Debriefing #2: ‘The Dark Knight Returns’

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Writer & Penciller: Frank Miller
Inker: Klaus Janson
Letterer: John Costanza
Colorist: Lynn Varley

It’s ten years since anyone last laid eyes on Batman. Jason Todd (the second Robin) is gone. Bruce hasn’t heard from Dick Grayson in years. Bruce Wayne spends most of his evenings either brooding or sharing a drink with Commissioner Gordon. But when a heatwave takes Gotham and a new gang known as The Mutants begin committing cruel and motiveless acts of crime throughout the city, Bruce goes back once more into that dark place and dons the cape and cowl again.

Edgar: James, what do you make of the overall tone of this book? I find it rather oppressive, like a warped version of the Batman world, which it is, but Miller goes all out in my opinion. What do your think?

James: This is what Batman fans refer to as the alternate future of Batman, so it does have a free-form feel. It’s odd, because there are parts where the book is grounded in what it would be like for an aged batman to don the suit once more, but then you have all of these elements that come out of left, and right, field. You’ve got this heavy political satire with Reagan that’s sprinkled throughout the book and the Mutant gang which come across like an alien race. I think Miller plays fast and loose with a lot of elements, but it works because Miller is more interested in the ideas behind things than in the literal plot or characters presented.

E: I see your point. The book does have clear, unhinged political undertones. It was written in the mid-80s, which was also when the American president, Ronald Regan, brought into the White House some intensely right-wing philosophies. I’m not an American, but it always felt to me that the 80s resembled the 00’s. The clash between the political right and left ran incredibly deep, which in some ways gave birth to a new generation of comic book storytellers (Alan Moore with Watchmen being another example). I’m not sure how ready I am to accept this sort of tone in a Batman story however. I understand this is a one-off of sorts (although there is a sequel), yet I kind of like my Batman stories to not be so politically charged.

J: I get that, but on the other hand I think Batman is as great means to explore the political ideas Miller brings up. The debates that rage throughout the comics over whether or not Batman is in the right or wrong presents a way to tackle the contrast in attitudes in the two political extremes, and, depending on how you read it, the pratfalls of both sides. However, I don’t think we want to get too deep into the political elements so I think we should talk about more about the presentation. What did you think of the heavy reliance on TV reports and interviews that Miller uses to incorporate a lot of those ideas? Is it too much, or does it make for an elegant form of exposition?

E: A good question. I’ll answer this way: At first I thought the idea was neat, I really did. We have these news anchor people interviewing ‘specialists’ or other reporters who toss in their two cents on the general themes of the book. I didn’t think Miller would use that so frequently however. It keeps coming back, and coming back and coming back. By the third chapter (or third book, if you will), it grew tiresome to me. Nothing new was being presented anymore. I’m not sure how well it worked as part of the story. It seems to me the new Commissioner and her vision of how to handle the Batman ordeal would have sufficed by the halfway mark.

J: Near the end of book four, when he’s got those interviews with all the people in the riot, he might have taken it too far. On the other hand, there’s a lot of material I like in those segments that I’m not sure how else you would present economically and effectively. Miller has a lot he wants to pack into this book, so much so that even at 200 pages I feel like he’s working hard to make everything fit.

E: I think that is part of my problem with the book. He not only packs in so much, but he harps on things that I’m sure astute Batman fans, be they readers or fans of the films or cartoons, clued in on by now and at that time (mid 80s). Questions like: ‘What purpose does the Batman serve?’ and ‘Is Batman part of the problem since he appears as a vigilante?’ Haven’t other stories, in print and on film, tackled those issues as directly parts of the stories without using these redundant little tools? It felt like to much for me. Just tell a story, man.

J: We’ll have to brush up a bit on Batman history, but I think that this was actually the book that challenged a lot of those assumptions. This was the deconstruction period where we got stories like Watchmen that challenged notions that superheroes are valiant and pure in their intentions. For instance, I think what I’m compelled by the most in this book is how sadistic and disturbed Batman is in this book. Miller almost makes him out to be demonic in some moments.

E: You know what, I can accept that, the fact that this was in all likelihood THE book that all of a sudden openly challenged that ideology of Batman and how he goes about his missions. That’s a very fair point. I guess when one is the first to attempt something, then the craft is not necessarily perfected. Miller was among the first, and so did the best job he could, not having any precedent to find inspiration from. The end result is not one I’m enamoured with, but I can certainly respect that he paved the way for other storytellers to build on that. As far as the sadistic Batman is concerned, I have mixed feelings about that. I wonder what another alternated future would read like with a mellowed out Batman. Maybe that’s not possible in his line of duty.

