Monday, April 4, 2022

Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: good or bad?

So, that's not a totally fair title, but I prefer it to my original click-bait idea: "Why do I accept Frank Millers' Fascistic Superman?" Anyway...

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley.
One of the best selling comics of all time.
One of the most influential comics of all time.
A classic from one of the all-time great creators in comics.
You may not read comics, but it's quite possible you have read Dark Knight. Along with Alan Moore's & Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, it ushered in a new era of superhero comics from which we have yet to disentangle ourselves, despite attempts to do just that by many creators, including Alan Moore himself. But! This is a post about Dark Knight, so let's get to it. 

Since the start of COVID, my buddies and I have been talking comics over Zoom, on a weekly basis. Our latest discussion was on Dark Knight, and it didn't go as I expected. Popular opinion would have you believe this work is unassailable, a pinnacle of comic book storytelling, the greatest Batman tale ever told, a superhero story for the ages. For the most part, you would get little argument from me ('greatest' might be a stretch, but it's in the discussion). So, when a couple of my friends revealed the clay feet upon which this classic piece of comic art stands, I was surprised. But they're smart dudes, so I was ready to hear them out . . . and then tell them why they were wrong! 

An aside: I feel like I should get my personal history with this book out there, because it is pertinent to the discussion as well as to my consideration of the book. I started collecting comics in 1984, when I was 12 years old. I grew up in a small town and did not discover comic book shops until 1988 or '89. In 1987, I found the Warner Books edition of Dark Knight Returns, in my local bookstore, Mr. Paperback's. I immediately bought it. Having read very few -- and possibly none at all -- Batman comics at that point, this was basically my introduction to the character. It made a lasting impression on me, and I have re-read it multiple times through the years. I know it well, and I thoroughly enjoy it. 

Aside #2: A brief summary of Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is 55 years old. Batman has not been seen for a decade. Superheroes have been outlawed, and even saying their names on television is not allowed. The only one left is Superman, working covertly for the U.S. government. But, the animal inside cannot be contained, Batman returns to clean up Gotham, and Superman is sent in to stop him; it ends in a stalemate. Except . . . Bruce is good with chemicals, and he ingested a concoction that made him appear dead when he was merely in hibernation. Kal-El (Superman) attends the funeral, and his super-hearing picks up a heartbeat, just as he's about to leave. But he's willing to let Bruce wage his war, if he keeps it low-key. 

Two of my friends were critical of Dark Knight, one more than the other. Their main point of contention was the characterization of the two main heroes: Batman and Superman. Both of them felt that Miller wrote these characters completely wrong. Regarding Batman, they could never see him giving up on Gotham or going into retirement; it's not in Bruce Wayne's nature. He's obsessed about instilling fear into criminals in order to clean up his city and make sure nobody ever experiences the tragedy he did when his parents were shot dead in Crime Alley. Superman, to their minds, is written as a bootlicker who follows orders from a fascist authoritarian, in the form of the broadly satirical Ronald Reagan. The prime example of this comes after the nuclear fallout of the missile Superman barely diverted. Even with crime rampant in cities across America, Gotham -- previously the most dangerous city in America -- is now experiencing a substantial decrease in crime due to the Batman's actions. Despite that, Superman is sent into Gotham to put a stop to Batman. Because, the law. 

These points are valid. In all honesty, I'd never thought too deeply about the characterizations of Batman and Superman, or the other supporting characters, in this book. I just went along for the ride. That said, I agree completely that Batman and Superman are totally out of character in Dark Knight. But, I don't think that's a problem. And here's why: because I love being right

Or maybe there are better reasons. 

The most important thing to remember -- despite DC's desire to shoehorn this book into Batman's main continuity -- is that Batman: the Dark Knight Returns is an Elseworlds story, a tale from a parallel universe, where all the heroes' names are the same, but they are, to various degrees, slightly different. This is essential, I feel, to accepting and fully understanding Dark Knight.
(Allowing that all art is subjective, so you may understand it differently, and that's cool too, but wishy-washy statements don't make for compelling arguments. But I digress. Let's get back to our regularly scheduled program.)

