The Dark Knight… falls all over himself.

It’s time again for one of those things – what do you call them? Oh. Posts that aren’t history-based. At least, this one isn’t really, but I guess it sort of is, except it’s not, and it’s not tagged as history… Well, never mind. What I’m trying to say is that we should talk about The Dark Knight Returns.

I am going to be up front with you. I don’t like this book. This is perhaps an unsafe thing to say on the internet, where DKR is still considered the greatest Batman story ever, as though it came verily from on high, yea even unto the infidels did it descend and spread bounty for all.

OK, I’m joking around, but I don’t really like it. Ratings seem cool, people do that, right? I would say 6 or 7 of out of ten award point units. That’s pretty high for “not liking it.” Thing is, it’s well made. It’s good, in its own weird way. The art is great, though every “good” character looks exactly alike. When Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon look disturbingly alike, there may be something wrong with your character design process. Nearly all the bad guys look the same too, with amorphous blob heads and stupid hair. The Joker looks like David Bowie, and Two Face is conveniently wrapped up in bandages most of the time. Super.

I don’t like the book because it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not because of the politics, though I find those distasteful and disagree with a lot of them – really it’s because I feel like I tried to eat a steak and hidden inside it was a little, needle-injected pocket of motor oil. It’s everywhere, between my teeth, in my throat. Bleh.

Now, those two things, my feeling and the book’s politics, are related. Miller has always had a very particular worldview. This is now not a surprise, in the year of our lord 2012. But the thing is, a lot of people think it got worse over time. Really what happened was editors stopped holding him back as much. So the book is full of asinine liberals who smoke so much pot they forget about their children (the parents of the new Robin, Carrie, specifically) and talk about how all their marching is for naught. So the hippies are apparently feckless, mindless fools who don’t notice their own daughter is missing, talking about how Batman is a fascist. The word fascist gets thrown around a lot, always by terrible characters and almost always about the Batman. This is because Frank Miller knows what people think of his ideas and is trying to cut off critics at the pass. But in order to do that all the characters – all of them – have to be awful caricatures.

And they are. No one is interesting in this book. Batman’s nothing but impotent rage. Hell, he succeeds in his endeavors, all the way down to the clever ending, involving Superman and the news media. But he’s still impotent, given that the book attributes to him nothing but rage, cunning, and the promise that the author loves him enough to always rig things so he’ll win. Miller starts using the language that made his Batman and Robin story recently go so sour – Robin is a “good soldier,” Batman is a general. Batman isn’t in the business of handling war.

And that gets me, finally, to the main problem, the bad taste hidden in what’s otherwise a really good thing: Miller’s picture of what Batman is.

Now, authors can imagine and re-imagine superheroes as they see fit. I’m not arguing there’s only one way to portray Batman. I personally don’t want to see the rage-a-holic vengeance-seeker, because I don’t really agree with that interpretation, but it’s just as valid as any other re-imagining. But Miller and his fans behave as though this is the only possible way Batman makes sense – and from my point of view, it makes the least sense of all.

A lot of people like to contrast DKR with the Adam West show. The comic at the time was pretty similar to the show, really. They say Miller’s version revitalized the character, added the thing it needed, the scariness, the fear. Except that was around from the beginning. Batman used to regularly have to fight in old Gothic castles and mansions, tussling with demons and villains who were scary. It wasn’t like that idea was new. And Adam West brought out the other stuff that was there, that was always necessary. Bruce Wayne is an upstanding citizen, a good guy. He helps people whenever possible, and sometimes the way to do that is to dress up like a bat. It’s ridiculous, and he teeters on the edge of knowing that, but his behavior changes it and makes it the most natural thing in the world. Adam West always played the character straight, no mugging for the camera (as Batman, anyway), no goofing around. Batman could have fun, but he was settling in to have fun, he wasn’t joking when someone tried to kill him.

