The Absolute Edition also collects The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Miller’s belated sequel is worthy of discussion on its own terms, and I plan to revisit it at some point. For the moment, however, here is the review of the original Dark Knight Returns.
It’s really quite difficult to discuss The Dark Knight Returns today. Part of the reason is because of the massive influence that Frank Miller’s Batman epilogue had on the medium, and part of it is because Miller himself has done a fairly efficient job at deconstructing his own definitive Batman work in stories like The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. It’s impossible to approach Miller’s work here entirely divorced from either reality, and the result is a rather strange and dramatic legacy for one of the most iconic Batman stories ever told. It remains fairly essential reading for anybody even remotely interested in the Caped Crusader, the superhero genre or even the medium as a whole. It’s a classic, albeit one that is sometimes quite difficult to pin down.
Of course, The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the only comic to make a significant impact of the superhero genre in the late eighties. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was just as influential, and it’s interesting to compare the two briefly. Both are stories set in ghastly alternate versions of the present. In Watchmen, the reason for the divergence is explicitly stated to be the presence of the superheroes. In The Dark Knight Returns, it is implied. It seemed that Superman radically impacted the way that the Cold War played out, prompting a more aggressive American military policy – which itself led to more direct consequences. Both worlds are shown to be much worse than our own, perhaps because of the influence of the so-called “superheroes.” Readers had truly come a long way from the innocence of the Silver Age.
Both stories deconstruct the superheroic ideal. Alan Moore’s Watchmen cast is dysfunction and – as a bunch of costumed crime-fighters – mostly impotent. Miller’s Batman is almost certainly certifiable, while his Superman is a government flunky. In both stories, the actions of these heroes are somewhat eclipsed by realpolitick. It’s interesting that the status quo in both stories is that superheroes have been explicitly outlawed, that they’ve been made well-and-truly illegal, instead of existing in the heroic ideal from mainstream comics, where they are tolerated and even encouraged.
Perhaps Millar and Moore were making a comment about the notion of superheroes “growing up.” Suggesting that any truly mature narrative might move past the silly pictures of men in tights knocking the stuffing out of one another. Or perhaps they intended to imply that the superhero, a genre in publication for several decades at that point, was finally past its sell-by date and needed to be cast aside. It’s also possible that Miller was just having a bit of fun at the expense of Seduction of the Innocent, the book tha came close to neutering superhero comics by claiming they were a subversive influence on kids.
Superman’s monologue suggests that the heroes in this story were victims of similar persecution:
You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough. When the noise started from the parents’ groups called us in for questioning — you were the one who laughed… that scary laugh of yours… “Sure we’re criminals,” you said. “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.”
It’s interesting because Doctor Wertham, the author of Seduction of the Innocent, famously accused Batman of being in a predatory sexual relationship with Robin. That claim remains a pop culture punchline, but it’s also the most famous part of Wertham’s claims. (In fact the story makes any number of shots at the expense of pop psychology, including the similarly Germanic-named recurring psychiatrist, Dr. Volper.)
It’s telling that Miller has Batman begin his adventure in the blue-and-yellow outfit that the character wore during the Silver Age, before reverting Batman back to his classic Golden Age design. There’s no blue in Batman’s final outfit, and the yellow oval has been removed from his chest. Perhaps Batman’s increasingly brutal methods (and even his comfort using a gun) can be seen as an attempt to take the character “back to his roots” for this epilogue to a hero’s career.
I don’t know, I’m not quite sure. I do know that that the stories proved that there was room for mature themes, bold ideas and innovation within the classic superhero archetype. Unfortunately, the medium seemed to learn that audiences wanted sex and violence. Of course, it’s unfair to judge the legacies of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen by holding them to account for decades of awkward imitations that led the genre through some very dark places.
In revisiting the stories, I can’t help but feel like there is a contrast in tone or verdict between Miller and Moore here. Oddly enough, despite Miller’s reputation as a curmudgeon, he seems definitely more optimistic and nostalgic towards the costumed superheroes. Moore has one of his “heroes” do more for world peace by committing an act of mass murder than anything heroic. In contrast, despite his scepticism, Miller embraces Batman as a heroic symbol. The man is flawed, violent, and hypocritical, but the idea of Batman literally cements Gotham together at the story’s climax.
