On all Hallows Eve

A look at Zombies ate my Neighbors

Advertisements

When I was a kid the first halloween I can remember involved me and my brother dressing up as Batman and Robin and taking to the streets to get some candy. We hopped out of bushes ready to fight crime and got toothbrushes from dentists (in fairness she did give us candy in addition to the toothbrush). The overwhelming sense of the night was fun. Not terror but pure unrestrained childhood joy. All the skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts were cartoony and frightening. Sure there was a tiny part of are brain that recognized that these were once symbols of fear but they were for us harmless. We pretended to be afraid only so much as to go along with the fun of the night.

When I think of that sort of mindset one a childhood fun and scariness being superseded by just pure fun I think of the video game Zombie’s Ate my Neighbors for the SNES. Its a game I first picked out at random from the wii shop when I was still in grade school and it quickly became a favorite.

The overwhelming aesthetic and atmosphere of the game try to emulate a sort of kids horror movie like say “Monster Squad”. This contrasts it with my other favorite spoopy SNES game Super Castlevania 4 which actually tries to build an gothic atmosphere. While Castelavania has aspirations of being serious Zombies Ate my Neighbors is incredibly goofy. For one its 90s as fuck with the male player character in particular looking totally tubular and hip.

908491

It also maintains such a dorky “kidz rule” vibe to it I absolutely love. Everyone civilian you have to rescue is a cartoon cutout who are comically ineffectual against the zombie horde. All the adults are useless so its up to the kids to take on the zombies with there squirt guns and sodey pop.

The various enemy types are fun pastiches of movie monster villains and all work on their own rules leading to you having to devise different strategies of dealing with them. Zombies can easily be gunned down, while small Chucky-esque dolls move fast enough dropping soda behind you is the best option. The variety in design leads to some really creative moments of level design such as “Chainsaw Hedgemaze Mayhem” where one is placed in a maze with destructible walls but indestructible enemies you can also break down the walls. This leads to a careful balance of one using there most powerful weapon a Rocket Launcher as not an offensive weapon but as a method of enabling transportation.

maxresdefault

What really ties the game together for me though is the music. It is spooky in the cheesiest way possible pulling out every “scary” chord progression in the book but it has an incredibly fun an energetic bounce to it.

The overall feel of this game to me is one which draws upon the cheesiness of our younger Halloweens. When the holiday only represented fear to us in the most superficial sense and not in an genuinely horrific way. Its fun in video game form and every once in a while I will pop it out and place it in the SNES I have (Robin gives good birthday gifts) and have an absolute blast.

So to all who are reading I hope you all have a fun night whether you be out collecting candy like my younger sister, sitting inside shitposting like my younger brother, sitting in a basement doing homework like a rube, going to a party like my older sister, or sitting outside handing out candy like my parents.

Blog update

Im in a pretty good mood today. Im having a pretty lazy Saturday before heading off to work for a couple hours.

So I decided that just so I dont feel lazy procrastinating or writing anything else today ruining my good mood that I would write a bit on my future plans. Currently the nearest thing to release is a blog post on Berserk and how it specifically subverts the heroes journey. The next blog after that I will be working on a Halloween centric post about Zombies Ate my Neighbors. Finally the last blog post is a collaborative post I am writing with my older sister about Superman: American Alien by Max Landis.

Besides the blog I have a podcast I am working on. The name is currently a WIP but we will be covering the comic book Empowered by Adam Warren in out first episode.

Also since I got a sweet new mic for podcasting I figured I might just use it to make some lets plays so I can kill some time. First up I think will be a nuzlocke of Pokemon ruby.

I also made another playlist.

Anyway thats all for now folks so stay tuned.

Fly Away

A look at Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt

Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is anarchy personified. Not the actual political movement but your 14 year old perception of it. It’s a mess of pop culture references, varied animation, and irreverent gross-out humor, tied together and sold to you as an anime. It’s a western cartoon filtered through the lens of Studio Gainax and it’s truly something unique to hold.

Immediately Panty and Stocking makes an impression, largely through its art style, which owes more to the west than it does to any other anime. While anime has been characterized by many people as an incestuous genre that does not take in much outside influence (I disagree with this perspective btw but that’s another story), Panty and Stocking breaks far away from the anime mold. Western pop culture references abound from title cards, to direct homages, to straight up imitations of other art styles.

