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.