Dear Frank Miller,
Dude, what happened to you? You have let yourself GO!!!
Honestly, I know you’re like the proverbial Picasso of comic books or whatever, but at some point the crazy doodles have stopped secretly being masterpieces, and now they’re just crazy doodles.
I know you’ve had a lot going for you. You’ve had an illustrious career in the comic book industry, both as a writer and an artist, under more than five different publishing companies, since the late seventies. You’ve pumped life back into Daredevil, you’ve brought Batman back to his roots, and you’ve had two of your most acclaimed works (“Sin City” and “300”) adapted for the silver screen.
But let’s face it, your work of late hasn’t been gems. I know The Spirit was your first foray in to film-making, but … watching that movie was like having a barbed wire colonoscopy. And not the fun kind, either.
Basically, if I were to judge the span of your career based on what you have accomplished with Dark Knight universe alone (which, as you’ll realize once you continue reading, is basically what I will be doing for the rest of this article), I have seen you having gone from creating a revolutionary milestone in comic book history comparable to the finest works of Alan Moore, to eschewing utter travesty that makes Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin almost watchable.
(Author’s Note: Nah, I’m just kidding. That movie sucked.)
This four-part article is directed at you, Frank (even though I’m pretty sure you won’t be reading this anyway.) Here are my personal reviews for “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”, “Batman: Year One”, “Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again” and “All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder”.
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
The story begins roughly 20 years into a dystopian future, set after an unspecified incident that has turned a judgemental and scrutinizing eye to the superhero community and forcing many of them into retirement. Although based on the context of this book, no doubt its insidious origins have something to do with Ronald Reagan.
Bruce Wayne is in his 50’s during the course of this story, marking his eventual return as Batman as a sort of super-hero version of a mid-life crisis. It’s hard to imagine anything that would deter Batman from his crusade against crime, but this story diverges from mainstream continuity as Batman retires following the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Batman, among other super-heroes who have been publically criticized as vigilantes, hasn’t been seen in ten years.
In order to silence his inner-demons, Bruce Wayne has resorted to alcohol and apparently invoked his inner Tom Selleck by growing a moustache. The alcoholism, I can understand from a dramatic perspective. The moustache, on the other hand, is just plain confusing. To be honest, most of the (albeit short) time when he was sporting it I often mistook him for Commissioner Gordon. Thankfully, this only lasted a few pages.
Of course, it’s rather evident that he can’t stay out of the fight forever. No matter what the reason he’s turned his back on the cape and cowl, as always he has personal demons that cannot be ignored.
It’s fitting that the catalyst that makes him become the Batman once again is a reminder of that fateful night when his parents were murdered, a night that will forever continue to define who he is.
I forget where I’ve read this, so you’ll have to forgive me for plagiarism, but I think you wrote Batman as an older man so that the figure you looked up to as a child would be someone you could still look up to as an adult. This is something I can actually sympathise with. Superheroes are certainly figures that children look up to when they’re young, but as adults it may seem increasingly difficult to look up to these heroes when you surpass their age. Will I still be able to take Superman seriously once I’m older? That’s why I liked “Kingdom Come”, because we were given an older, wiser, and more seasoned character who has experienced more life lessons than his mainstream version. For that same reason, I like “The Dark Knight Returns”.
The Dark Knight has few villains to deal with, from Two-Face to Mutant Gangs to the Gotham City Police Department trying to apprehend him. In fact, at the heart of this story is a commentary that takes an introspective look at the thin line that separates super-heroism and vigilantism. With a retiring Commissioner Jim Gordon no longer able to vouch for him, Batman is regarded as a vigilante and by extension no better than a criminal.
Batman’s response to this accusation is “Sure we’re criminals, we’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.” Of course, Batman speaks of the technicalities of law, and his statement is meant to be ironic.
This aspect of the story is best exemplified in the satirical depiction of the media. In one ironic example, we have a low middle-class individual praising Batman for cleaning up the streets, wondering when he will get around to getting rid of “the gay’s”; alternatively, we also have an upper-class individual who believes it isn’t Batman’s place to operate outside of the law, admitting that he lives well outside of the confines of the city and thus has never been victim or witness to Gotham’s criminality.
But as always the Joker completely steals the show. The Dark Knight Returns not only offers a concise depiction of the character, but also of the mythology of the character. It has often been theorized that the Joker exists because of Batman, as if to appease some sort of proverbial cosmic balance. Since the disappearance of Batman, the Clown Prince of Crime has been sitting quietly in Arkham Asylum, apparently in a catatonic state. Once Batman returns, however, the Clown Prince of Crime snaps out of his funk and brings newfound Chaos to Batman’s newfound Order.
There’s a line of dialogue Batman directs at the Joker that is saturated with profound and disturbing insight. “I’ll count the dead, one by one. I’ll add them to the list, Joker. The list of all the people I’ve murdered by letting you live.” Here, the moral dilemma of whether or not it is justifiable for our hero to kill is real, as Batman actually prepares himself to carry out the deed and put an end to the madness once and for all. This book came out before “The Killing Joke” and “A Death in the Family”, so when it was first published the Joker hadn’t paralyzed Barbara Gordon or killed Jason Todd. Therefore, Batman’s resolve to break his oath and kill the Joker in this story actually makes even more sense in hindsight.
And yet, despite all the praise I just heaped onto what could be called your epic masterpiece, it isn’t without its flaws.
As a fan of the Man of Steel, it’s hard to accept Superman as a government stooge, a utilitarian willing to accept a minor evil for the sake of a greater good. Superman is purely altruistic, someone who does good for the sake of good. The Superman I know would be incapable of compromising his sense of right and wrong. What’s worse is that this is how you seem to regard this character overall, not just in this story.
Still, I gotta give you a big kudos on the fight scene between Batman and Superman. It’s an epic clash of the titans, and its awesomeness has not been equaled since (although this will eventually bite you in the ass in “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”.) Batman triumphing against Superman can be seen as an allegory of standing up to the status-quo. I just wish that a beloved character didn’t need to be assassinated (figuratively speaking.)
And then Batman uses guns. Even the most casual Batman fan knows Batman doesn’t use guns. Yet in this book he uses guns … on several occasions. I suppose for the most part, he uses guns for utilitarian reasons. He uses a sniper rifle to disable a helicopter (instead of using some sort of Bat anti-helicopter device.) He also uses a hand gun to set off plastic explosives to eliminate a barrier.
However, he also blasts a hole into a criminal’s stomach. And it’s not like this scene can be misinterpreted, either. Batman has his finger on the trigger, and the criminal is obviously dead. And yet that scene is hereafter completely ignored. Batman can go through the rest of the story preaching all about non-killing, but I can just turn back to page 64 and watch him create a human pin-cushion. If you’re going to have Batman KILL SOMEONE, then not bother to follow through with it, why bother including it in the first place?
I know I just spent the last bit tearing DKR apart, but I gotta give credit where credit is due. It’s a fantastic Batman title, it’s one of your best books, and it’s one of the pioneering graphic novels that revolutionized comics as a more realistic medium of storytelling.
Overall Grade: 8/10