Monday, March 21, 2011

Frank Miller et al, The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

As part of my ongoing semi-quest to understand superheroes, I read this comic, because everyone ever says it's the BEST BATMAN COMIC EVER. I did not buy it; it belonged to my brother, who is or was at one point something of a Batman fan. I asked him what he thought about it. He replied, diplomatically, that it was "okay," and added that, given the state of superhero writing in general, it is not inconceivable that something not-that-fantastic could perhaps gain a better reputation than is necessarily merited purely on the basis of quality (man, how circumspect can you get?). Hey, I'm not sufficiently familiar with the genre to evaluate this statement; it's just what he said.

Hey, maybe you had to be there--I will concede the possibility that the state of having-been-there-ed-ness might be of assistance to you. If you know all about the character and his history and his ups and downs and all this, maybe this was just plain ol' a breath of fresh air. Maybe. But I, personally, did not think that it was a very good comic book.

Surprisingly, given my jaundiced attitude towards Frank Miller, I did not find it especially political troubling. It takes an appropriately ambiguous view towards the question of this whole vigilante-masked-crimefighting thing (you can quibble with a few bits, like the psychobabble-spouting therapist, but I'm inclined to give such things a pass here), and it doesn't at all display the sort of violent, misogynistic nihilism that made Sin City so off-putting. So cheers to that.

No cheers, however, to the fact that the story, such as it is, consists mostly of a series of virtually incomprehensible fight sequences punctuated by talking heads, who sometimes explain what's supposed to have just happened, which is good, because otherwise there would be no way of knowing. This might be somewhat less problematic if the art were less terrible, but it's not. Characters are really crudely-drawn, and there is virtually no sense of mise en scène; everything takes place in a vague, murky haze. Towards the end (spoilers!) the country is reduced to nuclear-winter-ish conditions; this ought to be a visceral thing (recall the climax of Watchmen), but it's not--it creates no impact because everything's such an incoherent mishmash.

To be positive, here are three things I liked in the comic: I liked the portrayal of the aged Commissioner Gordon, who has an earthy likability to him. I liked the female Robin, even though it's far from clear who she really is or what she's doing here (seriously, I thought the idea with Robin was that his (or her) parents had, like Batman's, died somehow--that doesn't seem to be the case here. So what's happening? How does she get leeway to just go out and Fight Crime? What's the deal?). And finally, perhaps surprisingly, I really, really liked the portrayal of Superman--the scene towards the end where he's diverting a nuclear missile from its target is legitimately well-done and emotionally effective.

But man, that's about it. Batman is not very interesting at all. Okay, he's older and retired. And he drinks too much (although that instantly ceases to be an issue as soon as he goes back to crimefighting). But aside from the odd I'm-too-old-for-this-shit-type line, that doesn't really seem to have much impact on the story itself. And the less said about the "classic" villains that appear here--Two-Face and Joker--the better. Two-Face in particular is really disappointing; the idea is that Dent's face has been fixed thanks to reconstructive surgery, and the question is: can his mind be fixed as well? Answer: no, and there's no preamble or anything; he pretty much instantly turns evil again when he's released, and it's not even a little bit psychologically interesting. And then, as far as I can tell, Batman doesn't actually kill him, but he disappears from the narrative just like that. His appearance seems to serve no purpose other than to hold a not-very-interesting mirror up to Batman himself.

I'm not using this negative reading experience as an excuse to condemn superhero comics as a whole, because it's flaws pretty clearly aren't--or needn't be--endemic to the genre. But here's the thing: I've read Watchmen, which displays both a technical and an emotional mastery of the form, and in which every damn thing is carefully considered. Don't try to tell me that something as crude as DKR is the best we can expect from the genre! I've seen the counter-evidence!

Bah, I say! Bah, and furthermore, humbug!


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

This Robin's post-smoking, absentee parents are represented at several intervals in conversations heard outside their window. At one point, I recall one of them remarking, "Hey, didn't we have a kid?" When first reading it as a kid myself, I took this not simply as pointing a finger at parents who seem uninvolved in their children's lives, but also playing upon the absurdity of the trope of kids who just wander off from home (or whose parents are never even hinted at) without incident in fairy tales and children's books.

Given that you missed this, I think you were too confused to really judge the book. I do not suggest a second reading, however, as I'm sure it would cause more suffering than edification. Our tastes may be shaped and refined, but they are still hard to change. Harder still with so little exposure to similar products.

Anyway, my favourite Batman comics are Miller and Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One and Gaiman and Kubrick's Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader. The former requires no great knowledge of Batman or his world, beyond the existence of Catwoman and James Gordon. The former is, in my opinion, a much tighter tribute to Batman than Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow or All Star Superman were to Superman. DKR comes in third for me, though it remains the most important.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Not editing things can cause confusion. This Robin's parents are pot smokers. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is a tribute story about Batman's history and his death(s). Batman: Year One, being an origin tale, requires little to no previous knowledge to understand its goings on.

5:11 PM  

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