Thwack! Batman’s Back

Confession: Were it not for the likes of costumed crime fighters in tights, I might never have become a scribe. My father's timeworn 2000-plus comic-book collection kept me out of my baby-sitting great-grandma's hair as a three-year-old, cultivating my love for the written word. And seeing my byline in lights—having a fan letter published in Captain America #273 at the age of 11—set my life direction forevermore.

In the '80s, the masters of this particular universe were the writers (Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont), artists (Bill Sienkiewicz, George Perez), and not-so-rare writer-artists (John Byrne, Howard Chaykin), mainly operating at the twin powerhouse publishers of DC Comics and Marvel Comics, which provided the force for the last true creative renaissance seen in the comics industry. In 1986, 29-year-old writer-artist Frank Miller trained his gritty Chandler-Spillane style on an apocalyptic Gotham City in The Dark Knight Returns, featuring the prodigal return of a fiftysomething Batman. Over a million copies and 15 years later, Miller can still draw legions of fans, as he did recently at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, where he was signing copies of the long-awaited sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. This time, Batman does battle with the clandestine evil of a corrupt government that's lulled its republic asleep with a New World Order of false prosperity.

Confession: I first met Frank Miller as a nine-year-old, at one of the many comic conventions held downtown at the Sheraton Hotel during my youth. By the time my younger brothers were of comic-book-reading age, the allure of superhero adventures had become subsumed by the get-rich-quick farce of comics as collectibles. "People were buying cartons of these comic books that were never read thinking that they could put their kids through college on them, and they aren't even worth the price of the paper anymore," Miller recalls over a frothy Samuel Adams at the Algonquin Hotel. "All of a sudden, the comics shops were run out of business, sales plummeted. But it's starting to bounce back." As evidence, The Dark Knight Strikes Again has already become the biggest selling comic of 2001. The book is a visual marvel, full of gloriously colored power complex detonations and vivid killer asteroid demolitions, courtesy of colorist Lynn Varley, in addition to more pugilistic battle scenes that play more to Miller's grimy artistic strengths.

Miller's 1986 four-issue miniseries restored the original focus established by creator Bob Kane in the late 1930s of Batman as tortured avenger of the night. In contrast to the more Apollonian Superman—who received superpowers as his Kryptonian alien body's reaction to the rays of our yellow sun—Batman's more Dionysian origins stem from his search for revenge in the death of his parents, shot cold by a burglar. "The fact that Batman has got this trauma from his early childhood is basically what gave his life direction," says Miller. "But he's pushing 60 in this book. He's gotta be over it."

The ominous version of Batman offered up by director Tim Burton in the Batman film of 1989—the one with the Prince soundtrack—was largely swayed by Miller's psychological, noirish take on the character. Now Hollywood has recruited Miller to pen next year's Batman: Year One, which sets Miller's tale of a 25-year-old Bruce Wayne learning the ropes of striking fear into the hearts of the criminal element against the edgy direction of Darren Aronofsky (pi, Requiem for a Dream). Soundtrack by Radiohead?

"If you're a screenwriter, you know you really are a hired gun," says Miller, who has written both Robocop II and III in the past. "But it requires absolute passion and presence of mind to get a movie made from start to finish. At this stage of my life, I didn't want to go whole hog and try to change the course of my career that utterly. I got my comics, and [there] I can be the evil dictator myself and rule the show, which is great."

Not coincidentally, other comic creators from the halcyon 1980s are returning with hotly anticipated projects: The final installment of John Byrne's Generations 2, which tracks the relationship between Batman and Superman from 1942 to 2019, dropped recently; artist George Perez has just completed a special-edition comic featuring the Avengers (a team of Marvel Comics heroes) and the Justice League of America (adventurers from DC Comics). "The concept of the superhero survived the world war and flourished," says Miller. "Who knows where it will take us? The president talks incessantly about evil. I don't think melodrama is dead."

More important to both Miller and the revitalization of the comics industry on the whole is resurrecting the element of wonder. Spending the past decade concentrating on his popular Sin City detective comic series, a sense of purpose infuses his return to the spandex-clad set of characters surrounding Batman. "I guess my job with this one is to take somebody like your age or my age and try to turn them back into that six-year-old I was when I was watching Superman cartoons," adds Miller. "To really bring back the magic of the stuff."


Also in This Week’s Books Section:

Joy Press on The Siege by Helen Dunmore and My Happy Life by Lydia Millet

Hilary Russ on Another World Is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror

 
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