The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986, the same year as Watchmen. Together, these two graphic novels redefined (so I’m told) the nature of comic books, begat hundreds of emulators, and are frequently listed side-by-side as pinnacles of the art form.

I don’t read comic books, and never have. Curiosity, and having friends who do read comic books have allowed me a vague idea of comic book history and tangential familiarity with many names, characters, concepts and storylines. Even for somebody as ignorant as myself, it’s clear that after these two experiments, the following decade was filled with dark, brooding, ultraviolent antiheroes, often with improbable and faintly homoerotic depictions of male musculature: the so-called “Dark Age” of comics.

Well, I’ve now read Watchmen and I’ve now read The Dark Knight Returns, and I’ve learnt that the critics are right: there is quality and sophistication here, and the origin of that Dark Age.

Unfortunately, the quality and sophistication are in Watchmen, and it’s The Dark Knight Returns that everybody copied.

The Dark Knight Returns is a four-part graphic novel following the activites of a certain Bruce Wayne, billionaire, ten years after he has retired from his second life as “Batman”, a vigilante roaming the streets and rooftops of Gotham City by night, doing good and fighting crime. His friend, Jim Gordon, is about to retire; a gang known as the Mutants is wreaking havoc on the city; and his old adversary, Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, is about to be released from a psychiatric institution after a course of treatment funded by Wayne himself. Needless to say, his retirement will not last for long.

Superficially, there are many similarities between The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. In both, aging, retired heroes return to action; in both, ‘superheroes’ have been outlawed; in both, the central characters are brutal, psychologically damaged, and excessively violant; in both, the greatest superhero on earth is working for the President of the United States. But Watchmen is set apart by three things: good writing, stylish and intelligent cinematic art design and layouts, and above all a nuanced and ambivalent understanding of humanity.

The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t have any of those things. Its characters are motiveless and inscrutable – where the villains in Watchmen have understandable, human, even possibly justifiable motives, those in DKR just kill people because they’re Like Totally Mad and Really Really EVIL (™). The heroes have no particular motives either – or even personalities – they just do as the plot demands of them. Batman, true, does brood about his origin story, but it only tells us what happened to him – we don’t really get the sense of why this billionaire dresses up like a bat and beats people up, when there are so many other things he could be doing to improve the world. Beyond of course, knowing that he’s Damaged (™) and Traumatised (™). [In particular, I couldn’t but compare the cut-out ‘something bad happened once so now he’s a Superhero, apparently’ origin unfavourably again the  psychologically acute and believable origin of Moore’s Rorschach. Miller’s explanations always seem to end with a sort of handwaved ‘ya know? yeah?’ and a reliance on our knowledge of the laws of cliché, compared to Moore’s depictions of genuine human motivations. That’s when Miller even attempts explanation. Why does Robin become Robin, for instance? Well, ya know, her parents are liberals, and, like, you know, BATMAN, so, I mean, yeah? Things are sort of juxtaposed in a way that makes it believable that she might act that way – but we never see what enough from her thoughts, words or actions to tell us exactly why she does. And Robin is one of the most fleshed-out characters! Almost everybody is a blank cipher]

More worryingly, there is almost no ambivalence here. It is clear that Batman’s methods are violent and direct; it is also clear that his actions have many consequences, some of them negative. These things are admitted, as though in passing, but there is no real consideration of them. People just debate Batman in the background. It’s as though Miller knew he had to address these issues, so had some talking heads fill time talking about them, but he didn’t really care, so when push comes to shove the debate takes second place to punching people in the face. The apparent neutrality of the discussions is also undermined by Miller’s relentless mockery of, even demonisation of, liberals. The ‘anti-Batman’ side are all idiots, lazy cowards, and assorted strawmen drawn from conservative fantasies – the portrayal of mental health professionals in particular is shocking. It’s true that to some degree this seems to only be one instance of the general Millerite thesis that everybody in the world is contemptible vermin, with the exception of a small group of ubermenschen identified by their love of punching people in the face: where Watchmen makes a point of humanising its bystanders, valorising them, lamenting their tragedies, DKR reduces them to cardboard insects. The central moral of the novel appears to be that the general populace is a herd of cattle that must be lead and guided by a Strong Ruler – all the violence and depravity is the result of people thinking they can make their own decisions, rather than having a Strong Ruler to look up to. The ubermensch, on the other hand, have the exact opposite problem: they are letting untermensch control them. They should instead aspire not to be like the government stooge Superman, and more like the strong-willed psychopath Batman, or like the lunatic terrorist serial killer, The Green Arrow. When a looting crowd is pacified and transformed into an army of civic responsibility, it is not, as it would be in the hands of other authors, a heart-warming moment of shared humanity, but instead a quasi-fascist organisation of the proletarian by a big strong violent billionaire on horseback. The President, meanwhile, is villainised not because he’s evil, or because he’s blinded by ideology, or because he’s blood-thirsty or stupid or reckless, or even, per se because he’s heartless, but primarily because he’s a weakling.

