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Frank Miller's ''Dark Knight'' returns

After 15 years, DC Comics releases a three-part sequel to the graphic novel that changed the face of Batman

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Dark Knight Illustrations by Frank Miller

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 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. (See Pages 1 and 2 of the first installment of the three-part ”Strikes.”) ”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.