J: Something to consider is that Jason Todd is (presumably) dead, and Batman is facing a kind of senseless violence on a scale that hasn’t occurred before. He’s drawn this line that he won’t kill people, and even as dark and gritty as this book is he still doesn’t cross that line, but there’s also this realization that Bruce needs Batman and that being Batman requires going to a dark place. I think that place has been made even darker because of those past 10 years, facing the emptiness of his meaning and purpose without Batman compounded by the regret and guilt he probably feels over his past.

E: Yet another aspect of the book I have mixed feelings towards. I loved readings his thought in the early goings of the story, precisely when he has not dusted off the old costume. He sees Gotham crumbling around him and that old itch comes back, an itch that can only be scratched if he venture into the night once more as the Caped Crusader. That’s great. What I found a little redundant, is how the guy is still reminiscing over his parents’ death, exactly as he was in Year One. It worked in that other story because he was not yet the Batman, but was looking to do ‘something’, and found some sort of inspiration through the grisly death of his folks. Here, it felt more like ‘Really, we’re still dwelling on this?’

J: One thing to consider is that the book came out a year before Miller released Year One, so it shows the seeds of the backstory he’ll refine in Year One. But I also think that Miller is wanting to craft a completely self-contained Batman story, which includes sketching out the beginning of Batman and (until the sequel) the end of Batman. It works for me in a poetic sense, but in terms of pure flow of the story, I can see it being excessive.

E: In the tradition of lazy arguments, ‘it just didn’t work for me.’ If we are to jump to another topic, what do you make of the new Robin?

J: I think the thing almost everyone brings up first off is that “Robin’s a girl!” which is funny that people find it so odd, because I always thought Robin was a bit more effeminate, at least my earliest impressions of him from the ‘60s movie and TV show. Miller is playing off of that almost androgynous, but slightly effeminate Robin. In terms of the actual character, I’m a bit stuck in between thinking I like the relationship for being a bit more understated, but on the other hand thinking it would have been nice for Miller to actually develop her as a character. She just seems gets costume, bumps into Batman, and then things roll from there.

E: That was scary because you pretty much took the words out of my mouth. I too have always had this side of me that felt Robin is…somewhat girly. Not the the derogatory sense, but just by the way the character moves and is supposed to be presented, save maybe in a few incarnations of the character. So seeing Robin literally being personified by a girl did not require too great a stretch of the imagination. Just as you wrote however, there is no back-story to her, she just appears as Robin and that’s it. Then again, I’ve been complaining about the book telling too much story and theme, so maybe a new Robin origin subplot would have had me impatient. What did you think of the banter between her and Batman? That was at least an attempt at something.

J: I liked it because I think it expresses a lot in a little. Batman constantly threatening to fire her but then always giving her a compliment after the fact, or a scolding. It shows that while he’s willing to take risks and be a bit stupid about some of his attacks, he’s very cautious about protecting others, I think in large part because of the fact he’s lost two Robins already.

E: Yeah, I like that little line about ‘The war goes on’ when Alfred (who is pretty funny in this book) challenges the idea of hiring yet another Robin after the fates the two predecessors met. He knows what is at stake, what the risks are and has fully come to terms with them. What did you think of the revolving door of villains and how easily they were unleashed unto the world?

J: As to why they’re released, I think that’s some of Miller’s political bias shining through because he paints those “bleeding heart liberals” as foolish enough to think they can save these people. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into what I know about Miller… It’s funny because I think that’s actually Batman’s position on them as well, which is why he hasn’t just killed them all at this point. I like the gallery of villains, if only because it also shows the relationship Batman has with villains. One can argue that The Joker doesn’t exist without Batman, because The Joker would just get bored otherwise and become pretty much who he is before Batman returns.

E: I think you make a solid point, about the irony of the situation with their consecutive releases given how Batman himself refuses to kill any of them, in the hope, maybe a foolishly false hope, that they may be redeemed. But this goes back to my initial complaint about the book, its overt political undertones. Batman is already, let’s say, flawed in thinking they can be redeemed. I didn’t need really moronic psychoanalysts arguing why Two-Face and the Joker are ‘cured.’ Worse still, it’s the same doctor on both occasions! That’s Miller bashing me over the head.

