Comics Time: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

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The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Frank Miller, writer/artist
Lynn Varley, colorist
DC, 2003
256 pages
$19.99
Buy it from Amazon.com

Originally posted on October 28, 2009 at The Savage Critic(s).

Years ago I came across an eye-opening quote from Jaron Lanier in the liner notes of the reissued Gary Numan album The Pleasure Principle. Google reveals that it was pulled from this Wired essay. Here’s what it said:

“Style used to be, in part, a record of the technological limitations of the media of each period. The sound of The Beatles was the sound of what you could do if you pushed a ’60s-era recording studio absolutely as far as it could go. Artists long for limitations; excessive freedom casts us into a vacuum. We are vulnerable to becoming jittery and aimless, like children with nothing to do. That is why narrow simulations of ‘vintage’ music synthesizers are hotter right now than more flexible and powerful machines. Digital artists also face constraints in their tools, of course, but often these constraints are so distant, scattered, and rapidly changing that they can’t be pushed against in a sustained way.”

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Lanier wrote that in 1997. I’m actually not sure which vintage-synth resurgence he was talking about, unless you count the Rentals or something (although everyone and their grandfather was namechecking Gary Numan back then, which was sort of the point of including the quote in the liner notes. Maybe he meant Boards of Canada?).

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But golly, it sure seems prescient now, huh? Here we are, in the post-electroclash, post-Neptunes, post-DFA era. The hot indie-rock microgenre is glo-fi, which sounds like playing a cassette of your favorite shiny happy pop song when you were three years old after it’s sat in the sun-cooked tape deck of your mom’s Buick for about 20 years. And my single favorite musical moment of last year, as harrowing as those songs are soothing, was the part of the universally acclaimed Portishead comeback album that sounded exactly like something from a John Carpenter film score. (It’s at the 3:51 mark. It’s awesome, isn’t it?)

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And that’s just on the music end. Visually? Take a look at Heavy Light, a show at the Deitch Gallery this summer featuring a murderers’ row of video artist specializing in primary-color overload and technique that doesn’t just accentuate but revels in its own limitations. Foremost among them, at least for us comics folks, is Ben Jones, member of the hugely influential underground collective Paper Rad and recent reinterpreter of the massively mainstream The Simpsons and Where the Wild Things Are. But the ones with the widest cultural import at the moment are Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of the astonishingly funny and bizarre Adult Swim series Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. Their color palette is garish, their digital manipulations are knowingly crude, and their analog experiments are even more so. When they combine the three, god help us all. And let’s not forget Wareheim’s unforgettable, magisterially NSFW collaboration with fellow Heavy Light contributor and Gary Panter collaborator Devin Flynn.

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Yeah, most of these guys are playing it either for laughs or for sheer mind-melting overload, but I think there’s frequently beauty in there to rival what some of the musicians are doing. (Click again on that first Ben Jones link.) And (thank you Internet God) this amazing video by Peppermelon shows that you can do action, awe, even sensuality with this aesthetic. The rawness, the brightness, the willingness to let the seams show–it all gives you something to push against again.

Fight

When I’ve written about The Dark Knight Strikes Again I’ve been fond of saying it was years ahead of its time. Sometime in the past week and a half or so, there was a day when I was listened to Washed Out at work, then came home and stumbled across that Deitch show link in an old bookmark, then watched an episode of Tim & Eric, then came across that Ben Jones WTWTA strip–and suddenly I realized I was right! Not that it matters–at all–whether or not Miller and Varley have any real continuity with any of this material. They certainly didn’t get there before Paper Rad, unless I’m wildly mistaken. But then half the fun of DKSA is spotting all the stuff Miller does, from naked newscasters to superheroes ruling the earth rather than just guarding it, seemingly without realizing someone’s done it first. What difference would that make? Meanwhile, in all the off-the-beaten-path references Frank Santoro has cited during the production of his Ben Jones collaboration Cold Heat–essentially a glo-fi comic book–I haven’t heard word one about this book. But I’m not saying Miller & Varley paved the way for anything. I’m saying that when Miller abandoned his chops (and, for the most part, backgrounds!) for the down and dirty styles he (thought he) saw at SPX, and when Varley decided to use photoshop to call attention to itself rather than to create a simulacrum of something else, they were using the same tools, tapping the same vein, seeking the same sense of excitement, discovery, and trailblazing as these newer movements.

