The Anxiety of Influence and Failed Sequels:

Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Strikes Again

“I mean the criticism teaches not a language of criticism […] but a language in which poetry already is written, the language of influence, of the dialectic…” (Bloom 25).

In his controversial work, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory on Poetry, Harold Bloom asserts writers cannot escape the influence of those writers from the past. Tolkien expert Michael Drout underscores this phenomena when he asserts that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology (best seen in The Hobbit and the epic Lord of the Rings) had such a drastic impact on shaping fantasy literature that all later writers of the genre could not escape his influence. Of course, Drout does not claim fantasy writers can’t eventually move on to create their own worlds, but each does find him or herself in a position where they must respond to—or push against—Tolkien’s groundbreaking texts. There is a similar occurrence to Bloom’s notion of this “anxiety of influence” that comics scholars find in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books, particularly focusing on the impact of The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) on comics and the less critically acclaimed The Dark Knight Strikes Again (DK2) that was published 15 years later. The question often debated amongst comics fans and critics is whether or not Miller’s later work can be viewed as equally successful or a failure.[1]

Before attempting to ascertain the place of The Dark Knight Strikes Again in the comics canon, it’s important to understand some of the major criticism’s levied against it. Perhaps the most common concern about Miller’s later efforts centers on the way it employs a number of poorly constructed stereotypes to drive its social commentary. Certainly, one can look at the portrayals of American youth and the dialogue used to see how readers might come to this conclusion:

“I hope you realize this is all about me.”

“Marr, if this is treason, then treason rocks!”

“OHMYGOD!!! A superchix meltdown!!! It’s a totally tragedy!!! But you couldn’t even hear about it with all the noise and shooting and stuff!!!” (Miller vol. 3, 9-10).

Clearly, the youthful reporters are more focused on issues of entertainment than the political violence taking place before them. Even those who recognize the uprisings against Luthor’s corrupt government portray it in a sensationalistic manner geared more towards titillating than informing their viewers. This notion of titillating the viewers (and by extension, the readers) is continually reinforced from the first page of the 3-part series to the end. In particular, Miller’s art often portrays parts of women to communicate double entendres. On the first page of the first book, a disembodied pair of luscious lips is seen telling the reader “You want it… you must have it […] we’ll never let your stocks go flaccid” (Vol. 1, 1-3) at which point a toned and voluptuous nude female body is shown covered in money—not terribly subtle. It is clear Miller is reacting against the overly vapid and sexualized nature of contemporary media in the aforementioned examples; however, the problem is that it is painfully clear when taking into consideration the all-too-easily identifiable real world portrayals he provides the reader with appearances by “John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, George Will, and George Stephanopoulos” (Harris-Fein 153). Although Miller might have some legitimate concerns about the priorities of adolescent programming when taking into account the explosion of reality television shows—the height of vapid titillation on television—he can also be viewed as painting the picture in black and white terms. Either you are a militant protestor (such as Carrie Kelly) or you’re a mindless youth sucked in by the media. An appeal through such a logical fallacy as this does lend fodder to critics in their panning of DK2. However, this isn’t the only criticism laid against Miller’s sequel to DKR, and the issue of continuity is one readers must face.

One of the biggest challenges facing the comics publishing industry is that many new readers simply do not possess sufficient background knowledge to make the jump into reading new comics. In the first decades of comics, readers could pick up a single issue and find a self-contained story arc with few examples of needing to read multiple issues to reach that narrative’s logical conclusion. Starting with the Marvel Age of comics in the 1960s, however, continuity of storylines began taking hold and is now the industry standard. For example, in order for contemporary comic readers to understand who Robin[2] is, they must be aware of a source from 1987 titled The Son of the Demon; elsewise, readers will be totally unaware that Batman even had a child who has now inherited the mantle of “Boy Wonder.” This same problem arises in DK2 as Miller calls upon a greater number of DC characters when he takes the conflict out of Gotham and goes global. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman (as well as Joker) are fairly well known characters in mainstream culture and did not present a mjor problem in DKR; however, only a niche demographic would be at all familiar with Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Elongated Man, Black Canary, Brainiac and the many others that Miller calls forth. In DKR, the cast of characters is limited thereby requiring less “insider” knowledge and making it far more accessible to mainstream readers. Faced with the need for such background knowledge and familiarity with these characters in DK2, however, it is no wonder it received far less fanfare from those mainstream outlets that heralded DKR as the game-changing event that it has since proven to be.

