Thursday, March 09, 2006

Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again and the Grotesque

Frank Miller's 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns defined the Batman forever. In 2002 Miller wrote and drew the sequel, Dark Knight Strikes Again, which got a lot of mixed press. The 1986 book certainly had elements of parodic art, but the overall tone was serious and operatic; the sequel dangerously veers between, and combines, the sublime and the ridiculous. I think the result is fairly brilliant and fun, but I understand why people didn't get it. The art is garish and (intentionally) loose and sloppy; the coloring is insane (but again I think audacious and fantastic), often falling outside the lines in huge swathes of large, pixilated blocks. I want to grab just three moments (and, for now, avoid talking about his recent All Star Batman run, in which he has, at least for the moment, lost me).

Superman and Wonder Woman have sex in the air over seven pages and then fall to earth together, smashing into the ocean and knocking over an aircraft carrier in the process. Miller is a big fan of pulp novels, and though the scope of the pulps is very different, he keeps that overwrought sensibility: where a pulp novelist would have written "and the aircraft carrier was knocked over, the planes falling into the ocean like toys," Miller draws them like little toy planes.
The image is childish because it is the visual equivalent of a cheesy (but lovable) metaphor.

Similarly Lex Luthor is a monster, and so Miller draws him as a hulking ape. He doesn't go for "cool" dark shadows (as Spawn would) because he doesn't want us to be in awe of Luthor, he wants us to fucking hate him.

In the scene at the end of the first issue, Batman beats the crap out of Superman with a pair of Kryptonite gloves; the issue ends with the words "Get out of my cave." The image is grotesque and the colors match as the movement of the gloves is captured by pixilated green swathes, a bold choice by Lynn Varley -- one of the best colorists in the industry along side Laura Martin (nee DePuy) and Jamie Grant. There is an American literary tradition of showing the grotesque, including William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Conner, and we should judge Miller's Batman in this context, and see his portrayal as a good thing. The word "grotesque" comes from "grotto," a cave, because we imagine that cave dwellers, like Tolkiens's Golem, become deformed and weird; it was only a matter of time before Batman, in the Batcave, was shown in the same way.

12 comments:

Mitch Montgomery said...

Hey Geoff-

While I look forward to your 2nd Edition of HTRSCAW (like that acronym?)and seeing what other insights you have into DKSA (two in one sentence!), I'm afraid I didn't enjoy it quite as much as you did.

There's a saying in Hollywood about sequels: "Audiences want the same movie, just different." I felt that Miller's follow up to the original DKR was TOO different from the original to qualify as the "sequel" is was marketed to be.

I would much rather DKSA was published as an original, all new DC universe adventure. It certainly presents some interesting ideas, but the connections to DKR (i.e. Catgirl, Ollie's Cyborg Arm, The Shape-shifting Dick Grayson) feel a little forced to me.

Take care,

Mitch

Geoff Klock said...

Where you say "forced" I say "crazy audacious fun," and part of the book's audacity is the way it is supposed to be a sequel to one of the most important works in the history of superhero comics. As an original DC universe adventure we would be more able to dismiss it: "oh, that book is crazy, I don't know what it is about, don't worry about it." Miller's crazy works because we have to confront it head on, as a major event.

Mitch Montgomery said...

Haha. I gotcha. Like "Citizen Kane 2" being a mock-umentary about a sled factory. Who would see a mockumentary about a sled factory otherwise?

Best,

Mitch

Ping33 said...

I think that it's wrong to not take into account that Miller is giving the finger to the fans. He KNOWS that many people will dislike or be offended by DKR2 and All Star Batman and Robin, I honestly believe that this stage of his career his is walking the line between social political commentary (using comics what they were for initially, namely a critique of the world around us) and performance art. The comic community has become a monolith of navel gazing fanboys who only want to read the same story that they did when they were 12... Batman used to be able to MEAN something... Superman and Green Lantern both had political views verging on socialism in the 40's... Batman's represented everything from Upright American to Gay Icon over his lifespan and it totally fits to use the archetype as a springboard to go far afield.
I'm totally with you Geoff that because it was Miller he forced fans to deal with his work. Sadly I think many wrote it off as simply being a cash-in. There are so few creators who are trying to tell stories which have relevance beyond comics, even fewer who manage subtlety and scope. I was never a gigantic Miller fan but now, finally, I'm beginning to think he's doing something worth-wile... Also I love the Russ Meyer-esque quality of All Star B&R.

-Ping33

Geoff Klock said...

ping33: you make great points -- the Meyer-Miller conection I will have to think about. But you and I don't agree on the subject of content: you want it (Batman should mean something) and I dont really mind that Grant Morrison's Rock of Ages, underneath the insanity, is just a standard superhero story: as Morrison himself said it's like rock music -- all rock songs are C F and G chords, but you add in two minor chords and you get the Beatles; Morrison says his job with superhero comics is to add in those minor chords (he is the master of "minor chords"). I don't think that has to be mere nostalgia, or if it is I don't think it's a bad thing; and your quest for meaning against navel gazing fanboy nostalgia may be a kind of nostalgia: "Batman used to be able to MEAN something..." you write.

But I should not be giving you a hard time, because you may be right after all, and very right about Miller. It will be interesting to watch Miller try to revive the Superman vs Hitler comics of the 40s with his Batman versus Al-Qaida project; this will be your (and my) proof text. Content indeed: it could be genius, insanity, or both; either the best comic in years or one of the worst.

Ping33 said...

Perhaps I have over-stated in the past I love Navel Gazing stories but sometimes I DO think I would like to see dynamic new directions of surreality.

I feel I should also expand on the "Batman used to mean something" phrase I threw away above... Batman CLEARLY means something to the "fanboys" but his meaning is wrapped up in continuity and some platonic idea of "the true nature of what Batman should be" Now, I have no problem with this... I love The Batman of the DCU but I think it's highly limiting to say that you can only ever use Batman within that context... I think that creative types SHOULD and MUST be allowed to use Batman and Superman and WonderWoman as jumping off points to discuss society, as popular modern mythic creations I think it's totally short-sighted to limit characters usage to that of comics. It's not that we need to add meaning back to batman, rather we need to allow for the opening up of possible meanings.

Many of the best Russ Meyer moves just were released in the UK on DVD... I HIGHLY recommend watching Super-Vixens or Beneath the Valley Of the Ultra-Vixens then reading issue 3 of All Star Batman and Robin... the similarities are shocking.

ping33 said...

Oh and, Like Russ Meyer: I think that the wonderful thing about the recent Miller Batman work is that it's BOTH genius AND insanity, the best comic AND the worst... "So bad it's good" is trite and over-used in general but perfectly applicable to these comics and the Vixen movies :)

Geoff Klock said...

I agree that Batman should be a jumping-off point for writers. When I said I didn't like Batman Begins one person said I must be a purist; he didn't know me at all but just assumed I was a purist because I was a comic book fan. I had to explain that the film didn't re-invent Batman enough for my taste. That's the fault of the people you are talking about.

Now I have to rent Russ Meyer movies. Hilarious. Thanks.

Anonymous said...
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Geoff Klock said...

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Dark Knight said...

Superman and Wonder Woman having sex in the air ! Loïs is gonna be really jealous !

sexy said...
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