I am no man. I am Superman.
Frank Miller is kind of famous for being the guy who brought “Batman can beat up Superman” into the modern comics world. The fight in DKR is iconic and a classic, and probably the root of multiple fanboy arguments. Miller revisits the fight at the end of the first chapter of DKSA, where Batman and friends completely outclass, outmaneuver, and outfight Superman. Batman ends the fight with four punches from gigantic green gloves and tells Superman to get out of his cave.
There is contempt there, but I don’t know if that’s the right word for it. At one point, Batman says, “Look. Up in the sky. Gosh, we’re all impressed, down here.”
Batman, and possibly Miller’s, contempt for Superman is born out of expecting a lot out of the character. Superman is the most powerful being on Earth, but he spends his time fighting cackling supervillains and upholding the status quo.
Batman’s point of view, and one that Spider-Man shares, is that if you have power, you have no excuse not to use it. Superman has great power, and therefore great responsibility. He can fix the world, fight the real villains, and he’s made himself into a tool of the status quo. For Batman, that’s inexcusable. A man who can is a man who must.
In a sense, DKSA is about Superman growing up and finally coming into his own. The first of two key Superman moments comes toward the end of chapter two, after Supergirl has revealed herself and decimated Brainiac’s robot. He starts with an anecdote about being a child and trails off. “Lara. What sort of world have I given you?”
It’s a sad question, but a loaded one. He’s starting to realize just how much responsibility he has, and just what he’s done with his power. He has a daughter, and he hasn’t left her a better world than the one his parents left him.
From that point on, Superman begins his reconstruction. At the end of the book, when he asks what he and his daughter should do with their planet, he’s finally fulfilling the original promise of the character, and of superheroes in general.
The second key moment comes shortly before that, however. There’s a bit where Superman divebombs a jet, causing it to explode. There’s a tiny panel just after that, with the caption, “Damn. This is getting good to me.” He’s got a slight smile on his face as he looks up.
After a lifetime of doing just enough, Superman is finally cutting loose. He’s embracing what he is, he’s using his power, and he’s doing the right thing. That’s the most important part. Doing good feels good. While many characters in DKSA were created out of tragedy, none of them are doing what they do because of it any more. They’re doing the hero thing because they can, they must, and they love it. Batman relishes his role like no other hero. Superman is learning how to do that.
I think this is where the soft contempt for Superman comes from. You have a man who can do everything, but by not doing everything, he’s essentially done nothing. He hasn’t lived up to his potential at all. Batman’s a human, and he does the best he can. Why shouldn’t Superman?
I’d be an idiot if I didn’t see the obvious real life underdog parallels, of course. Batman is a human, like us, and tearing down a hero is something people do. At the same time, though, Batman has a point. You can save the world, Superman. Why don’t you?
At the end of the book, and with the urging of his daughter and his worst/best rival, he does.
That’s Catgirl. Get a clue.
If the redemption of Superman is a big part of DKSA, Catgirl and Supergirl represent an even larger theme in the book: the old giving way to the new/young. It was one of the major themes of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and The Invisibles, and it’s definitely a theme that I enjoy.
Miller proposes a smooth transition between the old and the young. Carrie Kelly moved from being Robin, an old name and a legacy title, to Catgirl of her own free will. She’s respectful of Batman, up to a point, but she takes none of his crap. She recognizes his experience, but the plan that brings Batman back into the limelight and sparks off a revolution? That’s her plan.
Supergirl has a rougher relationship with Superman. While Superman is trapped in an earlier paradigm, Supergirl is of the present, if not the future. She knows that she has power and is eager to use it. So eager, in fact, that she needs Superman’s guidance to set her right. She sees no reason why she should respect the soft, weak, and puny humans when she can do so much on her own. She doesn’t get why Superman trusts Batman, even as he curses him. She just knows that she can, and she wants to do something immediately. She’s the Superman as Alien Conqueror taken to its logical extreme.
Catgirl is the most even-headed character in the book. There’s a layer of disbelief, a veil of “Holy crap, this is really happening,” in her captions, but she’s professional throughout the book. She’s the commander of the Batboys, Batman’s army of sidekicks, and in charge of doling out punishment when they screw up. When she’s put into a situation where it is kill or be killed, she goes for the kill shot. She’s the one Batman puts on the ground and on the frontlines on operations intended to rescue Barry Allen and Ray Palmer, which shows just how much trust he’s placed in her.
Carrie grows from being Robin into her own character in this book. When Batman mistakenly calls her Robin, she responds, “That’s Catgirl. Get a clue.” She’s beyond the old generation of heroes, and is something appropriate for this new world. She’s taken the lessons that Batman has given her, applied them, and turned them into something fresh.
Her “Get a clue” is definitely one of my favorite bits. It’s dated, but it sums up everything about the teenaged “I already know it all, gramps.” It’s the “Eat it, grandpa!” of the Waid/Kitson Legion of Superheroes, a statement intended to rile someone up and show confidence at the same time.
