BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, THE WATCHMEN, KINGDOM COME
Reviews and Comparative Analysis (though without spoiling the endings!)
by The Masked Bookwyrm
In 1986, DC Comics published two expensive format comic book mini-series aimed, theoretically, at an audience slightly older than is perceived as the main audience for superhero comics: Batman: The Dark Knight -- commonly called The Dark Knight Returns (a strong PG) and The Watchmen (definitely R-rated). These two series were enormously influencial and were both republished in book form (all the issues -- or chapters -- collected in a single volume). Ten years later, DC published Kingdom Come (basically a soft PG -- little you wouldn't find in a mainstream comic).
There have been many comic book "graphic novels" both before1986 and since, but The Dark Knight, The Watchmen and Kingdom Come are readily lumped together because, in essence, they're the same story...particularly Batman: The Dark Knight and The Watchmen .
This might seem like an odd statement given that fans of the respective series (particularly The Watchmen fans) tend to view their favourite as transcending the genre. However, all series are set in worlds like are own, but more removed than the average superhero comic: Batman: The Dark Knight and Kingdom Come are set in the near future (featuring established superheroes), The Watchmen in an alternate reality with historical variations (and featuring characters created solely for the series). All concern a reality where a split has emerged between superheroes and the mainstream public, to the point where the latter fear their one-time heroes. All concern retired superheroes redonning their costumes. All are dressed up in Apocalyptic imagery, with a nuclear, or quasi-nuclear, explosion figuring into the dramatics. And in all cases, significantly, the crucial conflict is not so much between superhero and supervillain, but between superhero and superhero -- ideological clashes between two sides who each think they're in the right.
Batman: The Dark Knight and The Watchmen are even more curious, since they came out at the same time (Batman: The Dark Knight actually predates The Watchmen by a few months), and bear even more minute resemblances. The action in both takes place ten years after the heroes were forced to retire by government legislation, with those who didn't retire either serving the government in dirty, covert wars or becoming outlaws, and both, written during the cold war, feature an escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and Soviets in a foreign land that becomes crucial to the dramatics in the climax. For that matter, both feature a President based on real, former Presidents.
Visually they are similar, too, with the artists on both often employing a "grid" technique -- breaking pages up into many, small panels.
Despite these curious similarities (encouraging accusations of derivativeness), all three series are interesting, ambitious works. But some work better than others.
Two other series are worth mentioning. I was half-tempted to include Alan Davis' highly readable JLA: The Nail, because it bore some similarity to the three...but ultimately, I decided it wasn't -- and wasn't trying -- to play in quite the same sandbox. The other is Squadron Supreme. Squadron Supreme, from Marvel, actually pre-dates all these series and is clearly a forerunner of them in themes and ideas and probably should be included as part of this essay...but I'm just too lazy to do so right now. But I have reviewed it here.
Batman: The Dark Knight