Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Discuss: Batman: The Dark Knight

Karen: Twenty-five years later, what are your thoughts on this influential and controversial series?


J.A. Morris said...

It's a very good story with great art.
But just like 'Sgt. Pepper' and 'Nevermind', it also inspired lots of bad comics.

I don't know what I can say about BTDKR that hasn't been said. I thought it was very good the first time I read it(about a year or two after it was published) and thought the art was as good as anything Miller & Janson ever made together. The Batman/Superman fight is as iconic as any DC image of the past quarter century.

If I have any criticism of it, it's that like many works of art, it's not just a product of its time, it's dated. Reagan being POTUS forever dates the story. He's dead, his presence in Batman loses meaning today, especially if it's read by someone born after he left office.

As for it's impact, I think it had a bad effect.

First off, for years, every Batman writer felt the need to out-Miller Miller.

BTDKR took Batman back to his roots, made "grim 'n gritty" a catchphrase at every comic shop. Other writers tried to make him grimmer. Countless internal monologues about protecting "my city", from "filth,scum", Batman as Travis Bickle. Which to me misses the point of BTDKR. It's set in the future. The Batman of a story written in 1988(or 87, 89,whenever) shouldn't act like Miller's aging hero.

I've got more to add, but I'll shut up and let somebody else talk for a while.

J.A. Morris said...

Sorry, if my last comment didn't make sense, I meant to say 'Pepper' and 'Nevermind' were great but they inspired lots of bad music the way BTDKR inspired bad comics. Now I step away for real for others to weigh in.

ChrisPV said...

I think J. A. hit the nail on the head. I actually spent about an hour talking with a friend who wanted into comics about what was good or not, and a second friend who was (almost) as well read as I suggested this. We got into a bit of a debate about it, and came to the conclusion that, as good as the story itself is, it really isn't good enough to justify all the damage done to the medium by people who imitate only the surface notions.

DKR is a lot like Halloween, the movie in that respect. People glom on to the most superficial elements (violence, darkness, general unpleasantness) and disregard all of the stuff below the surface that really makes the thing good (human characters, good arcs, action/suspense sequences that flow naturally from the plot). I consider the prevalent take on Batman (barely contained psychopath) from the 80's to the 90's as being a direct consequence of this book just as I consider Friday the 13th to be the direct consequence of Halloween. Greatness leading to utter dreck.

Also, both Halloween and Dark Knight Returns had HORRIBLE sequels. I don't know if Halloween: Resurrection is any worse than All-Star Batman and Robin, but they sure as heck as pretty close.

William said...

Hey J.A.,

I can't help but agree with pretty much everything you said. Except that I am in the minority in not really liking the story itself very much at all. (Even when it first came out). I bought the trade and read it, and I never could figure out where all the love for this thing was coming from. The art was a little weird looking, but not bad. However, I felt the story was much too negative and cynical for my tastes. Batman/Bruce Wayne came off like a total psychopathic jerk. Superman was tool and Reagan still being president was just contrived and stupid.

I also feel that it (along with Alan Moore's 'Watchmen') had a lasting negative effect on the industry. As you said, it inspired a lot of bad comics.

I have also discovered over the years that I really don't care for Frank Miller as a creator as much as I thought I did. I absolutely LOVED his original run on Daredevil, and it is still one of my Top 5 all-time favorite comic series. But aside from that, Miller has never really done anything since that I particularly like, including TDKR. His 'Sin City' was readable, but again, too cynical and depressing for me. And his latest "mainstream" comic work 'All-Star Batman', is just weird and kind of sad. "I'm the goddamn Batman!!", WTH is that?

Anyway, back to Dark Knight. To paraphrase John Byrne on the subject of "tearing down" or perverting the super hero genre in works such as TDKR and Watchmen. His opinion (that I gathered from several internet postings of his) is that he feels it was a mistake to "deconstruct" super hero comics in such a way and that it has done the industry no favors. I would have to agree.

So, for my part, I would have to say that comics would be better off today if TDKR had never been published. I know mine is a minority opinion, but that's the way I see it.

William Preston said...

