With this week’s announcement that Frank Miller is working on a DK3, yet another sequel to his acclaimed Dark Knight Returns, it seemed like a great time to rerun this November 20, 2001 column from the eve of the release of DK2.
It seems that ever since the era of modern movie studio marketing theory went through a paradigm shift sometime shortly after the summer of Star Wars left its imprimatur on the collective consciousness of just about the whole planet, the creative storytelling world has succumbed to a contagious case of sequelitis. Multi-volume literary works like Lord of the Rings and celluloid sagas like the Godfather films were present before the employment of the onslaught of film-school grads changed the way the established Hollywood system drafted talent, but the grasp the twin concepts of merchandising tie-ins and movie franchises hold on the creative drafting boards in Hollywood is a tenacious one and the notion of telling a completed story for art’s sake isn’t always entertained. Worse than that, studios seem to bear no interest in letting great films created by artists no longer living go without the sequel treatment. Sequels to everything from Gone With The Wind (in both television film and book formats) to American Pie abound, with money naturally being the primary motivation for producing them.
Now, a sequel to American Pie is not necessarily a bad thing because it is mind candy –just a fun summer movie devoid of artistic pretension. It is a movie not really open to a debate of its artistic merits, because frankly it hasn’t many. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Entertainments like American Pie serves a purpose – if only to remind one that everything is not to be taken seriously and that sometimes we simply need to be mindlessly amused and enjoy a good laugh. A sequel to a work of art like The Godfather will obviously reap financial success if handled properly. Copolla has said he considered it a challenge to live up to the original, so the main obstacle in creating a sequel was making sure that together both films are still one tale of a family’s saga, with Godfather II enhancing the original by seamlessly interweaving the telling of Vito’s immigration to the United States as a hunted child, the establishment of his power base, and the family’s struggles under Michael as Don with the same familiar feel, atmosphere and characterization of Godfather I. Like the comic book predecessor that is Asian scrollwork, the first two Godfather films became separate, successive images of an ongoing story –installments in a series of illustrations that reveal more and more of the story as the images unfurl. Unfortunately however, Godfather III tainted the first two because Coppola made it for all the wrong reasons (money) and it showed. Coming off a series of financial and critical flops, Copolla was in bad financial straits (this was before his olive oil and winery businesses took off) and he and Mario Puzo were given only 8 weeks to write a script because of studio monetary constraints. Despite unrealistic studio time allotments, Copolla went along with them because making money, not art, was his primary motivation. Had he been operating as the artist he once was, motivated by a burning desire to tell another Godfather story, Copolla would have refused such constraints in favor of the required time and money to prepare and make a sequel worthy of, and complimentary to, it’s predecessors. Instead we were treated to a morass of ill-conceived and uninspired vignettes, missing characters (Robert Duval is said to have wanted both more money and credit status than offered, so the Tom Hagen Character was mentioned in the film as having passed away), a Don’s death derivative of his fathers, and what is very likely one of the worst performances in screen history from Copolla’s daughter Sophia, (now herself a director) as Michael Corleone’s daughter. Not exactly what one wants from a sequel to two films that were not only works of fine filmmaking, but works of art as well. A triptych spoiled.
The motivation to create art in its purest sense is not driven by commerce, it is driven by an artist’s need to express something -a need to create. Money is a by-product not always seen by great artists in their lifetime, but they create anyway, purely out of a need to express themselves. In other words: Edward Hopper, not Thomas Kinkade, Andrew Wyeth not Jeffrey Koons, Alfred Stieglitz, not LeRoy Neiman.
Art. Not commerce.
If comic books are ever to escape the public and art worlds’ misperception that they are a merely a visual storytelling genre and not a literate medium of their own, there need to be quintessential works that are untouchable and remain unchanged. Comics must have seminal, singular works of art to hold up as timeless examples of comic book storytelling aesthetics as examples for future generations of comic book creators to be inspired by and aspire to -classic works that define the nature of the medium itself. If not the comic book medium suffers the possibility that it will remain misperceived as being primarily comprised of incestuously derivative potboilers for kids. There must be works of unique vision, technique, emotional and philosophical depth and scale. There must be stories that transcend the comic book medium with the accompanying acknowledgement of being peer to the great works of any given artistic medium. There must be works that make as historic an impact on the comic book medium as works like Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye had on theirs.
