Monday, April 11, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #4: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
PLOT-SUMMARY FOR THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS 1-4: Not needed this time as I'm talking about one major myth-theme in the work. Besides, no comics-fan worth his salt hasn't read it, IMO. Oh, and I already reviewed the story way back in some issue of COMICS JOURNAL.
Some time after the commercial if not critical success of Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, I attended a convention-panel on which Gary Groth grilled Frank Miller about TDKR. By then Groth’s patrician contempt for Miller’s work was well-known, but though I’m sure that Groth must have asked all manner of probing questions, I only recall one. The essence of Groth’s rather nerdy query was finding fault with a sequence in TDKR #2, in which Batman nonlethally subdues a criminal gang with a spray of rubber bullets. Groth said something like, “You do know rubber bullets can kill people, don’t you?”
I don’t remember Frank Miller’s reply, but what he should have said was, “Not in Batman’s world.”
There are many fascinating symbolic aspects to Miller’s rewriting of iconic DC characters, but the most important one is the matter of the Wrath of the Batman. In 1986 Miller was far from the first to have transformed Batman’s image from that of a cool avuncular crimefighter to that of a vigilante haunted by trauma and barely repressed fury. But no one took the idea as far as Miller did.
I mentioned earlier that TDKR hasn’t always enjoyed a good critical reputation. I’m convinced that this is not because of assorted gaffes, like Groth’s carp about rubber bullets, nor is it about Miller’s supposed “bad writing.” For most critics, including but not limited to those of elitist orientation, TDKR’s sin is to validate vigilantism, and thus, supposedly, to validate “fascism” as well.
In our world, it’s unlikely that any act of vigilantism has been morally justifiable. But as I noted earlier, Batman’s world is not our world. As with the plot-device of inquisitorial torture, which I examined here, the idea of an absolutely correct vigilante justice—one that never victimizes the wrong target—is the very cornerstone of Batman’s world. It’s a world with its own laws, the laws of thematic escapism.
Precisely because Miller can frame the Bat-Wrath in terms of a world he himself called “Romantic,” he gives it a greater depth, a greater resonance, than one finds in a work of thematic realism. It’s often overlooked, amid all the fulminations about fascism, that Batman’s trauma-born rage nearly masters him at several points in the story, turning him away from life and toward death. Yet though half-cavalier about his own death, Miller’s Batman consistently refuses to cross the line that real fascism never hesitates to violate: he will not take life. Groth’s carping about the “rubber bullets,” intended to task Miller with the reality-principle that would doom real-world vigilantism, clearly misses that Miller is using the “fantasy-principle” to make a salient point about an iconic character.
That’s not to say that Miller’s Batman is squeaky-clean. Throughout TDKR’s narrative Batman takes clearly sadistic pleasure in maiming the criminals he refuses to kill, which is without question a diversion of his wrath against the man who killed his parents: “who stole all sense from my life.” But in an escapist world, even sadism can be sublimated to redeem the world. And thus in the end Batman refuses a dramatic Viking death and chooses to preside over an underground Maquis-style movement that will “bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers." And it doesn't matter whether or not one believes that what Frank Miller thinks of as "worse" is what the reader would think.
In Batman's world, Batman is The Law.