Batman: The Dark Knight (June 1986)
"The Dark Knight Falls"
Frank Miller-Miller/Klaus Janson
Karen: Time for a showdown. Well, a couple of showdowns, actually. But the one everyone seems to remember, and has apparently become the major 'take-home' point of TDKR 30 years later, is the battle, both on a physical and political level, between Batman and Superman. As we've seen in our previous three reviews, this story is overflowing with ideas and themes that can be analyzed and argued, but the one that has risen above the rest is the confrontation that closes out this issue. But before we get to that, there's quite a bit that happens in this concluding part of the story.
Doug: You hit the nail on the head with the "big fight" being all that seems to be remembered from this story. There aren't too many marketing images from Batman v Superman that do not feature Batman in all his armored-up glory. But upon my re-re-read (yep - I've read this issue twice recently for today's comments) I think I was more interested in the first part of the story than the second half. And to be blunt, I'm really not sure what they were fighting about. There -- I said it.
Karen: Well, ostensibly, Superman was there to shut Bats down. But it's always been about their philosophies, right? Or Miller's take on them, in any case. Before the big battle, we see a Batman who is progressively more injured, more damaged, who obviously cannot continue his fight too much longer. After his final encounter with the Joker, Alfred patches him back together, but he's in bad shape and barely keeping it together. He has come to rely on his new Robin more and more. The sense of the endgame is near. But that is mirrored in what's happening globally, where the Soviets have responded to the U.S.'s use of Superman in Corto Maltese by launching a 'meganuke' at that country.
Doug: The Batman's escape from the Tunnel of Love, where the now-dead Joker was further desecrated by a) Batman spitting on the corpse's face as he left, and b) the fact that the body was rigged to explode in fire, effectively removing the Joker from the plane of physical existence, was all quite exciting. And maybe I'll answer my own quandary about the what Superman and Batman were fighting over: it's not really politics, although that seems to keep coming up. I think Frank Miller hits on something that was mostly latent through the latter Golden Age and the Silver Age, and that's the methodology employed by these two heroes. I think they both want the same outcomes; but there "point A to point B" is so drastically different. Case in point -- Batman has no interest whatsoever in moving forward with any alliance with the Gotham City Police Department. In fact, I'd have to say that as he suggested at the end of TDKR #3 ("tonight it ends, Joker"), he really saw no relationship at all with the police moving forward. This is a Batman who is comfortable with his mortality.
Karen: On the surface their goals might sound the same -"protecting people" -but I'm not sure it means the same thing to the two of them. You have to think that Superman lives on such a broad scale that it's hard to compare to Batman's, which seems focused on just Gotham. I have to admit, I like the idea of them having the same goals but different methods. This has been done, and done well, in a few places; off the top of my head, I recall the animated "World's Finest" feature from years back. But here, it seems like Batman has developed a real grudge. He just wants to put Superman in his place!
Doug: Adjacent to Batman's escape and patching up by Alfred is another vignette about the former Mutants gang. As we saw previously, many of the gang members have become the Sons of the Batman. Yet at the beginning of TDKR #3 we saw a splinter group of neo-Nazis, and in this issue we see yet another group of thugs disguised as "Nixons". Man, Miller was all over the place. As I said earlier, we haven't exactly close read this graphic novel, but if you chose to do so the depth of analysis one could articulate boggles the mind.
Karen: Reagan, Nixon -I wonder if this would have any meaning at all for someone younger than 40 reading it? Before we jump into a discussion of Superman's diversion of the nuke and the results, I have to say I had to laugh at the depiction of Reagan going on the air in a radiation suit to tell America that's there's good news and bad news, and "those Soviets are pretty bad losers, yes they are."
Doug: For Miller wanting to make Superman out as the "bad guy" of the World's Finest team, he sure seems to hold Superman's powers in high regard. As we saw in the previous issue, Superman could pick up a radio transmission miles away. He does that here as he listens to the Reagan message. And away he goes! We should also remember that this is the pre-revamp Superman, when John Byrne de-powered Kal-el in the Man of Steel mini-series.