The comic book medium has its Watchmen, Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub and Sandman among others. And for a limited time only it has Batman: The Dark Knight Returns -Frank Miller’s brilliant, groundbreaking tale of a 50-year old, alcoholic Bruce Wayne venturing out of superhero retirement to don the cape and cowl and save Gotham city one last memorable time. Miller had a unique vision of Batman and in the process of telling his tale, may very well have ended up writing and drawing what is widely considered by fandom and his colleagues to be the greatest Batman story ever told.
And now he’s going to mess with it.
Miller’s storytelling masterpiece forever altered the landscape of superhero mythos while influencing the generation of storytellers that succeeded him and leading to an industry-wide re-thinking of the way the superhero is approached in comic’s literature. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was the final chapter in Batman’s saga. And that was the point: Bruce Wayne didn’t need to be the Batman any longer. His final tale was told. It was finished. As a comic book, it transcended its medium as a work of art. Not just a work of Comic art – art with a capital “A” Art. On the thus far rare occasion that happens in comics, that status should be respected because it elevates the public perception of the entire medium and by extension lends validity to the notion that “funnybooks” are their own unique form of literature. Those that want to see comic book storytelling grow as an art form should take the concept of comic books as literature very seriously. Public acceptance of comic storytelling as an art form and the accompanying respect and acknowledgement of comic books’ contributions to the history of the art of storytelling is more important than fandom being briefly entertained by an unnecessary sequel. Great finished works don’t have sequels. Michelangelo did not chisel Pieta II. There is no Killing Joke II. There is no Raging Bull II. Why? Because they are great stand-alone, singular works of art. There is not a Watchmen II and there never will be because Alan Moore got it right the first time and maybe he hasn’t a need to create a cottage industry out of his masterwork.
So why make a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns? Because Frank Miller has a burning desire to do so? Unfortunately the reasons for a sequel to DK1 may not be as altruistic as one might think.
According to current comics art Liszt Alex Ross in a September 2000 interview with Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News “the guy has need for extra cash. He wanted to relocate to New York City. DC put up that money for him to do so, so they could get this Batman product.” Miller has since referred to “the move” in recent promotional interviews for Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Back, lending credibility to Ross’s accusations. Ross also weighed in with his opinion of the idea of a sequel to DK1 saying, “He wrote Dark Knight as the end chapter of a guy’s saga. That was the whole reason it was special. If there’s a second part to that, then it’s not the end saga and it nullifies the first work. It’s the same thing as people asking me to do the same thing with Kingdom Come.”
I can see it now: mini-series abounding set in the DK Universe with Frank Miller himself participating as consultant and occasional cover-artist in a work-for-hire relationship with DC – a concept anathema to Miller’s previous damning proclamations of the past bashing the Big Two for their past and present financial treatment of comic book creators in creative work-for-hire arrangements. Miller never shut the door on DC Comics because he is savvy enough to not burn his bridges and could have played in the DC sandbox at any time over the 15 years that have passed since the original publication of DK1, so his “itching to play with DC Comics’ toys again” could have been scratched long ago.
The financial aspects of Miller and DC’s motives behind a sequel to DK1 are unfortunate when one remembers DK1 as a work of art. Now it’s likely destined to be another marginally profitable DC cottage industry as forgettable as their failed attempt at a series of titles set in the Kingdom Come Universe. Here’s a thought: maybe fans should lobby DC to do whatever it takes to get Alan Moore to come up with a sequel to Watchmen. Maybe he’ll do a sequel to the wacky shenanigans of Jack the Ripper as featured in From Hell? Maybe Miller himself can do another toga battle epic called “400”? At least we can be assured Moore will stick to his guns. His disdain for DC hasn’t waned in a dozen years and shows no signs of doing so if recent interviews with the scribe are any indication. Not to mention he knows damn well Watchmen was a finished work.
Art for arts’ sake may be a quaint notion of the past. But for a seminal work like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns to be tarnished by an unnecessary and downright improper sequel made for the shallow, uninspired reason of generating once and future cash for creator and publisher when comic books are drawing ever closer to breaking through to the mainstream as something other than mere entertainment and a source for action films with webbing and capes…well, that’s just tragic.
And the greatest Batman story ever told forever loses its luster as a singular seminal work of art, and sacrifices its legend within the medium that gave birth to it…to become a brand.
Dark Knight Strikes Again?
Dark Knight Redundant.