How “True Detective” season two is like one of the most divisive comic books of all time

So now that the second season of HBO’s “True Detective” is dead and gone as Frank in the desert, I submit True Detective season two was the TV version of a 2001 comic book series called “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”

Gaze into the fist of Batman!

Let me explain.

An iconic page from "The Dark Knight Returns" (written by Frank Miller; art by Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley)
An iconic page from “The Dark Knight Returns” (written by Frank Miller; art by Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley)

Even people who don’t know much about comics know Frank Miller’s 1986 series “The Dark Knight Returns,” wherein a middle-aged Bruce Wayne comes out of a ten-year retirement to fight crime in Gotham City.

Though Miller was famous for his ground-breaking run on “Daredevil,” readers of mainstream comic books had ever seen anything quite like “The Dark Knight.”

Dynamic, violent, cynical science fiction written by a noir -fanatic reaching the height of his powers, “Dark Knight” was a game-changer, one of the most influential American comics of the late 20th century and one of the books that kicks off the grim and gritty era of superhero comics.

Even if you found its mugged-liberal politics a little eye-rolling, everyflick from the first Batman movie to the most recent — not to mention literally thousands of superhero comics — have drawn from “The Dark Knight.”

When it shipped in the spring and summer of ‘86, I was at the golden age for comic books, which is 11 going on 12 years old; let me tell you, it blew my tiny mind.

Now, “The Dark Knight Returns” took itself seriously. Sure, there were levels of satire and parody

Still chilling (from "The Dark Knight Returns")
Still chilling (from “The Dark Knight Returns”)

in there (everything about the media, Reagan still in office decades later) but the tone was never winking. Grim moments felt grim: When the Joker, one eye missing, twists to breaks his own back and frame Batman for the crime, our hero’s narration reads “Whatever’s in him rustles as it leaves,”  it is chilling.

The first season of “True Detective” had a similar feel in terms of how it handled tone, how the narrative maintained its coal-black feel.  Part noir, part horror, Matthew McConaughey’s existential nihilist balanced out by Woody  Harrelson’s regular- cop skeptic, set in a moral free-fire zone on the Texas-Louisiana border, “True Detective” was cannily written, elegantly paced (until the rushed ending, that is) and didn’t really look or feel like anything else on television. Much like “The Dark Knight Returns,” there is a reason most critics really liked that first season: It was an old format in new, intriguing garb.

Back to Batman. Fifteen years after “The Dark Knight Returns” kicked off an era, Miller returned to the same universe in “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”

This time, much like the second season of “True Detective,” everything is very, very different.

Dude is chill (from "The Dark Knight Strikes Again")
Dude is chill (from “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”)

Instead of an ornately drawn, noirish feel, the “Dark Knight Strikes Again” seemed to gleefully celebrate a “I knocked this out over lunch” look and feel. What was once sincere is now zany. Instead of subtle coloring and detailed backgrounds, large splashes of bright digital color highlight the figures. Instead of a street-level, noirish narrative, chatter seemed reduced to a phrase or two. The volume is turned up everywhere, and it reads as a parody of everything that was powerful about “The Dark Knight,” seeming to mock the reader for buying into the first volume.

“True Detective” season two seemed to do much the same thing, running full speed into cliché after cliché.

In this image released by HBO, Colin Farrell portrays Detective Ray Velcoro in the second season of the HBO original series "True Detective." (Lacey Terrell/HBO via AP)
In this image released by HBO, Colin Farrell portrays Detective Ray Velcoro in the second season of the HBO original series “True Detective.” (Lacey Terrell/HBO via AP)

Instead of exotic Louisiana, it’s set in Los Angeles, a place we’ve seen over and over in crime fiction.Instead of existential horror, “TD2”  was about a land deal thing tied to a dead body linked to some sex parties right out of the noir school of overcomplicated plots that are impossible to follow and somehow very boring, a cliché in their own right (All complicated noir plots owe “The Big Sleep”).

And then there were the flat characters: the cop with the drinking problem who was in the mob’s pocket. The woman with a chip on her shoulder who we find out was sexually abused, involving a van and everything. There was the mobster trying to go straight who gets pulled back into the life. And, whenever they weren’t giving each other meaningful glances that meant nothing, everyone spoke in uber-serious noir speak, a mix of terrible David Milch and worse Michael Mann.

There’s this this apotheosis of faux-Milch: “God forgive me for misreading what subtle clues you embed for me in your limp (organ), which is as wishy-washy as your (expletive) mood,” says Frank’s wife Jordan

Cavity? This guy? No way. (image courtesy of HBO)
Cavity? This guy? No way. (image courtesy of HBO)

Or this classic from Frank: ““I never lost a tooth. I’ve never even had a (expletive) cavity.”

(Was Frank Miller’s noir-chatter ever this bad? Maybe in some of the lesser “Sin City” volumes. Still: at least he had his killer art to fall back on. Vaughn looks like he would rather be anywhere else.)

From the giant moon that hung in the air after world’s least sexy orgy to the treacly score to the hallucinations Frank saw dying in the desert, again and again, “True Detective” blew up everything that was interesting about the first season in favor of something that worked, at is top dollar best, as noir-camp, unintentionally semi-amusing without ever crossing over into the are-you-kidding-me-with-this ? fun of, say, “Showgirls.”

Much like the first wave of response to “True Detective” season two, most critics and fans seemed faintly horrified, even vaguely offended, by “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” (or DK2). The combination of a bonkers plot (Batman liberating captured superheroes!, Superman’s daughter is kind of a handful! Dick Grayson is insane and immortal!) and the hyper-lunatic art felt like a bridge way too far, almost like trolling the reader.

A page from "The Dark Knight Strikes Again"
A page from “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”

Now, “DK2” did have its defenders. Cartoonist Tony Millionaire blurbed the “DK2” collection, celebrating its rawness, writing, “Miller has done for comics what the Ramones et al have done for music.” He continues, “This book looks like it was done by a guy with a pen and his girlfriend on an iMac,”, which is a look Miller sought for the series.

The terrific critic Sean T. Collins has similarly praised it in punk terms, saying it will someday be regarded as a foundational document in the way the first Stooges album was in 1977.

Admittedly, they had a point. While, looking back on this 2001 release from 2015, I don’t think “DK2” has had the impact that the first Dark Knight had, I have grown to enjoy some of its hyper-ironic, gonzo lunacy. It does seem fast, cheap and out of control, but that doesn’t make it fun in the same way that the first DK was.

And, as much as contemporary television and movies as tried to convince us otherwise, a TV show is not a comic book. Much in the same way DK2 was Miller reacting to all of the ways that the first Dark Knight had made everything grim and gritty, at its lowest moments, True Detective season two felt like creator Nic  Pizzolatto trolling the audience, mocking its desire for detective fiction that strayed from the norm. Instead, the second season seemed to say, here are all the clichés you thought you were getting away from, cranked up really high.

Look, maybe Frank and Ani and Ray and their baffling adventure in Vinci will seem brilliantly camp 10 years from now. Either way, it’s long past time to watch something that’s not making fun of me for being interested.

Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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