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Batman Returns with Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight'

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Despite sharing the name of the grimy gunslinger hot to punch Gary Cooper’s clock in High Noon, Frank Miller is one of the good guys. Heck, in the world of comic books, he’s a bona fide hero, albeit one without a cape, utility belt, or gee-whiz subterranean lair.

Miller was the writer-artist behind DC Comics’ 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the four-issue miniseries credited with, among other things, dramatically redefining a character who had become laughably irrelevant, setting the somber, tortured tone that would serve as inspiration for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman flick, and Miller’s helping change the perception of comics as a juvenile medium.

Now, 15 years later, Miller—working once again with his longtime collaborator, colorist Lynn Varley—returns to the scene of the crime with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a three-issue tale (the first installment goes on sale Dec. 5, with the second and third to follow at six-week intervals) that finds him back in the superhero saddle again, playing with figures who can only be referred to as American legends. ”In a way, you can compare these superheroes to characters out of Greek mythology,” says Miller. ”Most of them are heroes in the classic sense. But three of these characters, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, are gods. And they play by different rules. So I can play Batman somewhat in defiance of time. He clearly is older, but there is just something about him that keeps him going stronger.”.

That’s strange, considering the hell billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne endured in The Dark Knight Returns. After all, fighting a pair of old nemeses like Two-Face and the Joker, taming a disaffected army of post-mod punks, and getting pummeled by the Man of Steel would be enough to leave even the most stalwart hero grasping his chest, let alone a 55-year-old retiree with a weak ticker.

Even though DC Comics (owned, like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, by AOL Time Warner) is playing very close to the vest with its hotly anticipated hit-in-the-making—”We’re treating this like a movie screening,” says publicity manager Peggy Burns of DC’s you’ve- gotta-come-and-sit-in-our-offices-if-you-wanna-read-it policy—a look at the first issue hints at why the company is being so secretive. As with The Dark Knight Returns, Miller’s new series takes place outside of continuity, meaning it doesn’t affect any of the other four Caped Crusader titles that DC regularly publishes. Three years have passed (in comics time) since Returns, but Robin (who’s female, by the way, and now goes by the nom de guerre Catgirl) continues to fight at the Dark Knight’s side, leading Bruce Wayne’s private platoon of Batboys. The media is even more of a snarling, invasive beast this time around. The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Green Arrow, and the Atom are all major players. The ”Big Blue Schoolboy”—Superman—is still the puppet of a powerful political figure, even though poor Clark Kent doesn’t know that his puppetmaster is a certain bald tycoon otherwise known as the Notorious L.E.X.

And Batman is still as driven, single-minded, and violent as ever. In fact, through the prism of Sept. 11, the Caped Crusader’s modus operandi can come off as a bit extreme. ”Obviously, he’s not willing to slaughter innocent people to achieve his ends,” offers the 44-year-old Miller, who just moved back to New York City after a stint in L.A., ”but I have referred to Batman as a terrorist on our side. His motto is to strike terror into the hearts of villains. It’s very strange to be referring to Batman and Osama bin Laden in the same sentence, by the way.”

”In the second issue there are a couple of moments where you’re gonna go, ‘Oh my God, he clearly was reacting [to Sept. 11].’ Not at all,” says editor Bob Schreck, who’s worked with Miller on the award-winning Sin City continuing series and 1995’s The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot. ”I swear to you, the first two issues were done before the 11th. As with any good work of fiction, with time and distance, you [should be able to] look back and go, ‘Man, did this guy have a time machine?”’

Not quite, but the intervening years have had their effect on Miller, who continues to both set and buck trends in the comics biz. ”I’ve gotten a lot better,” he laughs. ”It gets back to being away from this material for 15 years. Back then, I was struggling to break out of the handcuffs, but also struggling to make people take this stuff more seriously. And so it was a very angst-ridden kind of book; [Batman] was a tormented soul, the world was an apocalypse. This time I’ve learned a lot more, and since I’ve been doing all these crime comics in my Sin City series, I’m able to look at the guys in tights and realize just how much fun I can have cartooning them.”

One wouldn’t think that DC Comics would be so thrilled to have anyone come in and ”cartoon” one of their tentpole characters. ”The way it’s been told to me,” says Schreck, ”if anybody’s gonna get away with anything, it’s gonna be [Frank], because he works with these characters from a place of respect and understanding. Still, there are things [in Strikes Again] that you wouldn’t see in your average, regular monthly comic book.”

That kind of controversy is a big part of why advance sales for The Dark Knight Strikes Again are in excess of 150,000 copies. That may not sound like much in a world dominated by Oprah’s Book Club, but in the comic-book universe, those are Harry Potter numbers. ”Based on the level of preorders we’ve got in hand,” says Paul Levitz, DC Comics’ executive vice president and publisher, ”it clearly will be the best-selling comic book of the last five years.”

With figures like that coming in from comic-book retailers nationwide (and you might even have to venture into a comic-book store to buy Strikes Again—don’t worry, they won’t bite), it’s clear that a whole lot of people are jonesing for this revisit to the wonderful world of Gotham City. After all, the last time Miller toured this territory, it all but changed the face of graphic literature. But can The Dark Knight Strikes Again ever live up to expectations? ”It’s impossible for the experience of being 14 years old in 1986 and reading The Dark Knight Returns for the first time to happen again,” says Schreck. ”It can never be like your first time. But it can be your best time.”

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