Karen: Everything goes to Hell when the Soviets fire off a nuclear weapon called a 'coldbringer.' Superman prevents it from hitting a populated area, but when it detonates in a desert it throws up a huge cloud that blacks out the sun, and it simultaneously emits an electromagnetic pulse that disrupts all electronics. The blackout in Gotham leads to both gang members and citizens behaving badly -that is, until Batman takes charge. I have to say, Batman on a horse is quite a sight.
Doug: I thought it was powerful how Miller and his colorist wife, Lynn Varley, chose to portray Superman and the bomb as silhouettes. The rest of the world, sky, etc. was colored "normally"; the stark contrast, and that it was all blacks, played on the emotions -- the impending sense of doom.
Karen: The scenes of Superman dealing with the nuclear missile were awe-inspiring. Particularly the ravaged Superman, flying up towards the nourishing sun, only to be struck by lightning -the red coloring in this panel is very effective. The idea that Superman is able to absorb solar energy stored in the Earth -and his reverence for the Earth -was also a very intriguing idea.
Doug: They were, and the coinciding chaos that the bomb wrought seems equally as apocalyptic. You mentioned the Gothamites behaving badly -- even worse than before (see our comments on one Byron Brassballs in our previous review). One scene that Miller used -- and I don't fault him, as this was 1986 -- was of a jet airliner crashing into a Gotham skyscraper. While the building did not come down, I still find myself sensitive to images like that. Way back when we did our spoiler-filled Man of Steel post, I commented that 9/11 remains a raw nerve for me. So to the horse...
Doug: Remember last time when I thought it was just a bit of a hoot to see Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent out for a pony ride? Ha! Talk about foreshadowing. Of course a rich guy like Bruce Wayne would have stables, if nothing else as mere props to keep the playboy image alive. But what a cool plot point to be able to use. Batman on a horse. And leading a bunch of teenaged thugs who, living in a huge city, may have never even seen a real horse. Not only has the world gone to Hell in the wake of the blast, but Gotham City seems now worse off than ever. Thank your lucky stars for heroes like Jim Gordon, though. The aged cop tries his best to be a leader, but the masses scoff. But when he pulls the metal that speaks business from its holster, he gets some attention.
Karen: In Batman and with Gordon and his gun, we're basically shown that the only way to keep order is through strength. I mean, that's the only way I can interpret this. Even Commissioner Yindel backs down and just lets Batman run the show. You mentioned Batman's fascism in a previous review. Well here it is in all its glory. The stuff with everyone pulling together is nice and all, but no one listens until the threat is there. And, yup, old Byron Brassballs is back again in the thick of it.
Doug: Like you, I had not thought of Superman being able to draw solar energy from the Earth itself. However, that was also not without a political/environmental statement from Miller. Did you notice that as Superman drew upon the Earth's energy, the nuclear winter immediately set in where it had not been before? That's some commentary on us, kids. The battle for the streets of Gotham rages, as Batman and his minions strive to restore order. Gordon, searching frantically for his wife, Sarah, finally finds her. They embrace, as the snow begins to fall.
Doug: Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne receives a guest -- Oliver Queen. Queen's recently out of jail, and it sounds like he engages in a little sabotage, even terrorism if I read the implication correctly. He tells Wayne that it's going to come down to a battle to the death between he and Superman. The Law simply cannot abide by the methods of the Batman. No crime in Gotham under the watch of the Sons of the Batman? True. But the cost... Oliver asks his old friend that he'd like to have just a small piece of Superman when the time comes, and alludes to the fact that his amputated arm was somehow the fault of the Man of Steel. A short while later, a slender ray of heat vision carves "WHERE?" in the snow on the Wayne estate. In a strong but normal tone, Bruce Wayne utters, "Crime Alley".
