Monday, February 29, 2016

The Dark Knight Returned; But Was He Batman? Part Three

Batman: The Dark Knight (May 1986)
"Hunt the Dark Knight"
Frank Miller-Miller/Klaus Janson

Doug: Everyone having fun? I am. While we haven't gone so far as to close read this graphic novel, I will say that going through it another couple of times as we frame these discussions has shed new light -- and revived some old lights -- on story elements, the art, the politics, and so on. I'm not sure now how many times I've read this story... could be around six or seven. And each time Frank Miller makes me consider things, whether or not I've paid them notice before. I think that's the staying power of this book. Comics fans often kick around the term "holds up". While certain aspects of the story are dated, I find that now-historical aspect part of the allure. Face it -- Frank Miller created this in 1985-86; how could it not be a product of his perception of his times? And this is a historical piece of literature. We've been talking about the difficulty in separating this as a comic book from this as a comic industry influence. But with the passage of time, now that's part of the story. And us chewing on it's merits as a standalone versus the suits and creators who smelled money like sharks smell blood and ran with it? I'm sure that's not what Miller set out to do. Has he himself milked the trend? You betcha. So this is complex, and I am enjoying going through it with you.

Doug: Karen remarked last week that what led the Batman to victory over the Mutants leader was not his ability to out-physical that monster, but to outsmart him. It's a great bridge to the second half of the book, where we'll find a Batman who is more Darknight Detective than Bat-hulk. And it starts right from the get-go, with Batman in disguise (a most ugly disguise... like someone threw hot oil on H.R. Pufnstuf's face). And what the heck did you make of the Nazi broad? And was she a she? Man, I could be scarred for life from that scene. I thought it was an interesting point that this little faction of former Mutants had not signed up with the Sons of the Batman. But splinter groups won't last long in the anarchic streets of Gotham City.

Karen: 'Bruno' was surely meant to be shocking in 1986 but now would probably elicit more protest as being insensitive than anything else. But I much prefer a Batman that tries to solve problems with his brain over one that pummels his way through everything. After defeating the Mutant Leader, and bringing a new Robin on-board, Batman has been reborn. He's firing on all cylinders again. 

Doug: I agree. And despite the level of violence that will get really ratcheted up as we move through this issue, there is a certain comfort zone in the first several pages of the tale.

Doug: Some of Miller's political commentary is quite troubling, but he does a brilliant job of using it to show just how far Gotham has fallen. The scene that's on my mind is when the advertising exec. pushes the disabled man onto the subway tracks. That scene is also our entry point for the arrival of Superman to the story, but it's really alarming nonetheless. But I will say that Miller's pessimism is perhaps not far off from our world of 2016, where mistrust, racial profiling, and a code of "no snitching" seems to rule the nightly news stories. And so what of Superman? I really liked the way he was introduced. It may seem corny to some, but I was digging the whole "faster than a speeding bullet" litany of his powers. Very dramatic.

Karen: I was wondering if the advertising exec -'Byron Brassballs' -- I mean really -- was supposed to look like Bernhard Goetz, the infamous Subway Vigilante? He looks a bit like him to me, anyway. Although given Miller's apparent worldview, I would think he would be a Goetz supporter. Superman's introduction gives him a properly mythic, larger than life feel. All the better for when he is eventually torn down?

Doug: I did an image search for Bernie Goetz upon your suggestion, and I'd say ol' Byron is definitely a stand-in for 1984's subway shooting vigilante. Weird, huh? I thought Miller used this character to stand out to the reader as just preposterous. But really, I think he's being used to parallel what some in the media and in politics were saying about the Batman. In answer to the issue you just raised, I guess I don't know where Miller stood.

Doug: Jim Gordon's exit from the book was perfect -- crusty and honest, as you'd expect him to be. The scene at his banquet was nicely juxtaposed with the discovery of the little robots (er, little CREEPY robots). A trend running through the early part of this volume is the growing relationship, training if you will, between the Batman and our new Robin. I have always loved the repeated, "If you do X, you're fired." Cracks me up every time. So the stake-out at Abner's apartment is our springboard into The Dark Knight #3's special guest-villain, the Joker. I got a chill over the three panels where he thinks to himself, "Just can't sleep. Should sleep. Should be fresh tomorrow. Tomorrow I go free."