Don’t get me wrong. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was perhaps the first truly cynical portrayal of Batman, presenting the character as a deeply flawed and damaged individual rather than a well-rounded individual. However, Miller seems to argue that the notion of Batman – the symbol which is ubiquitous in these pages, and in pop culture, the notion of a hero – can do a greater amount of good than the flesh-and-blood character himself.
At one point in The Dark Knight Returns, Gordon is asked the most important question he has ever been asked. I think it’s easy to miss the significance of Gordon in the grand scheme of the Batman mythos, because he’s not a loud character. He doesn’t demand attention. He’s literally just an ordinary guy, and he fulfils a mundane plot function in most stories. Most writers use him to provide clunky exposition to Batman. However, he’s more important than that.
Gordon endorses Batman. Keeping and operating the Bat-signal, and giving Batman legitimate assistance in his mission is a bold step for Gordon to make. Bruce is surrounded by enablers like Alfred, who help him put his game face on and to do what he needs to do, but Gordon is unique, because he’s not anchored to Bruce. Gordon has an objectivity that other characters lack when it comes to dealing with Batman.
Alfred knows that Bruce isn’t healthy. At one point, Bruce blows off a meeting with his accountants. “Tell them I’m sick,” Bruce instructs Alfred. Alfred offers an acerbic response, “Shan’t have to lie.” However, despite this, Alfred continues to serve Bruce. Perhaps it’s out of loyalty to his employer. Perhaps it’s a favour to the man he sees as his sone, or a debt to the boy’s father. Perhaps, as in Batman Begins, it’s simply because Alfred doesn’t know how to be a better father.
Gordon doesn’t have that weight. He has no loyalty to Bruce, no reason to facilitate his obsessive war on crime. At one point during The Dark Knight Returns, Gordon is asked the most important question he could be asked. Why? Why did the city’s police commissioner trust the safety of Gotham to a grim self-appointed vigilante who dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Gordon considers his response carefully, telling a story about how he heard that Roosevelt might have known about the attack on Pearl Harbour in advance, but let it happen. It’s conspiracy theory, of course, but Gordon wonders how one could judge that morality. “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big.”
To Gordon, Batman is “too big.” He’s bigger than Bruce Wayne. He’s bigger than the man who runs around Gotham dressed in a fancy cape beating up drug dealers while offering dark monologues about how much he hates criminals. Batman is bigger than the television pundits throwing pseudo-scientific nonsense back and forth on prime time television, each offering their own opinions on the character’s psychosis. Much like at the climax of The Dark Knight, Batman is even “too big” for conventional morality. He’s too big for political labels like “right wing” or “left wing”. (Consider the debate over the political ideology espoused in The Dark Knight – it’s both and neither at the same time.)
Even Miller himself has conceded that anybody else running around doing what Batman does would be unacceptable. Batman gets away with it by virtue of being Batman:
I think that in order for [Batman] to work, he has to be a force that in certain ways is beyond good and evil. It can’t be judged by the terms we would use to describe something a man would do because we can’t think of him as a man. [...] [I]t’s very clear to me that our society is committing suicide by lack of a force like that. A lack of being able to deal with the problems that are making everything we’ve got crumble to pieces. As far as being fascist, my feeling is … only if he assumed political office. [Laughter.] If there were a bunch of these guys running around and beating up criminals, we’d have a serious problem.
That’s something of a paradox about Batman, and it’s touched on in The Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Batman operates outside the system. What he does is illegal and in some cases immoral. Yet, despite that, he is an icon and a beacon of hope. It isn’t that that actions become okay when Batman does them or anything as simplistic as that. (“Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal,” to quote a disgraced politician.)
Instead, Batman has the capacity to make these compromises while remaining an icon and a symbol. While Bruce Wayne is undoubtedly troubled, Miller portrays Batman as a benevolent influence on Gotham. Sure, he inspires a few whack-jobs to do terrible things that are hugely publicised – but Miller suggests those things would have happened anyway, just with less of a Batman theme. However, Batman does encourage ordinary citizens to pull together and to become stronger. After one small event, Miller quips, “Nobody is hurt bad enough for this to make the news.”
