) and the idea of crossovers in general (where the fighting between Spawn and Batman becomes so ridiculous that, after a while, some of it just happens off-panel).

The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the first proper sequel to TDKR, is just a mess, in every aspect. The art, while seemingly meant to be in the same vein as caricatures and political strips at times, usually just comes off as lazy. Which contrasts with some other bits, where we get glimpses of the old Frank Miller, if not in exact style, then certainly in terms of quality. You get the sense, after a while, that what you’re seeing is Miller just not giving a damn at times and plain half-assing it. The plot, however, is wholly assed up, with no discernible story and things seemingly getting made up on the fly.

And then there’s All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, which goes so far in the direction of ridiculousness that it ranges from downright stupid to the outright hilarious. Maybe Jim Lee’s art made it a bit more palpable, but the first time I read the series, I found myself laughing at a whole lot of it. Again, not sure if that was the intention, but I can’t imagine dialogue like, “I’m the goddamn Batman and I can call my goddamn car whatever the hell I want” was ever meant to be taken seriously. I laughed a whole lot less during my re-read because, unsurprisingly, there’s a law of diminishing returns here. Go back to the well more than once and it loses its shine very quickly.

After that, DC seemed to rein Miller in, when they paired him up with Brian Azzarello, along with John Romita Jr., for The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade, which certainly offers a defanged version of Miller’s previously increasingly insane version of Batman. It’s a very competently put-together work (definitely one of Romita Jr.’s better works for DC, thanks in no small part to colourist Peter Steigerwald), but it’s jarring in how restrained it feels, especially when compared to everything that came before it. Now, as much as my enjoyment of The Dark Knight books prior to this one varies, such an obvious toning down doesn’t really help either, at least not for my re-read.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race is similar to The Last Crusade in the sense that it’s a continued toning down of Miller’s insanity, but it’s also a generally ho-hum story about fighting tyranny. The message harkens back to the somewhat anarchic vibe of TDKR, but while the first book comes off as more and more juvenile on every subsequent read, DK III reads like an aging punk from the get-go. Andy Kubert’s art is great, but just not great enough to elevate this beyond mediocrity.

Look, I swear, I didn’t intend shit all over Frank Miller or start off my Batman re-read on such a negative note. Far from it, actually. I’ll start off the next part with more Miller, but I’m quite sure it’ll go off into a more positive direction.

(Originally published on 16 December 2018.)

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