I think the Reagan elements are integral, because what you're dealing with isn't a "superhero comic," but a satire. Satire takes what's present in the culture and distorts it to make its points. Some of Miller's points are thuddingly obvious (Reagan=senile, though perhaps at the time it was written he wasn't so obviously in the early stages of dementia), some seem wrongheaded though interesting (Superman as U.S. tool doesn't truly fit with the established character's moral code), some are right on (what the hell is actually wrong with Bruce Wayne?).

I think Miller tried satire again with the recent Batman & Robin, but he was less satirizing than spewing. What Dark Knight got right was a balance of social satire and actual superheroics: the Batman vs. Superman battle is great. There's even a load of sentimentality informing the story and shaping the ending. Maybe Miller later looked disdainfully on the superheroics and the sentimentality.

I read his Daredevil work as it came out; I was in high school and college. There was much I didn't like: the introduction of material that didn't fit the character (ninjas, Kingpin); the Elektra romance. But in the end I liked what he did with the Kingpin, especially as he made the point that, as a Spiderman foe, the guy must be a powerhouse—and so he just flattens DD the first time they tangle. What Miller brought visually to the comic was, I think, more valuable than the stories (though some were terrific and memorable).

Lemnoc said...

I agree with much of what's been said.

DKR took a new look at the "friendship" of Clark and Bruce from World's Finest and came to a remarkably different and original conclusion about it: The operating styles of these boys would not leave them as "friends."

That became the defacto relationship for two decades as something fresh became stale.

Yet I think the series' take on the two was roughly accurate in its wildly distorted way. The very nature of disguised vigilantes running around and dispensing their peculiar brands of justice is, at its core, let's face it, fascist. And you had one fascist working for the State and another working against it. Fact is, as he's been portrayed for decades, Superman *is* a tool and Batman has every reason to resent him... other than, y'know, pettiness is not heroic.

What struck me originally about DKR was how humorous it was, in its black little acidic way, and how it was not in any way a celebration or a sanction of Bats' bat@#$% ways. It was like looking at a familiar face in a cracked mirror and realizing its not really so handsome and dashing after all. That's something entirely lost in cheaper iterations.

Doug said...

Many, many very good points made here today so far. My memories of the series itself are many.

1. I've not stopped thanking a college buddy of mine who sold me his copy of #1 as #2 was hitting the stands. He called back to his LCS in Little Rock and asked the owner if he could get another 1st print of TDKR -- he could, so I was able to get in on the ground floor of this as it was being released.

2. The first issue was like nothing I'd ever seen. The format alone was a head-turner. Wow! What a big, thick, beautiful book! Reading it made it seem longer than any annual or giant-size that had come before.

3. The pre-apocalyptic Batman widened my eyes. The build-up at the beginning of the first issue to the big reveal of Bruce Wayne "coming out of retirement" was great -- what suspenseful storytelling. The first issue was just perfect in words and in pictures.

4. And then with the second issue things began to change. For whatever reason, Miller began to morph his art away from what we'd seen of him on Daredevil and toward a more sketchy, even grotesque style of drawing. Is that perhaps a storytelling element in itself -- the art deteriorated as the story spiraled downward toward the dark conclusion? Now I think it was Miller's full intent; back then I found it jarring and not a bit unsettling.

5. The conclusion was sharp-tongued action unlike anything I'd seen. These certainly (Batman and Ollie) weren't the good guys of the 1970's Justice League and/or Super Friends! And Selina... Oy.

6. So like many of you, I think as a story, self-contained, it has its triumphs. But I cannot think of this book and what I consider its greatness without hating it for what it did to comics really down to the present. As many have said, the mimics who followed, and those among them who felt they needed to "do it one better" fully participated in this Bronze Age Baby being driven away from the comic book industry as it currently resides on the shelves. Longboxes? You know I'm still there. But after 25 years, this really has done more harm than good.


J.A. Morris said...