The fact that all this ubermensch/untermensch thinking and adoration of strong command structures and personal charisma seems slathered over with a gloss of latent racism and conservativism (the underling-villains all sound like an 80’s white man’s notion of what black ‘jive’ is like, although of course the big villains, Two Face and the Joker, and the one clever henchman character, are all well-spoken, well-educated white men; a minor villain is a transexual with exposed breasts and buttocks (all painted with schwastikas) to make sure we know just what sort of person is likely to be a criminal; and the Joker’s evilness seems to be associated with more effeminacy/campness than I’m used to the character having (his first word when hearing that Batman has returned is ‘Darling!’)) just adds an even more pungent aroma. Miller is good enough that there’s no single thing I can point to that would prove he was a racist, or a fascist, or a sexist (three tangential pieces of evidence: the irritating ‘airheaded wife’ routine between Gordon and his wife, complete with damsel-in-distress moment; the fact that Gordon’s Batman-hating replacement who screws everything up is a woman promoted to a man’s job – though to be fair, all her sins really spring from liberalism, and if only she could set that aside and embrace the idea of Ubermensch keeping order in the streets with private tanks, it’s made clear she could be a competant and effective administrator; and the fact that the only really positive female role isa girl who dresses up as a boy and adopts a boy’s name and goes out looking for fights). But on almost every page there’s an indefinable scent of the repulsive, the bigoted-at-heart, even if there’s enough brain on top to stop him from saying anything too alienating.

Of course, being odious doesn’t make it bad. True, the combination of unthinking adulation for violent vigilantes and contemptuous hatred for the government and for the untermensch that allow it to exist carries a horrific whiff of Oklahoma City about it – but being a semi-deranged Nietzschean quasi-fascist doesn’t, per se, make Miller a bad writer. No, the problem is that he lacks any doubt. The fact that he allows the opposition to be heard and doesn’t discount those views out of hand raises him above the worst writers, but his inability to take those concerns seriously prevents him from being among the best. It stands in stark contrast to Watchmen: from the general tenor of the book, I think I’ve got a good idea of Moore’s politics, and I can confidently hazard that both the hero and the villain would be inimical to his instincts – and yet both the hero and the villain are sympathetic, understandable. A reader can come to Watchmen with any set of sympathies for or against the main characters and feel that the book does not shout him down; DKR is far less even-handed.

Perhaps that’s not a major problem. Not every book has to be morally thought-provoking. But DKR suffers in this respect because it seems that that is the whole point of its existence. It gives us a darker, more ambiguous hero – but stops short of taking the final steps to real characterisation or sophistication. It does not resolve the moral issues it raises, but nor does it seem to think that they matter. In short, Batman is one small step in the direction of Rorschach – but only one small step. Rorschach is everything Batman is but more so: Rorschach is darker, Rorschach is more likeable, Rorschach is more DISlikeable as well, Rorschach is more ambiguous, and Rorschach is, crucially, more human. Rorschach is a human disguised as a hero; Batman is a hero who sometimes looks like a human being.

When it comes to the art and the writing, I don’t want to be overly harsh. I suppose the art is sufficient – most of the time I vaguely knew what was going on, and some pages actually looked quite memorable (though, sadly, the best picture of them all is the one on the cover). Most of the time – though certainly there were pages here and there that really had me reading a second time to work everything out (a constant issue, though this may be partly my fault as an inexperienced reader of the form, was that small panels kept having surtitles instead of subtitles, or possibly vice-versa, so that, the panels being pressed close together, I kept getting mislead as to what words went with what pictures – not that it really mattered, since the pictures were fairly irrelevent in most cases); the ‘stylish’ obsession with black and dark blue, meanwhile, gives it all a very drab, repetitive feel. But no, the drawing isn’t TOO bad. It’s just that compared to Watchmen’s clever use of focus, cutting, symbolism, symmetry, foreshadowing-and-reference, the art in DKR is prosaic and uninteresting. It feels like an amateur film, beside the Citizen Kane of Watchmen (which itself, in my opinion, only briefly touched on the real potential of the art form). The writing, meanwhile, is certainly not illiterate, but is largely cliched and… again, just uninteresting. Basically this is Dirty Harry re-written for superheroes, with a slight noir tinge about the edges.