Supergirl’s role is spelled out plain as day by Wonder Woman. After her debut, she’s speaking to Superman. Wonder Woman is looking on, and is thinking at Superman. “Be wise, my love. Be brave. Lara is everything. She’s everything.” She knows that Supergirl is going to challenge and threaten Superman’s entire way of life.
The children are the future.
Supergirl, from her first appearance in the book, understands what Batman has known for decades: heroes have power, and must use it. What she doesn’t have, however, is the experience and understanding that Batman has. Using the power isn’t enough. Power must be wielded well and effectively.
When Supergirl tells her father that the humans “don’t know their place,” he says, “You’re very young. You don’t know the poison those words contain.” She remarks that he sounds like her mother, and Superman tells her that Wonder Woman is wise. She and Superman understand that you don’t command the world, you share it. However, he stops a bit too short. He doens’t want to exercise his power more because that would make slaves of humanity. Batman says that he’s using circular logic and not thinking about the lessons he’s learned.
Supergirl and Superman temper each other. They are both sitting on two sides of a spectrum, and eventually, they meet in the middle. Superman’s experience and love of humanity mixed with Supergirl’s extraordinary power and will is the mix that works. Things change, things get done, and it is for the better.
On a real life level, it’s the same give and take that happens between the old and the young. They fight, and they bicker, and at some point the son hits 21 and understands his father, and the father remembers what it was like to be young and think that the world is yours and understands his son. That in-between ground is where things and dialogue actually happens.
On a side note, completely devoid of critical analysis– I love both Catgirl and Supergirl. Supergirl in particular is the blueprint for a fascinating and interesting take on the character for the main DCU. If Superman is the greatest hero of all time in the DCU, and he is, then wouldn’t his daughter be a handful? Plus, her costume has pants, which is just lovely from a design standpoint. It’d be more interesting than the kind of “Superman, but with more T&A and less experience” that we have currently, at least. The Kryptonite earrings are a beautiful touch, too. It adds that perfect measure of zing to the character.
Who He Is and How He Came To Be
MILLER: Oh, that was deliberate. Yeah. Because I long ago determined that a character like Batman can only be defined as a terrorist if his motto is striking terror. I didn’t want to dodge it and also, I wanted Batman to creep you out. That I wanted from the start. I don’t want you to like this guy.
The Batman in Dark Knight Strikes Again is perfect. No excuses, no rationalizations, none of that. He’s dead on.
Batman was created by tragedy. That much is fair. However, at some point, an obsession for revenge is going to peter out. Time is going to pass and your fervor is going to fade. At that point, once you keep doing it, it’s got to be for a reason. Batman’s reason is twofold. One, he enjoys helping people. He can, and therefore, he will. Second, striking terror is the best part of the job.
Terrorism is a recurring theme in DKSA. The book paints Batman as a terrorist in the sense that “striking terror” is part of his method of getting things done. He delivers a speech in book three that’s essentially a terrorist manifesto, save for the fact that it’s aimed at Lex Luthor and Brainiac. In the main books, he exists as a near-mythical figure of terror.
Batman’s new war is a guerilla one. He strikes in the dark and disappears. He’s harnessed the power of youth culture, which is honestly pretty susceptible to lynch mob mentality, and pointed it in a productive direction. El-P once said that “Kids are patriotic, robotic, operate catapults, and goose-step over innocence.” Give them a reason, and they will mob. Batman gave them a reason.
Something else significant on the terrorist front is Hal Jordan acknowledging Batman’s assertion that the heroes have to be criminals. They have to be criminals because, sometimes, the law is lacking. Sometimes you have to step outside of the law, drop down off a roof, and crack a mugger’s jaw bone entirely in half. Sometimes you have to use those laser eyes to expose the evils of a president, or that lasso of truth to force a general to admit wrong-doing. Being a criminal is freeing.
Batman in DKSA is vibrant, despite his advanced age. At one point, he has to remind himself to “stay grim” and to not “let them know how much fun you’re having.” Batman is grim and gritty, yes, that is fair. However, below that is a man having the time of his life. He’s doing something he loves, and even better, it’s for a good reason. It’s a win/win situation.
Miller gives Batman an insane energy. He’s all hands and feet, a significant departure from the barrel-chested Dark Knight Returns Batman of twenty-some years ago, but still one that’s undeniably Batman. When he walks, he strides. He looks like he’s moving with purpose. He’s having the time of his life.
This amazing confidence delivers in spades. His fellow heroes trust him implicitly, even as they argue with him. Even Superman, who has opposed Batman throughout the series, trusts him and knows that he’s trying to do good. His gripe with Batman is the method, not the fact. Batman breaks heroes out of imprisonment and they all fall in line. Hal Jordan comes back from existing as pure willpower simply because Bruce calls him.
