Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Looking back: The Dark Knight Returns

Nineteen eighty-six is considered to be a seminal year in superhero comics, both in terms of quality and creativity.  Alan Moore's Watchmen hit stands.  John Byrne rebooted Superman in the The Man of Steel miniseries.  Frank Miller penned the magnificent Born Again storyline in Daredevil. But none more influential on pop culture or the future of superhero comics than The Dark Knight Returns.  It is widely considered to be among the finest superhero comics ever written.  What else can be said without invoking hyperbole?  The Dark Knight Returns wasn't the first comic written for a more mature audience, but it's certainly the marker laid down for when superhero comics evolved to include darker, more violent and intelligent content (the last has often been discarded in favor of the first two in the years since).

For those who have yet to read TDKR, it takes place in Gotham City of the near future, perhaps ten years or so (from 1986). Superheroes have been outlawed, although it's unclear exactly why, something to do with a series of incidents that caused the public to become more fearful and distrustful of them). The government has become more powerful and authoritarian (Reagan is still holding onto the presidency).  The United States in is still in the midst of the Cold War and tensions with the Soviets are nearing a breaking point.  As the story begins, Batman has been retired for ten years.  His enemies are safely locked up, but Gotham is worse than ever.  A gang calling themselves the Mutants are terrorizing the city.  Batman comes out of retirement to deal with them.  But this Batman is older, meaner, and even more inclined to break the law.  Lined up against him is not only the mutant gang, but the media and the public.  As his war in Gotham escalates, it gets the attention of the federal government who dispatches Superman to deal with him.

The art is solid, if unspectacular and looks very unlike his artwork before or since.  His lines are thin and numerous with a sketchy look to them.  This is only enhanced by Klaus Janson, who takes a minimalist approach to inking. Lynn Varley's colors look like watercolor, very washed out but distinctive since the comic is very gray throughout. Visually, the book's strength is Miller's masterful panel by panel storytelling.  The pages have a distinctly cinematic look, and he is able to effectively create pace, drama and action throughout.

The story does a great job of satirizing the shallow media-saturated culture of the 1980s that has only gotten worse in the years since, which is a big part of why the book is still compelling.  But it doesn't stop there.  Miller explores a number of themes, including the limits of law and order, vigilantism, freedom vs. security, chaos vs. order, anarchy, fascism, political correctness, the responsibility of individual citizens to maintain justice, the cost of compromising your values.  The story asks what does it look like to be good in terrible world?  Can we escape who we really are?  Does violence, even if it's for a good cause, create more violence?

What I appreciate most is that Miller doesn't seem to come down hard on any side of these issues.  For example, his wonderful satirizing of pop psychology in the character of Dr. Wolper. On the one hand, Miller mocks the psycho-babble Dr. Wolper dispenses, like when he explains how Batman creates criminals. On the other hand, as the story unfolds, Batman's return clearly awakens the Joker and sparks an escalation of violence among would be vigilantes.  Where is Miller on this issue?  I think he respects his readers enough for them to sort that out themselves, which is why I still regard TDKR as one of the most intelligent comics ever written.  Today, politics in comics are bluntly spelled out to us by a chorus of left-wing writers with no sense of subtly or respect for their audience.

In spite of Miller's ambiguity, fans and pundits still offer confident proclamations about the story's politics, as writer Mark Waid did when he declared the story was about liberalism vs. conservatism.  Miller certainly uses the Cold War as a geopolitical canvas to tell his story, where the broader scope of Batman's thematic tensions play out.  This is effective, but it tethers the story forever in the 80's.  As does the goofy caricature of Ronald Reagan.  I get the satire, but it comes across a little dated, and belies the story's sophistication.

One of the legacies of The Dark Knight Returns is that it defined the characters of Superman and Batman for a generation.  Batman is mean.  Superman is nice.  Batman is clever.  Superman is simple.  Batman is the realist.  Superman is the idealist.  Batman breaks the rules to get things done. Superman won't.  Batman is cool.  Superman's not.  Batman won't back down to the man.  Superman is the man.  This interpretation, which is in my view a cursory take on the story, the characters and their relationship, is nevertheless the predominant perception held by fans and many creators.

This frustrates me because it idealizes Batman, and simplifies Superman.  Miller's Batman is an angry PTSD-laden egomaniac, albeit a compelling one.  But most fanboys like to think of Miller's Batman as a freedom fighting vigilante revolutionary.  But unlike the character in Christopher Nolan's films, this Batman wants to force the world to conform to his vision.  The people have allowed themselves be subjugated under an authoritarian government, and he believes it should be up to him and other superheroes to fix the world; to reshape it. He resents Superman for not only failing to use his vast powers to do this, but for surrendering his power and playing along.

Bob Goodman, writer for the TDKR animated adaptation agrees, "Superman is not only working with no moral authority, He's on the wrong side."  Personally, I like that Superman doesn't take this power into his hands.  His restraint is part of why he's a hero in my view.  Do we want people with fantastic powers to take over our politics and rob us of our self-determination just because they can?  Unlike Batman, Superman understands people and societies cannot be forced to change.  He would rather change people by his example; by doing good and helping others, but he must compromise himself in order do so, "I gave them my obedience and my invisibility. They gave me a license and let us live.  No, I don't like it, but I get to save lives--and the media stays quiet."  And for this, he's a stooge.  And Batman's a hero.  I dont' buy it.  I don't think Miller does either.

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