The tone is also problematic. The drive to more darkness and more grittyness sits uneasily beside batmobiles and teenage girls in spandex [on which note: the character of Carrie is said to be 13, but is both written and drawn as though significantly older]. It doesn’t really make much sense as a world – not as a world in which there are or were half-a-dozen superheroes with godlike powers. Even Watchmen struggled here, but DKR doesn’t so much struggle as drown.

This is not all to say, however, that The Dark Knight Returns is a terrible book. It’s not. It has great pace to it (though it would be better without so many cliché talking heads] and some really interesting ideas here and there – just a pity that it focuses on the least interesting character. [Let’s instead have a book about the Superman of this world – there’s a real story to be told!] If I had come across this not having heard about it, I’d probably be telling people how good it was, albeit a bit off-putting. Unfortunately, with great reputations come high expectations. The Dark Knight Returns was a fun way to spend a morning and an interesting read, and I don’t regret reading it, and, to repeat, I did actually mostly enjoy it… but it’s not something that deserves to be talked about in reverant tones.

Now, part of that is the passage of time. I’ve no doubt that this was pretty revolutionary back in 1986. It’s violent and misanthropic and ‘cool’, and would have stood in sharp contrast to most of the comics that had come before. So, I can wholeheartedly say: if you’re living in 1985, and you’ve only ever read superhero comics and you don’t watch films either, AND you want to be surprised and to read something very different… this is the graphic novel for you! [If you can’t find a copy of Watchmen]

Adrenaline: 4/5. Good, exciting pace to it, I read through it very quickly, heart even beat a little faster now and then. If the plot were less meandering and there weren’t so many distractions along the way, it might have been thrilling. If, that is, I’d cared about what was going on at any point.

Emotion: 1/5. I didn’t care what was going on, at any point. I didn’t like any of the characters, but since there’s only one real character and he’s basically a caricature of Clint Eastwood, that’s not a great surprise. And I didn’t care about the plight of Gotham, because everybody was odious, and unreal, and basically only written as cannon-fodder anyway.

Thought: 3/5. It had some interesting ideas, and the plot wasn’t wholly predictable.

Beauty: 1/5. It’s graphically dull and miscomposed (with some exceptions), the writing is mostly clumsy, and the sentiments are obnoxious.

Craft: 3/5. Well, he manages to maintain interest and excitement, which is pretty important. Some bits are clever. Kudos for trying something so different in the genre. And actually, well done for raising some of the moral and theoretical issues and for acknowledging the different sides of the argument. But still, I can’t say this is unusually well-crafted (though I do think Miller has the talent to write something unusually well-crafted – this just isn’t it).

Endearingness: 2/5. I don’t utterly hate it. It was a fun read. I can see myself reading it again, if I’m bored some time and in a particular mood, sure. Not at the top of the pile, though. In fact, this is a borrowed copy, and I doubt I’ll buy it myself.

Originality: 2/5. Oh, I don’t doubt it was original at the time, for the genre. But even at the time, there was nothing here that hadn’t been seen twenty years before, if your world is bigger than just comic books; and these days, everything in it is cliché. Sure, on an intellectual level I can say ‘well, you know, Miller actually helped to create those clichés’, but that doesn’t make it more enjoyable to read.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, But With Redeeming Features. Don’t think I’m saying it’s got no redeeming features. Enjoying a book and thinking it’s a good book are two different things. I can see how somebody could like this book. It’s just that they would have to be a particular person, and they’d have to want something very particular from it. It just doesn’t have the breadth and depth of a genuinely good book.

7 thoughts on “The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

  1. Joshua Cox says:

    I disagree with the assessment that comics as a whole followed the path of The Dark Knight Returns. There were certainly a large number of books that followed that path and sold some pretty huge numbers in the 90s, and some of those creators are still coasting off of that success with that particular audience of diehard fans. However, there’s more to the comic book medium in the past 30 years than this single branch of serialized fiction.

