Monday, June 23, 2008

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns

When I was in San Francisco a few months ago attending the PCA/ACA Conference, I sat on a panel with a colleague who was presenting a paper discussing Batman and the levels of Kohlberg’s moral reasoning. Though an interesting premise, the audience (and I) felt that his topic was too broad: rather than using Batman as a character with a seventy year history and multiple incarnations, he should have restricted his analysis to only one of those incarnations. The overwhelming recommendation? Frank Miller’s Batman.

Then a couple of weeks ago during a friendly debate with my friend Steve Mollmann about Superman: Birthright, I invoked Miller’s Batman as an example of a complex depiction of a superhero that intrigued me more than Superman. Yet these references to Miller made me realize that I remembered little of The Dark Knight Returns, and perhaps remedying that situation should be a priority before I go shoot my mouth off about it and look like an ass.

I was surprised to see how much the novel is a work of its time. With the decrepit city and the Cold War
paranoia, I didn’t need to see the Reagan look-alike president to know where this all was coming from. Yet what made this work for me wasn’t the gritty depiction of Batman in a Gotham gone wild, but the political and cultural aspects of the world that Miller has constructed here.

Half the book demonstrates the view of the action through the local media, something right out of Neil Postman’s criticism of television in the early 1980s. The pages are divided into many small panels that evoke the television screen, and forcing you to be an observer as you would if you were a citizen in this world allows the reader to analyze the morality at work in a different light than one traditionally would.

Another interesting idea is the fact that Bruce is presented as all too human, feeling the pain of old age and beatings, juxtaposed to Clark who looks just like he did fifteen years before. See, there is literally only one Superman. Yet what’s to stop any citizen in Gotham from becoming the Batman? Obviously they might not have the access to the billionaire’s gadgets, but essentially Batman is a vigilante, something that any of us could become should we really want to. Batman can clean up the streets I guess, but crime is too systemic problem for one man to solve, and therefore Miller has Bruce train the Mutant Gang remnants at the end to work together fighting crime.

The appearance of Reagan is all the more relevant now that we have Republicans and Democrats alike stepping over their mothers to be the second coming of. But Reagan was one of the worst presidents ever, and his depiction here will tell you why. He is always presented with an American flag and spouts of lame rhetoric about defending the cause of freedom. He manipulates a sentient man to do his bidding, and that manipulation leads directly to a nuclear exchange.

Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has been canonized in the comic field, so you kind of need to read it for any sort of credibility. I didn’t love it this time, but I did find a lot of points to ponder, not all of which I have mentioned here. One thing I would like any readers to respond to is this: does the graphic novel’s depiction of Batman leave you supporting his methods, the idea being that he does it for the greater good? If so, how does this square with your notion of vigilante justice in our world?

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