Miller’s Batman quite honestly doesn’t make any sense. Why is he dressing up like a bat? It isn’t actually scary, he has to make it scary. And the ass has a tank, military aspirations. Why not just get a set of combat armor? Miller idolizes America’s military chic, hates anyone who would diss a war (hence the constant digs at hippies for no reason), and so Batman has to as well. And that’s the bad taste. It’s not that Batman in DKR has ethical or political ideas I disagree with – he’s a made up person, why do I care what his ideas about the real world are? I just care about his ideas for dealing with his world – it’s that he doesn’t have any at all. He’s just the Mouth of Miller. Adam West had 60s liberal hippie ideas, or the character he played did, but that wasn’t necessarily the show’s ideas. They were the character’s. DKR isn’t a story, as such – it’s a statement. And like any statement that tries to act like a story, both the statement and the story suffer.

Now, do you need to read it? It depends. If you just want to read some good Batman stories, maybe. Like I said, it’s well done for what it is. Its core is rotten, but the way in which everything is built around that core is top notch. So you can appreciate it for that. But I would honestly just recommend you don’t bother.

If you’re specifically interested in Batman, if you want to know about the history of the iterations of the character, it is absolutely something you must read. It’s that important. Not that we wouldn’t be where we are today without it – the spirit of the 80s almost guaranteed the kind of change that happened – but it’s the actual book that did it. It was the impetus, and even if it would have happened without DKR, it didn’t, it happened with it.

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9 thoughts on “The Dark Knight… falls all over himself.

  1. otou-san

    It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but I’m half with you. I don’t think the vengeance-obsessed lunatic is the only interpretation that makes sense either, but it does make a lot of sense. As a symbol that strikes fear into the hearts of evil men, a batman works well, but the guy who thinks of it is probably a little cracked. Personally I like the Batman of a lot of comics and the Nolan and Burton movies: a guy who’s definitely obsessed and out for some modicum of revenge at least in the beginning, but whose views evolve. He becomes a flawed protector. It’s part of what makes Batman an interesting character, for instance when it comes to the dynamic between him and certain readings of Catwoman. They go in different directions with their justice obsession.

    I do think a different direction, where he never gets that compassion and desire to protect but just lets his desire for vengeance eat away at him, is an interesting one as well. And I think Miller did a (mostly) good job with it. If you take the viewpoint of Miller in DKR as the viewpoint of the Batman in DKR, you can read it as a balancing of the bat’s dilemma. All this hippie shit is what he sees. Knowing Miller’s personal politics does hurt that reading though.

    I’m one of those people who adjusted my position on Miller recently. Not because I thought he got worse, but because I realized that his might-makes-right attitude with characters like Marv or Batman was not in fact a satirical examination of comic culture, but a real-deal reactionary political viewpoint.

    Reply
    1. cuchlann Post author

      You have a lot of good points, I’m glad you wandered in and commented. : ) That’s why I felt I had to give a basically “positive” score — you know I don’t usually bother with scoring at all — even though I find it personally distasteful in a few ways. The vengeance-obsessed Batman is a fascinating character study, though I think it’s very hard to make that idea mesh with Batman’s oath never to kill — which Miller also messes with in this comic, because Batman keeps wanting to kill people and not doing it. It makes his confrontation with Joker a little less climactic, since he’s been thinking of killing everyone, even random thugs, and finds a way not to.

      I do think Nolan is doing the idea much better. I’ll admit to being biased, though: I adore Grant Morrison’s revisioning of Batman into a character live you’ve described, one who started seeking vengeance and found something more important to keep him in the cowl every night. He has a certain nobility that’s just entirely missing in Miller’s version.

      And you’re also right that Miller’s version of Batman would be an excellent analysis of that ridiculous standpoint, except as you’ve said Miller originated it and sustained it quite seriously. Not to keep harping on the same writer, but Morrison’s Arkham Asylum comic is just what you’re describing: a hard-ass, vengeance-driven Batman as seen through the eyes of a writer and a comic that want to analyze what that means.

      Reply
      1. otou-san

        Haven’t read that one, might check it out. I liked Alan Moore’s Batman as well for a darker take that stayed fairly true. The Killing Joke was great.