In my last comment, I mentioned how writers felt the need to out-do Miller's bleak Batman.
The result was that conventional wisdom became "if Batman isn't grim & gritty and obsessive, he may as well be the Batman of the Adam West series, or the Batman who guest-starred on 'Scooby Doo'".
Any story featuring "fun Batman" or even "middle-ground Batman" had no chance of being published. DC even re-colored some editions of 'The Killing Joke', because Batman has a yellow chest emblem in the original printing (might make people think of West!).
I think this may be one of the reasons why you can't find too many reprints of Jim Aparo Batman stories, even though he's the definitive Batman artist for so many of us. His stories are considered to "lightweight" post-DKR.
There should be room in comicdom for "Fun Batman" (in recent times found only in 'The Animated Series' and the 'Brave and the Bold' cartoons, and their comic spin-offs) and "Grim Batman", and something that combines the best of both.
Also, I haven't read any post-DKR stories where it looks like Bruce Wayne is getting any catharsis out of being Batman. The case could be made that he's not doing such a great job, as Gotham's crime rate doesn't seem to be dipping. He should go ahead and lighten up a bit and at least have some fun. Maybe not become a smart-ass like Spider-Man, but it would be nice to see him enjoy catching a bad guy.

One last note, I've said it here before:
What we think of as "Frank Miller art" is really "Miller/Janson" art. IMHO,his pencils never looked better before or after his many collaborations with Janson.

Doug said...

J.A. --

Jim Aparo, not so much. However, DC is putting out high-quality hardcover editions of the runs of Gene Colan, Marshall Rogers, and Don Newton. You can find all of them for sale here (the Colan one shipped today, I believe; I'm gonna get my mitts on the Rogers one to be sure!):

And yes, the various cartoons have been a nice blend of Dark and not-so-Dark Knight. And I didn't feel they were dumbed-down because they were "kid shows" -- just good storytelling without the depression and broken bones.

That being said, one of my favorite scenes in TDKR is when Batman is in the tenement lying in wait for the thug and muses about his potential attacking options. Great scene.


Anonymous said...

I'll agree with most of the commenters here that the Dark Knight had an ultimately negative effect on comics though I think comics were already well on their way into the "grim and gritty" path. I mean, look at the popularity of Wolverine, the Punisher and Judge Dredd around the same time.

What was different with the Dark Knight was that it showed that this style could be used with old, established characters, even ones that were perceived as kiddie-oriented. So, in that sense, it sped up the process, I guess.

What annoyed about the Dark Knight then and now was that it overshadowed so much of the work that went before it. Batman hadn't been kiddie-oriented since the 1960s. Denny, O'Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Doug Monech and Gene Colan, to name a few, had done great work revitalizing the character. All that was seemingly forgotten in the years after Miller's opus came out and he was given sole credit for it. That irks.

Inkstained Wretch said...

The above "anonymous" comment was by me, BTW. I must have hit the wrong key proofing it.

Anonymous said...

J.A., your comments re: "Fun" and "Grim" remind me of something my wife once said.

While Christmas shopping for action figures for our toddler son about 10 years ago she asked a store clerk "Don't you have any "Nice" Batmans?


MattComix said...

The second most over-rated comic of all time.

The Batman/Superman fight has become little more than the ultimate (and needless) form of over-compensation for Batman not having powers. At the end of the day having those characters against each other makes them both look stupid.

William said...

I sometimes think that it was actually a happy accident for Frank Miller that DKR was received the way it was and became what it did, because since then he's proven that he can't write a decent Batman story to save his life (with the possible exception of BM: Year One). He doesn't seem to understand the character at all.

I first noticed this when he wrote the "Batman/Spawn" crossover back in the '90s (the one drawn by McFarlane). I have a friend who used to own a comic store back then (now he works for Marvel). He actually thought that comic was some kind of a joke. He didn't believe that Miller had actually even written it. I don't know how many of you may have read this thing, but in it Batman comes across like a crass, immature, abusive jackass. Totally out of character. For example, he constantly refers to Spawn as a " stupid twit". I mean constantly.

MIller then followed this with the sequel to DKR, "The Dark Knight Strikes Again", which is possibly one of the most maligned and badly reviewed comics ever created. Once again proving that Miller seems to not understand himself what he (supposedly) got right on DKR.

Finally we have "All-Star Batman". The "goddamn" Batman in this series has pretty much the same personality as the Batman in "Batman/Spawn". That of an uncouth, loutish bully. It seems to me that Miller thinks that the perfect Batman should be portrayed as nothing more than a foul mouthed thug in a cowl.

