THE OBLIGATORY DARK KNIGHT COLUMN
It’s been three years since the events of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (“DK1”). Bruce Wayne has worked hard at training his new militia and now sets his sights on a higher goal. He’d rather have honest unhappiness than dishonest happiness. He wants to rip the curtain down to reveal the Wizard that is the governmental structure pulling the strings. (I think I just mixed a metaphor or two.) It starts with rescuing members of the JLA from their various horrible existences. I won’t get into this too far in detail, but they’ve each been locked away for the public good. The theory that the supervillain is an after-affect of the superhero seems to have taken hold after the events of DK1. So by eliminating the superhero, the government has created peace in the cities, or so they’d tell you. Once again, Superman is their willing patsy. Miller never misses a chance to knock the big blue cheese down a peg or two.
That’s what the first issue is about. I can’t stress enough that this is the first of a three part series. We can’t judge the first chapter of DK2 against the entirety of DK1. That would be unfair. All comparisons of the two have to be seen in that filter. We don’t know where the next 160 pages of this story will take us. Right now, though, it looks to be a much brighter and more optimistic place. As much as DK1 was a product of its time – including the unnamed presidential look-alike for Ronald Reagan – DK2 is a product of its time. DK1 was produced at the opening of the grim and gritty era. WATCHMEN was big. DK1 was big. Darker looks at brightly garbed heroes were the way to go. Nowadays, we seem able to look at superheroes in everyway, but the vast majority of them tend still towards the darker, such as THE AUTHORITY. The fun Silver Age throwbacks that some of us thought were coming a couple of years ago seem to have petered off. Maybe that’s what DK2 is about. DK2 is a brighter story (both literally and figuratively). Is it Miller’s intent to open the doors to a day where comics can find their sense of optimism again? Is this going to be Mark Waid’s Silver Age paradise that Miller is ushering in?
It’s too early to tell. This issue is still dark. The situations that the Atom and the Flash find themselves in, for example, are hardly chuckle worthy. Nor is the rematch between Batman and Superman at the end of the issue played for anything but keeps. It’s easy to picture the last two issues, though, turning things on their head enough to be a more welcoming and inviting opening to the future.
That’s all conjecture, though, so let’s leave it alone for the moment. On the whole, I found the story to be inviting, entertaining, and imaginative. It’s something I want to read more of, not just for the sake of the overall plot that Miller has opened here as for the other things we still have yet to learn about this universe.
I’m left with two things to discuss that go more towards the process junkie spectrum of things: Lynn Varley’s coloring and Frank Miller’s art. They’ve both been subject to mass scrutiny since the first preview pages arrived. Now that we can see the final result on the printed page, we have a true test of their quality. Let me start with the coloring.
I’m of two minds about the coloring. I’ve never been a coloring expert. I can analyze and pick apart lettering until my eyes bleed, but much of the art of coloring comics is lost on me. Certain styles and artists really work for me, such as Susan Daigle-Leach, Lee Loughridge, or Laura DePuy. A lot of times, though, I couldn’t tell you just why that is aside from their colors looking prettiest.
There’s been a lot of discussion of the coloring in DK2, which is Lynn Varley’s first project colored on a computer. The voices of the internet rose up in opposition to this as soon as the first sample pages were released. I may be inclined to agree that this is not the right kind of project to learn as you go with Photoshop. It’s far too high profile to be a Learn As You Go job. I’m also reminded, however, that there’s more to computer coloring than just being a good mouse jockey. Coloring is more in the selection and placement of colors than the proper learning of Photoshop filters. The computer is just a tool, and I think it’s far too dismissive of Varley’s talents in that department to say the book is going to disappoint because she’s working on a Mac instead of an easel with a wide variety of watercolors.
Make no mistake about it, DK2 has a very different look to it than DK1. DK1 had a nice classical moody painted look. DK2 is brightness and neon and pure modern flair. It’s two different styles of coloring for two different projects. While one might be a sequel to the other, they should be treated as distinct projects. Distinct looks. Distinct feels. Coloring is just one aspect of it.
Varley’s colors have more of the look of a strobe light bouncing of a fisheye mirror in DK2. Colors don’t fall neatly between the lines. They blur and smudge and fill areas rather than distinct segments. They’re not always photo realistic, and they’re not ever used for the purposes of character identification the way the bits of colors in DK1 were often used to identify rival gang members. The art provides all those clues by itself.
The colors do not get in the way of the storytelling for me. They blend right in. If you accept the argument that DK2 is filled with optimism, then the bright and sometimes garish colors fit right into the mold of the project.
That said, there’s still some work to be done to learn some of the finer points of PhotoShop. Varley relies on some filter tricks to get across key moments, such as explosions and electrical effects. In some instances, though, they come across too jagged and could detract from the work, if you’re looking for something to annoy you. It’s something she’ll learn with experience. Hopefully, she’s got some computer help from someone to show her some of this stuff. I think by the third issue you’ll be forgetting all your complaints about the coloring. (Ah, who am I kidding? This is the Internet. People are born to whine.)
