Friday, 23 November 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Because I haven't posted anything in a while and because everyone loves Batman, here's my essay on The Dark Knight Rises. I could have done a parody of Batman for my Comic Books & Graphic Novels assignment but I figured I hadn't done an essay in a while, so what the heck? It got 66% which isn't too bad for an essay, let's hope my comic book creative piece is better. What I've gathered, though, is that I need to work more on my conclusions. I have another essay due in a couple of weeks and I'm going to try really hard on that one, although I'm already feeling frustrated by it and I haven't even started!

Is Batman: The Dark Knight Returns a successful novel?
With the release of the final instalment of Christopher Nolen’s Batman trilogy it is clear to see that Batman has never been so popular. It has been over 20 years since Frank Miller wrote Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and yet a highly respected animated version has recently been released. Before Miller, dark and gritty protagonists fighting in a violent world were the exception not the norm. So does this shadowy way of storytelling make the Dark Knight Returns a successful novel?
Bruce Wayne has been retired from the superhero business for ten years but with the arrival of the Mutants he dons the cape once more. Gone is the campness and humour of the sixties and instead there is a dark anti-hero in a despairing city. Batman has always been a crime fighter ever since his creation in 1939 but The Dark Knight Returns involves more extreme violence, as well as plenty of blood and gore. The Dark Knight Returns made the New York Times bestseller list, and the Times critic called it ‘jazzy, offbeat, grim, shocking, nonlinear.’[1] It also received praise in reviews from Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly. However, not everyone was ready to accept this new style of comic book. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, was puzzled many things in the comic, including the masculine woman Bruno who has swastikas on her breasts and buttocks; ‘I don’t understand it fully,’ he says. ‘It’s beyond my early na├»ve Batman drawings, I guess.’ [2] The Village Voice, a New York paper, attacked the comic saying that it was ‘neoconservative propaganda’[3] based on the fact that the Dark Knight Returns did not offer a ‘didactic left-wing perspective’[4]. Miller found these comments ‘pretty silly’[5] and states that he ‘couldn’t have done Batman and have been politically correct at the same time, because the politically correct contingent won’t allow for any character with a larger-than-life status’[6] and that ‘violence was out’[7].  This however did not stop comics of a similar art form being produced. Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Maus were two comic books, as well as The Dark Knight Returns, that would usher in the ‘modern age of mainstream comics’.[8] This genre is characterised by darker, more psychologically driven stories and by anti-hero protagonists that blur the line between hero and villain.

Miller’s use of the literary device ‘internal monologue’[9] captures Bruce’s every thought and with this the reader can understand the choices he makes. The reader understands why Bruce wants to go back to crime fighting; they know that Batman misses Dick Grayson, the original Robin; and  they know why he will never stop.  Not only that, it helps to describe what is going on in what might be otherwise unclear artwork. For example, the scene in which Batman fights the Mutant leader, this device lets the reader know what is happening specifically. ‘I make him eat some garbage. Then I help him swallow it…Then his claws dig into my back. His filed teeth like razors in my trapezius.’[10] This is especially unclear in the book, and the reader certainly would not know that Batman’s trapezius was hurt from the drawings alone. Batman is not the only character with this interior monologue; most of the main characters have them too.

The colourist, Lynn Varley, cleverly distinguishes between these many thoughts by using different colours that represent the character. Batman’s is grey, which matches Gotham’s dull and gloomy atmosphere as well as his psychological state. Robin’s is a bright yellow, conveying her optimistic innocence, a brightness that contrasts completely with Batman. Superman’s is a bright blue that pales when he is in a weakened state during the nuclear attack. The Joker’s is a toxic green, signifying his evil personality.
However, not everyone appreciated the artistic talents. Mordecai Richler, writer for the New York Times, was not enthralled by Miller’s work, saying that ‘the drawings offer a grotesquely muscle-bound Batman and Superman, not the lovable champions of old.’[11] He added that ‘the stories are convoluted, difficult to follow and crammed with far too much text.’[12] While it could be argued that there is a lot of text and many smaller panels, there are no official conventions for comic books. The Art of Comics discusses the ‘Image-Text Complex in Comics’[13] and says that there are sometimes cases in which there are no words in panels and that, although more rarely, there are instances in which the panel is not filled with any image at all.[14] Miller and Klaus Janson were in their right to use as much image and text as they wanted.