        As far as Miller goes, obviously he took it even further with the “god damn Batman” which crossed the line into ludicrous, so as much as I did like DKR, I don’t think the absurdly cutthroat and grim Batman is too sustainable.

    2. cuchlann Post author

      I can’t seem to reply to your new comment. Well, anyway.

      Killing Joke is really great. I read that entire book in a store and then bought it anyway, it was so good.

      Reply
  2. Pontifus

    Frank Miller is, in fact, pretty fucked, and I don’t disagree with you that DKR has his agenda stamped on it (or, rather, once you’ve learned his agenda, it can never be unlearned). But I more or less enjoy(ed) it anyway.

    I like a slightly deranged Batman. I like a Batman who’s morally ambiguous to the point of being kind of an asshole (or that’s how I read him in DKR, rather than as someone for whom it’s always Miller Time, probably for the sake of my own sanity). I mean, it’s easy to imagine things going a little differently and Bruce Wayne turning to ambivalence, if not villainy. He’s the 1%, as it were. He could distract himself from the whole ordeal with his parents by burying himself in work, in the effort to expand his global reach by exploiting Chinese factory workers, dumping industrial pollutants in rivers, etc. He could buy his way into local or state government and fill Park Row with concrete. Bruce Wayne does not have to give a fuck — and yet he does, and that’s weird, because he’s in a position that doesn’t punish people for lack of fuck-giving, when it doesn’t outright reward them for same. He gives so many fucks, in fact, that mere philanthropy isn’t enough for him, which is especially weird. It makes sense to me that the Batman is crazy and bitter in his old age. Putting on the bat suit would require sacrifice. It’d take its toll.

    Note that I’m far from being a devoted or especially knowledgeable Batman fan, so take the above how you will.

    Reply
    1. cuchlann Post author

      I love this:

      Bruce Wayne does not have to give a fuck — and yet he does, and that’s weird, because he’s in a position that doesn’t punish people for lack of fuck-giving, when it doesn’t outright reward them for same. He gives so many fucks, in fact, that mere philanthropy isn’t enough for him, which is especially weird.

      He can be fun when deranged, but not as a long-term thing, and I guess the biggest problem in Batman-history is that DKR convinced a lot of people he should be like that. Hence everyone who hates Robin, because Batman should brood alone, and people who think he won’t kill, but he’ll break the bones of everyone all the time, because that’s not killing. Basically a Batman who enjoys causing pain, and the “not killing” thing is really a clause built into the character Miller et al. aren’t allowed to violate, rather than a short summary of a way of living and thinking that should direct everything Wayne as Batman does — and recently, everything Wayne as Wayne does. I’d tell you to go read Batman, Inc, and you should, but I want to make you read all the stuff that led up to it first. Not that you need to, it’s just awesome.

      Reply
      1. Pontifus

        I’m with you about it not being sustainable. I mean, if I may (re)state the obvious, it’s never a good idea to elevate one story as the Paragon of [X].

        I think DKR works because its Batman doesn’t have to be sustained. He’s old. The way I read it, this Batman only acts this way because he’s as old as he is and has seen as much as he’s seen. He’s spent. Anything that gives us a younger Batman acting that way as homage to DKR effectively throws the sense of DKR out the window of a moving Batmobile. The All-Star Goddamn Batman, and all Batmans (Batmen?) like him, seem pretty stupid to me.

        I do have a shortlist of Batmanalia that I intend to read. I’ve heard of Batman, Inc., and didn’t give it much thought, but I also didn’t know until fifteen seconds ago that it was written by Grant Morrison.

        Speaking of which, I need to stop forgetting to play Arkham Asylum. I won’t let myself play City until I’m done.

      2. cuchlann Post author

        I played the hell out of Arkham City a few weeks ago, and then immediately started the New Game Plus. It’s the only New Game Plus I might actually finish.

  3. Pingback: Hot Time in the City. Of Bats. | Wondrous Windows

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