It should be clear that The Dark Knight Strikes Again is simply not the game-changing comics event that its predecessor was. However, despite these criticisms, DK2 is still a collected work that comic fans and critiques need to be aware of in relation to the much-praised Dark Knight Returns if for no other reason than it provides a greater understanding of the impact DKR had on modern comics readers. Further, it does provide a natural conclusion to Miller’s post-apocalyptic vision—however satisfying or unsatisfying—for readers.

In some regards, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was doomed to failure at some level. When Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen published The Dark Knight Returns, it essentially reinvented the styles, tropes, layouts, and character portrayals (amongst many other elements of comics) that were the norm for decades leading up to this work. DK2, however, simply continues in this tradition—aping the form in a stereotypical approach as some critics might claim—with few significant changes. Miller does update his presentation of media to include a digital President of the United States courtesy of Lex Luthor; however, no real new ground is broken. So is it fair to view Miller from 2001-02 as aping Miller from 1986? I would argue this is not a fair assessment. In his review of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis defends Milton against his critics who also claimed he was a purveyor of bad stereotypes and sensationalistic style. Lewis contends that Milton’s elevation of style is accomplished through his Continued allusion to all the sources of heightened interest in our sensual experience (light, darkness, storm, flowers, sexual love, and the like), but all over the top” (40). Now, I am not claiming Frank Miller is on the same playing field as John Milton; however, looking at Milton’s influence on later writers’ (and cultures’) image of Satan and comparing it to the influence Miller’s DKR had on later writers’ understanding of Batman, a similarity can be found as each played a significant role in shaping his respective subject’s make up. Further, these later writers would have to face that influence in one way or another—adding to or pushing against that work.

Lewis further elaborates his defense of Milton when he states: “Sensitive writers are so tired of seeing good Stock responses aped by bad writers that when at last they meet the reality they mistake it for one more instance of bad posturing” (51). The reality is that Miller referenced politics and culture of the 1980s in his seminal DKR; yet this is rarely criticized because his scathing approach hadn’t been done in that way before in mainstream comics. By the time DK2 was published fifteen years later, this style was interpreted as “bad posturing.” The style of driving the narrative through the vapid media’s talking heads was new and innovative in 1986’s DKR; dressing it in a 2.0 form for the 2001-02 DK2 simply appeared as rehashing the old style in a non-innovative manner. Critical readers, however, must ask “What happened in fifteen years to make Miller’s work go from fresh and cutting edge to stale and dull?”

I suggest the answer lies in the fifteen years worth of responses and reactions to Miller, where nearly every other creative team who would work on Batman, Detective Comics, and any other Batman title would be forced to work under his shadow in some fashion or another. And it doesn’t help that Miller also redefined mainstream continuity’s understanding of Batman’s origins with his “Year One” story arc in Batman the year following DKR’s publication.[3] There is simply no escaping Miller’s revolutionary vision of Batman from the 1980s. I also believe that this newly defined conceptualization of the imperfect, psychologically damaged hero had such an impact on the superhero genre as a whole that other creators throughout the industry needed to reassess how we envisioned our heroes. One need only look at the rise of the anti-hero following DKR’s success to see Miller’s influence.

When Frank Miller produced a work that looked and felt quite similar to his original post-apocalyptic Batman story with the added requirement of greater comic background knowledge, it is no wonder readers and critics perceived it as a lesser work that appeared to only mimic The Dark Knight Returns. However, The Dark Knight Strikes Again should be read alongside DKR without the fifteen years of baggage accompanying the original collected work. Doing so provides readers and critics with a more complete picture of the vision Miller intended for Batman in his struggle to protect Gotham. While there are concerns about the way Miller closes out DK2 with its rushed introduction and destruction of Dick Grayson and the insinuation of a borderline incestuous “winter-spring” relationship between the near-geriatric Bruce Wayne and the all-too-underage Carrie Kelly, there are elements of DK2 that make it a worthwhile read for any critic or fan of Miller’s DKR.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory on Poetry. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Drout, Michael. “ Rings, Monsters, and Swords: Exploring Fantasy Literature.” The Modern Scholar. Prince Frederick: Recorded Book, 2006. Audio CD.