    Looks at what guys like Grant Morrison, Alex Robinson, Neil Gaimon, Craig Thompson, Joss Whedon, Jason (Saeteray), Brian K. Vaughn, Erik Larsen, Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, etc (just to name a few off the top of my head) have all brought to the craft, each with their own very distinct voices and storytelling techniques. From Grant Morrison’s insanely self-referential and meta-contextual puzzles of iconography to Robinsons almost entirely pantomime minimalist epics. Don’t sell the medium short due to your own ignorance

  2. I’m upfront about my ignorance, and I can’t directly contradict you. However, if you really want to tell me either that the Dark Age never existed, or that Miller and Moore weren’t influences on it, I must react with puzzlement – these are hardly ideas I’ve just come up with myself. I thought – both through reading on the internet and through conversations with comic fans, that the Dark Age was a well-recognised phenomenon, and that the influence of Moore and Miller was a commonplace. Of course, in any genre, subgenre, medium or submedium there will be better and worse works, more original and more derivative works, and more conventional and more eccentric works – I don’t believe I implied anything to the contrary as regards comics. However, this variation does not mean one cannot identify general trends over time – and in this case, I don’t claim the expertise to identify these trends myself, but was relying on what I thought was common knowledge.

    I certainly don’t think I’ve “sold the medium short” due to my ignorance (indeed, reading books like The Dark Knight Returns rather makes me worry I may have sold the medium too long!). I’ve read (discounting webcomics, and the occasional random issue a random comic book I’ve found lying around where a friend has left it) only four comics: Watchmen, Sandman (well, most of it, haven’t finished it yet), The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus. One of those (DKR) provided a vaguely but unimpressively entertaining couple of days reading; the other three were all extremely good. I certainly think there is potential in the medium, and wish in future to rectify my ignorance by reading more comics, in a variety of styles. I don’t think you’ll see me here denigrating comics in general (beyond the fact that I don’t think that the acknowledged classics that I’ve read have been quite as good as some people have said, and that they don’t fully make use of the capabilities of the medium as they might). Saying that the nineties saw a trend toward antiheroes is hardly an assault on the dignity of the medium. [For reference: I'm a fantasy fan. There are a hell of a lot of things you can say quite fairly about tendencies within the fantasy genre...].

    For general interest, and not directed specifically at you: I’m always amazed by the self-ghettoisation of many comic book fans. It’s natural for fans not to want to read outside their genre (I may read more than epic fantasy, but to be honest I don’t read a lot of completely-non-fantasy books unless they’re very highly recommended), but many (not all) comic book fans seem quite hostile to the idea of new readers entering their domain. Say upfront that you don’t know much about the medium and would like to learn more, and they mock your ignorance and discount anything else you have to say. For instance, somebody linked to this blog on reddit – only one person has commented on the link, and they’ve simply quoted me saying that I haven’t read many comic books and said that they stopped reading at that point. As a non-fan, I couldn’t possibly have anything to say worth listening to. [I would accept that if I were making sweeping criticisms of the genre, but not when it comes to my views on specific works that I have read. I may not be able to judge precisely how original a comic book was at the time, say, but I'm just as able to judge prose style and pacing as any reading-spiderman-from-the-cot fanboy.]

  3. Joshua Cox says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that there was a heavy trend within mainstream superhero comics that is now referred to as “the dark age.” My point though is that the mainstream superhero genre is only one facet of comic book writing. You hear the most about it, because it’s what the comic book laymen are most familiar with and there are still plenty of “fanboys” for that stuff around. It’s the same reason you hear more about a Michael Bay film than you do a Lar Von Trier film.

    What I’m getting at is that this article gave me the impression that you are doing what many folks from literary backgrounds tend to do when they start looking at comics for the first time… you’re allowing the most mainstream of titles to influence your opinion of the genre and you are choosing your material from the wrong list. Just be careful not to make sweeping statements about the medium as a whole based on observations you’re making on popular genre titles.

    The thing with Frank Miller’s Batman work is that it WAS influential and tranformative… for mainstream superhero comic books. It’s not a great piece of work, but it was a starting point for bringing the maturity level up just a little bit for a genre that was really aimed towards children. With The Dark Knight Returns, the target audience was sort of raised from 6-12 year olds to 12-21 year olds. It’s still very clearly juvenile writing, but it most certainly moved the genre in a direction towards the less juvenile. Do you see what I’m getting at?

