Did the Dark Knight Strike Again? Frank Miller’s New Digital Reality

The longevity of comics depends on the effort to give them relevance and context in history. The medium’s survival relies on its connection with its contemporaries. In the hands of writer / artist Frank Miller, the Batman, perhaps comics’ greatest icon, connects and collides. “We live in a scary world getting scarier… We are in such a strange period that having these mythic figures waltzing through our crazy politics seems natural,” says Miller about his Batman storylines. Miller, 15 years ago, and again (appropriately) at the turn into our new century, has given the Batman new life and relevance.

Amidst Reagan and Gorbachev, the Challenger explosion, Chernobyl, the Fox Network, and Oprah Winfrey, another media event took place. In 1986, the Batman was “born again” in the pages of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s graphic novel portrays an era of paranoia, darkness, and exploitation. It was, in the Batman mythos, some 20 years in the future, but this alternate reality is intrinsically linked to the events that happened in the decade of its publication: in both worlds, Ronald Reagan was the President and television the minister of information. Bruce Wayne, in his fifties and retired from crime fighting, decides he must again become “the bat.” Gotham City is ailing and gangs rule the streets. The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. and Superman is a puppet hero acting on the President’s command. In every way, the book is tied to its time.

15 years later, with the publication of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Frank Miller returns to the aging hero, resuming with the now underground Batman preparing for his second return. Only three years later in the storyline, super-heroes are outlawed, the government is corrupt, and marshal law is declared. Superman is still an agent of the President.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again continues to be the social microscope Miller created in The Dark Knight Returns. And while Strikes Again may not have the immediate larger impact that Returns had, it still attempts to explore important themes that are relative in comics writing, and appropriately addresses issues presently facing America and the world. Not only does Strikes Again have thematic successes, but it also achieves artistic success in its attempt to incorporate psychological and aesthetic sensibilities into the narrative.

Understanding the impact that The Dark Knight Returns had on comics, and more specifically the super-hero genre, is crucial to understanding the importance of the piece. Returns “deconstructed and criticized nearly fifty years of comics history, and stretched the boundaries of the genre… bringing new meaning to its stock formula,” thus opening doors creators and readers never knew existed, let alone walked through (Magnussen and Christiansen 210). Beyond this, because of the media attention it received for its revolutionary techniques and contextual relevance with the social and political climate of the time, Returns was able to break through the comics subculture readership and connect with a wider, inexperienced audience. The media was writing about, and taking very seriously, the criticism contained in the graphic novel. From newspapers throughout America to Rolling Stone magazine it was heralded as a brilliant piece of popular culture. On the academic side, Returns was one of the first comics to be studied critically for both its artistic and social impact.

Batman decks it out with Superman in The Dark Knight Returns.

As with many addenda to heavily impacting works, it is easy to look at the latter as inferior and derivative to its groundbreaking predecessor. Miller is able to avoid this in The Dark Knight Strikes Again by not attempting to re-revolutionize the super-hero genre. Instead, Miller consumes the DC Universe cadre of super-heroes and is able to place them into his world and embrace what made these figures so memorable (or unmemorable) in the first place. Miller, before committing himself to these characters, asks himself two questions: “Why were these characters created in the first place?” and “What kind of person would do this; why would one become a super-hero?” With these answers, Miller successfully deposits these characters into his new world.

Despite his redefining of the DC Universe, Strikes Again, like Returns, is written very consciously in comic book tradition, “invoking various recognizable aspects in such a way as to recast the reader’s understanding of what they have seen before” (Klock 3). Because of this, perhaps the largest criticism of Strikes Again is its inability to move outside the current comics audience with the strength and speed that Returns had. It is definitely a comics fan’s comic. Miller, in a wink and nudge manner, resurrects characters outside of general knowledge; heroes like Hawk and Dove, Elongated Man, the Creeper, the Question, the Guardian, and the Atom get more panel time than they’ve seen in quite a while. This does slightly blur the larger message contained within. It is, however, not the only reason it struggles with achieving a wider audience.

The Elongated Man in Dark Knight Strikes Again.

As stated above, a significant strength of The Dark Knight Returns was Miller giving his story a firm contextual ground. It is a piece of the decade it lived in and as Miller states, “a response to the Reagan era.” The Dark Knight Strikes Again slightly suffers in this because of the timing of its release. Its publication coincided with the attack on September 11th. However, it coincidentally and uncannily was still able to predict America’s reaction to such an event. Miller recalls,

I was halfway into writing the second chapter in which a giant bomb goes off in Metropolis and 9/11 happens… It was a little beyond resonant and downright creepy. It was then that I knew that I really had to find my own way as a pop fiction guy to respond to what had happened and to the new world that had been revealed.