“His name’s Bruce. It has to be Bruce. I didn’t give anybody else my address.”
Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, master of the giant green egg-beater, only left Batman a way to contact him when he left Earth. It says a lot, and the fact that he comes back says even more.
The heroes, despite their dislike of his methods, trust Batman. They know him, they know how he operates, and they trust him to do the right thing. They may not like him, and you probably shouldn’t like Batman at all, but they trust him. They willingly put their lives in his hands.
Their past history with him is the only explanation for this trust. Batman is already an over-achiever. Batman has being a kung fu master, forensic detective, doctor/field medic, swordsman, superhero, acrobat, marksman, father, con artist, actor, make-up artist, tactician, psychologist, paranoiac, historian, botanist, puzzlemaster, engineer, philanthropist, inventor, chemist, thief, ninja, and genius under his belt. Any two of these would be a bit much, but he’s got several dozen expert-level abilities. He’s ridiculous. However, he is ridiculous because he has a ridiculous quest, and one which requires all of this insane preparation.
Even still, he can’t match up to Superman. If he gets shot, he dies. If he misses a jump, he falls several stories and dies. If he mixes the wrong thing in his cave, he dies. If Superman breathes too hard while explaining a situation, Batman’s entire head could come right off his neck. So, he has to compensate. He has to be better than literal gods and aliens. He’s obsessive enough to put in the work to make that happen, and he’s enough of an egomaniac to believe tha the has to be that way.
This is where Batman’s semi-contempt from Superman comes from, as well. Batman has had to work with his own blood, sweat, and tears to become what he is. It took years of work. Superman, though, was born Superman. He didn’t earn his power. Instead, he inherited it. There’s a strain of thought that says that the ones who have to struggle to make it appreciate their station more than someone who had it handed to them. There’s bound to be some resentment there, and a desire to harness that power to do what you know is right.
Even still, despite the resentment that may be there, Superman and Batman seem like friendly rivals. When Superman rescues Batman at the end of the book, at Batman’s command of course, he carries him by the utility belt like you’d carry a dog by the scruff of the neck. When combined with the missing boot and his floppy bat-ear, Batman’s grumpiness just seems silly.
The last few pages of the book concern the final confrontation between Dick Grayson, the first Robin, and Batman. While most of DKSA uses a very wide-open storytelling style, with large panels, dynamic layouts, or even just full page panels, Miller switches the storytelling to something out of DKR. It skyrockets to 20 panels a page, and then to thirty, with smaller panels showing specific motions.
It turns the tone of the book dark instantly. The breezy, airy panels are gone. It pushes this staccato rhythm, simultaneously making you read faster, but take longer on a single page. The panels are much smaller, depicting very little at a time. A slitted eye, a coughing mouth, a laugh, a slice of a knife, or a rictus masquerading as a face. It’s tense and violent, and fits the scene perfectly.
Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder, was fired in the past and took up with the government. They altered him, fixed him up, and sent him out to kill heroes. The specifics of his powers and mission do not matter, except in that he’s now an immortal symbol of old comics and ideas. He’s killed a few in the background, and Batman interrupts his attempted murder of Catgirl.
It’s a rough part of the book, in terms of craft. I wish Miller had spent more time on it. As-is, there is plenty to see and interpret, but it could use much more breathing room.
Batman needs to buy time, so he’s taunting Dick via hologram. He calls him names (Button, Bunky, Dickster, Bobbin, Dondi, Peach) and calls him a freak. It feels like a hero having complete contempt for a former ally and son, and I’m not entirely sure that it’s successful at all. What I think is telling, though, is Batman’s forlorn look and thought of “So long, Boy Wonder” after Dick dies.
But, it’s hard to do any real analysis of this scene for me. It’s seven pages, total, with one of those pages being two-thirds Supergirl. The first two pages are brilliant work, an amazing storytelling twist, and then the storytelling opens up again, though not quite back to the bombastic panel design that was DKSA’s previous standard.
Best Part of the Job
Like I said before, Dark Knight Strikes Again is far from a perfect comic. There are storytelling choices that I’m not keen on or needed more examination on the page. The coloring is wildly uneven, and often distracting. 9/11 happening partway through the series makes it rock on the rails, too.
Even still, there is a lot to digest here. Frank Miller, for good or for ill, is responsible for our current vision of Batman. Creators took the DKR model and ran with it, and it’s easy to see DKSA as Frank Miller striking back at that idea. Where we’ve had paranoid and grim Batman for the past fifteen years, Miller gives us one who’s faking grim but skipping like a schoolboy on the inside. Where we’ve had an utterly miserable Batman who figures out ways to trap his friends, Miller delivers a Batman who believes in the strength of others and trusts his fellow warriors.
DKSA is an exorcism. It takes all of the grim and gritty from DKR and the ensuing years and turns it on its head. It’s a push toward day-glo superheroics and away from miserable heroes. The moral of DKSA is “Superheroes are cool!”