Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child
Frank Miller once again returns to the world of the Dark Knight, who has long since returned and retired and been replaced by one-time Robin Carrie Kelly.
Carrie, now Batwoman, is joined by Superman and Wonder Woman's children, Lara and Jonathan in her crimefighting exploits. Lara, though, has quite the towering disdain for the humans she's supposed to be protecting...
Jonathan, though, seems special. Different. Maybe even some sort of a... golden child.
But together, will they be enough to stop the combined evil of Darkseid and the somehow-resurrected Joker as they seek to rig an election?! (Yes, you read that right.)
There’s a bit of dialogue in Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child #1 that seems to perfectly summarize Frank Miller’s thought process in plotting it:
“This is going to be ugly.
“This is going to be a mess.
“This is going to be great.”
A more fitting description of this hodgepodge of a comic, I could not have come up with on my own – minus the “great” part.
There was a time when Frank Miller cared about his craft, and it showed. There’s a reason why, over twenty years after his last great work, he’s still revered as a luminary of the industry: he is, honestly, one of the most important creators in the history of comics. Frank Miller brought a street-level, noir sensibility to superheroes that had never been seen before in Daredevil, and then cracked his knuckles and said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” with The Dark Knight Returns and the far subtler – yet no less impactful – “Batman Year One.” Similarly gorgeous was Sin City. And then a funny thing happened: Frank Miller went into Sin City and never came out.
His writing style became a parody of itself, all clipped tough-guy dialogue and women who are, without variation, a) whores, b) evil backstabbers, c) victims, or d) some combination of the three. None of this was aided by his turn to the far right post-9/11 and subsequent Islamophobia that was naked bigotry at best. Beset on all sides but always, seemingly, able to suckle a paycheck out of DC, he’s in recent years become the cliche “Old Man Yells At Cloud,” and his stories – most recently the fundamentally misguided Superman Year One – are either ignored, downright loathed, or damned with faint praise from an aging fan base that just can’t find it in themselves to say a bad word about ol’ Frank. (These are the same people who argue modern Alan Moore is on par with ’80s Alan Moore. These people are welcome to their opinion. Their opinions are unequivocally wrong, but still.)
All of which leads me to Miller’s latest attempt at milking his most famous golden calf, the one-shot Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child. I’m not sure exactly how this story made it past editorial; perhaps there is some behind-the-scenes “just let Miller do whatever he wants” policy at DC, or maybe editorial just didn’t have the cajones to tell him something isn’t working and/or is a terrible idea. Either way, the end result is, both quality- and storywise, about as a far of a cry from Miller’s mid-’80s heights as you can possibly get. Worse, he somehow roped legitimately-talented artist Rafael Grampa into his nonsense, blemishing an otherwise very high-quality record from the Brazillian artist (more on his art later).
The story – such as it is – oddly focuses more on Superman’s kids Lara and Jonathan more than it does Carrie Kelly (ne Batwoman). Here, Miller is once more obsessed with his particular vision of Superman (or in this case, anyone with superpowers) as an oppressive, detached god lording over insectlike humanity. Lara talks like a bargain-basement supervillain, disgusted with humanity’s need to eat and the fact that it, um, dies. She really and truly is a despicable character with no likeable qualities. Jonathan, for his part, is a basic aloof god-child who actually sees the good in humanity but has about as much personality as a grape. Rounding out the story’s trio of protagonists is Carrie, uttering nonsensical Miller tropes like “Yeah, I’ve made a mess of things. A perfect mess. Perfect. Boss’d be proud” and generally just running around causing mass chaos in her attempts to fight crime.
Or, in this case, fight an attempt at sabotaging Trump’s re-election… and that’s when the story gets weird.
In a move that’s about as subtle as a baseball bat to the back of the head, Donald Trump is revealed to be a puppet of Darkseid, who is working with the Joker (whose resurrection post the original DKR is never explained in these pages). This sort of political statement reads like it should have sprung from the mind of a fifth-grader; instead it comes from the imagination of one of the comics industry’s greatest living legends. It’s so brain-numbingly on-the-nose – and out of left field, considering this particular plot point doesn’t show up until a good third of the way into the story (not to mention is entirely antithetical to Miller’s own far-right views) – the mind boggles at how any well-reasoned adult, let alone an industry legend like Frank Miller, could possibly think it was a deep, biting and incisive comment on our current political culture. Instead, it’s just childish.
The story gets even more bizarre from there, and involves Darkseid becoming one with the planet or something, and never really bothers to get back to the political subplot. What’s the point, when you have aloof, unlikeable children going toe-to-toe with a cloud that looks like Darkseid? And that the Joker’s running around in a 1940s car for no good reason other than Miller likes the era and WHY IS JOKER EVEN ALIVE?! Isn’t that COOL, fanboys?! Miller seems to sneer, not caring an iota that people paid good money for this dreck. Never mind that the characters are wholly unlikeable and the plot makes no sense whatsoever: Frank Miller is here to do Frank Miller things whether you like it or not.
(Which, spoiler alert, includes not even bothering to end the story. Like, at all. I shouldn’t really be wanting ten more pages of this, but anything would have been preferable to ending it at the conclusion of the second act.)
The art, at least, is mostly decent. It’s easy to see why Grampa was selected for this book: his style, though accentuated with both Japanese and European influences, bears a strong resemblance to Miller of old. His art is a slinkier version of Miller circa the original DKR; together with the colors by Jordie Bellaire (who apparently colors everything these days), they do their best to make a jangled plot look good on page. And it mostly works. The art skews a little cartoony for my tastes here and there, which seems to defy the intended mood of the book (not to mention the overarching temperature of the DKR world), but both Grampa and Bellaire really are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Similar praise could be had for letterers John Workman and Deron Bennett; they both do their level best to create a look and feel like John Costanza’s original lettering from 1986. Workman especially deserves special credit as an industry legend, clearly putting his all into a project not worthy of his talents.
In the end, does it really matter? Were fans really asking for this unending return to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight World, especially considering how little resemblance this latest venture bears to the original masterpiece? Or is this what it’s come to: pumping more and more product out (Miller has
threatened mentioned a DK4 lurking in the future) until the law of diminishing returns takes effect, and eventually the gritty world of the Dark Knight Returns that spawned an entire decade of cliches and rip-offs is at last put to rest? Or will it continue endlessly, as Miller the modern shell of himself is forever cast in the light of Miller the industry legend from 30+ years ago and is endlessly allowed to do whatever he pleases, despite the odious results?
Not even the hardest of hardcore Frank Miller apologists could find redeeming value in this comic. The art is nice and does its best to elevate a non-existent plot, but that alone isn't worth the price of admission. Stay very, very far away from this comic.
Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child #1: Hubris
Writing - 2/102/10
Storyline - 1/101/10
Art - 6/106/10
Color - 7/107/10
Cover Art - 6.5/106.5/10
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