Karen: It makes sense that Miller would choose Queen, DC's outspoken liberal, as Batman's ally here. Seeing him missing his left arm was jarring when I first read this. I still find it hard to believe Superman would have personally removed Oliver's arm, but he could have brought him in to the authorities, who would have done it. In any case, there's a vendetta here on Queen's part. The newscast, which says Gotham is the only safe city, was also disturbing, because as you note, that 'safety' is supplied by Batman's thugs. It's like the safety of any repressive society. You're safe but you're not free.
Doug: I think we could make that statement of the present-day Middle East. It's a tough cost/benefit conversation about the former strongmen -- they were devils, yes... but there was order. I'm certainly not qualified to make any judgments about that, but there're certainly arguments to be had or made on both sides of the issue.
Doug: Alfred has helped Batman prepare for what will be his final fight. A suit of armor and various technological enhancements have produced a Batman as we've not seen before. And he has a plan, timed to the minute. I have to tell you, I found this a bit uncomfortable when I first read it 30 years ago, and I've not strayed from that opinion in subsequent readings. Just some of the attitude of the Batman toward Superman... "I know you won't be late, Clark. You hate to stay up late." "I've had worse times." -- as six missiles knock Superman around the skies above Crime Alley. For a kid who grew up with Adam West in reruns and the Super Friends on Saturday mornings, this was a little jarring to my sensibilities. Batman levels the playing field as we know he can -- at times, I've felt he was the DCU version of Reed Richards or Tony Stark -- and early on the fight is actually Advantage: Batman. But we know that cannot last.
Karen: I know that when I first read this, when it first came out, it was all pretty thrilling. But as I've said before, with the perspective of many years, I find it now to be more off-putting than anything else. It's just not a view of Batman that I care for. But within the context of the story, Batman is going all out. He's getting his "grand death" as he puts it. He so desperately wants to beat the tar out of Superman. Funny, I realized that that terrible line in the recent commercials for the Batman v. Superman film, where Batman says to Superman something about "I'm going to show you what it means to be a man" is right out of this book, as here Batman says, "It's way past time you learned what it means to be a man." They really are using every bit of this book! You cannot see me shaking my head, but I am shaking my head...
Doug: The ending seems final. Batman -- dead. Alfred -- dead. Wayne Manor -- destroyed. But of course the Batman had one more thing up his sleeve. I again got a mixed signal with Superman's reaction at the funeral of Bruce Wayne. Ally or enemy? And then came the coda... the Sons of the Batman would continue to operate. But under rules that one might assume would stress civil rights first. We can hope.
Karen: Well, partner, that seems an unlikely hope. I have to admit, I am pretty sure I at least picked up the first issue or two of the sequel to this, but I have no memory at all of the story! Re-reading this after many years was a real adventure. It's become such an iconic story, the inspiration for so much that has come after. It was hard to separate that from the story itself and not consider that during the review, but for the most part, I think we managed. Actually, reading this now, the Batman's sense of impending mortality makes more of an impression than before. That's the thread running through the four issues that really ties it all together. Batman comes back for one last grand mission - to save Gotham, essentially, but he also wants to wrap up some loose ends. This was a more driven, more brutal Batman than ever before, one who had come to a lonely, empty place and filled it with his own type of fulfillment -beating down every thing that stood in his way. It may be unfair to blame Miller for the excesses of later writers, who took what should have been a standalone version of Batman and used his themes in the character's regular books, but his version of Batman has become the template for the Caped Crusader. Certainly for us Bronze Age readers, it was -and is -a shock to the senses.
Doug: But we're not done yet! Join us tomorrow for a sort of epilogue to today's conversation, as we'll take a gander at Frank Miller's original script for the battle royal pictured above. We think you'll find it interesting how he originally played it out in his mind, and then how it landed on the printed page. See you again Tuesday.