    Attempting to write a serious literary review on The Dark Knight Returns is sort of like writing a serious literary review on the Twilight series. It seems you’ve come to the same conclusion, but it’s just important to note that you’re not alone in that conclusion. The Dark Knight Returns has reached it’s status for it’s impact on helping the SUPERHERO GENRE of comics turn the corner from a purely adolescent medium TOWARDS a type of storytelling that can be enjoyable by adults.

    Yes, Watchmen did it BETTER, but Watchmen was not using preexisting CHILDREN’S CHARACTERS. Up until Frank Miller got ahold of Batman, that’s what he was, a CHILDREN’S CHARACTER. That’s where the shock to the system lies, seeing a children’s character acting like a maniacal freak.

    This is why you get negative responses with this sort of thing from fans of the comic medium. Either they are fanboys who refuse to listen to criticism (and there are plenty of these folks) OR they are people who look at comics as a legitimate literary artform who become irritated when they feel the medium is being judged on it’s most mainstream financially successful products. Just like in every artform with a mainstream pop-culture proponent, the GOOD stuff rarely sells nearly as well as the crap, and the crap also gets placed on pedestals that the more discerning fans generally don’t believe them to be worthy of. Just look at the top selling films of any given year, these are not the films you would want FILM as a whole to be judged on. They only show you what the masses are interested in, you have to dig deeper for the works with true artistic merit.

    Please, for your next foray into the comic medium, try reading some Craig Thompson, Jason Saeteray, or even R. Crumb. Or, if you want to see what can be done within the Superhero genre, try reading Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run from the 80s, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, or check out some neo-revisionist work like Mark Waid’s current run on Daredevil where he goes back to a simpler storytelling structure that revels in the FUN of what a superhero comic can be while still infusing the entire thing with a modern and adult sensibility.

  4. Thanks for coming back to comment again. I get the point you’re making, and I appreciate the advice.

    I’m not sure I completely agree with your views on popular vs good art. In my opinion, this distinction is often greatly exaggerated. Although I don’t believe there’s a 1-to-1 correspondence between popularity and greatness, each is (once you subtract the random-chance only-so-many-things-get-heard-of factor) a good guide, I think, to the other – great works are more likely to be popular, and popular works are usually good in at least some way. This becomes even more the case when you look not at total sales figures, but at the opinion of those who are more aware of their genre, and more critical and informed readers, but who remain part of the general reading populace, as it were, rather than specialised critics. That’s why I think it’s fair to expect a lot from DKR – because a lot of people who aren’t idiots think that it’s brilliant. I think that’s different from Twilight, where so far as I’m aware only idiots think it’s brilliant (though some others may enjoy it nonetheless).

    I don’t really know where I’m going there, though, so I won’t go any further.

    I’m not sure if this is significant, but I’m in the unusual point of view of coming to comics after many years of experience of webcomics (not that i’m a major webcomic fan or anything – I’ve only read half a dozen webcomics, maybe ten at most, and none of them were the best thing ever). This tends (apart from meaning that I don’t have the nostalgia thing) to mean that I expect more from print comics. I tend to think, “how come this professionally-produced literature is less good than some stuff I’ve read that’s been thrown together by a teenager armed with a pencil and his dad’s scanner?”. [For instance, I'm currently re-reading Sluggy Freelance, which I've followed with diminishing enthusiasm for many years, and I'm now rediscovering why I bothered with it in the first place. And - although of course it's entirely different in tone - I honestly think that, once it gets over its teething problems and finds its feet, it's a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Returns. It's certainly ten times smarter.]

    On the other hand, it also gives me a sense of what comics COULD be – the potential of the medium. When I say that a comic fails to fully make use of the medium’s resources, I basically mean “it isn’t A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage is Irreversible.” [Not that that's particularly deep or meaningful, but some pages are really eye-opening in terms of the power of layout and art style].

    Rambling now.

    Anyway, thanks for showing an interest!

  5. Joshua Cox says:

    — “I’m not sure I completely agree with your views on popular vs good art. In my opinion, this distinction is often greatly exaggerated. to the other – great works are more likely to be popular, and popular works are usually good in at least some way.”—

    I’d say it depends on the metrics you use. Look at how much money Transformers 2 made, and look at how many 15-25 year old there are who will tell you it was “fucking awesome.” That film made $350 MILLION domestically, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was released in the same year and made $3 million. Also, if you were to search online, I’m guessing you’ll find WAY more positive reviews for any of the Transformers movie than you will find for Assassination of Jesse James simply because so many more people have seen the Transformer films.