In the wake of an EMP detonation, it’s Batman who holds the town together, inspiring people to help and to make an effort to fight fires and save lives. The Sons of Batman are psychotic imitators, relentlessly brutal even afterthey adopt the influence of the Batman. Still, Batman is able to shape them into something far more dynamic and useful, a force for good despite their past actions and brutality. While Miller’s perspective is undoubtedly cynical and undoubtedly tempered, it’s still relatively optimistic.
Alan Moore suggested, in his introduction to this story, that what holds the superhero story back from ascending to the status of cultural myth is the fact that superheroes don’t die. Even Robin Hood was allowed a story of his own demise. In this respect, perhaps, Miller can be said to helping Batman ascend from a man in a silly costume to the status of an American cultural myth. I’m a big fan of the idea of superhero comics as a shared American mythology, and I think that The Dark Knight Returns is a pretty essential part of that myth. There’s an emphasis on the importance of the symbol – the yellow oval with the bat in it, even years before the branding for Burton’s Batman made it global shorthand.
Bruce explains that it’s a pretty vital and functional part of his attire, but it’s something greater. It used by the media to symbolise Batman, and the Batsignal lighting up is a huge moment for Gotham, even though Miller implies that Batman himself has become little more than an urban legend. (One commentator wonders why there are no pictures of the Bat.) Appropriately enough, the miniseries ends with Bruce appropriating the tools of another American myth: the horse and the lasso of the fabled American cowboy. Perhaps Miller suggests that Batman might tame the uncertain late twentieth century the way the cowboys tamed the West.
Even Bruce himself acts contrary to his own myth – he breaks some of the core rules of Batman, while seeking to uphold them. Like Bruce in The Dark Knight fighting to protect liberty while wire-tapping Gotham. “This is the weapon of the enemy,” he tells the Sons of Batman, while holding a rifle. “We do not need it. We do not use it.” However, pragmatic reality forces Bruce to compromise at least twice. Even ignoring the gun turrets on the Bat-tank, Bruce is seen with a sniper rifle when confronting Two-Face. Even if it’s a grappling gun, it feels weird to hear Batman say, “Good thing I brought the gun.” The design makes it look pointedly more like a rifle than his usual Bat-gadgets, which feels like intentional commentary.
The second example is more significant, where Bruce uses a gun being held by a mutant to shoot another mutant, saving a child hostage’s life. We don’t find out if the gun shot wound is fatal, but it looks pretty severe. This makes Batman’s stance on guns just a little bit hypocritical, but one senses that’s the point. The Dark Knight Returns features a lot of characters compromising to pragmatic realities while still adhering to their iconic attributes. At one point, Two-Face rigidly adheres to his “two” gimmick, only to ransom the city for five million. He’s almost apologetic. “I would have made it two — but I’ve got bills to pay.”Reality might defeat the ideal in particular circumstances, but that doesn’t mean the ideal is worthless.
That’s why I think that Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is at least a little more optimistic than Watchmen. While Watchmen suggests that its more dynamic characters are strictly amoral, and that they have to move beyond conventional superheroics to make a difference, Miller reinforces the importance as the hero as an archetype, even when the reality is more compromised and controversial. Bruce Wayne is a troubled, dangerous man, but Batman is a symbol and can transcend Bruce’s flaws. In Watchmen, Adrian Veidt and Jon Osterman have to to transcend the simplicity of their costumed superheroic identities to affect genuine beneficial change.
While there’s an obvious thematic overlap between the two stories, it’s also interesting to not the similarities in technique. Both series are generally accepted to have radically altered the conventional superhero narrative, but it’s remarkable how conventional they are in their technique. In Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons rigidly adhered to a nine-panel grid layout, one of the most conventional comic book page layouts. They’d combine those grid sections when they needed longer and larger panels (and even occasional splash pages), but the pattern is easy enough to see when navigating the book.