Miller uses many characters to highlight Batman’s own character. There are scores of people who think he is a villain, like the civilians of Gotham city and Police Commissioner Yindel. Not only that, Miller uses Batman’s worst enemies, Two-Face and the Joker, against him, as well as his superhero friend, Superman.
Harvey Dent and Batman have essentially the same ideal – to make Gotham a better place. Unfortunately that changed for Dent when his face was disfigured by acid. Two-Face has spent the last 12 years in Arkham Asylum but has been released with a clean bill of health and a plastic surgery repaired face. He is however still Two-Face and he terrorises Gotham city swathed in bandages. Two-Face is a representation of what Bruce Wayne could become if he lets his crime fighting obsession overwhelm him. Miller stated that ‘Two-Face is identical to Batman in that he’s controlled by savage urges…he’s very much like Batman’[15]. At the end of their struggles Batman admits that looking at Dent is like looking at a mirror; ‘I see him. I see… “I see…a reflection, Harvey. A reflection”’[16]

Miller uses Two-Face like the warm up for the main event - the Joker. He is Batman’s most prolific enemy. The same Doctor who releases Two-Face allows the Joker to be free and claims that Batman is the menace who would harass him. When the Joker appears on the David Endochrine Show he is striking a powerful pose, almost resembling Superman’s a few pages earlier. He has strong, broad shoulders, and the way the curtain is positioned around him is similar to the movement of a cape. This is not the clownish Joker of the Batman TV series. This is Batman’s serious rival. Miller says that Joker is ‘a force of chaos’[17] and that he represents the ‘chaos Batman despises, the chaos that killed his parents.’[18]  In using the Joker Miller is also appealing to the many Batman fans. It would not be a true Batman comic without him.
The Dark Knight Returns is not necessarily canonical and statements have been issued regarding the continuity: ‘BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is also NOT considered to be part of the normal continuity. It is a POSSIBLE future for Batman, and one which may or may not happen…it would be a shame to limit the Batman’s future to this one story.’[19] So while Batman and the Joker have their final showdown, it is not necessarily how the Joker truly dies. Yet it is a fitting way to end it, with the Joker laughing to his death beside an aged Batman. This refined handling of such an important death is what makes The Dark Knight successful, as readers would not be satisfied with an ‘easy’ death. As the Joker was such a notorious villain he needed a fitting death. Even after he is dead he is still able to hurt Batman as the madness the Joker causes at the fairground is blamed on Batman: ‘By attacking Gotham’s police, Batman has revealed himself as an unqualified menace…the Joker’s body found mutilated and burned…murder is added to the charges against the Batman.’[20] None the less, the Joker is not the toughest challenge. Batman still has to face Superman. This again refers back to the modern age comics and how the lines between hero and villain are blurred.
Superman and Batman are polar opposites. Superman uses Clark Kent as his secret identity, he is not from this world, has super powers and cannot die. Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy, uses Batman as his secret identity. He has no super powers, only gadgets and strength, and he can die. Although the biggest difference is that Superman is a well-liked and respected superhero whereas Batman is seen as a menace and vigilante. Having Superman in this comic only proves how different the two are. While Bruce Wayne has been retired, Superman is now a pawn for the US government, who have asked him to stop Batman’s violent ways. The battle between Superman and Batman at the end of the novel is a satisfying climax; Batman may have beaten his enemies but now he must face his friend. Despite the fact that Miller uses internal monologue throughout this final showdown the audience does not know what the outcome will be, Batman never gives away his plan, even to Robin. Then, it seems like Batman has been killed. Yet the reader finds out that Bruce Wayne has left Gotham to create an army that will finally ‘bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers’.[21] This is more rewarding for a reader than if he had just died, as they know that Batman can never truly be stopped.

The Dark Knight Returns may not have been received well by everyone at the time of its release but for die-hard fans it was a hit. Like with any beloved character some people do not like it when they are changed or reimagined. But this was a much needed change for Batman. Miller’s gritty style has outlived the fun of the sixties and the fandom has been growing ever since. The Dark Knight Returns was inspiration for both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. It has been ranked number two on IGN’s list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels, second only to Batman: Year One.[22] It appears that while fans of the comic are torn, it cannot be denied that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was definitely a success.

[1] Bob Kane, Batman and Me (USA: Eclipse Books, 1989) p. 155
[2] Bob Kane, Batman and Me p. 155
[3] C. Carr, ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’, Village Voice, June 1986
[4] The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio (New York: Routledge, 1991) p. 38
[5] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 38
[6] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 38
[7] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 38
[8] The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach ed. by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook (UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2012) p.xxiv
[9] Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (London: Continuum, 2000) p. 267
[10] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (London: Titan Books, 1997) p. 78
[11] Mordecia Richler, ‘Paperbacks: Batman at Midlife: Or the Funnies Grow Up’, New York Times, May 03 1987. [accessed 22 Oct. 12]
[12] Mordecia Richler, ‘Paperbacks: Batman at Midlife: Or the Funnies Grow Up’, New York Times, May 03 1987. [accessed 22 Oct. 12]
[13] The Art of Comics ed. by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook p.93
[14] The Art of Comics ed. by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook p.96
[15] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 36
[16] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns p. 55
[17] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 36
[18] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 36
[19] The Many Lives of Batman, ed. by Roberta E. Pearson & William Uricchio p. 192
[20] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns pp. 157-158
[21] Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns p. 199
[22] Goldstein, Hilary, ‘The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels’, IGN, October 25 2011 [accessed 23 Oct. 12]

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