    Also, when “bad” art is consistently popular it creates a negative feedback loop where most folks are only seeing the bad films, and thus their expectations are constantly lowered. If the only 3 movies a person had ever seen were the Transformers trilogy, then it would follow that from their perspective, one of those Transformers movies would be “the greatest movie they’ve ever seen.”

    —” This becomes even more the case when you look not at total sales figures, but at the opinion of those who are more aware of their genre, and more critical and informed readers, but who remain part of the general reading populace, as it were, rather than specialised critics. That’s why I think it’s fair to expect a lot from DKR – because a lot of people who aren’t idiots think that it’s brilliant. I think that’s different from Twilight, where so far as I’m aware only idiots think it’s brilliant (though some others may enjoy it nonetheless).”—

    Well, but this is what I’m getting at. I don’t think I’ve really seen very many glowing reviews over DKR aside from those written by fanboys. Generally I’ve only ever seen it seriously discussed as an IMPORTANT comic, but not a necessarily GOOD one. Basically, I agree with you as far as DKR is concerned, but I would be surprised to find too many people who’s opinions I actually respect who wouldn’t. The Twilight reference was clearly a bit hyperbolic, but my basic point still stands, I think. Either way…

    —“I don’t really know where I’m going there, though, so I won’t go any further.”—

    agreed.

    —“I’m not sure if this is significant, but I’m in the unusual point of view of coming to comics after many years of experience of webcomics (not that i’m a major webcomic fan or anything – I’ve only read half a dozen webcomics, maybe ten at most, and none of them were the best thing ever). This tends (apart from meaning that I don’t have the nostalgia thing) to mean that I expect more from print comics. I tend to think, “how come this professionally-produced literature is less good than some stuff I’ve read that’s been thrown together by a teenager armed with a pencil and his dad’s scanner?”. [For instance, I'm currently re-reading Sluggy Freelance, which I've followed with diminishing enthusiasm for many years, and I'm now rediscovering why I bothered with it in the first place. And - although of course it's entirely different in tone - I honestly think that, once it gets over its teething problems and finds its feet, it's a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Returns. It's certainly ten times smarter.]“—

    Well, I absolutely agree with you. what reviews are you reading that don’t? I mean, you can’t get your comics reviews/news from some place like IGN Comics or ComicsAlliance. There are a whole bunch of people who write about comics who are just the comic book fan equivalent to the Transformers fans, the King of Queens fans, Ke$ha fans, etc, etc. I see positive reviews for all sorts of terrible crap online all the time, you just gotta learn to weed through them. It seems that with your limited knowledge of the genre and the cultures surrounding it, you’re not yet fully able to differentiate between the two. sequart.org might be a good place to start.

    I’m telling you right now, everything I recommended up there in that earlier comment is lightyears ahead of DKR in wit, humor, maturity, innovation, etc, and they were just off the top of my head.

  6. The question of good vs bad art is a big one (which I always tell myself I’ll write a post about some day). I will say in the general case that I don’t think the comparison of succesful bad films with succesful good ones is devastating, for two reasons: firstly, because a general tendency can survive large deviations (in particular, a succesful popcorn film may not be as good as a less succesful more intelligent film – but within the two categories of ‘popcorn’ and ‘intelligent’, better films are likely to be more successful than worse films); secondly, because those who like rubbish things don’t necessarily think they are good; and third, because success isn’t an indicator of good reputation even within a category – a lot of films are succesful through curiosity, and lack a good reputation once people have actually seen them.

    A good way to see how these factors can compensate for popularity differences is to look at something like IMDB. “Transformers 2″ has a rating of 5.9 out of 10, whilst Assassination has a rating of 7.6. And that’s the general public, not critics. Of course, sometimes the general public gets it completely and utterly wrong, but I think it’s surprising just how right they often are.

    In the particular case, well, I guess it’s a personal issue who we respect. I didn’t go trawling for reviews of DKR or anything – my impression of the popular opinion of it has just come to me through the aether, by osmosis, over the years. People who seem to have good taste (or at least translatable taste) in books have often seemed to me quite impressed by it. [I suppose that as a famous graphic novel, there's kind of a talking-dog element to how people think of it - they don't say so, but I think a lot of ordinary people have a 'it's not rubbish even though it's a batman comic, that makes it brilliant' sort of thoughtstream.]

    That said, it’s not something I’ll argue over. DKR isn’t rubbish, it’s just not anywhere near as good as people have always told me it is.

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