Reviewing a comic book that’s 30 years old feels weird, for lack of a better word. Surely everyone knows of it’s reputation and standing as a piece of art; why spend the time reiterating the same points people have been making for decades? Well, that’s exactly why; the thing about art is that it tends to reflect the culture that is viewing it. While comic book fans of the time were getting used to a more gritty and violent Batman, comic book fans of today have lived through several different iterations of dark Batman story lines and characters. Comic book fans of the time probably could not have predicted the boom in popularity through movie and cartoon adaptations of the character that are seen as equals, or in some cases, definitive examples of the characters from the comics. A 1986 audience is simply going to have a completely different opinion than a 2016 audience. So, in the interest of applying that modern view to a comic of the past (and with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice coming out later this week), let’s take a look at one of the most inspirational books for the movie and for modern Comics as a whole, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
Released in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns was written by Frank Miller, with Miller sharing art duties with Klaus Janson and Lynn Valley. The book starts with Bruce Wayne having retired from being Batman. At the beginning, it plays out very similarly to the third Nolan Batman movie, with Wayne feeling very uncomfortable with life after the end of his crime fighting career. As the title implies, Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement as the Batman to begin fighting a new breed of crime. He is no longer welcome as he once was; times have changed, and vigilantism is strictly cracked down on by the government, utilizing their new agent, Superman, to put down his one-time allies. A lot of this probably sounds familiar; the book has a pretty influential status with later adaptations of the character, with elements cropping up frequently over the last few decades.
DKR is often held alongside Watchmen as a turning point for comics. Until that time, comic books were mostly seen as children’s entertainment, but DKR and Watchmen spearheaded the gritty, more mature comics intended for adult readers. What I find interesting in that fact is how both books satirize the very idea of Superhero vigilantes. Although, Watchmen leaves the answer to that question open for interpretation, while DKR leans towards a more definite answer. It’s clear that the reader is being led to side with Batman in this conflict which, considering it’s his book, is to be expected. I’ve seen this happen in a lot of recent superhero films, most notably the Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy, where the story is set up to justify the character’s questionable actions. In one of the last scenes in the Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for example; sure, it may seem unethical to spy on every citizen in city of Gotham, but when the Joker is threatening to blow up two tankers filled with innocent civilians, the act becomes much more necessary. The story almost goes out of it’s way to accommodate the main characters actions, and make them more palatable.
This isn’t to say that the entire book is 200 pages of misery and politics. More than it’s cultural counterpart, Watchmen, DKR includes moments of pure levity. I think that this is one of Frank Miller’s strong points as a writer; even though he generally deals with dark subject matter, there’s usually something that’s just absurd and out of place you can’t help but giggle. For example at the start of the third issue in the series, Batman foils a robbery being perpetrated by a Neo-Nazi named Bruno with Swastikas over her breasts, all the while disguised as an elderly Russian woman. There are several bizarre moments like this through out the book that would feel out of place if they weren’t written by Miller. It gives the book a much needed tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. This is also helped by Miller’s art, which helps push the sillier moments. All the character’s have a very cartoonish appeal. Miller features several news pundits and political figures drawn in a mocking satirical manner. Most of the pundits look very fashionable, but generally have shallow, emotionless expressions as they spout the same talking points.
There’s a psychiatrist in particular named Dr. Bartholomew Wolper who manages to convince the city of Gotham that he’s reformed both Harvey Dent and The Joker, when in actuality he has failed to do so with both. He’s characterized as an overly leftist peacenik, sporting a big “white man’s afro” and going barefoot even in public appearances. He represents a sort of politically correct view of the world that the book goes out of its way to mock. Many of the story’s conflicts come from this flanderized ‘progressive’ attitude that most conservatives warn others about. Batman’s actions, which tend to mirror many contemporary conservative points in regards to crime, are portrayed as the sole correct answer. However, upon finishing this reading of the book, I’ve found the politics more centered than right leaning, more libertarian taken to extremes rather than strictly conservative. Most of those far right views are the public’s reactions towards Batman’s return to the city, rather than Batman’s personal views on the matter. In fact, he even argues for Harvey Dent’s rehabilitation early on in the book. Batman himself seems to be a more sympathetic character, struggling with his personal demons that drive him to being the Batman, while all the cynical attitude stems from the satirical “news” bits.
Which leads me to one of my biggest complaints.
Miller likes to write in this psuedo film noir style. He’s done so with nearly every book he’s written. It’s very wordy and it feels like every character has their own tough guy narration that must accompany every single action they perform. There are many moments with redundant narration, where a character tells the audience their action while we watch them do it. The worst sections of the book are hands down those satirical “news” sections. Most serve as both satire and devices to keep the plot moving, which often means the reader is treated to very lengthy paragraphs of dialogue with nothing but almost identifcal panels to look at. This would be fine for other mediums, but for comics it tends to be kind of boring, and this recurs for nearly the entirety of the book.
Every time I’ve read this book, I’ve left it with radically different opinions. Now, having experienced the slew of superhero movies every summer since 2008, I find the themes of the book have new profundity. Many recent comic book movies take the extreme libertarian ideologies presented in this book and us them as a platform for power fantasy fueled action. It’s become a troupe for them now; the big bad guy must be stopped specifically by the hero and all the collateral damage that occurs is justified by the end. WhileThe Dark Knight Returns also features it’s hero in very similar situations, it’s also aware of what it is saying about superheroes and their place in society. The book does not shy away from the violence one would commit and the psychological state one would have to be in when starting a one man war on crime. It forces it’s audience to ask if the ends truly justify the means. How do we react to the harmful actions of a person with good intentions?
With two big superhero movies coming up, and many more to come, perhaps we’ll start to see creators tackling those issues head on.
Written by Remy Williams March 23, 2016
Editing by Grant Phillips