This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 3, 2015.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is a “bad” Frank Miller comic better than a “decent” Brian Azzarello comic?
I appreciate you referencing one of my recent articles after getting me to discuss one of your own last time. This question could be read very broadly, but I think we both know exactly which two comics you’re referring to: the much and only semi-maligned sequels to Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again and The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, respectively. The first of this evolving trilogy is a comics classic, one that helped redefine the medium in the West and shape countless creators working in comics today. The merits of the other two are… well, let’s just say debatable.
While I tried to avoid discussing the previous works in my review of The Dark Knight III #1 because they have very little to do with the work at hand and most comics reviewers were already spending far too much time discussing anything but the comic itself. However, I did let one line slip that compared it to its immediate predecessor: “EvenThe Dark Knight Strikes Again … is a comic that features what can only be described as a singular vision.” It’s this one line that alludes to the root of your leading question and why I would agree the widely hated The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a significantly better comic than The Dark Knight III.
This column has certainly approached pretension before, but this may be as far as it has ever gone because I’m about to discuss art with a capital A. If you come to the comic store looking for a perfectly comprehensible adventure starring a man in a batsuit who beats up criminals, I can understand why you might prefer The Dark Knight Strikes Again to The Dark Knight III. I can also understand why you might enjoy, without reservation, the charnel house of popular culture perpetrated by Marvel and DC Comics. These publishing houses are an abattoir for superhero stories where filling the stands on a monthly schedule supersedes any other concern. Just looking at the incredibly diverse set of lists being submitted by a wide variety of critics to our pals at Loser City for their upcoming best of list, it’s no surprise to see so few capes on any of them.
The Dark Knight III is a perfectly comprehensible comic book. You can read from point A to B without too many questions and come out the other side unscathed and unchallenged. It is also a comic that has almost nothing to say, and what little is there is stated with such a lack of clarity or understanding that it can’t be understood. Trying to interpret it as a feminist comic due to a large number of women or a critique on America’s police state because Batman punches some cops (again) is comparable to writing analysis of a first grader’s art project. Is it a banana? Is it a giraffe? Does it really matter? It’s perfectly fine. You can smile at it and hang it on your fridge, and maybe even type up a nice Facebook post (or comics review, what’s the difference at this point?) about it. But it is something that you can easily understand. It is functional.
Since when has “functional” been the bar for Art though? Are we about to see film and television critics flock to the streets praising Aloha or The Walking Dead because they understood what happened and could walk away without it bother them? Maybe from the sad remains of the Chicago Sun-Times, but not as a standard. Brian Azzarello and Andy Kubert doing an impersonation of Frank Miller in this comic can’t be original or innovative because it’s two men trying to be something they’re not, something that’s far more original and innovative to the world of comics then they have ever been.
That thing is Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Strikes Again is Frank Miller all over. It is messy, and mean, and shocking. Yet it is also bold, and dynamic, and unlike anything else you’ve ever read. There’s nothing held back on those pages, nothing second guessed or diluted. Every panel represents a clear choice on Miller’s behalf to tell exactly the story he wanted to tell.
Now this isn’t to say that The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a work of genius. It is not, although it is a work by a genius. Miller does a pretty awful job telling his story at times, often forgetting what an establishing shot is and letting his paranoia (only heightened by 9/11) consume the plot. Taking apart this comic is not difficult, but it is absolutely fascinating. For every poor decision Miller makes, there is at least one interesting question raised. The increased boldness of an already bold style accompanied by digital effects and thick, tar-like inks creates some incredible compositions and places form above function in such a way that it almost comes full circle. Besides a few specific sequences, like the re-introduction of The Atom, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is not an easy comic to read. It is a fine comic to study though. Miller may close to his nadir here (Holy Terror is, without a doubt, his true nadir), but what he does on the page is still indicative of an artist working at something he believes in.
None of this is to say that Azzarello can’t write a comic with the same depth and intricacy. He already has many times over. I wrote my International Baccalaureate thesis on 100 Bullets and the depiction of American speech. That series is truly great featuring stories like “Hang Up On the Hang Low” that put The Dark Knight Strikes Again to shame. There’s more on top of that too with his excellent run on Wonder Woman and the Doctor Thirteen backup comics, both done with Cliff Chiang. Azzarello can really write and is completely capable of creating capital A art. The problem in this comparison isn’t Azzarello, but what he’s choosing to do.
When you say “decent” Azzarello comic, you’re implying the things that The Dark Knight III is. You’re saying a comic that is workmanlike, comprehensible but never aspiring for more. This comes from the imitation of Miller (whose work Azzarello’s only shares surface-level similarities with) and requirements of such a high-profile project. Decent means okay, which can only ever be okay.
The “bad” Miller doesn’t come with any of this baggage though. Miller creating The Dark Knight Strikes Again is striking every bit as much as the man who crafted truly great comics like Daredevil #181, Ronin, and The Dark Knight Returns. The work is there and it speaks for itself. Even though it may succeed in pushing the boundaries of the medium or changing how we think, you can certainly see it is trying.
So it’s not a question of two creators and it’s not a question of “decent vs. bad”, it’s a question of intent. While it may be impossible for us to ever truly know the mind of an artist or anyone else, art can speak for itself and we discover meaning, substance, and value through our careful consideration of that work.
When we consider the work of Frank Miller, as so many have before us, it’s possible to see so much. From his striking use of space to his bold depiction of movement to his ever-changing politics, the works of Frank Miller are truly unique and packed with information. There’s simply no way that Brian Azzarello, another comics creator worth studying, can hope to aspire to those same highs in attempting to forge a Miller comic based on work that the original creator left behind almost 30 years ago. The Dark Knight Strikes Again shows how much Miller had change in the course of 15 years, yet The Dark Knight III is striving to pretend it’s still 1986.
It’s no surprise that the former is a much better comic than the latter. If we’re talking about these two pieces as works of Art, then one is an honest work and the other a forgery. There’s no competition between those two.