by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

" bring order to a world plagued by worse than thieves and  murderers."

Batman: The Dark Knight was written and drawn by Frank Miller, inked by Klaus Janson, and painted by Lynn Varley.

It tells of a middle-aged Batman coming out of retirement in a grimy world that has pretty well gone to hell.  He's a darker, more brutal -- and slightly unstable -- Batman, battlinng crazed street gangs, and old foes like Two-Face and the Joker...while gradually re-alienating the authorities that had demanded his retirement a decade before.  Eventually the story reaches a climactic confrontation between Batman, the urban iconoclast, and Superman, here representing the sell-out who unquestioningly serves the authorities.

Unlike The Watchmen or Kingdom Come, Batman: The Dark Knight is more episodic, with each chapter featuring its own main story, but held together by the overall narrative arc and sub-plots.

The strengths of  Batman: The Dark Knight are many.

Firstly, at his best Miller, the writer, is perhaps the only great writer in comic books -- there are great comic book writers, but he's a great writer who happens to express himself in comic books.  His ear for dialogue is incredible -- characters may not talk the way people talk, but they talk the way we wish we could talk, mixing naturalism with clever turn of phrases.  He is able to juggle various characters, expressing their individual personalities through the way they speak, without making them seem too cloyingly colourful.  The dialogue literally leaps off the page into your ears, with nary a misstep from Batman's gothic formality to the street lingo of the new Robin.  Add to that Miller's heavy use of internal monolgues, and you have a work in which almost every scene is filtered through the characters.  He puts you inside the heads of Batman, James Gordon, Robin, Superman, even the Joker (not a place you want to be!), and makes this, the most action/adventure-oriented of the three, also the most character-driven as well.

Superficially, at least, Batman: The Dark Knight might seem the more simple of the three.  Unlike The Watchmen and Kingdom Come, fans have not felt a need to put together annotations, or trade new found discoveries and clues hidden in the pictures.  In that sense, there is less obvious obscurity in Batman: The Dark Knight...perhaps the closest being the way other superheroes are referred to by their given names -- even Superman is nowhere identified as such, but merely as "Clark" -- and supporting characters from other comics are referred to (such as Superman's Jimmy Olsen or Green Lantern's Carol Ferris) but you'd already need to know who they were to recognize any significance.

That's just superficially.  In truth, Batman: The Dark Knight, like all  three series, demands re-readings to pick up on nuances, subtle foreshadowings, and the way certain phrases will be repeated in different scenes, acquiring new meanings in the doing.  Is the fact that Batman: The Dark Knight seems to encourage less of that heavy analysing an indication of  it being too simple...or too sophisticated (and subtle) by far?

Miller's art might be an acquired taste: a blend of realism, stylized, and the downright cartoony, Miller uses pictures the way they should be tell the story.  He has one of the best eyes for composition of any comic book artist.  When to use close-ups, when to use long-shots, when to  devote a whole page to a single panel and when to use a bunch of small images.  He also has a unique ability to convey nuances through facial expressions -- lots of artists only think they have that talent.

His sense of narrative structure is also at its peak -- not only have I  rarely (if ever) read a comic as viscerally effective as Batman: the Dark  Knight by anyone else, to my mind even Miller hasn't rivalled it (though his Batman: Year One comes closest in spots).  There are scenes of genuine, edge- of-the-seat excitement, of anticipation -- of build-up -- that are hard to do in a comic medium (or even novels).  In the first chapter, for instance, his use of a storm, and lightning bursts, to build up to Batman's first visual appearance, is truly breathtaking.  Something that distinguishes this from The  Watchmen and Kingdom Come is that, for all its character-stuff, for all its social commentary, it's squarely an action-adventure superhero series.

All of this makes Batman: The Dark Knight the most readable, the most viscerally successful of the three series.  He manipulates the reader ruthlessly, pushing all the buttons, and sends you on a wild, disturbing rollercoaster ride.  It's exciting, edge-of-your seat suspense one moment,  chuckle-inducing funny the next, riveting character stuff, followed by genuinely touching, lump-in-the-throat pathos.  It has it all.

You don't always have to agree with Miller's views -- in fact, you probably shouldn't in spots -- but he writes with anger and venom, portraying a world filled with vice and corruption, where criminals might just as readily be in political office as in jail.

However, Miller also has a tendency to play both sides, striking out at  both the Left and the Right.  This might be an artistic decision reflecting the ambiguity of the world...or a cynical, mercenary effort to appeal to the  broadest number of readers.  Sometimes his critiques don't even make sense in his own context.  He sets up a New Age psychiatrist as a bad guy (with a grim demise) by having him denounce Batman as the catalyst for the very criminals he fights...even as, in the case of the Joker (revived from a decade long catatonic state by Batman's reappearance) he's quite correct.

Ambiguity is at the heart of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, for better and for worse.  How much is to be taken literally, and how much more a metaphor, a paradigm?  Which character's views are being lampooned the most?  Taken metaphorically, it's an angry attack on society in general, raging against a world where killers walk the streets...but mass murderers sit in public office.  Taken literally, it's a disturbing homage to fascism.

Regarding the latter interpretation, Miller's main crime is how effective he makes his case.  By that I mean, glorification of fascism is hardly unique to Miller, or comic books.  Consider how many movies and TV shows and novels feature heroes who are cops or soldiers -- where, invariably, the message is that people are cattle, politicians weak-kneed, reporters slime, and the only true heroes are those who carry guns?  It's a scarey world, folks.

There are some technical ambiguities, as well.

One person commentating on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns said that Batman kills someone -- and was clearly pleased with this hardening of the character (many comic fans, and comic pros, aren't the liberals you might expect, often bristling under the more humanitarian facets of mainstream superheroes).  But I'm not sure that statement is correct -- certainly by the 3rd chapter, it's still being reiterated that Batman hasn't killed anyone.  And in a subsequent scene, Batman, having psyched himself up to performing just such a deed, seems to balk -- pulling back before crossing over that  line.  The ambiguity stems from the fact that the subsequent dialogue of his would-be victim is shaded Batman's thought panels (monologues are colour-coded to identify the various characters).  Are we supposed to infer that Batman, badly wounded and delirious, has killed the man, but, recoiling from his act, hallucinates that he has not?  And is that even murder -- or temporary insanity?  However, later lapses in the colour-coding would seem to suggest that there was no subtext to the scene.

In short, Batman doesn't appear to kill anyone in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

If more comics -- if any comics -- were more like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in dialogue and use of panel composition (not so much in the grittiness and violence which can be a bit unrelenting), I wouldn't have stopped reading comics regularly many years ago.  Sadly, though many, many were the emulators and imitators, none even came close.

Miller expresses his anger (whether real or affected) sometimes with drama, sometimes with black satire (Batman: The Dark Knight is very funny in spots) and ultimately poses a provocative question: is a man who isn't answerable to a higher authority any more dangerous than men who answer to a  higher authority...if that higher authority itself isn't actually answerable to anyone?

And this, strangely, is also what makes Batman: The Dark Knight the most unique of the three.  Miller seems to be using the fantasy world of superheroes to comment on the real world...while with  The Watchmen, a world of superheroes seems to be a metaphor for...a world of superheroes.

On to The Watchmen

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