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.