Which brings me back to my original statement. It would seem that Miller managed to get it "right" exactly once where Batman is concerned. And I'd argue that was just by accident. As stated in an earlier post, I personally never liked DKR. Never understood all the praise that was heaped upon it. I always figured that I must be missing something, so I've actually read it more than once. And I still don't get it. But, when I think of all the other stories where MIller has basically massacred the character, maybe I actually saw something nobody else did… Miller sucks at writing Batman, but at the time the story was just so shocking and different that nobody noticed.

Fred W. Hill said...

I regard The Dark Knight as a highpoint in mainstream comics artistry, whatever monstrosities it inspired. The one DC imaginary tale to out imagine them all. Yes, a parady, taking the conceit that in the 1980s it had been nearly 50 years since Bruce Wayne put on a costume and began fighting crime and now he was an angry old man. In that sense, it was perfect to still have Ronald Reagan as President! TDK, after all, was a stand alone story that wasn't meant to represent Batman in the distant future, but a Batman of the then present if he hadn't stayed eternally youthful.
Still, one bit that didn't make much sense to me was having the Joker commit suicide in order to frame Batman for murder. I strongly suspect that if a lunatic mass murderer was on the loose, and especially if this was someone who had been routinely been in and out of jail or asylums and killed scores of people every time he was out, the public would have cheered anyone who killed him and at most the authorities would have wagged a finger at the Joker killer -- "naughty, naughty, shouldn't kill deranged mass murderers, wink, wink, nudge, nudge". Admittedly, that is one big problem with the "grittily realistic" treatment of our once 4-color heroes -- it become increasingly absurd to have the most popular murdering fiends routinely sent to Arkham Asylum or wherever routinely escaping, committing all sorts of mayhem, then captured by the hero, sent back to the asylum or jail until its time to get out again. Or, in the all-too-often used Marvel variant, getting blown to smithereens but coming back later as the miscreant managed to "send their mind out" and found a way to obtain a new body. But of course, as long as Batman can sell enough comics to stick around, the Joker will never be too far behind, leaving a trail of corpes.

Mark Ginocchio said...

The first time I checked out this comic, I was very young and the store I picked it up from was obviously trying to make some coin, because they were promoting them strong as Tim Burton's Batman was in theaters. As a kid, Burton's Batman and TVs Batman were my basis for comparison, so you could imagine the shock I was in when I read this for the first time and just didn't get it.

I didn't re-read it until years later and to be honest, I totally understand the idea that this story is quite dated and even a bit overrated. I still think it's a pivotal part of the comic book/graphic novel canon because anything that inspires as much as Batman: Dark Knight has, at least needs to be recognized for that much. The fact that all these years later there are still posts dedicated to it speaks volumes. And keep in mind, coming back to it and re-reading it at different points in your life will continually change your perspective on it. I hated it at first, then loved it, and now recognize it with greater distance as something that's curious and interesting but not necessarily anything to get overly excited about.

Joseph said...

Great comments by everyone.

Re: MattComix
You've piqued my interest - what do you consider to be the most over-rated comic?

MattComix said...

@ Joseph. You've probably already guessed it. From the same era as DKR and the current comics industry also loves to use it as an un-official style guide.

Anonymous said...

geI loved the entire concept of the Dark Knight. However the art was uneven in some parts. The one page of Superman lifting a tank wasn't Miller's or Janson't best work. The whole scene with the joker in the funhouse looked like it was drawn by an eight year old.

Overall I thought the book was great. I was only hoping Neal Adams had the chance to draw it instead of Miller.

One thing I have to ask was why Neil Adams was never given a chance to write and draw his ultimate Batman story? Was it because he helped the families of the creators of Superman get an attourney to help their cause?
After watching how DC cut Siegal and Shuster out of any money the Superman book has become, you have to see how greedy and unethical corporations are.

Anonymous said...

What made the story so great was how Batman delt with old age. The fact that he does inspire imatators means his legacy will live beyond his lifetime. I hope the animated movie that I keep hearing about does justice to the character.

I think this should have been made into a movie long ago. The animated film might seem dated because the films stole so much from Miller's work.

The Dark Knight Strikes Back was a huge letdown for me. I hope that Frank does a third sequel to redeem himself. I am sure there is a market for it. He should get back Klaus Janson as inker and Lynn Varley as colorist again.

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