Miller was able to respond in his “pop fiction guy” way by merely writing as he always does: figuring out how America thinks and reacts.

After 9/11, the art community, across all media, responded in their own unique way to the implications of that day. There were many comics that dealt with the situation directly. These comics stretched across all genres, from super-hero books to independent anthologies. The comics industry received an influx of media coverage for its attempts at benefiting and healing America. The Dark Knight Strikes Again, although confronting most of the issues rising out of September 11th, was swept aside for the more obvious and blatant reactions to the same issues. It is something that will, perhaps in time, become more relevant to the cultural documentation of that period, and the one progressing out of it.

Despite less public attention, Strikes Again is highly relevant to academic study. The Dark Knight Strikes Again is as scathing a social criticism as its predecessor. It continues to explore our relationship with the media and man’s hunger for technology and speed of information. It is a Marshall McLuhan model that presents and predicts.

Both Returns and Strikes Again are media nightmares. They have created, or at least perpetuated, the McLuhan world. In Returns, Miller’s visual statement on the media, or more specifically, television, certainly observes the gravity McLuhan has given these objects and delivery systems. When McLuhan wrote, “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage” (or mass age however you choose to interpret), Miller was listening (26). He chooses to be proactive, and unhappy with this, the “Dark Knight takes revenge on TV.” (Reynolds 98).

Returns, for example, employs over and over again the inserted T.V. screen as a panel in its own right. The television panels provide an incessant commentary on the developing narrative of Batman’s return to crime fighting. By containing television so adroitly, The Dark Knight Returns asserts the legitimacy of its passing comment on the medium’s insanity. American television is held up to scrutiny and abrasive ridicule centering on its pomposity and grandiloquence: The text of [Returns] also demonstrates how T.V. news drugs the public’s sensibilities into accepting violence as a part of everyday life through its proximity to ‘balancing’ good news… with bad. (Reynolds 97)

It is comics first turn at a “culture of fear” infected by the “media virus,” perpetuated by monetary, political, social, and class motives.

In Strikes Again, Miller has progressed with technology.The invasion of the electron runs from the nation’s leader to all of America’s inhabitants. It is a study of new media ecology. The news is now offered by: “Your Digital Darling Online” (Miller #1, 21). America is led by a computer generated president, whose pixels occasionally scramble, tipping the public off to arch villain Lex Luthor’s puppet regime – where it is occasionally necessary to “Reformat the President, and spike up his compassion levels” (Miller #1, 31). This is an existence frighteningly like our own, where thoughts “Must be TYPED [on a typewriter because] COMPUTERS can’t be TRUSTED” (Miller #1, 31) and “databases are created on nearly every human being… to be used for blackmail, terror, bribery or murder” (Miller #2, 17).

Fortunately, Batman and his allies can also use this power for heroic purposes, as the Atom, a hero who can increase and decrease his size indefinitely, now takes “A quick hop into the data stream… and hitches a ride on the information superhighway,” questioning, “Do they still call it that?” due to his undetermined, government-imposed imprisonment in a Petri dish (Miller #1, 42). Batman, while pummeling former colleague Superman, proceeds to go into a diatribe: “The masters control almost every aspect of human life – But they can’t control information. That time has passed. It’s the Information Age, old pal. You can’t silence me – and you can’t stop me” (Miller #1, 51). It is exactly in Batman’s world as McLuhan had predicted, a world wherein

electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions… are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous – electric information retrieval (12).

The Dark Knight Strikes Again connects with digital precision to the motivating powers of progress. Not only is Miller able to achieve this in his writing, but the artistic qualities of the graphic novel also support this main theme.

An important element of both Returns and Strikes Again is the psychological and emotional impact of the art and design of each work. The Dark Knight Returns was penciled by Miller, inked by Klaus Janson, and colored by Lynn Varley. Miller’s pencils move from simple line strokes to highly stylized, crammed frames, where excessive lines, increased by Janson’s heavy inks, bring an uneasiness and messiness to an already chaotic scenario. However, it is Varley’s colors that are able to capture the atmosphere and mood of the mid-eighties that coexists with Miller’s created Gotham City:

Lynn Varley’s colors on Dark Knight undeniably contribute to the book’s feel of ‘gritty realism,’ providing subtle tones and textures which contrast with the traditional ‘four color’ comics palette just as Miller’s morally ambivalent characters contrast to the clear cut heroes and villains from earlier comics. The color in Dark Knight also suggests a psychological and physical state, as when a sick and staggering Batman sees his world in shades of muddy gray and dull crimson. (Brooker 274)

In Strikes Again, Miller handles both the pencils and inks. He also chooses to use less frames, opting instead for large canvasses, expressing a breakthrough beyond the television and into a new environment not bound by wires, but conversely, free to accept and send information from any location accessible by man. Television is still evident as a storytelling device, but it is no longer necessary to propel the story linearly, as communication no longer needs to exist linearly. The internet demonstrates that information and communication can now operate on new, interactive, non-linear interfaces, taking individuals from start to finish to middle to anywhere in between in a few clicks. Email allows users to send the same line of information to hundreds of people with one click.