Karen: As much as the concept of Robin should make absolutely no sense, I like Batman being balanced by Robin. Besides the "you're fired" dialog, I also liked how as he's chastising Robin while they are jumping and running across the rooftops, he throws in a fatherly "careful" here and there. This relationship is good for him. Having someone to care for provides some healing for this still-traumatized man.

Doug: Carrie Kelly is a great bridge between generations. Batman marvels at what she knows about the technology he's employed in various scenes. An "immigrant user" himself, Carrie takes to certain gadgets and mechanical workings as we now see today's youngsters -- quickly and without hesitation.


Karen: As for the Joker, I think in our off-line discussion I had mentioned how I did not care for his depiction in this. You're right, he's creepy, but I've never cared for that sort of romantic-obsessive angle, which I think Miller originated and others picked up on later. It just seems too easy. The Joker always looked a little feminine, and I suppose it's one way to go, but it doesn't ring true to me. I always thought Joker's challenge with Batman was more a contest of wills.

Doug: I didn't mind the caricature of Ronald Reagan. While of course not entirely accurate, it was not all that different from how he was being portrayed at the time in various media. At times I got the same vibe that I did when watching the Genesis video "Land of Confusion". I also think that Superman has been vilified since this story, the so-called Big Blue Boy Scout. But what's wrong with that? Superman himself relates how, after the trouble that forced the heroes underground (how many times has some sort of registration act been written into a comic story?) he was able to cut a deal that allowed him to operate in secret. And as the sworn protector of his adopted planet, what's wrong with that? I think Miller chose to go anti-establishment and so made Superman his whipping boy.

Karen: Yes, nothing novel about Reagan being portrayed as something of a nitwit, or senile. Things like that had been going on even when he was running for Governor of California. Superman does wind up as the patsy according to Miller. It's been a long time since I read this, and I haven't re-read issue #4 yet, so I don't recall if we ever get all the details on why the heroes were driven underground. Superman makes allusions to it. But it  does sound like Superman decided to play by the rules, to accept everyone being forced off the field, if he could still play, and that does seem pretty wimpy. He's Superman, for God's sake, isn't he supposed to stand up for truth, justice, and the American Way? The way Miller depicts it, he's an errand boy for the government. That's bothersome. Hey -doesn't this sound a bit like what we may see in the Civil War movie in a few months?

Doug: Yes it does, and that bothers me. I didn't read much of Civil War when it came out -- really the first scene where Nuklo goes off and Bill Foster is vaporized set a tone for me that I didn't want to partake in further. Interesting there, though, and here as well, that the guy who stands up for the ideals of freedom is to be portrayed as the bad guy. Iron Man's, and Batman's here, brand of fascism is "heroized". Maybe I'm missing something all the way through threads like this, and the Mutant Registration Act, etc. as well. 

Karen: Don't get me started on Civil War. [Umm... you brought it up ;) ] Thankfully that's pretty far out of our Bronze Age zone. I think the film will be sufficiently different from the comic that I'll be able to enjoy it (I hope). But here, with Superman, Miller's presentation is just so one-sided -when he has him thinking things like "I gave them my obedience and my invisibility. They gave me a license and let us live," it's hard to look on him as heroic. Yes, he's doing it so he can save people, but again, it's at the pleasure of the US government, which we've been shown is corrupt, and I guess I'm just a child of the 70s, that irks me. 

Doug: I think with Superman we have to determine what is the greater good. Certainly in this post-9/11 world in which we dwell these issues of "greater good" have been raised often with the Patriot Act and various similar ideas, such as body scans from the TSA. Every opportunity benefit has opportunity costs, right? But Miller is wearing his opinions on his sleeve in TDKR.