As protagonists Panty and Stocking are far cries from your average protagonist and even farther from your average female character. They are a pair of banished angels, sisters who were kicked out of heaven for bad behavior, and they are absolutely vulgar, egotistical, and horny, and most importantly act on all those impulses. This stands in far contrast from your average pure, humble, virginal female anime character, who waits around for the main character to choose them from a cadre of other pure, humble, virginal, females and have little to know volition of their own.  In my opinion the fact Panty and Stocking stand so far apart is fucking awesome. I’m all for variety in mediums especially among characters, and anime is sorely lacking in interesting female leads. For a show that breaks away from nearly every convention anime has they are perfect protagonists.

Panty and Stocking as a duo work together perfectly when it comes to writing fun dialogue as they, like many siblings, are constantly at each other’s throats, throwing out cheap insults, and verbally sparing with each other using every vulgar word ever conceived. In fitting with the shows irreverent comedy they constantly aim the lowest blows out each other, and each one tries to then top the other. As someone who has engaged in similar arguments with siblings it was something I could easily get caught up in. But what makes it all the more enjoyable is seeing that through all the insults they do care for each other. It gives the characters a necessary humanity, that many of the cartoons the show seeks to emulate lack. The characters are shitbags but they’re the kind of shitbags that you can root for and love.

The plot concerns Panty and Stockings misadventures as they attempt to regain entry into heaven through the accumulation of Heaven coins, which are collected through killing ghosts. As a premise it is incredibly broad and allows the show to tell a huge variety of self-contained stories, each one told in 10 minutes chunks just like western cartoons. Many episodes take the form of parodies, distorting a classic scenario through the eyes of the shows twisted humor. By far the episodes which standout to me the most are the zombie apocalypse, the transformers parody, and the episode where they are put on trial. The last one in particular I consider one of the funniest things ever created and it best exemplifies the shows style of comedy. The episode manages to include everything from parody of Tom Cruises character in Magnolia, to a monkey lawyer who when subjected to electric shock becomes a Phoenix Wright parody, and have it all fit together.

The show works largely because it’s main characters, shifting art style, and musical score, present the world of the show as a wild and unpredictable place. Immediately the animation gives off the impression that the animators are doing this out of a sense of fun, with constant references to works that the staff were fans off, and no intention whatsoever of being consistent. It says that one needn’t have to try and take this show seriously though it’s completely fine if one wants too.

The motivations of the main characters also help ground the show. It was once said by a much smarter man than I that the clearer a characters motivations the more distinct the character becomes. Both Panty and Stocking have very clear motivations. Both want to get back to heaven but not before indulging in their various vices first. In every episode you can count on Panty wanting to get laid and Stocking wanting to get sweets of some kind. This adds a bit of focus to the chaotic world and allows for the stories to be easier to follow.

The final thing that keeps the show in check is that it is willing to divert from being just vulgar. The second part of Episode 8 serves as the best example of this completely changing the formula. It focuses on a romantic subplot between Stocking and a ghost who well is kinda a literal disgusting shitbag. While the episode focuses on gross out comedy for the most part (a certain joke certainly got me gagging) it manages to actually have a pretty touching ending that said something meaningful about both of the main characters.

2864181-panty_and_stocking_2

One thing the show also excels at is its supporting cast each one being rather goofy but having a surprising amount of depth when actually focused on. Garterbelt a priest and the angels handler on Earth, for example is on the surface just a parody of Samuel L. Jackson with some sideways jokes about the whole Catholic sex abuse scandal thrown in, but when one digs deeper they find he actually has a rather compelling backstory told in a way that manages to be both cool and pretty funny at the same time. This extends to the other cast members to. The weird Invader Zim esque creature Chuck, at first just serves a cipher for physical comedy and abuse from the sisters is revealed to be a rather fearsome beast in the finale. Brief who is at first just a nerd in a ghostbusters outfit trying to hunt ghosts and crushing on Panty ends up playing a major role in the finale too which I won’t spoil here.

Though by far the best side characters are Scanty and Kneesocks, two demon sisters who are the exact opposite of Panty and Stocking in every way. They are orderly, smugly polite and constantly complementing in each other. They seek to exert order to the chaotic world of the show making them perfect rivals for Panty and Stocking. Also their theme song is fucking kickass.