Superman digital

I’ve also been fond of likening DKSA to proto-punk, taking a cue from Tony Millionaire’s jacket-wrap blurb: “Miller has done for comics what the Ramones et al have done for music. This book looks like it was done by a guy with a pen and his girlfriend on an iMac.” The idea is that it’s raw, it’s loud, it’s brash, it doesn’t have time for the usual niceties–it’s getting comics back to their primal pulp roots. I spoke to Miller several times during and following the release of the book, one time for print, and he said as much. (I certainly never would have bought the cockamamie idea that this thing was some sort of corporate cash-grab even if he’d never said word one.) He even mentioned to me his belief that the brightly colored costumes of the early superheroes served mainly the dual purpose of a) telling them apart from one another, and b) proving they weren’t naked, so even his thinking in historical terms had him ready to peel back from realism as a form of reclamation. And of course it’s not exactly like the story was at all subtle in this regard: Batman and his army came back to overthrow the dictators that kept us fat and happy and turned the superheroes into boring wimps. But ultimately the punk comparisons were just a little off. Born less of despair than of delight, filled less with anger than with joy, The Dark Knight Strikes Again anticipated a way of doing things that is not intended to look or sound effortless, that draws attention to its own construction, but which–with every pixelization and artifact, with every crayolafied visual and left-in glitch, with every burbly synth and sky-bright color–pushes against that construction and springs out into something wild and wonderful.

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5 Responses to Comics Time: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

  1. Nice review, I hope to write one as snazzy sometime. Saying DKSA was ahead of it’s time is pretty accurate. Occasionally something comes along that seems like it was plopped down from the future by accident–I felt that way listening to OutKast’s ATLiens those years ago–and we have to just try and decipher it. DKSA is comics indulging in it’s inner primal urges, with a healthy mixture of throwing whatever it can at the wall and seeing what sticks. I think is the book hadn’t been billed the way it was as a sequel/prequel to Miller’s first magnum opus it would have fared better in the fanboy/fangirl community than it did, what with the screaming about it being the worst thing ever by Miller (this of course being before the actually purposely absurd All Star Batman and Robin that some view as if it were coming of the Anti-Christ). DKSA is what a teenage boy who takes too many psychedelic drugs would see in his hallucinations if they manifested in comic book form–day-glo, full of testosterone, and incredibly violent.

  2. Matt Grommes says:

    Sean I think your reviews of DKSA are about the only ones I’ve read and they sync pretty much exactly with what I think of the book so it always shocks the hell out of me when I read people say in passing that it’s one of the worst books of the decade, as if it’s just a given. I reread it recently and felt even more kindly towards it. I only wish more creators could get to a place where they allow themselves to put aside what they’ve done before and have it come out this glorious.

  3. [...] order to balance this out, let me point out Sean T. Collins’s recent praise for Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which a work many people like to malign. I agree with Collins that it is a book that actually [...]

  4. MarsHottentot says:

    In light of Miller’s pretty awful year: a troubled book about terrorism that tells a story that I’m not even sure he intended and his recent, wildly mis-informed, statements regarding the Occupy movement – DKSA just got 100 times weirder and cooler. That it’s pretty much ‘Occupy DC’ exactly ten years ahead of schedule – in clear opposition to the current mindset of it’s own creator – is an irony that is so deep and profound I found myself lifting the book in an all new joy. Miller of 2001 fights the Miller of 2011. It’s insane.

  5. Like. it.

    Only bit that I’d think I’d disagree with is the: “Born less of despair than of delight, filled less with anger than with joy” bit. Best description would be that it’s got both standing side-by-side: “Striking terror. Best part of the job” etc.

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