The Dark Knight Returns adopts a somewhat similar approach. Instead of dividing the page into nine, it divides it into sixteen. The result – a four-by-four grid – is far more claustrophobic and tense. It creates the impression of characters boxed in – especially with Bruce Wayne early in the story. In fact, Bruce himself is often trapped within panels by dividing lines, whether window panes or shadows or bars. It creates the clear impression that Bruce is trapped within a grid not unlike a comic book.
It’s a clever stylistic element that suggests the real reason that the Dark Knight must return. This is sequential media, a serial story that won’t ever afford Bruce peace. Bruce can’t ever be truly done with Batman because he’s literally trapped within a comic book. It’s a nice touch, a clever design convention. It’s also worth noting that Miller is a lot more fluid with his design convention than Moore and Gibbons. While the grid is always present, Miller is more likely to play with and distort the pattern – taking a corner instead of a row, or overlaying one or two of the grids, that sort of thing.
The Dark Knight Returns is famous for its dark and gritty portrayal of Batman. It certain redefined the character, to the point where it’s hard to imagine what the character might look like if this story hadn’t happened. In fact, I find it interesting that several of the most significant changes to Bruce’s origins actually originated here, rather than in Year One, a story I actually prefer – even if it is less influential. Martha’s pearls are a great example, such an essential part of the Batman mythos that they pop up in Grant Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.
However, there’s also the rather simply update to the story of the bat that came through Bruce’s study window all those years ago. In the original story, it came in because Bruce left the window open. It literally drifted into his life. In Miller’s adaptation, the bird bursts through the glass pane, breaking into Bruce’s study. It’s a change rich with subtext, and it pretty much defines Miller’s take on Batman. The Bat will not be sated. It was not idle luck that had it drift into Bruce’s life. It breaks into Bruce’s psyche and takes firm root there.
(Another change to the origin insinuated here and incorporated in Year One is the idea that Gordon knew Bruce’s identity. Here they meet as old friends, sharing a drink together. Gordon reflects on the old days, “You with your ginger ale, pretending it was champagne, fooling everybody — almost.” It’s clear that Gordon figured out Bruce was Batman, something made explicit in Year One. It doesn’t change Gordon’s position as the only sane man trusting Batman, as he’s not emotionally invested in Wayne. However, it does make Gordon seem like a competent police officer rather than a bumbling fool. And I like that.)
However, the bat itself is the most enduring and the most important change. That sequence tells you everything you need to know about Miller’s Bruce Wayne. Rather than two halves of the same person living in harmony, it’s clear than Miller’s Bruce and Batman are two distinct entities at war over the same body. “I’m grateful he survived retiring,” Gordon idly comments of Batman. Bruce responds, “He didn’t. But Bruce Wayne is… alive and well.”
Throughout the first chapter, we discover that not only is Bruce drinking for the first time in his life, he has become something of an alcoholic. It initially seems that this might be the reason that his subconscious is asserting himself – drunken blackouts lead him to Crime Alley, he seems to be yearning for the good old days. However, it later becomes clear that Bruce is using the alcohol to subdue the monster inside himself. It warns him, “You cannot stop me — not with wine or vows or weight of age.”
The creature stirs inside him, and it speaks in aggressive, confrontational and belligerent terms:
The time has come. You know it in your soul. For I am your soul… You cannot escape me…
You are puny, you are small–
You are nothing — a hallow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me–
It resents Bruce, and means to destroy him so that it may be free.
Repeatedly over the course of the first issue, Bruce finds himself suffering something similar to multiple personality disorder. He finds himself in certain places or doing certain things, but without any recollection of how that can about. Finding himself in Crime Alley, he thinks, “Once again, he’s brought me back.” When Alfred finds Bruce hanging around in the abandoned Batcave, Alfred seems just as concerned about something Bruce hadn’t noticed. “Master Bruce. Whatever happened to your mustache?” Of course the mustache had to go. The cowl would just look silly otherwise.