Actually on that subject the entire soundtrack is fucking cool as shit. Its full of instantly recognizable and catchy electronic songs which add to the show a sense of synesthesia, enhancing the animation similar to another Gainax show FLCL. So many of the songs are seared into the minds of its listener as they are fit perfectly with the scenes they are matched with. Im sure most people would not consider the transformation sequence such an iconic moment without the backing track “Fly Away”

Where Panty and Stocking really appealed to me though was in its last two episodes. The show up until that point was content with just making irreverent comedy built around sex, pop culture references, and toilet humor but they actually tried to go for something serious at the end and make a point. Stocking is ascended back into heaven while Panty is not, because Panty spent too much time sleeping around. Panty and Brief engage in a romantic encounter and end up getting captured. This leads to the classic Gainax trope of putting the characters in a false world before the finale. Panty is placed on a farm and brought up to live a boring life that she is content with. This ends rather quickly as in keeping with the shows sense of humor all her family members are killed off by bikers, with her fictional grandmas final words basically telling her to be a free spirit. This leads to Panty taking a motorcycle and running of to confront the bad guys in a big epic showdown. During this confrontation Panty delivers a speech that is pretty on the nose about how older people try and use concepts like virginity and fears about going to hell to keep people from having sex.

Panty’s speech underlines the entire point of the show which is a celebration of the chaotic id. To be free and tell society and its rules to go fuck itself. It appeals to the teenager in you who wants nothing more than to go out and do a ton of crazy shit just because you can. Unlike some other material with a teenage mindset (cough cough Freezing) there is a certain purity to it all. It isn’t a brutal show for as vulgar as it may be, and it isn’t there to try and make you feel mature, it’s just there to have a good time.

As the show wraps up in one of those big Gainax style endings which never fail to impress it gives every character a moment to shine and really ends on a high note. Then after the credits out of the blue, Stocking cuts up Panty, reveals she is a demon, and Garter has to go collect the various pieces of Panty. Most people hate this ending but I will stick up for it. It’s one last irreverent joke at the expense of the audience, and what better way to end the most unique and irreverent anime series of all time with something no one was expecting.

Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is possibly one of the weirdest pieces of media I have ever watched and anyone who knows me understands that I fucking love weird shit. As someone who values uniqueness over perfectionism I absolutely love this series.  One a bit of a personal note I want to leave off by saying that this was incredibly fun to write. The last couple of posts though I am proud of them dealt with some pretty heavy shit so Panty and Stocking was the perfect palate cleanser for my mind. So I will leave you with the immortal words of Panty and Stocking “REPENT MOTHERFUCKERS!”

Of Plastic Trees, and Witches.

A long and somewhat incoherent ramble on the 90s, Radioheads Fake Plastic Trees, and Bloc Partys Hunting for Witches

When I think of the 90s one of the themes that tends to run through the works is an overwhelming sense of ennui. Spurred by works like “The end of History and the Last Man” By Francis Fukuyama, which argued that after the fall of communism there was no “ideological threat” for society and that without this clash of major ideologies which had defined history our traditional sense of history would end (NOTE: this is a massive oversimplification). This idea would largely be disproven by the rise of terrorism as a major threat but for a while in the 90s the sense was that there was no major driving events that defined the generation. No wars, no social movements, and no great economic struggles like the great depression. Like in the 1950s there really was no problems (at least for white middle class males, minorities still had numerous cases of discrimination). This led to a period of introspection about society that seemed to point to a world dominated by meaningless consumerism and vapidity leading to intense dissatisfaction and alienation.

This shows up in explicitly in works such as Fight Club, and American Beauty, but it lies in the background of many of the works of the 90s. For example cartoons like Beavis and Butthead, and Ren and Stimpy, mocked the 80s cartoons attempts at poignancy that tried to mask there shallow salesmanship. It was a reaction to the barely covered to commercialism of shows like Transformers, and He-Man. In terms of film, the work of Tarantino affected a sort of escape fantasy to the past with his constant reference to the pop culture of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The Coens oeuvre was full of stories of somewhat stupid characters stumbling through there plots with a mixture of bleak cynicism and heart, stories of idiots we can’t help but both laugh at yet love. But for me what sums up this era the most is the work of the band Radiohead which presented a world full of alienated people lost searching for meaning where this is none.

If they have one song that sums up their entire career it is the song “Fake Plastic Trees” of their album the Bends, which came out in 1995.

It’s a rather simple song that doesn’t take much liberties with structure but it manages to a pack a lot of emotion in a down tempo balled. Musically it is very simple just some guitar matched by a bit of synths.  Similarly it is lyrically quite simple detailing a narrative about a woman and a man she lives with both defined by their alienation from each other.

