Dark Victory

15 years later, Frank Miller once more dons Batman's cape and cowl

In 1986, he wrote and drew a grizzled, manic Batman wrestling with literal and figurative demons in order to "re-establish Batman as being a tolerable character and also to portray a world where a guy like that wouldn't just be a lunatic," as he says. In short, he wanted to answer a simple question: "What kind of world essentially needs a Batman?" And so he created a Gotham City overrun by murderous mutants and psychotic villains--none more so than Batman himself, an outlaw in hero's spandex. Miller's latest take on Batman and the supporting cast of heroes is mischievous, playful--a grim but giddy punch line sustained over 240 pages, at least by the time the final issue is published at the end of February.

"I didn't want to do a repeat," Miller says. "I thought it would be sad and pathetic to do a repeat of what I did when I was 29. Instead, I wanted to have a fresh take on it, and since I've been doing work like Sin City for the past 15 years, I've really been far away from superheroes, and it's made my eyes fresher. I guess my goal is to turn adults into 8-year-olds, if possible. Much of what I do is aimed at creating that same sense of wonder that all kids have. It's easy to do that with a little kid, because you believe in magic, but grown-ups have to be convinced. Or tricked."

Miller is the fan who grew up to become fan favorite, the student who outstripped his mentors. He began working on comics in the late '70s, after writing and illustrating his work in fanzines. Though he was never formally trained, his first real tutor was Neal Adams, whose illustrations in Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow during the early '70s restored to comicdom a vitality missing almost since the birth of the superhero in the late 1930s, notwithstanding the contributions of artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Adams used to lay tracing paper over Miller's art and show the kid where he'd gone wrong, and it was Adams who got Miller his first job at lowly Gold Key comics. By the end of the '70s, Miller was illustrating Daredevil, one of Marvel's struggling comics; in time, he would take over writing duties as well, transforming the comic into one of the era's most popular and enduring titles.

The Dark Knight returns, again: This time out, Frank Miller rounds up the Justice League to take on...Superman?
The Dark Knight returns, again: This time out, Frank Miller rounds up the Justice League to take on...Superman?

By the mid-1980s, seismic shifts were occurring in the industry: Creators began to push for rights and royalties, direct distribution to comics stores allowed fans to follow writers and illustrators and not only heroes, and the industry began realizing that it needed new voices to breathe life into a moribund form. DC brought in Brit Alan Moore to write Swamp Thing, then published Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, about self-loathing heroes who had been outlawed by the government. In 1983, upstart First Comics let Howard Chaykin do his own title, American Flagg, about a contemptuous anti-hero fighting the losing battle. And then came The Dark Knight Returns and, two years later, Batman: Year One, both of which would spawn hundreds of imitators, good and unreadable, and change the look and feel of the Caped Crusader for good.

"Dark Knight was part of a lot of different pushes that were going on creatively in the field," Miller says. "It was probably just the splashiest. The work that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were doing, that Alan and Steve Bissette and John Totleben were doing in Swamp Thing and a lot of stuff from England was all happening, and Dark Knight was one of these crescendos. But something was looking to break loose. There were a lot of people like me who grew up reading comics and loving them, and we wanted them to grow up with us."

Miller hints that perhaps he will do more Dark Knight once this three-issue run finishes; he's also made notes for a Superman tale that may or may never come to fruition, and he will return to Sin City very soon. For now he awaits the reactions to his child 15 years in the making. Though he insists he has no expectations, he sweats over them all the same--DC's, the fans', his own most of all. He suffered "stage fright" a few times--that "absolute horrible thing"--and tried to embrace it. "It focuses the mind," Miller says, comparing it to seeing the gallows in the distance. "The prospect of failure," he says, "is so dismal it keeps me very sharp."

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