It’s interesting to note how carefully and how effectively Miller mirrored Harvey Dent to Bruce here. While writers like Denny O’Neil had already reestablished the character as inherently tragic – unable to make a decision without his trusty coin – Miller adds another layer of tragedy to the character that anchors him more firmly to Batman. In Year One, Miller would retroactively make Harvey Dent an ally of Batman, adding pathos to his eventual fall. However, here, Miller instead uses Dent’s duology to explicitly mirror Batman’s. Even Bruce concedes that he is “a reflection.”
While Miller’s Batman can grumble like a psychotic and seems to enjoy causing pain, it’s interesting how naive Bruce is when it comes to Harvey Dent. After Dent is “cured” and disappears, Gordon is quick to issue a warrant and to make accusations. Bruce publicly rebukes his friend, and seems uncharacteristically hopeful and optimistic. “Gordon’s remarks seem overly pessimistic — not to mention rude,” Bruce states. “We must believe in Harvey Dent. We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.”
This is one of the few times in the story Bruce is actively hopeful and it’s easy enough to figure out why. Two-Face is an obvious stand-in for Bruce himself. Both Dent and Wayne are human doppelgängers to some more basic and archetypal force that they must fight for possession of their own body. “Harvey wrestled long and hard with his other side,” Bruce remarks to Gordon. “To have him devour him now…” Gordon, of course, sees right through this. Astute as ever, Gordon responds, “We are talking about Harvey Dent…”
It’s hard not to feel sorry for “Bruce” as he is finally consumed by the Bat during that first chapter. Bruce gave up being batman after a horrible tragedy involving Jason Todd meaning that Miller also predicted A Death in the Family as well. However, there’s an element of tragedy as Bruce proves ultimately unable to fight off the urges that drive him to do what he does.
I was only six years old when that happened. When I first saw the cave… huge, empty, silent as a church, waiting, as the bat was waiting. And now the cobwebs grow and the dust thickens in here as it does in me –
and he laughs at me, curses me. calls me a fool. He fills my sleep, he tricks me. Brings me here when the night is long and my will is weak. He struggles relentlessly, hatefully, to be free –
I will not let him. I gave my word.
It is interesting that Bruce not only proves unable to resist the urge to become Batman, but also proves unable to stop himself from recruiting a new Robin, despite the fact that Alfred even explicitly calls him out on it. “Very well, sir. I shall come right out with it. Have you forgotten what happened to Jason?”Bruce dismisses his butler’s concerns unconvincingly.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that Bruce was entirely healthy before his relapse. We’re informed that Bruce has, for example, burned all his bridges with Dick Grayson. “Spoken to Dick lately?” Gordon asks. Bruce responds, “Not for seven years, Jim. You know that.” There’s also a sense that the bat might be right – Bruce is just a hallow shell without Batman to give him purpose. “I’m a zombie,” he thinks. “A flying dutchman. A dead man, ten years dead…” Even four panels into the story, we know that Bruce Wayne isn’t a healthy man. As his car malfunctions, he narrates, “It shoves hot needles in my face and tries to make blind. I’m in charge now, and I like it.”
That said, Batman is just as bad. We get a nice Batman-as-Dirty-Harry moment when a crook responds to his presence. “I’ve got rights!” a crook protests. “You’ve got rights,” Bruce responds. “Lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy.” It’s almost as terrifying as his dialogue about sharing pain in Year One. This Batman isn’t messing about. Miller popularised the idea that Batman was fighting a literal war on crime – with “soldier” and “orders.” Even Superman calls him on his monomania. “Nothing matters to you — except your holy war,” Superman claims. (Bonus points for use of the word “holy.”)
Bruce is preoccupied with that war, and everything is a means to that end. Suddenly the Batmobile is a tank. Bruce even dismisses the name. “The Batmobile — that’s what you called it, Dick. Kind of name a child would come up with…” Once Gordon has retired as Commissioner, he knows that he’s pretty much out of Batman’s life, because he no longer serves a valuable tactical service. “I won’t be seeing him again. I mean, sure, I’ll see him — he’s that close to polite. But I’m out of the picture now. Out of his picture.”