The first verse references this woman buying a fake rubber plant, “that she got from a rubber man, in a town full of rubber plans”, seeming to suggest that the world around this women is hollow, full of people following out plans they have set for themselves that will never truly grant them happiness. The second verse references this women living with a “cracked polystyrene man, who just crumbles and burns”, someone who is unable to face the world around him and when exposed to it crumbles away like polystyrene to fire. Following this there is a line referencing how he “used to do surgery, for girls in the 80s”, which I have interpreted two different ways. One is that he used to plastic surgery fitting in with the songs motif, or that he used to do some sort of useful surgery and now is living a meaningless life. This verse ends with the line “Gravity always wins” either a reference to how the negative forces of the world will always pull us down or simply to suicide by jumping off a building. The final verse switches perspectives describing a man, in the first person rather than the third like the previous verses, with a “Fake plastic love” who “Can’t help the feeling, I could blow through the ceiling, If I could just turn and run” essentially breaking out of this rut of alienation and depression.

After every verse the chorus changes slightly changing the pronouns to fit whoever the verse was about, starting with “It wears her out” to “it wears him out” and finally “it wears me out”. There is an outro which simply states “If I could be who you wanted, If I could be who you wanted all the time”. This is rather cryptic but it seems to show a man unable to be who society wants him to be, unable to fit into the world of fake plastic.

The song itself has some rather interesting background behind it, with it being inspired by the fake plastic trees that adorn Canary Wharf in London. After it was recorded Thom Yorke apparently broke down into tears.

Like many of the works that express similar sentiments from the time for all the depression there is a sense of hope with the line “Can’t help the feeling, I could blow through the ceiling, If I could just turn and run” seeming to apply some sort of escape from this miasma of alienation. This is similar works like American Beauty which ended with a sort of redemption for the main character, managing to at the end see above the fake world that surrounds him. Though not all the media allowed for such redemption, Fight Club for example posited that tearing down such a system that encouraged consumerism would only result in a similarly oppressive one (in fairness there is a lot more at play within Fight Club than just alienation with elements of Fascism, Patriarchal dominance, and Toxic Masculinity playing a huge role).

Looking back though a lot of these works seem to be a bit less important in a Post 9-11 world where we have much more to worry about than just alienation and ennui. We now have a world of nihilistic paranoia and a chaotic political landscape. For comparison let’s take a look at the song “Hunting for Witches” by Bloc Party which sums up the fears of the 2000s in a similar way.

To start of where “Fake Plastic Trees” is slow and listless reflecting the tiring affect that societal alienation has on the characters, “Hunting for Witches” sets about to create a somewhat energizing and terrifying sense of paranoia. It kicks off with a repeating with various indecipherable voices from news clips quickly come in and shutting off in a repetitive motion emphasizing the oversaturation of media in the modern world. A descending sound is created from the tapping of a pick on a guitar creating a sound that reminds one of falling or of police sirens.  A drum machine kicks in repeating a constant beat, quickly setting up the guitar riff which rides the drums like a wave, cutting through the mix with high treble. All of this serves to set up a sense of paranoia and neurosis in a world full of fear sold to you by the mass media.

The first line of the song completely underscores all of the paranoia opening with “I was sitting, on the roof of my house, with a shotgun, and a six pack of beers”. It immediately paints the picture of a man terrified of the world around him. The line that follows gives us context for that fear with “The newscaster says the enemy is among us, as bombs explode on the 30 bus” showing us this is a man who is buying in to a narrative of paranoia delivered by the media. Following this is “Kill your middle class indecision, now is not the time for liberal thought” referencing the affect that 9/11 had on many people, leading to a sense of war hawkishness, bigotry, and fear that lead to conservative actions like the patriot act which robbed people of their rights.

The next verse of the song further details the situation stating “90’s, optimistic as a teen now its terror, airplanes crash into towers” which contrasts the relative happiness of the 90s with the fear of the post 9/11. It also indirectly shows the kind of lack of perspective something like Fake Plastic Trees, or Fight Club has. Sure its shitty to feel alienated and lost in a world of consumerism but troubles 90s seem somewhat insignificant and whiny compared to the troubles of the 2000s. After all the 90s was a relatively great time to be alive, with a huge booming economy and all. Returning to the song the fear mongering of the media is brought up again “The Daily Mail says the enemies among us, taking our women and taking our jobs, all reasonable thought is being drowned out by the non-stop baying, baying, baying for blood” further emphasizing how media pushed a narrative of bigotry and fear upon the average person.

The chorus of the song with the line “I go hunting for witches” delivers an indictment of the entire culture post 9/11 which bathed in fear and desperate to get some kind of sense of security created a paranoid world view. People searched for “witches” something that isn’t real but can be blamed for all our problems. For many this scapegoat was people of the Muslim faith who faced bigotry post 9/11.

