Dark Victory

It is December 5, the day AOL Time Warner-owned DC Comics has been anxiously awaiting for almost 15 years--the day writer-illustrator Frank Miller once more dons cape and cowl to resurrect the Dark Knight, his fiercely rendered vision of an obscenely obsessed middle-aged Batman. Today, stores will finally open their doors to those waiting for The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in which Batman and the entirety of the Justice League--creaky, venerable heroes with names like The Flash, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and The Atom--brutally collide with the big blue Boy Scout, Superman, long portrayed by Miller as a confused and conflicted pawn of the United States government. The first time Batman is seen in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he's doing just as he did at the end of The Dark Knight Returns in 1986: beating holy hell out of Superman, trying to break the will of a man he cannot kill. "Well," says Miller with a laugh, "I had to get that out of the way." Unfazed by the day's forthcoming deluge of reactions, he sounds giddy, like a child given the keys to the toy store after closing. "I'm having a real rockin' time."

In 1986, Miller's four-part The Dark Knight Returns, along with a handful of other titles, turned comics into capital-A art, infusing them with pop-culture references (TVs everywhere), a sinister sarcasm and a hard-boiled pulp-fiction feel. Batman--hauled out of retirement to duel to the death with the likes of Two-Face and the Joker and his old pal Clark Kent--was out of the geek's Batcave and once more in the spotlight, standing in the glare of a Batsignal that heralded the hero's return to relevance. Miller, aided by inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley, was among the chief catalysts for the resurrection of the superhero in a medium that had grown stale and complacent, and his grimy, hyper-realistic influence even now permeates almost every panel of every page of every comic book published.

Since then, Miller has only toyed with the idea of returning to the Dark Knight: Sometimes in interviews, he would say yup, sure, some day; just as often, he'd insist no way in hell. (He did write Batman: Year One in 1988, but only because he'd worked through his own Batman origin story while doing Dark Knight Returns and didn't want to waste the effort.) Besides, he had moved on to the grim noir Sin City, about an ex-con's quest for justice, and Elektra: Assassin and Hard-Boiled and Give Me Liberty and 300 and so many other titles that had absolutely nothing to do with Batman and very little to do with superheroes at all. DC would call every now and then, he'd say, "Not yet," and the dance would continue--until last year, when it was announced Miller had, at long last, decided to do a Dark Knight sequel. The day the news came down, thousands of fanboys surely went to sleep grinning like the Joker.

"This time, the way I was able to get through was to just refer to it as my suicide mission," Miller says. "There's always gonna be someone who walks up and says, 'I don't feel like I did when I was 10 years old.' In which case, you gotta tell them they're never gonna feel like they did when they were 10 years old. So I'll just see how people react and hope they like it. Mostly, I just hope folks like the story...But as far as my expectations, boy, I always try not to have any."

Initially, DC shipped some 150,000 copies of the first issue of Miller's three-part The Dark Knight Strikes Again--all 80 pages of it, each luminously rendered--to retailers, making it the publishing-world equivalent of a blockbuster film. (The initial number might not sound huge, but at eight bucks a pop, the sales figures will be enormous.) And DC has treated the so-called DK2 as such, refusing to send out review copies of the book until the day of its release. DC was worried about advance images leaking to the Web--anything that might take away a single sale, especially after years of watching its fan base shrink or defect to rival Marvel Comics, which suddenly has hipster cache with bright young writers and illustrators taking on Spider-Man and The Hulk and Captain America. Even before The Dark Knight Strikes Again went on sale last week, DC issued a press release anointing the book "the best-selling comic book of 2001 in both dollars and units as well as the best-seller of the last five years," citing figures provided by Diamond Comic Distributors, which ships titles directly to retailers.

Yet the new book feels very little like its precursor: It's brighter, for one thing, thanks to Varley's use of computer coloring. And its use of familiar heroes from DC's stable makes it very much a fan's product: These are the costumed do-gooders of Miller's childhood, when he was 8 years old in Vermont and stumbling across his first issue of an 80-page Batman. He has resurrected heroes long dead or forgotten in DC's universe, where crime fighters have become as disposable and interchangeable as cotton balls. Barry Allen is still The Flash, Hal Jordan is still the Green Lantern, Oliver Queen is still the Green Arrow, and Captain Marvel is now a balding, bespectacled old man. Miller's comics exist as though the years 1965 through 1985 never happened in the comic-book industry; he's a man in his 40s romping with the icons of his youth. "I realized that what I was really out to do here was, in many ways, the opposite of the first Dark Knight," Miller says. "It was really about taking out the old toys and making them shine."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky