Monday, February 22, 2016

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

Batman: The Dark Knight (April 1986)
"The Dark Knight Triumphant"
Frank Miller-Miller/Klaus Janson

Karen: We're back, taking another crack at this, moving on to issue two. So Batman has returned to Gotham City, to take on the threat of the Mutant Gang, and Jim Gordon is retiring as Police Commissioner. Oh, and we also have a new Robin, Carrie Kelly. All of these things come together in this second issue. I think I was most acutely aware of the waxing and waning between Batman and Gordon's careers. Both are satisfied with what they are doing. Gordon is at peace with his decision to retire -well, it's mandatory retirement, but he seems happy to go. Batman is relishing his return, back in the hellhole that Gotham has become. Gordon is secure in leaving it all behind because he has his wife, Sarah, to go home to. But Batman -what does he have other than his 'war'? He really feels to me like a sad, hollow man as he is shown here, nearing the end of his days. Who is there for him? Dick is mentioned, but nowhere to be found. Alfred is around, but still playing the role of faithful servant. Jason is obviously dead. And there is no wife or lover to stand by him.

Doug: So, like a teacher you had as a child, how old did you ever think Commissioner Gordon was when you were reading comics as a kid? He's forced, as you said, to retire at the age of 70. I suppose as a kid we really didn't have a grasp on age, but to think that Gordon would have been 58-60 when the Batman went into seclusion would have made him in his early to mid-30s in some adventures! Hard to conceive. I totally agree with you about Batman's obsession with his war on crime. That you said he was a "hollow man" seems appropriate -- throughout the story Miller has Bruce Wayne/Batman muse on various situations that would be a "good death" (although I had to chuckle the singular time he muttered that a certain situation would be a "bad death"), such that he has nothing to live for other than destroying Gotham's underworld.

Karen: As a kid, my take on DC heroes was developed more from TV than comics, so I thought of the TV commissioner, who surely was in his 60s, which seemed ancient to me! By the time I began reading Batman comics, that might have come down to late 40s or early 50s - which still seemed 'old' when you're a teenager. For many years, my mental picture of Superman was a hybrid of George Reeves and the Curt Swan comic version, an older authority figure. Eventually it was supplanted by a younger version.

Karen: Picking up on Batman being a 'hollow man' -here's where my ignorance of Batman comics shows. I'll admit, I've probably read fewer than 100 Batman and Detective Comics in my life. So while I think I have a grip on the character, it may be more informed by cartoons than by comics. Before DKR, was Batman ever shown as having such a lonely, single-minded life? I realize the circumstances here are different -he's nearing the end of his life, he's lost a lot of people -but it seems like after DKR, we got this whole "war" concept in his regular books too. I don't think he was portrayed as so obsessed prior to this.

Doug: Think about it this way -- even if in the Bronze Age the Batman had been portrayed as the Right-wing nutjob that we're discussing, you'd have still had Bob Haney writing The Brave and the Bold. That certainly would have been a heavy counter weight. But in answer to your question, I don't know that I'd characterize Batman as being very much past "driven". I don't think we'd ever seen him so obsessed, so brutal. I guess if you think of the strictest definition of a vigilante, then that is what Miller gave us -- a man who viewed himself as judge, jury, and executioner.

Karen: I think "driven" is what I would have said, but certainly not unbalanced, or flat out crazed, as he's been shown at times. Thanks for confirming.

Doug: Different authors have allowed Alfred to move across a spectrum of witness, confidante, ally, aide, medic, etc. He probably fills each of these roles throughout this story, but it's his snarkiness that I found appealing. He truly worries about Bruce Wayne, but his sarcasm is all that he can control and so uses it in no short supply in voicing his opinions of this revived crusade. 

Karen: One thing I noticed with this issue was the influence it had on the existing Batman films -- not the upcoming Batman v Superman, which obviously draws from this. There's the scene where Batman is hanging a mutant upside down over the city -- there was a similar scene in Batman Begins, I believe. The hulking Batmobile he uses in this issue "modified for riots" surely inspired the "Bat-Tank" of the Nolan films. But why shouldn't the film-makers take inspiration from this? The comics did. Perhaps more influential was Batman's tough, no-holds-barred approach with criminals. He even shoots a mutant early on in this issue, which took me by surprise. I have a big problem with Batman using guns, and even though he was using one of the mutant's guns, it still seems wrong to me for Batman to be pulling the trigger.

Doug: Dan Slott tweeted with several fans a few weeks ago concerning the new slate of Superman films. His position was quite simple: at their core values, Superman and Batman are heroes. They do not kill. He was adamant in his position, and of course there were bits to the conversation from both sides of the issue. One person tweeted a quote attributed to Batman that I thought was interesting -- "If you kill a killer, there are the same number of killers in the world." Hmm... 

Karen: I saw that quote on Facebook too and I don't know where it came from. Most of the stuff attributed to someone on social media turns out to be false. But I agree with Slott -- Superman and Batman -- and the vast majority of super-heroes -- should not kill. But that idea is a holdover from the days when these characters were supposed to represent ideals, and not just people with powers who could cause lots of destruction. Heroes used to be there for us; now they are above us, it seems.

Karen: Carrie Kelly was an interesting addition as Robin. Her motivation seems to be mostly hero-worship but regardless she adds a high note to the story. Her interactions with Batman help to humanize him, although they also, almost paradoxically, make him reprehensible, for endangering another child!

Doug: Think of the training that the previous Robins had gone through before being allowed to go on their first patrol (well, maybe not Tim Drake so much). We aren't told if Carrie has any gymnastics training, or any other training for that matter. And armed with a wooden slingshot? Crazy talk. I enjoyed her character -- smart, a little smart-alleck, too, daring, and already devoted to the crazy old man. To say she jumps right into Batman's war on crime would be an understatement. And does Miller take a shot at "today's" parents? The Kellys are pretty aloof... sort of like a couple of stoned ex-hippies. And where did Carrie get that authentic Robin get-up?

Karen: She used "lunch money" - her stoned parents must have been giving her quite a wad of cash!

Doug: I mentioned the art last week, and I want to just make a quick note that I despise the cover of this book. I think my former thoughts that the art degraded through the book may have been largely influenced by this cover. At any rate, I'm happy to report that the interiors are much more palatable than the image above. Another of my favorite images from the series is included above at left -- Batman suspending the thug from high above Gotham. Classic, at least for this version of the Caped Crusader.

Karen: I recall that "Bat-Hulk" image popping up on posters and t-shirts all over the place. I agree, it's not the most appealing. But it got its point across.

Doug: Let's talk about two major plot points in this issue: Batman's one-man war against the Mutants gang, and the return of the Joker. The tension between the city and the Mutants has built through the first issue and now appears to be headed toward resolution in this issue -- but what resolution? I got the feeling that there were more teens and young adults allied with the Mutants than not. It seemed as if some sort of violent plague had fallen over Gotham City. So there's this direct, immediate physical threat to Gotham's citizens and its businesses that forces the Batman into a confrontation earlier than he might have judged sane. On the other hand, he seemed to relish it when his first battle against the Mutant leader began.

Karen: Batman's discovery that the military is feeding weapons to the Mutants indicates that Gotham's state of decay isn't any accident. It seems Batman's not only going to face down the Mutant leader but a higher authority. He's definitely in his happy place.

Doug: The next time we see this fellow, his nose has been destroyed and he's railing to the media against the Batman, further challenging him to a rematch. And then later we get a glimpse of him in lock-up as Gotham's mayor is escorted by Gordon to a meeting. The mayor wants to negotiate with the Mutant leader in his cell. Bad call, as the mayor's throat is ripped out. And that leads to the second battle with the Dark Knight, which is more epic than the first. By now the level of violence in this story has left any charts I could think of. Miller's staccato vignettes of Gotham's deranged and delirious citizens and their crazy world serve as an appetizer for this final battle. Batman finally realizes that the high he has gotten from his return to action isn't enough.

Karen: The second time around, Batman uses his brain. He dictates the terms of the fight, using the mud pit as an equalizer. "This isn't a mudhole," he tells the Mutant Leader, "It's an operating table, and I'm the surgeon." He's come down from his high, I think, and started to plan for the long term.

Doug: And then there's the Joker. So far we've only caught glimpses of him. He's in a psychiatric care facility, the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled. I'll say. The Joker was in many of the scenes in the first issue that told of Harvey Dent's healing and then quick descent back to madness. I'll tell you, Miller's Joker creeps me out! He at first is depicted as a blank behind eyes that are alive but don't really see. But the mention of the return of the Batman sparks something -- almost like turning on the copy machine in the morning, hearing the whirring of the parts and the seeing the various lights flicker on as it warms up. It's a real suspense builder. In this issue we learn that Dr. Wolper actually wants to take him out in public for a brief appearance on a television talk show. Oh, my... To be continued.

Doug: Extra, extra, read all about it! But seriously, have you seen the Batman v. Superman poster below? Brass knuckles on the Batman? "The Dark Knight Returned; But Was He Batman?" I bid thee -- nay!


Edo Bosnar said...

After searching most of last week, I finally found someone here with a copy of DKR who could loan it to me, so I re-read it over the weekend. My impressions of this have definitely changed since the last time I read it, sometime in the early 1990s, as I think I found the overall bleakness less to my liking. So even more than before, I consider this a well-crafted Elseworlds story.
Like both of you, I was more of a Marvel reader back in the day as well, so I'm hardly an expert on Batman. Still, I did read Brave and the Bold pretty regularly, and occasional picked up Detective and Batman. And I definitely think Miller's portrayal of the character makes him seem too hollow, mentally broken and yes, brutal. Personally, I think writers like Englehart, O'Neil and Barr did a much better job of portraying a driven and committed Batman without making him seem like he's one step away from being committed to a psychiatric facility. More than before, I was also bothered by how sadistically violent Batman is portrayed here - and it seems like he's discarded all qualms about killing (even though there's that one rather unconvincing narration box in which he claims that none of those Mutant gang members were killed during his assault on their gathering at the garbage dump).
Other things that I found I didn't like: 1. the way the new Robin just sort of stumbled into the story and how quickly she's accepted by Batman. I like the character as portrayed, but still; 2. Alfred basically relegated to delivering smart-aleck one-liners on the sidelines, even when he's apparently conducting life-saving surgery on Bruce (!)
Actually, since I only read the last chapter late last night, a lot of my thoughts on this story are still kind of swirling around in my head, so I'll probably have more coherent comments and impressions to share in your later installments...

Doug said...

Edo --

I'm glad you had the chance to re-read this.

It is an affecting story, in many ways. I agree with your comment about needing time to process this. It is certainly not your average, run-of-the-mill comic book story.


Martinex1 said...

As I said last week, I have not read DKR, but I am curious about the cover and its appeal. I've seen that art multiple times and assumed (wrongfully) that the interiors would look like that. What is it trying to represent?. That Batman is in a box? That he is bursting at the seams? That he is shaky? Honestly that cover is one reason I never read the book. Any insight to it? It looks like a preliminary sketch, but it's become quite memorable.

Pat Henry said...

I think the thing at the time that blew away my friends at Ye Olde Comic Shop was the tank. No one had ever seen anything like that before and it came across as very outrageous and almost comically over-the-top.

How was Batman ordinarily depicted in Detective Comics? Most of the time he seems to have been a well-rounded Adventuresome Everyman—except for the wise-cracking, the character he was perhaps most like in terms of his adventures was Spider-Man: Mostly urban, but sometimes cosmic across space and time. Didn't like crooks much, and so didn't spar with them verbally like Spidey. He had a Robin to bounce thoughts off, so he didn't need a lot of interior monologue or a "war journal." He wasn't crippled or damaged or dark, had a bit of a joie de vivre, but seldom do I ever recall him actually being a detective and solving an actual mystery (as opposed to picking up on the shibboleths his enemies had conveniently left behind). Writers really hadn't—at that time—spent much time getting inside his head and fussing with the cobwebs.

Pat Henry said...

The other thing I recall about the Batman of the Era was there seemed to be a lot of bolting on to the character of concepts developed from Doc Savage, especially the rehabilitative aspects of the Wayne Foundation. I think there was a sense through the comic at the time that Batman had to do more than just beat people up.

Oh, and Commissioner Gordon—Never an action figure to my recollection. He sort of served in about the same McGuffin role as Perry White in Superman.

Pat Henry said...

Martinex1— That cover is about as far from Neal Adams as you can possibly get. Maybe that was the point.

Doug said...

I think I recall there being a counter display used by retailers for the Dark Knight. There was a cardboard bin for the books, and an image of Batman rose above the book tops. I cannot recall if the cover to TDK Triumphant was used, or maybe it was the full-pager from the interior where Batman emerges from his tank. Either way, I didn't find either picture palatable or really all that suited for marketing. There were other far superior illustrations throughout the series.