And then, of course, there’s Batman’s attitude to Superman. I know this has been run into the ground since Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns, but I do like the idea of tension existing between the pair. The two stand for concepts dynamically opposed. Superman would never use fear to help him save Metropolis, and I don’t like depictions of Batman that have the character wandering around Gotham during the daylight as a member of all sorts of community causes. (Use Bruce for that, by all means, but Batman isn’t a public figure in the same way that Superman is.)
Of course, Miller’s Batman is exceptionally condescending to Superman. When a nuke causes an EMP that blacks out Gotham, Bruce is quick to assume Superman didn’t think of that possibility, patting himself on the back for staying on top of things. “I keep track of these things, Clark. One of us has to.” In case that wasn’t accusatory enough, Bruce comments of the nuclear incident, “You let them do it.” Later on, Bruce offers the most scathing and enduring criticism of the Man of Steel, a calculated remark that has really defined the character’s image problems ever since. And this isn’t even a Superman story. “You always say yes — to anyone with a badge — or a flag–“
This isn’t at all fair. If you look at the early Superman books and compare them to the early Batman books, the Golden Age Superman was far more socially conscious than the Golden Age Batman. Ironically, the Golden Age Superman was reportedly editorially mandated to be less socially relevant so that it could be more like Batman. So it seems wonderfully cheeky for Miller to use the two icons in this way. However, Miller seems to be affectionately borrowing from Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrowseries, which featured those two heroes travelling America, while being politically relevant.
Green Lantern is the obvious Superman analogue. He had superpowers, dealt with cosmic threats, saved the planet, that sort of thing. O’Neil accused him of being out of touch. In contrast, Green Arrow had no power save for his superhuman athleticism and some neat gadgets. He was also a billionaire. And so he was more in touch with the modern man. Miller seems to reference this by having the Green Arrow team up with Batman, while Batman concedes, “Maybe Oliver was right… all along… crazy as it sounds…”
This portrayal has really become a touchstone for criticism of Superman, portraying him as a footsoldier of the American regime, an unquestioning idealist who blindly follows the orders of Ronald Reagan, who placates him with condescending patronising praise like “good boy.” It’s a shame that Superman never really got a story as iconic or pervasive as this one. I can, of course, point to any number of truly great Superman stories – All-Star Supermanperhaps the best counterpart to this particular saga. However, none managed to have their finger as squarely on the pop culture pulse as this Frank Miller ode to the Dark Knight.
The only other DC character who plays a truly significant role is the Joker. While Miller’s take on the Joker isn’t as influential or definitive as his work with Superman or Two-Face here, it is an interesting exploration of the iconic foe. Miller touches time-and-time-again on the notion of personal responsibility and the claim that Batman is responsible for crime or violence comes from his pop psychologist talking heads. One accuses Batman of “using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies.”
While this is vaguely true from a meta-fictional perspective – the villains exist both because of Batman and in contrast or service to him – Miller makes the point that Gotham went to hell without Batman there to protect it. The mutant gang rose during Batman’s absence, and there’s no hint of any correlation between his presence and theirs. In fact, in typical Miller “grumpy old man”fashion, Bruce suggests that this new crop of mutants are far worse than any street criminals from his own time – reflecting a lot of Miller’s dissatisfaction with eighties America.
Batman recalls Joe Chill, while considering the current criminals. “He flinched when he pulled the trigger. All he wanted was money. I was naive enough to think him the lowest sort of man. These — these are his children. A purer breed… and this world is theirs.” It’s interesting how Bruce here has sympathy for Chill, which would suggest that time has perhaps mellowed him. (Although his later adventures would disprove that notion.)
It’s also interesting because it suggests Miller deems modern juvenile delinquents as inherently worse than “older” criminals – suggesting perhaps that Miller saw street violence becoming a whole lot more nihilistic than it had ever been. (Of course, such a reading is coloured by the comments Miller made about the “Occupy” Movement. One imagines that he thinks Batman could have probably sorted those protesters out.)
