When Frank Miller’s original Dark Knight mini-series/graphic novel first appeared in the mid-1980s, no other work at that time better represented the new sensibility that had arisen in the comic book industry. Free from the stifling restrictions of the Comics Code Authority (whose strictures hadn’t changed since the prohibiting ‘50s), writers, artists and editors formed their own companies. Enthusiasts from all walks of life flocked to these fresh beams of light cutting through the gloom and stagnant air of the industry.
DC Comics was the first major company to note this new star in the night and consciously seek out the creative talent needed to bring itself up to speed. Enter Frank Miller and company with an original take on the Batman character. Miller’s tale depicted a dystopian America wherein an aged, realistic and schizophrenic caped crusader crawls out of retirement to single-handedly take on the street gangs and bloodthirsty psychopaths (the Joker, Two-Face, etc.—all recent escapees from a mental institution) holding Gotham City (ever a thinly veiled New York City) in a seemingly unbreakable grip of terror. What made that series so compelling was writer-artist Miller’s unflinching examination of Bruce Wayne’s own criminally obsessed personality.
In DK2, only three years have passed in Gotham City. America is now being run by a holographic president secretly controlled by Superman’s old archrivals, Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Superman and, indeed, all of the other super heroes from DC’s pantheon—Flash, Atom, J’onn J’onnz, Elongated Man, Wonder Woman, and so on—have been rendered ineffective as genuine forces of justice. (Barry Allen, the Flash, is little more than a super-powered hamster turning a turbine that lights up the entire Eastern Seaboard; J’onn J’onnz is a hopeless drunk; Ray Palmer, the Atom, has been reduced to the size of a flea and trapped within a petrie dish swarming with genetically manipulated, miniature monsters; Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Supes himself—all blackmailed into performing clandestine grunt work.)
Re-enter the Dark Knight.
Miller playfully and pointedly makes numerous references to current American political situations and, in the final installment of the trilogy, even America’s “war on terrorism.” Throughout, facets of popular culture (pop stars, fetish-based news programs, rhetoric-slinging “discussion” groups, and so forth) jut from the pages like jagged glass fragments. Miller and Varley’s artwork deliriously runs from majestic illustration to cartoon goonery in a blink, all somehow still serving the story.
If there is one clunky element to this epic, it is near the denouement—Miller seems too willing to make Dick Grayson (Robin) the “Gollum” in this mythic cycle, and, while shocking, it is simply too out of character here to be satisfying.