Dramatic color, as used in The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

Varley’s palette and aesthetic choices also express the current necessity of digital means. The coloring in Strikes Again is the undeniable presence of the computer. Varley abandons her previously subtle palette and uses vibrant and rich colors that would be impossible to reproduce without the aid of a digital tool. Computer software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator make it possible for Varley to create gradients, patterns and prisms, and to incorporate photography seamlessly into the pages. What might have originally appeared as a crass and overdone exercise in color is seen upon second glance as a much more significant achievement: a hyper reality fostered by the digital age. It is a reflexive element that not only forces the reader to realize she is participating in a new comics experience, but it also suggests the impact the computer has had on the readers’ entire life surrounding this artistic experience, impossible without its aid.

Both aesthetically and narratively Strikes Again communicates and assesses the human-computer-interface condition. The characters are either negotiating or literally becoming part of some digital function. As readers, we ourselves become part of the relationship because the revelation and experience of the process dramatically presents its implications. Lev Manovich, a pioneer in digital culture, writes:

Because new media is created on computers… the logic of a computer can be expected to significantly influence the traditional cultural layer [or art object]. The ways in which the computer models the world, represents data, and allows us to operate on it; the key operations behind all computer programs… the conventions of HCI [Human-Computer Interface] – in short, what can be called the computer’s ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics – influence the cultural layer of new media, its organization, its emerging genres, its contents. (46)

The HCI becomes a forced relationship. It is pervasive and our doing. It is reflected in old and emerging modern conveniences, from the cell phone, to the grocery list kept on a Palm Pilot, to comics. Miller and Varley recognize this and communicate it both obviously and slyly.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a success because it is an excellent piece of comics writing that fully realizes every element needed to make a successful book. It is artistically and narratively relevant. Miller, in talking about his work, explains, “These fantasies don’t exist in their own little dimension, everything is a metaphor for something that’s real… This is how popular culture works… We process things and turn them into a product that is at once more palatable but deeply resonant.” Miller’s work is constantly being studied critically because it is real. Comics tell us about ourselves and about what we create. The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a worthy descendant of The Dark Knight Returns because it continues to visually and philosophically refuse to remain static. It is as frenetic as electrons and keeps streaming forward, as we are so obsessed with doing. It challenges and entertains us because it is real.

From The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

Works Cited

Brooker, Will. Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Magnussen, Anne and Christiansen, Hans-Christians (eds). Comics Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera: Gingko Press, 2001.

Miller, Frank (w,p), Janson, Klaus (i), Varley, Lynn (c). The Dark Knight Returns: Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: DC Comics, 1996.

Miller, Frank (w,p,i), Varley, Lynn (c). The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1, DC Comics, 2001.

Miller, Frank (w,p,i), Varley, Lynn (c). The Dark Knight Strikes Again #2, DC Comics, 2002.

Miller, Frank (w,p,i), Varley, Lynn (c). The Dark Knight Strikes Again #3, DC Comics, 2002.

Miller, Frank. Interview with Barbara Bulgrave. Fresh Air. National Public Radio. WHYY, Philadelphia. 14 Nov. 2002.

Pearson, Robert E. and Uricchio, William (eds). The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media. London: Routledge, 1991.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert A. Emmons Jr. is a documentary filmmaker focusing on American popular culture and history. His films include Enthusiast: The 9th Art, Wolf at the Door, Yardsale!, Goodwill: The Flight of Emilio Carranza, and De Luxe: The Tale of Blue Comet. His Goodwill was screened as part of the Smithsonian exhibition "Our Journeys / Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement," won Best Homegrown Documentary Feature at the 2008 Garden State Film Festival, and led to him receiving Mexico's Lindbergh-Carranza International Goodwill Award as a "Messenger of Peace." From February to August 2010, Emmons created two short documentaries a week; the 52 short documentaries formed the weekly internet series MINICONCEPTDOCS. His print work focusing on electronic media, documentary film, and comic books include Who's Responsible Here? Media, Audience, and Ethics (Cognella, 2009), The Encyclopedia of Documentary Film (Routletdge, 2005), Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools (University of Minnesota 2007), and The Encyclopedia of Latino and Latina History (Facts on File, 2010). He teaches film, new media, and comics history at Rutgers University-Camden, where he is also the Associate Director of the Honors College. For more information, visit robertemmons.com.

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