However, Miller does seem to concede that while Batman does not have a massive impact on street crime, he does create his own special class of criminals. During an early scene at Arkham, it’s implied that Gotham hasn’t seen a costumed freak causing trouble in quite some time. On psychiatrist declares that it’s “been a long time since any of these guys had moments.” The Joker is catatonic. Harvey Dent appears to be cured. It’s interesting that Batman and Two-Face return at the same time as one another. Did one lead to the other? Or is there some stronger invisible link – a shared madness connecting Bruce to his foes?
Miller’s Joker is an empty vessel. We get a few cryptic insights into his psychology, and it’s hardly ground-breaking – certainly less insightful than Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The Joker is, as you’d expect, motivated by carnage. He finds himself unable to sleep before his final killing spree. However, Miller also seems to imply that the Joker is a force for uniformity, at least against Batman’s brutal individuality. Looking at the damage he’s caused, carving his grin into the faces of an entire studio audience, he thinks, “So many smiles — so many faces — all the same…”
Miller’s Joker is defined in opposition to Batman. Batman’s absence renders him catatonic. It’s a portrayal that would recur. The Joker gave up madness following Batman’s death in Going Sane, while Grant Morrison’s Joker went into mourning following Batman R.I.P., dressing in black and becoming a reclusive detective in his own sick tribute to Batman. Here, the Joker’s narration is very clearly focused on the idea that the story is solely about him and Batman. The lives caught in the crossfire are insignificant. It’s a telling, and influential, portrayal.
Much has been made of the Joker’s sexual fixation on Batman here. On hearing of the Caped Crusader’s return, he says, “Batman. Darling.” He is, indeed, a decidedly sexual creature under Miller’s pen. He’s repeatedly shown preparing and applying his own lipstick – apparently an instrument of mind control. When Dr. Volper suggests sexual repression is the root of Batman’s problem, the Joker responds, “You’re right. We must not restrain ourselves.”And he latches on to the nearest guest.
While most commentaries focus on the homosexual aspects of the portrayal (as it is Batman he’s fixated on), it’s interesting to note he embraces a female guest. frank Miller himself described the dynamic between Batman and the Joker as “a homophobic nightmare”, but I’ve always though that this Joker was just hypersexualised in contrast to Batman’s lack of sexuality. Batman has no sex drive because he injects all his energy into his crusader. The Joker is a contrast to Batman, and here he’s pan-sexual while Batman is asexual. It’s a way of making Bruce deliciously uncomfortable, as Grant Morrison suggests in Arkham Asylum.
And, of course, the sexual subtext is layered on pretty heavy between Batman and the Joker. Their final confrontation takes place in a tunnel of love, of all places. The Joker comments on Batman’s conduct as if appraising his sexual performance. And the Joker doesn’t seem impressed by the show Batman put on to night, comparing Bruce’s inability to finally kill him to impotence. “I’m really… very disappointed with you, my sweet… the moment was perfect… and you… didn’t have the nerve…” To the Joker, Batman murdering him would be equivalent to a sexual climax. Which is a sentence I never thought I’d type.
The Joker is also symbolic. Standing in for all the villains, he becomes a tool for criticising and deconstructing Batman. It’s obvious to Miller (and to everyone) that the Joker is beyond redemption. (Unless Batman dies, of course – and even then it’s not a certainty.) So batman makes an observation – one that’s hard to argue with. Batman holds himself accountable for the Joker’s actions. “I’ll add them to the list, Joker,” he says after one brutal confrontation. “The list of all the people I’ve murdered — by letting you live.” He asks himself, “… How many more — until I finally do it?”
Again, this is an argument that has been used to fundamentally attack Batman for quite a while, and it’s clearly articulated here. Darwyn Cooke even devoted Batman: Ego to the question. However, while Bruce seems to believe this logic, it’s interesting to wonder if Miller or the story buys into it. While Bruce prompted the Joker’s return to lucidity, it as Dr. Volper who let him loose again. And Miller’s story has a very clear undercurrent of personal responsibility. I am not convinced that Miller thinks Bruce isvicariously responsible.