Harris-Fain, Darren. “Revisionist Superhero Graphic Novels: Teaching Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books.” Teaching the Graphic Novel. Ed. Stephen Tabachnick. New York: MLA, 2009. 147-62.  Print.

Lewis, C.S. “The Style of Secondary Epic.” A Preface to Paradise Lost. New Delhi, 2005. 38-48. Print.

Miller, Frank and Lynn Varley. The Dark Knight Strikes Again vol.1. New York: DC, 2001. Print.

—. The Dark Knight Strikes Again vol. 2 & 3. New York: DC, 2002. Print.

—. The Dark Knight Strikes Again vol. 3. New York: DC, 2002. Print.

[1] This thesis overlooks the possibility that DK2 could be a superior work. While there might be some critics willing to make this argument, this not a position I believe tenable nor worth pursuing.

[2] The current Robin is Damien Wayne — the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul — is generally understood to be the fifth person to serve as Batman’s sidekick.

[3] See Batman #404-407.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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  1. I would agree that Miller poses a great deal of “anxiety of influence” upon the creators following (however indirectly) in his footsteps, but part of that is that Miller’s act looks like something that others might be able to copy– as opposed to Alan Moore, who’s in the same sphere of popularity but whose approach is more difficult to imitate. In actual practice, though, it’s a lot harder to imitate Miller than it looks, and I’m not sure I can think of any well-known creator who succeeded, even to the extent that Mike Grell succeeded in channeling aspects of Neal Adams.

  2. I would agree Moore is another one of those creators whose influence is one that many later writers have to deal with at some point. As much as I really hate quoting from Harold Bloom, this concept he brings up is one I see playing out in comics as well, and it’s a connection between these sources I thought worth bringing up. I think the difficulty these sort of creators place before newer writers and artists CAN be the illusion of being able to surpass / bypass them, as you point out with Miller but is less certain with Moore. The reality, by and large, is that whether or not they *do* successfully recreate or surpass the original, they are still reinforcing the notion that creators like Miller and Moore are common ground that everyone must tread (so to speak).

  3. Colin S. S. says:

    There is a lot I like about DK2: the attitude, the loudness of the art, one-liners like “I don’t care if the president doesn’t exist, he’s still a great American!” But it’s definitely flawed in a number of ways. The cast is definitely a problem, but I think not so much for how insidery it is, but how large. In DKR, Green Arrow was given time to be introduced and explained, and to serve his purpose. In DK2 new characters show up in every scene, many for no apparent reason. It’s all so franticly paced, which was clearly Miller’s point, but jarring and incoherent on purpose is still jarring and incoherent. Which also exacerbates Miller’s tendency for oversimplification. While Miller generally thinks in extreme and dramatic terms, DKR’s slower pace allowed more time to build contrasts, parallels, and ironies. While DK2 keeps barreling forward, smashing ideas out of its way.

    Also interesting in DK2 is that most of the personal turmoil, doubt, and emotional journeying is shouldered by Superman. Batman is mostly just kicking ass and barking orders, and enjoying himself immensely.

    And yeah, Dick Grayson. What the hell was that about?

  4. Jason Mehmel says:

    Another thought in terms of tone: DKR has as it’s main dramatic tension the struggle between age and passion. From the mutants, to Joker, to Superman, the real question is if Bruce is up to it, if he’s going to survive it. The end of the story says yes, he can, but not without cost.

    DK2 conversely mostly ignores Bruce from a health perspective; Bruce Wayne has now been repurposed through the SIN CITY lens, where all pain is on the surface and having an excess of toughness/skill will get you through all physical encounters.

    I’d say this element, though often not referenced (that I’ve seen) is a big culprit in why DK2 doesn’t connect with it’s readers in the same way. DKR made it’s character more human, (and Miller’s writing of the period was often attempting to capture the verisimilitudes of life) whereas his newer work is louder, brasher, and though still biting, also easily dismissed.

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