J: Miller does like to do some head-bashing from time to time. It’s funny, because I think in terms of story, he can be really subtle and build up to something instead of just throwing it out there, but some of the ideas he seems so passionate about that they make his book, to use a bad pun, comical. Still, I like how he teases the buildup to one character that I imagine you wouldn’t expect to be in this book if you just looked at the cover. Should we just go ahead and talk about it?

E: LOL. I recall our previous discussion ending with you saying ‘Well, we’ll be talking about Superman again in the future!’ I start reading this book, page 50 or whatever…BOOM: Superman’s coming to Gotham! Well, call me crazy, I think his inclusion is awesome despite all my reservations about Batman and all those fanciful DC characters supposedly living in the same universe. With Batman so deep into his dark psyche, who better to try to sway him than a long time ally, the most virtuous goody two-shoes on the planet? It’s a neat idea. What do you think?

J: I completely agree. I think as characters their clash as characters works perfectly with the book. Also, it works on another level where Superman represents the more idealistic and hopeful America that holds to these institutions and ideas as sacred while Batman represents this more cynical undercurrent that seeks to circumvent the issues of government and corruption of power. I think there are a lot of interesting elements you can tease out of that dynamic.

E: Miller does cleverly tease us a little bit, especially during the final battle, when Batman think s about teaching Superman to be a man. Is it just me however, or is Miller poking some fun at Superman as well. I don’t recall exactly what Superman is thinking, but there is a segment of the book when the Man of Steel is off in another country, blowing people to high heaven, practically burning them to death, all the while he’s thinking about how Batman is behaving like an idiot? Of course Superman is doing this for the cause of American freedom! Am I misremembering that?

J: You’re spot on. Miller sees an inherent contradiction in Superman. He’s this pure, untouchable idea, but he does end up fighting and destroying armies and becomes a shill for the higher-ups in the country. Batman is saying that at least he has the conviction to be honest about who he is, the man in the gutter, the monster duking it out in a brutish fistfight. Superman is deluded into thinking he’s somehow above that, beyond that…but, oddly, and this is more me speaking than the book, I think that is actually part of what Superman represents.

E: Yes, it is most likely in the inherent contradiction in the character itself, not merely related to this story. that being said, it works wonders in this story. I was a little bit iffy on Batman’s decision to go toe-to-toe with him, and it seems like he really wants to destroy Superman, but then we get that last page, with a certain revelation, and I suddenly had second thoughts: Was that just a ruse to continue doing what has always done? Sort of give his career new life through the former criminals and the new Robin? What do you think?

J: I think Batman dies in the end, symbolically. Bruce has spend the book revisiting this part of himself and he finally gets to that point where he realizes how self-destructive the persona has become. That’s why Miller sprinkles that line throughout the book about “this would be a good death” and then the book end with the line “this will be a good life.” Once able to break away from Batman, he’s able to leave that dark, masochistic place and find that he can still fight for the same things, but in a different role, with a different persona. It’s the same idea, but I think that the way he goes about executing it will be a lot more sensible and sane in the future.

E: Yes, the symbolic death of Batman, I can see that. It crossed my mind, but not as fleshed out as you just wrote it above. Is there anything else you want to touch on?

J: I briefly just wanted to say that I like Miller’s artwork a lot. I think was stands out the most to me is the vertically, which is something I always like seeing in comic books. The way he frames the action and also leaves a lot of moments to suggestion speak to a visual style that I think is more controlled and refrained than one might expect given the gritty nature of the comic book.

E: the presentation style, to me, speaks to how much Miller wants to tell in this story. There really aren’t a lot of grand scale panels. It’s a series of many small ones and they all have some dialogue, sometimes two people speaking in the same panel PLUS text above the panel. Not that I mind, I do think it was well drawn, with a nice level of detail and some interesting, deliberately crude depictions of the characters, I’m just saying I like grand scale panels where the action is epic! It’s a very nice book, I’ll give you that.

J: This is one of those books I feel I could go on and on talking about, there’s always another layer I can peel back and think about for a while. I think some of the storytelling techniques and execution of ideas aren’t as solid as they could be. I totally get people who have criticisms for this book, but, for me, it comes together as something special in the end. I hesitate to call it a mesterpiece, because that makes it sound sloppier than it is, but it is a book that plays fast and loose with a lot of elements and ends up becoming something spectacular by the end.

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