Sunday, May 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#20: The Dark Knight Returns

by Frank Miller

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is one of my favorite comics, but it's almost easier for me to make a case against it than it is to explain why I like it so much. I mean, as far as 1980s revisionist super-hero comics go, Watchmen is more sophisticated and Marshal Law is funnier. As far as Batman comics go, The Killing Joke is more nuanced and psychologically satisfying and those old Bill Finger-Dick Sprang stories are more enjoyable. And as far as Frank Miller's own work goes, Sin City and 300 are broader in their subject matter and more interesting from a form/technique standpoint. Oh yeah: it's also a complete mess.

The philosophy of the comic is borderline incoherent, held together--loosely--by Miller's homebrewed proto-libertarianism. And Miller's political commentary takes place on a pretty low level: straw-man attacks on lefty-liberals are balanced by straw-man attacks on right-wingers. Miller's Gotham City is an overblown, paranoid version of American inner-cities. It's not too far away from the stylized New York City of Walter Hill's gloriously fake hip-hop movie The Warriors, but Miller seems to take his vision of urban decay seriously (this is not the tongue-in-cheek New Detroit of RoboCop). Miller’s Gotham has none of the Art Deco/Gothic beauty of Tim Burton's Batman movies. For Burton, Gotham is darkly beautiful--an appealing but dangerous playground for freaks and misfits. But Miller seems to fear and distrust the city: it's a chaotic cesspool that would surely degenerate into a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian state-of-nature without Batman to keep the peace.

Another possible point against the book is that Miller's characterization of the Dark Knight is not so much complex or ambiguous but jumbled. Is Batman a bad-ass vigilante, a dangerous psychopath, an exemplar of individual liberty, or a quasi-mystical father figure to all Gotham's orphans? Well, all of the above! But Miller hardly seems to acknowledge any of the contradictions he brings up, let alone resolve them.

"Punk" cartoonist James Kochalka* wrote something to the effect that Miller's sequel to TDKR--The Dark Knight Strikes Again--is a fourteen year-old boy's idea of a comic book masterpiece. This comment, like most of the criticism of DK2, could easily apply to TDKR: it's filled with the kind of pseudo-deep machismo that passes for insight into the human condition among attention-challenged adolescents.

BUT despite all this, TDKR remains one of my favorite comics, and not just because of nostalgia for the time I spent in the teenage wasteland. AND I'd add that out of all the attempts at super-hero revisionism--from The Squadron Supreme and Watchmen to Astro City and The Authority--TDKR towers above them all--the reigning champion of the genre.


TDKR is the least embarrassed and most honest of them all. In an earlier post I wrote that DK2 "represents everything Miller loves about super-hero comics--the garish circus-like atmosphere, the exaggerated moral struggles, the love of both meaningless and purposeful action--trying to beat the shit out of everything he hates about them--mainly, the corporate straight-jacketing that passes for editorial vision at major comic companies." And in the same post I wrote that, compared to Watchmen, TDKR "takes nothing apart, does not engage in self-reflexive analysis, and does not exit through the door marked Irony. TDKR builds on the super-hero comics that came before it, and Miller puts his often contradictory feelings towards them right on the page."

Perhaps my response comes out of my own ambivalence towards the whole project of super-hero revisionism. Deep down, it just feels like most of the revisionist books are written by and/or for people who feel they have risen above the pleasures of super-hero comics but still want their fix: they want to write/read stories about dudes in tights beating each other up, but they want the stories to be worthy subjects for literary analysis. TDKR, on the other hand, wallows in those pleasures. TDKR doesn't "get at" any of the issues of super-hero comics, it doesn't "explore" any of the genre's problems, and it certainly doesn't "deconstruct" the symbolism of the Batman comics. Rather, it serves up a feast of a Batman story, putting everything that was enjoyable or troubling about those comics right on the table.

*Kochalka meant what he wrote as a compliment, but his comment gets to the heart of a lot of the negative reaction to DK2.

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