Especially since Miller doesn’t permit Bruce to finally break his one rule. The Joker claims to be disappointed, and it seems like Bruce denied him his final victory by refusing to kill him. (He does, of course, permanently cripple him – make of that what you will.) In fact the Joker’s final act is to murder himself so that the world will believe that Bruce killed him. In the end, Batman will be the only person who truly knows that his morals withstood that final test, and I think that’s just about enough for Miller.
The Dark Knight Returns is about more than just Batman. It’s a very grim social commentary by Miller on modern America, not too different from what Moore and Gibbons were doing in Watchmen. Of course, Moore and Gibbons used Richard Nixon as their US President, while Miller had the guts to actually use Ronald Reagan himself. While I think Miller might be a bit harsh of the former world leader, I definitely respect him for having the courage to use the real President, instead of resorting to an archetypal, evil and universally hated President.
That said, the scenes where Reagan seems to be a bit confused and has a bit of difficulty articulating himself certainly seem a bit harsh given how the leader suffered from Alzheimer’s in his later life. (And, apparently, even during some of his time in office.) A lot of people have tried to read a lot of different political ideologies into Miller’s tale. I think that each reader inevitably has to form their own opinion, and that Miller takes aim at both the left- and right-wing with equal venom. I especially love how Ronald Reagan is constantly wearing the American flag, as if to assert his patriotism in the face of opposition.
And, while the political ideology at the root of The Dark Knight Returns might be up for debate, there’s very little argument that Miller hates talking head, pseudo-intellectuals and pop psychologists on both sides of the aisle. Dr. Volper is perhaps the biggest villain of the piece, unleashing both Two-Face and the Joker while blaming Batman for their actions. “My patient is a victim of Batman’s psychosis,” he insists. The media’s commentary is vacuous and sensationalist. “Every anti-social act can be traced to irresponsible media input,” Dr. Volper argues, oblivious to the irony that he is serving as “irresponsible media input.”
On both sides of the aisle, the pundits are shown to be just idle talking heads, bantering back and forth in simplistic and inane terms. They don’t engage with one another, and they all try to read their own opinions into what is going on as objective fact. There’s also the way that the media is so keen for a nice story that it seems to form the most arbitrary and illogical connections. “This is considered a drug-related crime at present, but surely this heat wave is a factor. Right, doc?”
I will admit, though, that I didn’t care for – and I still don’t care for – Miller’s portrayal of Selina Kyle. Here, she runs an escort service, essentially a ring of high-class hookers. It’s not so bad here, but coupled with Kyle’s portrayal in Year One, it contributes to the pervasive idea that Miller has difficulty writing women who aren’t prostitutes. It’s a shame, because it’s a significant blemish, and one that adds relatively little to the plot – Selina features to play a lonely old woman (in contrast to Bruce’s lonely old man), but mainly to be victimised by the Joker.
That said, The Dark Knight Returns does feature the rather wonderful female Robin, Carrie, who may have inspired DC to allow a female Robin in regular continuity. Carrie is arguably the most decent, altruistic and heroic of characters featured in the story. Her parents might be oblivious to her presence (and to her absence), but she isn’t motivated to fight crime by their deaths or to avenge them. She’s the best example of Batman as a force for good in the entire story. She was just motivated by Batman to do the right thing. While Miller might suggest Batman wasn’t necessarily right to recruit her as a child soldier, it’s hard to argue that Carrie isn’t the most heroic character in the story. Even Gordon seems a little bit sexist.
The art design is fantastic. It’s rough, it’s edgy and it’s harsh. I especially like the way that, over the course of the story, Batman evolves from an identifiable iteration of the character into a hulking Miller drawing, looking like a character taken from the pages of Sin Citywho just happened to find himself a Batman costume. There’s some wonderful imagery here, especially the image of Superman emaciated following a nuclear strike, drawing energy from the Earth to sustain himself.
It’s hard to divorce The Dark Knight Returns from its cultural and historical context, but I think it remains an engaging read on virtually any terms. While I personally prefer Year One, I think it’s hard to deny that The Dark Knight Returns permanently shaped the character of Batman and defined him for at least a generation. That’s no small accomplishment for a four-issue miniseries that is still one of the most accessible comics out there. Just don’t get me started on the rest of Miller’s Batman work.
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