Doug: So Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go horseback riding. Maybe that's an odd scene, but I liked it. Miller manipulates us by playing Clark as very imperialistic -- regal. And Bruce just smirks at him. I loved how, in the middle of the conversation, Clark picked up on the news bulletin about the escalations in the Soviet activity on the fictional island of Corto Maltese and flew off to deal with it. Bruce, already set in his ways and confidant in his abilities and plans, says there's no hurry when Clark promises to resume their conversation. Bruce really wants no part of Clark's desire to talk him off his recent activities, and certainly doesn't want any part of being a "company man" like Superman has become.

Karen: Because I was never a regular DC reader, I don't know if this is/was always the case, but certainly part of Batman's appeal today is his ability to stand with 'gods' like Superman and Wonder Woman as an equal. I mean, he has no powers -at all -but by sheer force of his personality and his mental abilities, primarily, he has put himself in their ranks. In TDKR, he not only stands shoulder to shoulder with the god, he overcomes him, beats him. I think he was always highly regarded before but I think it was here that the ridiculous belief that Batman could overcome any foe began. Nowadays you can hear discussions in comic shops or see them on message boards about Batman vs. any character you want to name, and fans will come up with reasons Batman could beat that character "if he has time to plan". He has been deified, put in the pantheon even though in reality, he could never compete with these super-powered foes. Batman shouldn't really exist in the same universe as Superman, or Green Lantern. But he does, so we make the best of it. It's fun. But it stretches credulity to think this normal guy could survive a fight with any of these super-beings. But then, that's the ultimate wish fulfillment, isn't it?

Doug: And of course DC has gone so far in the past 15 years or so to refer to their Big Three as the "Trinity". Now if that doesn't have godly overtones...

Doug: The escalation of Cold War events is really just an appetizer to the meal that will be served in TDKR #4. The climax of this issue is the showdown with the Joker, which ties directly into the Clown Prince of Crime's coming out on the David Letterman Show. Oh wait -- the David Endochrine Show. So what was Miller saying there? The endocrine system produces hormones that regulate, among other things, reproduction and sexual urges. So is that why Dr. Ruth Westheimer was a guest on the show the same night as the Joker? Does this affirm your posit above that Miller was playing the Joker as this romantic-obsessive counterpart to the Batman's repressed urges?

Karen: You got me on the Endochrine thing. I just thought that was the strangest name to come up with. I'm not sure what Miller was trying to say there. And Dr. Ruth! I had forgotten about her, but she was everywhere back then. Yeah, the whole sexual repression thing, the lipstick, the scene down in the tunnel, it just seems too obvious to me. But I'm rarely happy with the way The Joker is portrayed. I can't stand The Killing Joke -not just The Joker, but the whole thing. So what do I know...

Doug: But before the Batman/Joker fireworks begin, there are others to deal with -- literally. In a scene foreshadowing what Miller would write about a year hence (in "Batman: Year One", Batman #404, February 1987), Batman thinks, "Fighting cops. It's been awhile..." Commissioner Yindel has ordered her police to surround the Late Night studios, as she is positive the Joker will make a play. She's also pretty daggone sure the Batman will show up. Right on both counts, Commissioner. I really liked the scene in the air and on the rooftops -- sure, Batman's outside the law, and one could argue that it's what allows the Joker to pull off his plan. But it's an exciting scene that speaks to Batman's skill, strength, and determination.

Karen: Yes, and so are the following scenes, with the congressman and Selina Kyle. After Batman and Robin escape, crashing through the window, Batman radios Yindel to go save the Governor. It made me think about how this relationship is starting, and where it could be in five years. Would Yindel still be chasing down Batman, or at some point, would she grudgingly form an alliance?

Doug: If that is a veiled request to get my opinion on or even participate in a review of TDKR2, you are barking up the wrong tree. Man, was that ill-advised and flat-out bad!

Doug: I found the scenes with Selina Kyle troubling. I did not care for the angle Miller took with Selina in "Batman: Year One", the seeds of which seem to have begun here (although much later in her life, obviously). Why go that route? I don't know that various creators through the years have always treated the Bob Kane/Bill Finger characterizations as gospel, but this seems such a departure from how Catwoman has ever been depicted. Miller seems to resolve the sexual tension between the Batman and Catwoman that was always there, from the funnybooks to the 1966 film and television series. But that Selina is a madam, and of course in that "Year One" story a prostitute herself is way off for me.