The song closes out with “I was an ordinary man with ordinary desires, I watched TV, it informed me,” followed by “There must be accountability, disparate and misinformed, fear will keep us all in place” clearly stating that one must hold the media to a standard of accountability and not let fear mongering spread.

“Hunting for Witches” manages to portray a person and by proxy a culture in a way that is both critical and sympathetic, driven into a state of paranoia and fear after tragic events. It’s a song that I think seems to portray a more desperate and more important message than “Fake Plastic Trees”. I do want to point out that I think consumerism and alienation our important problems in our society but for me they pale in comparison to problems like fear mongering and bigotry.

It seems strange looking back on both these songs in the year 2016. I can relate to both of them and I feel both have an important message that can be applied to today’s cultural climate. It’s somewhat sad how little we have come, our culture is still fearing a terrorist thread and we still our stuck in a world of consumerism. I wish I could end on a more positive note than that but I really can’t cause its 5:36 in the fucking morning and I want to sleep.

My next post is gonna be more positive I promise.

Batman in the 1980s-Part 2: Hello, I’ve Come to Talk

A look at the Killing Joke

When it comes to the Killing Joke an entire girth of articles have been written about it and its place in pop culture. Its recent animated adaption was possibly the biggest train wreck of any of the DC animated movies, made all the more funny by how hard DC tried to promote it. The adaptation tried to “fix” some of the problems with the most controversial element of the story, the crippling of Barbara Gordon, in some of the most wrongheaded ways possible. One could write another complete post pointing out everything wrong with the film but I am more fascinated by the buzz surrounding the film and the debate that sprung up on whether or not it should be adapted given the ugliness and bleakness of the source material. While Moores work is generally respected this one tends to be the outlier, with a vocal group of people expressing dislike for the book, including Moore himself. He has being quoted as saying “I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent

By the standards of Moore it is an exceptionally bleak work. Moore’s work especially in the 80s had a darkness to it but in most works there was just as much humanity, humor, and levity as there was bleakness, and depravity. Watchmen, Miracleman, and V for Vendetta are all works that cover the broad spectrum of human emotion and none of them ends as bleakly as the Killing Joke does. It has been theorized by some people that this bleakness may have been a result of his relationship with DC at the time falling apart. Various reports abound over the process of creating the Killing Joke, including that it was done almost solely as a favor for the artist Brain Bolland, or that it started out as an anthology story before being moved to prestige format. Overall it’s hard to pin down what exactly was going on behind the scenes at the time with Moore but one does get a sense he was getting fed up with superheroes at this point. For example his work on Miracleman at the time began to take a turn from superhero deconstructionism to sci-fi utopianism seemingly stating that superheroes would do better working to create a utopia than simply fighting villains. The Killing Joke seemed to be everything Moore saw wrong with Superheroes and one can also feel he to create an end point for the Batman/Joker dynamic (a big obsession with Moore at the time regarding superheroes was creating endings for them as can be seen in his pitch for Twilight of the Gods).

If Dark Knight Returns was Batman filtered through Death Wish, and urban vigilante movies, the Killing Joke is Batman filtered through Greek tragedy, the Book of Job, and horror films. It reimagines the Batman/Joker dynamic as not one of larger than life characters fighting each other, but that of two sad broken men, one unable to help the other. It’s a work that brings the Joker to new levels of depravity but also sympathizes us with him.

For me that is really were the work shines best. True horror is always able to touch us on a level beyond just base shock values and implying that we are only “One bad day” away from becoming a monster like the Joker is incredibly scary. This is made all the more real when one realizes how many similarities there are between Jack (the Joker pre-chemical bath) and Alan Moore. Alan Moore when he was first starting out quit his job to pursue his dream of being a comic book artist. At the time he had a newborn child and a wife. This is incredibly similar to Jacks situation of quitting his job at the chemical plant to pursue his career of being a comedian, with his wife having a child on the way. Moore is able to construct with Jack possible one of the best origin stories of any supervillian ever and recontextualizes years of Joker stories into something completely different. It’s a far cry from Millers portrayal of the Joker, and for many people it is the one part of the book everyone agrees on is amazing.

