Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Dark Knight Returns

by Frank Miller

As I mentioned in my post about V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight Returns was one of the iconic comics released in the mid 80s that shook up the superhero genre. Miller's story is a 'Doomsday Myth' for the Batman series; set some unspecified time in the future, Batman has been retired for some years, Robin is dead and Two Face and The Joker have been safely locked away for some time. However Gotham City is plagued by a particularly nasty crime wave, and Bruce Wayne, despite being old and out of shape, is compelled to put on the costume once more.

The political overtones are nowhere near as overt as those in Moore's V for Vendetta or Watchmen, but they are present. The ultimate villain turns out to be Ronald Reagan, whose amicable but bumbling persona and hillbilly mannerisms could stand in for any incompetent American president du jour. Unlike Moore, Miller takes a few stabs at liberalism as well as conservatism, in the form of busy body TV personalities who condemn Batman's vigilantism and portray his enemies as the victims. Together his criticisms make a case against a lack of personal responsibility and sheeplike obedience to authority, contrasted with Batman's willingness to do what is right according to his own code of honour regardless of how anyone reacts to it.

Graphically the story is presented in a very chaotic fashion, with constant sudden scene shifts and frequent interspersals of TV footage featuring media reaction to the story's events. It can be distracting, but it's worth it just for The Joker's appearance on David Letterman.

Batman himself is a very morally ambiguous character in this story, especially at the end. Miller's treatment of him and other canonical DC characters (fascist Superman the useful idiot; fat, old Catwoman and others) is very jaded and somewhat demeaning, showcasing their flaws and taking a more realistic look at what these characters (who until this series was published were treated as more or less two dimensional heroes and villians) might actually be like. Most notable is the portrayal of Batman himself; haunted all his life by the murder of his parents his drive to fight crime borders on the psychotic, but at the same time he displays genuine moral superiority to his contemporaries. We are familiar with this take on the character from Tim Burton's movies, but Burton was basing his story on Miller's, which was published when Batman's persona was more like that of the infamous 60s TV show (”There's not a scrap of evidence Batman!"). Miller's Batman may be frighteningly intense, but at the same time he brings out the core elements that give the character it's resonance with today's world (as opposed to the idealistic, morally unambiguous Superman, a hero for the 1940s and 50s), which are well summed up in the introduction to the trade compilation:

“They talk about a Man of Steel. An Amazon Princess.
But they never talk about the mean one. The cruel one. The on who couldn't fly or bend steel in his bare hands. The one who scared the crap out of everybody and laughed at all of the rest of us for being the envious cowards we were.”


A. R. Spires, II said...
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Joel said...

Batman is the awesomest of superheros. Apart from maybe Wolverine - who in some ways is a very similar character.

Jon said...

Wolverine's coolness always seemed a little too 'test marketed' to me. I prefer Batman.

Joel said...

I mean wolverine from the early early comics when he had a (un)stylish yellow and BROWN lyrca suit.

He got the shit beaten out of him to the brink of death so many times - he was the definition of hardcore.

(Movie wolverine is kind of like: meh *shrug*)

Jon said...

I'm not so familiar with the original Wolverine (although I have read a bit of Ultimate X-Men), so I'm not really qualified to comment...