In this Dark Knight continuity, Batman and Superman (as well as all the other notable characters) have aged beyond the perpetual 28 years they inhabit in the main comic books. Bruce Wayne is roughly 55, as Miller wished to make the character as old as his legend. Superman would also be around 55, though his Kryptonian physiology seems not to have dampened his powers. Jumping off from there, Miller wanted to craft a narrative that examined what a Bruce Wayne/Batman of 55 might be like. He wanted to look at how that would have affected him not only physically, but also emotionally. Sure, Bruce Wayne is a superhero, but age has a way of slowing you down, making you second guess your abilities, infusing doubt where it might not have resided before. It's an intriguing premise, and one that I appreciate seeing played out in Dark Knight

These characters have also experienced very real change in their lives, and they live with that hanging over them. Again, this is unlike the main comics in that, though there is the illusion of change and the hyperbole of earth-shattering events in those books, for the most part these incidents have very little impact on the characters. DC, as a publishing entity, needs to keep the status very much in quo so people will continue to buy their comics. There can be no real changes in these characters' lives; it's too much of a risk. Therefore, Batman, Superman, et al. plod along, ageless icons, experiencing titanic events, but never seeming to feel their repercussions. 

Miller wasn't interested in working within the status quo. He wanted to put these heroes under a microscope and poke at them, see how they might react to having experienced real tragedy, real change, real evolution. Jason Todd died ten years prior, a cataclysmic event from which Bruce Wayne found it nearly impossible to come back. For a decade he allowed Batman to remain dormant, so that no such personal tragedy might happen again. It can be assumed that, even if he were not directly responsible (and maybe he was), Bruce feels wholly responsible for the death of Jason, who took the mantle of Robin after Dick Grayson grew out of the name. This has weighed heavily upon him. 

Also in that time, superheroes have been outlawed. It seems a safe assumption that the timeline for this legislation parallels that of Bruce's tragedy -- ten years. As a result, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) left Earth for the stars, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) went back to her people, and Superman became the not-so-secret secret weapon of the U.S. government. Similar to the disbanding of the Justice Society when they refused to divulge their identities in the HUAC hearings, it can be assumed that heroes became suspect by regular civilians, that they were no longer trusted, and, thus, outlawed. Most of them retired, but Superman could not. His powers, and the responsibility instilled in him by Ma & Pa Kent -- who also taught him to respect authority, an important point -- meant he needed to find a way to continue helping humanity. So, he took the only path that he felt had been afforded him. He worked under guidance from the U.S. government, keeping a low profile but still doing good. 

Both of these heroes have gone through personal upheaval and been changed by that. This is why, I think, I am able to accept their characterizations, even if they are "off" from how they are regularly written. Superman has always been the rule follower, while Batman the rule breaker, and the idea that Superman would go along with the government if it meant he could contribute to bettering the world, even in some small way, works for me. Batman was responsible -- at least indirectly -- for the death of a teenager, Jason Todd. This would have a profound effect on Bruce Wayne, could cause him to turn in on himself and reevaluate his actions. Extrapolating from that, he might retire, give up on Gotham, and try to just live out the rest of his life in a way that wouldn't put another child in danger. 

Of course, in the end, Bruce Wayne returns to Batman. And, in my reading of those final pages, Superman, with a knowing wink to Carrie Kelly, the new Robin, learns that there may be another way to help this adoptive world of his. 

Ultimately, these characterizations were due to Frank Miller wanting a battle between Batman and Superman at the end of Dark Knight. He needed them to be on opposite sides of the fence, so that he could bring them to Crime Alley, along with Oliver Queen, and show readers that given enough money, ingenuity, and obstinacy, a human can defeat a superhuman in battle, even if that victory is fleeting.