The flashback sequences are weaved brilliantly into the book through some amazing transitions that are a part of any great Moore work. Doors close in the present only for the next panel to switch to another door in the past opening in another direction. Reflections in the present transition to reflections in the past and panels of laughter in the past lead into panels of laughter in the present. While Millers work was full of deliberately jarring transitions, impressionistic figures, and overstuffed panel layouts, in contrast Moore and Bolland’s work is realistic and precise with smooth transitions and well defined characters and locations.

Where Bollands work truly shines through is in his faces. Bolland has a very select talent in the industry of being able to truly express shock, horror, sadness, and pain with vivid detail. In the Killing Joke he is able to create some of his best work through his illustrations of the Joker. While he succeeds in making the horrific visage of the Joker look absolutely terrifying in some panels, I am most impressed by the ones which portray the Joker as a broken clown, putting on a fake smile meant to mask his inner turmoil.

nntnxu3

While we are on the subject of art one of the various debates that has sprung up on the internet is about the recolor of the work by Bolland in 2008. The recolor eschewed the bright rainbow of colors of the original for a more “realistic” color set.

bnjaxlc

Many would argue that this fits the works dark subject matter better which I vehemently disagree with. The original coloring of the book is a sickly reflection of comic books of the time. The spectrum of jarring yellows, greens, reds, and purple serve to create a sense of surreal insanity. It’s the classic color pallet of comic books but oversaturated up to an uncomfortable degree emphasizing how this is a Batman/Joker story that’s amped up to a horrific level.

With the Killing Joke though one aspect of that horror is generally regarded as an Elephant in the Room. The crippling of Barbara Gordon is by far one of the most controversial moments in comic book history and it remains one of the most famous examples of “woman in refrigerators” to this day. It is a moment where Moore’s self-criticism of the book rings true. It is a moment that for many understandably represents a line that was crossed where Moore went too far. As much as I love the work, I do feel that the crippling is a moment that is unnecessary and does play into a lot of negative tropes about women in comic books.

Another aspect of the book that has caused much discussion in recent years is the ending and the question of whether or not batman kills the Joker a theory brought up by Grant Morrison in a an episode of Kevin Smith’s podcast “Fatman on Batman”. If one interprets the ending as the death of the Joker it serves as an effective capstone to the message of the work. Batman finally is broken at the end by the Joker and ends up killing him portraying the Batman/Joker relationship as one of two insane people forever fighting each other. The ending whether you believe he kills the Joker or not is supposed to tell the reader that in reality this eternal struggle is not one of epic fights and daring adventures, but a tragedy about two mentally ill that we should not find funny or entertaining.

4auygnr

The Killing Joke is a work that on a pure storytelling level is fantastic, but it is also a work squarely of its time. The fan base that surrounds it and obsess over it, are the kind of people that I feel truly don’t understand its message. It’s a work that should make us look at the Batman/Joker relationship in a tragic light and not as “The ultimate Joker story”. It is the darkest one someone had taken Batman at that time, and for the 1980s the novelty of darkness was something new. Sadly the effect both DKR and the Killing Joke had on comic books was a negative one and for as groundbreaking as these works are they have caused the world of superheroes to become on not of childhood wonderment but of prurient violence and destruction. With that thought I leave you off with the two panels from issue 26 of Animal Man, the perfect criticism of the violence and grittiness that these works lead to.

capture

Batman in the 1980s-Part 1: The World Only Makes Sense when you Force it to

A look at the Dark Knight Returns.

There seems to be a weird reappraisal among comic book fans of some of the rather dark stories of the 1980s that redefined the genre. While you will be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t consider Watchmen to be a classic, other famous works of the era, notably Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s the Killing Joke, have had there reputation tarnished with time. Criticisms of both tend to stem from the same place, as both works bring to the characters to a new level of darkness, unexplored before in comic books at the time, and both have a really uncomfortable misogynistic treatment of woman within their pages. The Killing Joke suffers from this more than Dark Knight Returns and it’s a sad day when Frank Miller is able to say he has a more progressive portrayal of woman in his comic book (In fairness Miller himself only made the new Robin Carrie Kelly female by editorial mandate).

These works were also part of a trend in the 1980s to really redefine Batman’s comics into much darker and harsher titles. While Death in the Family could also be included among this list I think many people generally don’t have as much conflicted feeling about it as they do the other two titles I listed. It for most people is just regarded as kind of a mistake and as a story it really is cringy to read in the modern era, Joker being the ambassador of Iran and all.

I feel though that both of these titles deserve to be looked at through fresh eyes and see how they differ in various aspects. The portrayal of Batman, the portrayal of the Joker, etc. I also want to look at how both these books drastically affected the Batman mythos and really try and understand the point they were trying to get across.