Pat, if I recall my Bronze Age Batman, his status as the world's greatest detective was somewhat like on the TV show when he'd scoop Gordon and O'Hara and they'd be left shaking their heads in amazement. I don't recall any Batman tales that spent an issue of him looking at tissue samples or the chemical properties of a certain sample of mud. Let's face it -- gets in the way of the punch-'em-ups that we kiddies were really paying for!


Dr. Oyola said...

I love the at and I love the cover. The raw and ragged take is the perfect expression of this tattered Batman on the of sanity and relevance, trying to claw his way back into the world he abandoned, and that in many ways does not want him (maybe never wanted him). The cover suggests a kind of sickness that I associate with the Batman. Even when he is depicted as more well-rounded and even affable, I think of him as a madman immersed in an absurd ideology - it is just that sometimes he managed to tread water, and even float atop it, but other times, he is drowning.

In other words, the cover works in conversation with the various images of Batman.

J.A. Morris said...

Another great post by Karen and Doug.

And thanks for the Batman image. I can't say I have any expectations for the Batman/Superman movie. But at least the movie Batman finally has a little bit of gray in his costume and isn't wearing a solid black suit.

Martinex1 said...

I like Dr. Oyola's explanation of the cover It had to be an extremely risky move for editorial. I cannot think of another cover like it in mainstream super hero comics. It has an Indy feel to it. As Pat said, it's about as far from what was mainstream as you can get. It still turns me off a bit it I appreciate the interpretation.

spencer said...

Another fun read from you guys. I remember seeing the "Bat-Hulk" cover too, and thinking, "wow, what are they doing?" But that intrigued me more than anything. Yes, this is a different take on The Batman. That's the whole point. Reading month after month of cookie-cutter stories is a real problem in comics, always has been since the invention of the "universe.: (sorry, Stan,). I love different interpretations of these characters, even though I might not love each and every one equally.

The idea that Batman is just as psycho as the Joker was a new idea for me back in the '80's, and I loved it.

Anonymous said...

Nice review Doug & Karen!

Hmm that cover of Batman just doesn't do it for me somehow. While most people love Miller and Janson's artwork here, to be quite honest I was never a fan. In a similar vein, both DKR and Walt Simonson's Thor were epic game changing runs, but to me I appreciated the impact they had on the characters moreso than the artwork.

Still, Miller and company do a masterful job here. This Batman sure ain't foolin' around! I've always pictured Batman as a tortured soul, someone who in some ways was as psychologically damaged as some of his villains. So, it kind of makes sense to describe him as a 'sad, hollow man' according to Karen. Yes, I agree that our heroes shouldn't kill (in general) and it is jarring to see Batman with a gun, but Batman in this context is driven to do so because of all that's happened to him.

As for that poster of Affleck and brass knuckles, well, let's hope he has some kryptonite stashed safely somewhere in his cape too!

- Mike 'wait, there was a female robin?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

SonOfCthulhu said...

The "Good Death" theme:

Back when this came out, Death in the Family was years away and Jason Todd's ultimate fate not yet cemented in stone. Having read these prior to that event, I always came to the conclusion that is alluded to in the book that Jason's death was what caused Batman to quit. That this preoccupation with a "good death" was Batman's guilt over having failed Jason. A constant wish for suicide due to having gotten him killed.

This issue with him taking on a new Robin and the line about Jason "honoring him" but "the war goes on" seems to make a clear point that Batman has made a choice to try to overcome this guilt.

It's been a long time since I've read DKR, but your two articles have me itching to pull them off the shelf now. Good job on these.

Unknown said...

los movies - The buzz from the entire media, and the general public made it sound like this was the second coming of Star Wars. Well it wasn't. A matter of fact, this way over hyped pile of garbage is one of the worse movies i have seen in years. Where to begin. Lets start with the so called great acting. You must be kidding me. Ledger does not deserve an Oscar nomination for this. If anything, Jack Nicholson does a far better job playing the Joker. Christian Bale basically mumbles through most of his Bat man parts, and isn't much better when he isn't. Plot is stupid as heck. They make the Joker sound like some super human beast from another world. A dozen officers with machine guns would of killed him off in 2 seconds. But i guess that would of ruined the story line. Any way you analyze this movie. Its just plain old bad.
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