Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) has long been considered one of the greatest works in comic books. Since its release in 1986, it has been lauded as an industry-changing story that helped usher in the “realistic” and “dark & gritty” material that still permeates the mainstream comics of today. It always appears on top ten lists, with many fans and creators crediting it as their favorite story (Batman or otherwise) of all time. The book is popular enough to merit an animated adaptation in two parts from Warner Bros. Just pulling from the Amazon.com listing the following reviews pop out:
“…probably the finest piece of comic art ever published in a popular edition…”—Stephen King
“It’s film noir in cartoon panels.”—VANITY FAIR
“Changed the course of comics.”—ROLLING STONE
“Revisionist pop epic.”—SPIN
In 2001 DC released Frank Miller’s follow-up book The Dark Knight Strikes Back (DK2) to great anticipation. Unlike its predecessor, it received none of those critical plaudits from the media. Nor did fans positively receive it, just based on a comparative look at their respective Amazon fan reviews (4.5 stars for DKR versus 2.9 for DK2). Even my own initial impressions 13 years ago were quite negative and a recent reread for my personal blog did not garner much of a different response from me. The negativity isn’t universal though, as Sequart’s own Robert A. Emmons Jr. wrote a review back in 2005 and took a very positive stance on Miller’s story.
So what’s the difference?
A great deal of the criticisms of DK2 from those Amazon reviews reflect on a story that is called incoherent, characters (particularly Superman) that don’t match-up with the readers’ ideas of who they should be, and most notably for my purposes here, art that is called everything from rushed to ugly to the worst in the history of comics. Reading the differences between the reviews of the original versus the sequel it is hard to believe that they are both talking about the same artist in Frank Miller.
Now, I must admit the discussion of the art of comics is not something that comes quite as easily as the dissection of the story. Frankly that is quite sad because in this medium each are so intimately married. But I tend to feel I don’t have the proper words to discuss the art beyond “I like it” and “I hate it”. It’s much easier to discuss the intricacies of the story than it is the line work or coloring. Simply, to talk about the continuity of story is far less taxing than the breakdowns and shading, but this is my attempt to break new ground for myself as I look at Frank Miller’s work in DKR versus that of DK2.
The starting point of comparison has to be the initial impression the reader gets of our titular character which, in both books, does not take place for many pages. First in DKR:
That image of Bruce Wayne as Batman takes place over 25 pages deep into the book and it strikes a very traditional pose for the reader. This visual presents a Batman very familiar to the reader despite the very unfamiliar world in which we have entered. He looks powerful, despite his age, in the very traditional blue and yellow garb that, quite frankly, I had forgotten even appeared in this story. When thinking of DKR, my mind immediately jumps to the black/grey outfit that Batman begins wearing during part 2 of the story as seen here:
Juxtapose these two powerful and traditional images from DKR with this image (set nearly 80 pages in) of Batman’s first appearance in DK2:
Not only does this Batman appear far smaller than how we left him at the close of the original story, but this depiction of the Dark Knight is also a great deal more cartoonish. Take the size of his Kryptonite-gloved fists alone; they are a ludicrous visual and the black/grey costume itself seems far rougher a drawing than that of the DKR look. You know this is Batman, the logo is still emblazoned on his chest, but there is something about this visual that says we are not necessarily dealing with the same character…
And I believe that is where the importance of the differences in the art of the two books really comes into play. From the very first page of each series, it is evident the reader is going to have two different experiences:
Sixteen tight panels of which eight are focused on the face of Bruce Wayne as he attempts to push a car farther and harder than it is built to go. Another five highlight the car falling to pieces while the final three introduce us to the media aspects that permeate every volume of Miller’s two Dark Knight books. Versus…
A random battery of just eight panels with the Bat-image shadowing it, each panel featuring a continuation of those media aspects Miller used so effectively in DKR. The art is far looser in these panels than those of DKR and the characters of the sequel are visually uglier. That’s not to say the talking heads of the original are filled with the beautiful people, but it feels as if the faces and body types of DK2 are purposefully uglier than those of the original book.
Therein lies the rub…
With DKR, despite the fact that the quality and style of the art does shift slightly over the course of the four issues, Miller visually depicts a world of order with pages that are more traditionally paneled and art that is more in-line with the hyper-reality of the comic book world. Even in this supposedly “realistic” comic, the reader is aware that it is not actual reality but there are certain expectations a reader has as far as what it should look like and how it should read. The visuals of DKR follow that path with Miller’s mix of splash and carefully paneled pages. The characters are depicted in fashions slightly exaggerated from your every day real human being but still realistic enough in their portrayal. Even the majority of the Mutants are still recognizable as human, albeit an even more exaggerated depiction of one. The world of DKR is one of a forced order into which Batman is trying to introduce anarchy and the art, in its very traditional appearance and formatting, reinforces that.
With DK2 however, that word that Amazon reviews tend to use, ugly, is exactly what Miller is attempting to depict…
The script/art connection with DK2 is extremely powerful and regardless of the hate/love a reader may have for either, it is hard to deny how intrinsically they are tied, more so than that of its predecessor. The story of the sequel is one of an ugly place filled with ugly people saying ugly things, and as such is reflected through the art. There are panels, some even done quite traditionally, but they are also used in a random fashion and filled with utterly ugly people.
Even the young and pretty Carrie Kelley (once a Robin now a Catgirl) has been uglified to a degree to match her new world. The people surrounding our main cast seem barely human, even the most beautiful people in the world (Superman and Wonder Woman) have been transformed. This is a loud and ugly world and the art choices made by Frank Miller reflect that chaos. He, whether you consider it good or bad, makes a brave choice to give DK2 a visual style quite far from that of its landmark predecessor, but it is one that follows in the same vein.
Each book’s art reflects the content of its respective story (order from chaos/chaos from order) and just as with the first page of each book, the final page of each book also clearly shows the reader how different a REAL world each book was written in:
The one that ends with a “dead” Bruce Wayne and contains the hope the world can be changed features a handsome and chiseled Bruce Wayne. The one that ends with Batman giving up everything, his “souvenirs” as he calls them, showcases a masked face that had been beaten into an almost unrecognizable pulp. In the latter book, given its 80’s roots, Miller seems to be visually telling the reader that only by taking off the masks can we survive the fight. In the former, given its post-9/11 origin, Miller’s visuals seem to convey a sense of “bring it on,” as if Batman took the absolute worst that could be thrown at him and, while bloodied and battered, survived it all.
In a comic book world where the art can be gorgeous but frequently bears little thematic connection to the story being presented, The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Back represent two books from the same creator with two very different visual styles, but both showcase how art can be reflective of the tale being presented to the reader.