To start I feel we should talk about the Dark Knight Returns and my complicated personal history with it. As a child I was very aware of its existence through various Wikipedia articles and from various histories on comic books I had read. But it was only when I got to be a sophomore that I first read the comic book. At the time I had just finished Watchmen for the first time and was incredibly eager to read more material like it. DKR seemed like the natural follow up given that when you talk about 80s superhero comic books it is generally regarded along with Watchmen as the defining comic of the decade. So I sat down read DKR and generally enjoyed it. Most of its politics I found went over my head a bit. I got the sense that Miller had some problems with women, and I felt it wasn’t as well written as Watchmenm but overall I liked it.

It remained in my mind for a long time though and as I grew more politically aware I constantly wondered what I would think about it when I reread it. That chance only came recently when I was on vacation in a place in central Ohio. I had shitty internet, and only a copy of Upton Sinclair’s “OIL!”, and Pokemon Crystal to entertain me. I did have however my copy of Dark Knight Returns which I had lent to my father to read. He however could not make it through as he felt the work was too dark for him.

So on one fateful night I sat down in the wee hours of the morning in a cabin in Central Ohio, and reread the Dark Knight Returns. When I came out the other end I had a billion thoughts and felt incredibly conflicted on it whether I liked it or not. I did feel though that with this reading I fully understood the work and what it was trying to say about Batman both as a person and as a myth.

As a person Miller explores Batman on a psychological level. He portrays Batman in the early chapters as a man who suffers from intense personal trauma and a repressed desire to be Batman and to fight crime. Bruce Wayne starts the work off as an alcoholic broken man constantly haunted by his past with a death wish, his desire to be Batman manifesting as a hallucination of a Bat. While we can surmise it is a part of Bruce’s internal psychosis it is framed in supernatural turns, a specter of his past that haunts him until he gives in returning to his cowl. When he returns he constantly seems to refer to any danger he is in as a “good death” emphasizing how he is at a point in his life where he desperately desires to die in some heroic way rather than wasting away in some alcoholic miasma of self-pity.

kgnzyqn

tok6vfj

This insanity is portrayed in a way that doesn’t lionize Batman at first. In fact the end of issue one draws a direct parallel between Two-Face and Batman. While both tried to give up their lives as both a superhero and a supervillian they both ended up succumbing to their insanity. As a self-contained story about two men who are unable to escape there tragic flaws it works brilliantly.

lb5ikgk

From there Batmans psyche starts to be pushed to the back of the narrative. While the underlying death wish is still present throughout the story, Batmans becomes much surer of his actions and resolute in who he is. The only major exception to this is his fight with the Joker, one of the strongest moments of characterization throughout the work. Before the fight occurs Batman keeps swearing to himself that this is it, he will kill the Joker. When finally confronted with it he cannot bring himself to do it leaving the Joker to commit suicide in a way that frames Batman for his murder.

ecnv4rd

As a myth Miller truly gets complicated in his portrayal. Batman is shown throughout the work as someone who morally stands apart from nearly everyone in Gotham. His resoluteness in his actions and incorruptible moral code are shown early to contrast with how many people in Gotham operate with many average people being portrayed as hypocrites, or people complicit in crimes by accepting them as “just the way it is”. One of the most apparent moments of this comes when Batman confronts a General about dealing arms to the Mutants gang to fund his wife’s cancer treatment. We only see the aftermath of this confrontation with the General shown to have killed himself, Batman holding his corpse draped in an American flag. The message it sends is that Batman’s moral standard is one that is too high for the modern world of corruption that so many people just accept.

Page upon page is spent on various commentators talking about Batmans effect on society whether it be positive or negative. Psychologists try and pin down his mental state while moms worry about his effect on children. All of this serves to parody the talk show filled climate of the 1980s characterizing them as devoid of substance and humanity. The only person who ever seems to express his/her feelings on the societal place of Batman in a way that is not subject to mockery is Jim Gordon who describes him as a akin historical figure, somebody whose actions is above all discussion of morality.

yZv15Fb.jpg

Through all the debates in the comic and all the interpretations I feel this view from Gordon is the one that rings true to the spirit of the book. For Miller Batman just is, he is a great (great not as in good but as in larger than life) man whose politics cannot be judged in the same way we judge normal people.

Both his psychosis and his political statues are summed up in one single line “The world only makes sense when you force it to”. Said by Batman during the fight between Superman and Batman it is the thesis statement of the work. Its implications are very wide and do not seem to imply very nice things about both Batman and Frank Miller.