Doug: I'll add that had that initial scene (see below, at left) been stretched out, it would have given the same tense, uncomfortable vibe as the scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker confronts Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). At this point the Joker (and the Batman) seemed to be at a point of no return. So the tension created when the Joker approached Selina Kyle really had me on pins and needles. And then to see the way it played out a short while later. It's tough to know just what is implied, but I think some very vile actions took place. And Robin's reaction says it all. What that girl went through at the end of this story, no child her age should even have to think about. It really puts into perspective what the life of Dick Grayson must have been like had comic books been written with a R rating as this one was. I suppose the danger faced by Jason Todd during "A Death in the Family" would have been oft-happening circumstances.


Karen: Batman winds up with Joker in the Tunnel of Love. See? I'm not projecting anything! Batman is shot, stabbed, and yet he still is able to think about how a "gun is a coward's weapon." So he uses his hands on Joker. But despite all his guilt over Joker's murders, he doesn't kill him. I wish people would remember this rather than the fight with Superman! I thought that this was the Batman I knew - regardless of everything, when it comes down to it, he chooses not to kill Joker. OK, he does break his neck to paralyze him, but all things considered, I think Joker was getting off easy.

Doug: What seems a focal point to me, though, is that more than once Batman thinks to himself something along the lines of "this ends tonight". One way or another, one or both of them will end up dead when this has all played out. And, given that Batman had mused to himself on multiple occasions about a "good death" or "not a good death", it seems to me that any death at the hands or machinations of his mortal enemy would qualify as a "bad death". Batman had to know this would end in the Joker's death -- how, who can say? The unpredictability of the Clown Prince certainly held off any chance at anticipation. I agree with you that the Batman stopped short of killing the Joker, but are his actions any less shocking than what we saw from Superman at the end of Man of Steel? By the time he kills himself (and I wouldn't have the slightest idea how the physiology of breaking one's own neck, already with a broken neck would work), the Joker had taken a bat-star (that's what I'm going to call it -- the batarang would be larger) to the eye and would have taken a fair amount of physical abuse. And the pressure on the Joker's face when Batman grabs hold would not have in any way been pleasant. I agree with you that the Joker deserved what he got - a court of law would have sentenced him to die, no doubt. But he's in the Batman's court now. And isn't that Miller's point to this story, after all?


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, your points on Miller's politics have me scratching my head, too. That's what I alluded to in my comment on your first installment of this review: the last time I read this, before my current re-reading of about a week ago, was in the early 1990s, and then, as when I first read it, my impression was that Miller was coming at this from a - for lack of a better term - left standpoint (there's no doubt reading this that he was not a big fan of Reagan or big corporations pulling the strings behind the scenes). However, now, despite his obvious satirical digs at certain aspects of 1980s American patriotism, I'm not so sure about that - of course, my view here is not only influenced by a renewed reading of DKR, but also Miller's recent forays into political commentary.

I'm with you on your thoughts on Robin, by the way. As I said in the last post, I like the character and her role in this story, but it really stretches credibility (and yes, I'm aware that we're talking about super-hero comics here). I also agree with Doug's observations about Catwoman. I really do not understand, and never ever liked, Miller's need to cast her as a prostitute.
Also, 'Corto Maltese.' I'm guessing that this is some kind of tribute/hat-tip to the Italian comic of the same name?

Anonymous said...

Heh - I haven't seen the video for 'Land Of Confusion' since it was new. All those puppets were from a popular satirical TV show called Spitting Image that ran from 1984 till 1996 - Ronald Reagan was portrayed like that every week, as a senile old fool. And we had Dr. Ruth over here too.