The other early complaint from preview pages was Frank Miller’s art. He’s alone this time, with no Klaus Janson inking him. It’s all Miller. Every big foot and every big hand. I have to admit that after a decade of SIN CITY, it takes a bit of work to get used to seeing his “normal” art style show through again. Even reading Marvel’s recent DAREDEVIL collections has been a bit jarring. It’s been fifteen years, though, since DK1. Compare any artist’s work over a 15-year gap. It will evolve and change. Lots of fans will complain that they only liked any artist’s “older” work, and that’s something that works for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s because it’s when they first fell in love with the artist’s work. Sometimes it’s because an artist had a particularly creative streak in him during that project. Sometimes it’s the right inker. And, yes, there are artists who fall from grace. Just because an artist’s style has evolved, that doesn’t mean it’s gotten better. The trick is in determining what the exact cause of it is. I don’t think Miller has fallen from grace just yet, though.
What’s the difference in Miller’s art of DK1 and DK2? They both still look like Miller to me. The biggest difference from a purely mechanical perspective is that DK2 uses a lot more superheroes and fewer “normal” people. That means that the excesses of form used to depict those people are going to show up more often and be more pronounced. I think a lot of people are reacting to that. And who knows? Maybe Miller is, too. This is his first full-length superhero story in quite some time. He was never known for drawing men in tights to begin with. Like Varley’s coloring, I’m sure that either Miller will adapt his style over the course of the 240 pages the story is slated to run, or everyone will just get used to it and accept it.
To me, though, it’s less about the art itself and more about the way the art tells a story. This is sequential narrative, as Will Eisner instructs us. It’s about the flow of events through a series of images. Frank Miller’s first chapter of DK1 should be held up as the best possible example of cinematic storytelling ever to grace the pages of comics. No, it doesn’t use lots of wide panels and it doesn’t use bombast over substance with accompanying one-liners in an attempt to mimic modern cinema. That first chapter of DK1 evokes the cinema so much because it flows so evenly. Miller is introducing all the elements of his grand storyline in the first chapter while telling a complete story all its own. He’s flashing between multiple viewpoints in different places constantly. All the while, he’s using the spotlight of the media to highlight the societal norms of the day. There’s always two things going on in any scene, if only just with the overlapping narrative courtesy of the news anchor on the TV screens shown throughout the novel. To achieve all of this, Miller used a 16-panel page. It’s a four by four grid that he modified as need be. The deliberate modifications are seldom made obvious. In fact, it wasn’t until the second reading that I could deconstruct some of the pages to determine where the panels were combined or hidden. It’s solid stuff.
DK2 doesn’t have that same rigid storytelling structure. There is no simple grid along which the entire story is told. There are, however, lots of floating panels used to impart information to the reader by way of the “Naked News.” Miller’s storytelling, though, is clear and informative. He makes both the talking heads scenes and the action bits looks interesting.
I don’t know that Scott McCloud ever discussed this in one his books, but I have a theory on reading comics. You can learn to like an artistic style. It’s not necessarily instinctive. The more comics you read and the longer you read them, the more disparate styles you’re going to see. There are some styles, however, that you might have to get used to before you can enjoy them. It was that way for me with Brian Bendis’ JINX work, for example. A quick flip test through the book didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t until I started on page one and absorbed the work as I read it that I came to assimilate the style to my own reading methods and learned what parts of it worked for me. I look over on my book shelves now and see a whole range of styles that I’ve enjoyed: Jim Mahfood’s GRRRL SCOUTS, Nabiel Kanan’s LOST GIRL, Renee French’s THE SOAP LADY, Eddie Campbell’s art in FROM HELL, Miller’s work in SIN CITY, Paul Grist’s KANE, Eduardo Risso’s 100 BULLETS, even Jim Steranko’s SHIELD work. They’re all pretty far apart on the art scales. Some of them I wasn’t naturally inclined to like. Yet I came to enjoy them all once I started reading them. Sometimes, you just have to dive in.
I think a thorough reading of DK2 will quiet some of the harsh voices of Miller and Varley’s art style on this book. Standing on its own, a single page of DK2 can be an awkward and garish thing. Read in sequence with the other 79 pages, it is quickly absorbed and enjoyed on its own merits.
DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN #1 arrived last week amidst a flurry of media and fan scrutiny, the likes of which we’ve not seen in some time, save for HEROES. It had to combat the ever-growing high hopes of people who have had 15 years to build up the anticipation for this series. I don’t want to say that it was doomed to failure, but it certainly had its work cut out for it in the face of such attention.
I read it. I enjoyed it. I look forward to the next two issues. And I think you should give it a chance, too, if you’re so inclined. Don’t shy away because a preview image or two didn’t click right away. Once you dive into the work, it’ll convince you of its merits.
In a couple of months, we can start the work of picking the book apart for themes and symbolism and parallels to our modern times. For now, let’s just enjoy what we’ve got.
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