BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A couple of reviews ago, I covered Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which imagined the first year of the Dark Knight’s venture into crime fighting. The Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s take on the other end of the Caped Crusader’s career. It begins ten years after the last sighting of the Batman. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, and there’s a mix of new and old threats rising.

There are four parts to this work. The first, also entitled The Dark Knight Returns shows the rise of a powerful gang of thugs called “The Mutants.” The way this gang’s leader is drawn makes him look like he truly is an altogether different species, but it’s his filed teeth and his bulky physique that account for his appearance. The main battle is with the “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent (a.k.a. “Two-Face,” an inappropriate moniker as his face has been fixed and his flighty psychiatrist ensures the community that Dent’s mind is fixed as well.) We see Bruce Wayne’s concern about the deteriorating state of Gotham and his eventual return to crime fighting, which is instigated by a freakish bat flying through his [closed] window. Wayne takes the bat as a sign from the universe that the Batman is indeed needed. Dent engages in a terroristic plot which the Dark Knight must try to foil.

As was the case in Batman: Year One, the story of Commissioner Gordon plays out in parallel with that of Bruce Wayne / Batman. However, in the third book, Gordon has retired and it’s the new Commissioner, Ellen Yendel, who shares the spotlight. Yendel, unlike Gordon, promptly issues an arrest warrant for Batman.

Book Two is called, The Dark Knight Triumphant, and it’s in this episode that Batman comes up against the leader of the Mutants. As in Batman: Year One, Batman arrives to the fight as an underdog. However, as would be expected, the nature of his underdog status is completely different. In Year One, Batman is a supreme physical specimen, but is green to crime fighting. In The Dark Knight Returns we see a battle-hardened veteran Batman who is a spry geriatric, not up to fighting young, mutant thugs. However, as with the former comic, the Dark Knight does redeem himself. Many of the Mutants, being fair-weather friends to their leader, form a cult of Batman in the wake of the Dark Knight’s victory over their former boss.

Besides broadening the readership demographic to retirement community dwellers, another new demographic is appealed to with Carrie Kelley, the new Robin. There are references early in the book to the profound effect that the death of Jason Todd had on Bruce Wayne. Be that as it may, Batman seems quick to bring this young girl into harm’s way given the lingering wound of Jason Todd.

Book Three, Hunt the Dark Knight, pits Batman against his ultimate nemesis, the Joker—who like Dent—has been sprung in no small part due to his lunatic psychiatrist. Miller continues the popular Batman comic disdain for psychiatrists, who are portrayed as a small nudge away from becoming bat-shit crazy (pun intended.) While the battle against the Joker provides this chapter’s crime fight, Commissioner Yendel’s war on Batman is a major part of the storyline. We also discover that time has not been as kind to Selina Kyle as it was to the men of this series. (i.e. Gordon is old but distinguished, and Batman has pretty much the same preternatural physique that he did as the young batman.)

The Dark Knight Falls is the last section, and it’s the most famous for the battle between Batman and Superman. Earlier in the book there’s a foreshadowing call from Clark Kent to let Batman know that the Superman will be out-of-town for a while. Appropriate to the 1986 issue date of this comic, a Cold War crisis is the event consuming Superman’s time. These Cold War tensions result in a nuclear missile launch that Superman diverts, but the Man of Steel hasn’t read up on the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. [Incidentally, Miller didn’t read up on the use of nuclear weapons as an EMP either, or—at least—he gets it completely wrong. Perhaps, he just figured that his readers wouldn’t know the difference–and he’s probably right. At any rate, I’m not deducting stars for bad science.] The power outage caused by the EMP results in looting and societal chaos. Batman quells this with the help of the cult of Batman mentioned previously. However, this doesn’t go over smoothly with some, which results in Superman’s invasion of Batman’s Gotham turf, and the ultimate battle.

I enjoyed this work more than Batman: Year One in part owing to the serious enemies that the Dark Knight must vanquish. I’d agree with the common view that this is a must-read for those interested in the canon of the Caped Crusader.

Also, if you aren’t a comics fan but are wondering how Batman and Superman could end up fighting–as per the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie–this might give you some insight. [Though I wouldn’t expect that movie to follow this work in any of the vaguest ways.] Also, there are other Caped Crusader versus Man of Steel interpretations out there, though this is probably the most famous.

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BOOK REVIEW: Justice League Vol. 1: Origin by Geoff Johns

Justice League, Vol. 1: OriginJustice League, Vol. 1: Origin by Geoff Johns

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Amazon had the Kindle edition of this graphic novel on sale recently. With all the talk of a Justice League movie, and whether it can ever get off the ground, my curiosity in these characters was piqued.

This volume was released in August of 2011 as the leading edge of a reboot of the entire DC comics line called “the New 52.” This is the origin story for the Justice League as a team, though all but one of the individual characters–Cyborg–is an existing hero at the time the story begins. The other characters, i.e. Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman are familiar to the world but are not well liked. (and are introduced into the story arc in that order.)The volume consists of Issues #1 – 6 of the Justice League [New 52] reboot.

In the beginning, there’s only one dyad among this group who knows each other personally, the Green Lantern and the Flash–we don’t really know how they know each other. Most of the other characters are aware of each other’s existence (or myth), but have never met. Of course, Cyborg doesn’t exist at the beginning of the story, and his individual origin story is woven in throughout the book as a subplot so that he can be introduced into the arc at the climax. The characters are assumed to each operate in his (or her) own domains, i.e. Gotham City, Metropolis, Coast City, Central City, etc.

As the story opens, Batman is chasing down a stocky, non-human creature on the roof tops of Gotham in order to try to figure out what the nefarious character is up to. Green Lantern is inexplicably introduced into the middle of this chase scene. Batman and Green Lantern viscerally despise each other from the get go. This isn’t surprising as Green Lantern is an arrogant ass throughout the entire story. Perhaps the highlight of the book (which is sad as it happens so early) is when Lantern is busy mocking Batman, and the Dark Knight steals his ring–the source of his power–right off his finger.

The Green Lantern and Batman witness the inhuman creature planting a piece of alien-looking technology (later revealed to be a “mother box”), and Green Lantern’s ring confirms it to be otherworldly. The pair decide to pay a visit to the Earth’s resident alien, a.k.a. Superman. Green Lantern immediately runs afoul of Superman, arrogantly thinking he can subdue the Man of Steel, and has to call his old friend the Flash. The quartet finally stop fighting and begrudgingly agree to put their heads together.

After seeing a piece of the Cyborg origin story, we are introduced to Wonder Woman. She is probably the character that we get the greatest sense of. (Besides Lantern, who is unlikable throughout.] The Amazonian seems more alien than Superman. She’s never had ice cream but loves it, but not quite as much as a good fight. She’s not emotional about fighting, neither fearful nor angry, but is at her most happy when fighting. She’s the character most out of touch with the world she is occupies. She joins up with the four in the chase for the winged, alien monsters, forming a quintet and instilling some gender equity.

The Cyborg origin story comes to a head when Silas Stone, a brilliant defense industry scientist, turns his dying son, Victor, into the Cyborg, thinking it the only way to save the young man after he suffered severe burns from a mother box explosion. The former star football player is now a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, part himself and part autonomous machine. There’s a cacophony in his head as he can now pick up various radio signals.

It’s shortly thereafter that Aquaman is introduced. Considerable artistic effort was put into manning up Aguaman, who always seemed the weak link in this team. The group happens to be standing around near the water when Aquaman and his fish minions chase some of the evil army to the surface

The enemy is Darkseid, a juggernaut warlord from another world (or a parallel universe), whose army of evil minions have been the ones that the newly formed League have been fighting both individually and as a group. When Cyborg goes running away from his father–and his creator as a machine-man, he runs into the six superheroes, and the team of seven is fully assembled. Darkseid’s power is so great that he relatively easily captures and subdues Superman.

Batman goes to rescue Superman as the rest of the team regroups. The Dark Knight’s tactic is letting one of the evil, winged, juggernaut minions capture him–as they have been capturing others.

I won’t spoil the ending, but will say that it was pretty weak, and a large part of the reason I gave this work such a low rating.

A two star rating may seem a little harsh. The dialogue in this work is better than most comic books. There’s relatively less “As you know, Bob,…” style exposition. There is some, as when Green Lantern feels the need to explain to Batman about how there are other Green Lanterns and this is his space sector. However, there are also clever uses of action to present background, as when Lantern begins to admit that he’s a show-off and it turns out he’s brushing up against Wonder Woman’s truth lasso. (This is a much better way to do it than Wonder Woman saying, “And now my lasso is around you and you’ll have to tell the truth, for whosoever the lasso touches cannot bear false witness.” Which would be the typical comic book way of revealing the lasso’s power.)

There are two problems with this work that are too serious to overlook. First is the deus ex machina ending. The authors make a bold choice as to who will save the day, perhaps to create surprise and perhaps to highlight the character. But the whole resolution strains credulity. Second, there is no good explanation for why these characters keep piling into each other (except for the Xenophobic thought processes of Batman and the Green Lantern that Superman must know about anything alien.) These evil minions are supposedly everywhere, and yet the individual superheroes keep running into each other–and continuing to stay together despite the fact that most of them clearly don’t like the others. I think the author takes this “we hate each other, but are begrudgingly working together” trope a little too far. It feels as if this Wizard of Oz cast hadn’t come together by commonly following the yellow brick road, but rather that seven separate and randomly moving tornadoes picked up one each and just happened to stack them in a neat pile.

Besides Green Lantern being arrogant and unlikable and Wonder Woman being endearingly alien, we get very little sense of individual characters. Batman and the Flash are the voices of reason of two differing type, but Superman and Aquaman are just muscle.

I have a black and white Kindle, but the art looked good to me–but that’s not my forte. I applaud the artists for getting rid of Superman’s red tighty-whities and making Aquaman look more manly. At the end there’s some alternative artwork and info on costume development for those who geek out on such things.

If there’s any hope for a Justice League movie, it’s not to be found in this story line. If you’re a DC fan, you’ve already read this–like it or not. If you’re wondering whether to become a DC fan, I wouldn’t start here.

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