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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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
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.