Frank Miller’s best known work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was written at a turning point in the comics industry. It was 1985, the start of what has now been called the ‘Iron Age’, a period where the stories became darker, more violent and (sometimes) more skewed towards a mature audience. Deconstruction of characters was common; the better of these took characters apart to explore how they worked and then put them back together again, the more ham-fisted just tore characters apart and left them wounded.
The Dark Knight Returns revitalised interest in Batman. It brought us many of the modern Batman tropes, most importantly the link between Batman and his villains (positing the idea that without Batman, the villains wouldn’t exist), Batman as sociopath acting out against legitimate targets (not directly supported by the narrative, but this can be read in) and The Joker becoming a mass-murderer (with successive writers each trying to top the atrocities of the previous). All of these ideas have been used badly in successive years, but we can’t blame that on the original, which has become a classic.
A classic which I re-read recently in order to re-examine the ideas it raised. I’ve long felt that it was a piece of flawless quality which has been tarnished by its poor imitators. I have since revised my opnion, first of him, now of it. My attitude towards Miller has soured over the years; I found 300 to be not only objectionable, but boring. The follow-up to Dark Knight Returns, titled Dark Knight Strikes Again, I found virtually unreadable drivel from start to finish. Upon re-reading the original, among the genuine insights, I found poor writing, woeful stereotyping and precisely the sort of juvenile, ego-charged power trip that has marked Miller’s later works. I still found it to be a good read, though certainly not flawless. Part of this is due to his characterisation of Batman: in particular, the pleasure the man takes in inflicting harm on criminals. While he refuses to kill, he is not averse to injury; in fact, he takes actions that result in injury to his opponent even when other options are available, and expresses no remorse when criminals die, even in painful ways.
All in all, what struck me most is the same thing that occurred to me while reflecting on Saving Private Ryan. That, too, was a piece that deconstructed the war movie. It showed the gore and violence that affected and twisted soldiers and was purportedly about finding humanity in the midst of war. What it utterly failed to do was extend the same courtesy to the enemy. The Nazis remained the same faceless, unknowable, implacable enemy that they have been in virtually every other World War II movie ever made. The one Nazi who gets anything like a persona is a prisoner they allow to live... and who returns to kill Tom Hanks and is later executed by the peaceful war correspondent. For a movie purporting to be about keeping one’s humanity amidst atrocity, it certainly went out of its way to justify atrocity.
In The Dark Knight Returns, the criminals are interchangeable. Most of them wear goggles or other facial adornments that render them impossible to tell apart other than colour scheme (the one criminal who wears anything different is, ironically, a neo-Nazi). While Batman and his personal nemeses are deconstructed, the ‘criminal’ is presented as a faceless enemy to be despised and crushed. They have no redeeming features, no individual personalities. They are caricatures of humanity. They are not to be understood, not to be empathised with. They are to be hit until they stop moving. There is no problem in Batman’s crusade that cannot be solved by hitting it hard enough and the only thing that stops him from cleaning up Gotham is the Government, in this case represented by Superman (who is little more than the President’s stooge).
This is the attitude I find disturbing. It’s what lowers Dark Knight Returns from a serious deconstruction to a power fantasy. ‘What if we just beat up criminals?’ it asks, with the answer being: ‘It would be AWESOME.’ If this attitude were isolated to this work, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, the criminal element is similarly-portrayed in other works (including much of modern Batman) and, unfortunately, real life. People in reality call for the execution of violent offenders, justifying their statements by saying: ‘They chose to be criminals, screw ‘em.’
While in fiction, power fantasies are relatively harmless, in real life, they are damaging. Crime and poverty are societal ills, but cannot simply be dealt with by hitting people. Increasing sentences tends not to reduce crime; it just makes us feel better as we take a proxy revenge against anyone who’s hurt us in the part. We empathise with Miller’s Batman because there is a part in the human psyche that enjoys being a bully. We cast our enemies as faceless evil because that justifies our actions, turns them from bullying into some form of a noble crusade against the criminal infidel.
Simple answers are attractive. We naturally prefer simplicity in our explanations. But Occam’s Razor tells us which explanations are preferred, not which are correct. Sometimes the simple answer is right. Sometimes the complex answer is right. There are indeed some problems violence can solve. In this case, I’m afraid of the people who think that hitting people solves everything.
And the comic? Well, I still think it’s pretty good. It has a glaring flaw, but Miller hadn’t quite descended into the madness that characterised his later works. A lot of it is there – the violent, hyper-masculine protagonist; the two female characters in the story were a tough lesbian (who hates Batman) and the former Catwoman, who runs an escort agency; the equating of optimism with naivete – all of which were magnified in his future pieces. As it is, it really is one of the best Batman stories. I just wish that while he was deconstructing Batman’s relationship with his named villains that he put some effort into Batman’s relationship with the criminal element.
(Yes, I'm a comic nerd. Amid the posts on politics, expect some on comics, books, movies and TV from time to time.)