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head at the start of this piece, that its the subtext of DKR that gives it staying power; thats what made it different to earlier superhero comics (and, as it turned out, most later ones too!) and why it had such an impact.
I always liked the way the politics of the book were unclear... in more recent years I guess we have a better idea of the author's politics, but it would be a pity to allow some of Frank Miller's later comments to get in the way of enjoying DKR.

On Ronald Reagan - didn't DKR, or at least this issue, come out right in the middle of the Iran/Contra thing, Oliver North and all that? Seems like that might be relevant here...


Pat Henry said...

On the lasting impact of TDKR:

This tale not only put a different and lasting spin on Batman, but seems to have imprinted a permanent change on the Joker as well. Prior, there was an “always in good fun” tone to his mockery and jesting, as though Batman was simply someone to taunt and make sport of for his own psycho jollies. Today, that final panel of the Joker laughing is the Joker we know—a hate-filled and deeply pyschopathic mass murderer. The depiction of the Joker as deeply bound to Batman, deeply in need of Batman, gets forged here—and we see that reiterated in Christopher Nolan’s film—”you complete me.”

I do love that line, “whatever’s in him rustles as it leaves.” I have always loved that line.

Doug said...

Thanks for the comments, gents. Karen and I really feel that the discussion points continue to deepen as this series goes on. It's certainly a work of art and literature worth a scholarly look. Who knows? Maybe there are a few dissertations out there that dissected TDKR.

And Sean -- again, I'll retract my former comments on the art throughout the series. With a very few exceptions sprinkled here and there, it is generally spectacular throughout.


Redartz said...

Fascinating, thought-provoking review, and comments. Many thanks to all; you have convinced me to give this a read...

Anonymous said...

Doug, One of the impressive things about the art was Miller's willingness to experiment; in particular, to be quite cartoony, a counter-intuitive approach given the themes of DKR, and daring at a time when the trend in comic art was going very much the other way. I mean, throughout the 70s and into the 80s, it was technically accomplished artists like John Buscema and Neal Adams that had set the standard to aim for.
Which made images like, say, that splash of Superman you included here so striking at the time.
Great stuff - looking forward to part 4.

Anonymous said...

On the politics thing. From what I heard one of the formative experiences for Mr. Miller was being mugged in NYC. So, I think he had some liberal views on Reagan (i.e., that he was a right wing nut case liable to get us into WWIII with the Soviets), but he was also becoming very conservative in his domestic views - i.e., he probably would have liked a Batman out there smashing up the muggers and thieves.

On the other hand, there is the scene coming in issue 4 with Byron Brassballs, so who can say?

William said...

One of the things that I actually always have liked about DKR is the art. It just looks so hand drawn (if you know what I mean). I am big fan of more the cartoony art styles in comics.

R. Lloyd said...

I couldn't understand why Miller didn't continue this story with a Dark Knight Universe line of comics other writers and artists could contribute to. While I liked the "Dark Knight" series of comics on that fancy Baxter paper, it didn't continue with Frank's characters and went off in different directions. All the other DC artists and writers were putting their own versions of the character in the higher priced Baxter paper editions.

As the title of the article states, "The Dark Knight Returned; but was he Batman?" I'd say yes. But a much older and grizzled Batman that knows there are less and less days ahead of him and he's not going to last forever. That gave the story an edge we never saw.

Unfortunately, too many artists and writers went off the rails with this grim and gritty version of Batman. The character started to take a too dark a turn in a way I don't think Miller ever intended.

Unknown said...

fandango - Before walking into this movie , i really had great expectations, what with the rave reviews the movie was being lavished with and the seemingly awesome trailer. And then came the moment of truth,the movie was very ordinary. I saw nothing special in this movie for me to even remotely praise it. It was long, many gaps in the plot in addition to scenes and story lines which seemed senseless and had no follow -up. Plus, there really was nothing artistic about it and it didn't actually have the enjoyable cinematic experience moviegoers would want to relish in. This was further aggravated with the poor lines in the film. In short the movie didn't get me all excited or sucked me into it. Throughout the entire film I was hardly able to connect to the film. That said however I wouldn't recommend folks to not watch it but just an advice to keep your hopes to a minimal point.
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