Behind that single line is a dark justification for fascist behavior that every person willing to excuse “strong leaders” for their brutal methods rely on. Behind that line is a statement that only through brutal force can the world be made sense of. Behind that line is the implication that might makes right, that at the end of the day only the strong deserve to rule.

It’s a line that is reflected throughout the book in the numerous fights that occur. In two fights in particular the fight with the Mutant Leader and the fight with Superman the implication of might makes right is made clear. In Miller’s world the brutal domination of your opponent is what gives you the right to lead. While Watchmen laid bare the unhealthy masculine ideas of power at the heart of many superhero stories, Dark Knight Returns revels in it. It suggests that this how real leadership is won, while portraying the actual leaders of the land as wimps, hiding behind veils of polite speech that covers up the uncomfortable horrors of what was happening in the world.

Both aspects of Batman, that of the tortured old man, and that of the myth are reborn at the end of the story. After faking his death Batman emerges underground with remnants of his army of ex-gang members ready to take on the American government and having finally gotten over his death wish commenting that “this will be a good life”

dbyt6r4

While Batman’s arc is the center stage we are also treated to various stories about his side characters throughout the work. Jim Gordon is portrayed in the beginning as deuteragonist to Batman as the story follows his retirement from the GCPD force and his daily struggles with the Mutant gang. He manages to be one of the few people in the story who comes off as resolutely likeable. One part of his story though where he shoots a young mutant gang member comes off as very uncomfortable and awkward in the modern political climate.

Carrie Kelley the new Robin though is by far the most likeable character. A 13 year old girl with shitty hippie parents (we are treated to more Miller political satire through them) who runs away and becomes Robin is the perfect self-insert character for many teenagers reading the story. As it goes on though Miller does not shy away from the darker aspects of sidekicks. Batman at one point explicitly refers to her as a soldier and later panels show that she is almost irrevocably fucked up in the head by being Batman’s sidekick. What I find interesting is that when I first read the work I completely missed all of the commentary on sidekicks and thought she was just an uncomplicated fun self-insert character.

Catwoman shows up as the head of a Call Girl agency and for the most part has little to do with the story other than being uncomfortably brutalized by the Joker at one point. It’s by far one of the most egregious moments of misogyny in the book and further underlines Frank Millers problems with how he writes woman.

The Joker is portrayed as a figure of pure evil. In an interview once Frank Miller described how he and Alan Moore once got into an argument about the nature of the Joker. Frank favored a view he described as satanic, as an eternal figure of evil tormenting Batman while Moore favored a view that sympathized with the Joker as someone who was mentally ill. This difference in interpretation will become very apparent when we look at the Killing Joke. In the Dark Knight Returns, Joker awakens from a coma as a reaction to Batman’s return emphasizing how his purpose is as a figure of pure evil, forever dedicated to fucking with Batman. This is a Joker who is a silver tongued manipulator and not the cackling maniacal psychopath that he is commonly portrayed as. Its a more restrained Joker that im surprised did not catch on given how influential DKR is.

By far though the most radical interpretation of a character we have comes in the form of Superman. In the Dark Knight Returns he is shown to be the opposite of Batman, a man whose morals do not lead him to rebel against authority but to blindly follow it. He’s a patsy to a decrepit looking Ronald Reagan who is portrayed himself as a total idiot. Superman is a man who knows that he can do better but his dedication to authority leads him to follow terrible leaders. It’s a dark view of the character but not an ill-fitting one and it is shown rather unsubtly through his introduction where in the American flag leads into a close up of the superman symbol.

kjhvryw

In terms of structure and writing it’s hard to argue that Miller was not at the top of his game here. Panels lay crammed together overstuffing a page emphasizing how jarring the events in the comics are and how the media instantly turns events in passionless news stories, something that is shown in this video far better than I could express it.

Art wise Miller is also producing some great work. He draws the characters in his trademark short and stocky impressionistic style. While later his art would devolve into self-parody his drawings in DKR are able to portray brutality and make the impact of a punch work incredibly well. You really feel a lot of the violence in his scenes unlike in other comic books of the era

10oxptl

For me Dark Knight Returns feels like the most interesting, well-written paper you have ever read that argues for a terrible position that you can’t stand. It’s a work that’s overall message it’s trying to push I find repugnant but the work itself is absolutely brilliant. I can see why it made as big of an impact as it did in the 1980s and it still holds up as one of the best Batman stories ever written.

In part 2 we will finish with a look at the Killing Joke.