And she did it! She went out past Vega, out past Moulquet and Lambard! (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part 11: The Dark Knight Returns)

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Previously in The Last War in Albion: After considering various supposed influences that work more on the level of plot and characters, it became apparent that a more helpful theory of influence on Watchmen came in the form of William S. Burroughs, whose theories of language and magic were directly cited by Moore as influences, and actually help explain the book's strange and vast influence on its world.

This also helps explain how Watchmen relates to what was, by the mid-80s, a significant body of revisionist takes on superheroes. The most obvious point of comparison here is Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which came out from March to June of 1986, with the final issue coming a week after the first issue of Watchmen. The proximity of the two nuclear paranoia-fueled revisionist tales of aging superheroes, along with a wealth of news articles that cited them, along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus as heralding a new, mature era for comics (usually, as famously noted by Neil Gaiman, carrying titles along the lines of “Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!”), made them obvious bedfellows, an impression heightened by the fact that Moore and Miller were critical darlings among the same crowds.

Moore was also a vocal proponent of Miller’s work, and had been since 1983, when he wrote an essay in The Daredevils praising and analyzing the Miller Daredevil run whose reprints headlined the magazine. (He also, of course, wrote “Grit,” a parody of Miller’s Daredevil work, for the same magazine.) Indeed, he wrote the introduction to the first trade paperback edition of The Dark Knight Returns, calling it “one of the few genuine comic book landmarks worthy of a lavish and more durable presentation.” And indeed, the work is a perennial bestseller and a landmark work, although its status as a classic has, in recent years, found itself endangered by a larger shift in Miller’s critical reception brought on in part by his unfortunate late career turn towards crass Islamophobia in works like Holy Terror and his tendency to do things like call the 2011 Occupy protests “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists” due to their failure to sufficiently oppose radical Islam. And indeed, More has been a part of that turn, proclaiming in 2011 that “Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past twenty years” before going on to criticize the majority of Miller’s work from that period, and suggesting, of his Occupy criticism, that “if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be much more in favour of it.” 

Figure 880: The sixteen-panel grid was as fundamental to The Dark Knight Returns as the nine-panel grid was to Watchmen. (Written by Frank Miller, art by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1, 1986)

This last crack on Moore’s part highlights the specific way in which these later skirmishes of the War echo back upon The Dark Knight Returns, and it is in a way that both shows why Moore viewed it as such a landmark comic at the time and how it is a profoundly different work than Watchmen. Where Watchmen is intensely structured and defined by the impeccably clean line of Dave Gibbons, The Dark Knight Returns is a book that revels in its messiness, both structurally and in terms of Frank Miller’s bombastic scratch of a drawing style. Although he retained the high panel counts that characterized his breakout Daredevil work, basing the bulk of The Dark Knight Returns off of a 4x4 sixteen-panel grid, his figures in The Dark Knight Returns are strange and grotesque figures, misshapen and scratchy. Klaus Janson, in inking the comic, emphasizes this, working in a minimalist style further sold by Lynn Varley’s inkwashed colors. On top of this, the comic was published in what DC called their “prestige format,” a gluebound forty-eight page format published, like Watchmen, free of advertisements. Miller luxuriates in the space, and while there are no shortage of tight, intricately designed pages across the work, there are no shortage of cases where a scene spills oddly over into the first few panels of the next page, leaving often jarring hard cuts between unrelated scenes in the middle of a page. Plot elements are unveiled haphazardly - there’s a splash page in the second issue, for instance, emphasizing the death of a character who had never previously been mentioned in the story. 

This sort of description can easily sound like criticism, but they are at the heart of the story’s power, which takes a similarly immoderate approach to the portrayal of Batman himself. Miller’s Batman is a militaristic tactician consumed by a pathological and almost mystical obsession. In one of the most chillingly effective sequences, as the aging Bruce Wayne finally decides to don the cowl and take to the roofs of Gotham again, Miller pens an inner monologue from the perspective of Batman talking to Bruce: “The time has come. You know it in your soul. For I am your soul. You cannot escape me. You are puny, you are small - you are nothing - a hollow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me - smoldering, I burn you - burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful - you cannot stop me - not with wine or vows or the weight of age - you cannot stop me but still you try - still you run - you try to drown me out… but your voice is weak.” Once the Dark Knight makes his eponymous return, his voice is a staccato noir, confidently explaining everything in the world around him, even when he’s having the crap beaten out of him. (“He shows me what a fast kick is. Something explodes in my midsection. Sunlight behind my eyes as the pain rises. A moment of blackness. Too soon for that. Too soon. What’s wrong with me? Ribs intact. No internal bleeding.”) It is the idea of Batman pushed to a conceptual limit point: the most badass character imaginable, a point emphasized by the final villain he faces down, which is not the Joker (dispatched at the end of the third issue), but rather Superman. 

Figure 881: One of the many sequences in The Dark Knight Returns told through television coverage, and featuring a scathing satire of Ronald Reagan. (Written by Frank Miller, art by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #4, 1986)

But all of this is filtered through the profound idiosyncrasy of Miller’s vision. His perfectly competent, fundamentally unstoppable Batman is the conceptual centerpiece of a world that bends around him - a pillar of perfected masculinity in a world otherwise defined by cowards, cronies, and crazies. Miller spends large portions of the book portraying talking heads on television discussing the plot, a sort of Greek chorus as filtered through the media-centric approach of Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg, and the world has the same sort of satirical excess of that book. As Moore describes it in his introduction, Batman “is seen as a near-fascist and a dangerous fanatic by the media while concerned psychiatrists plead for the release of a homicidal Joker upon strictly humanitarian grounds.” But it goes further than this - the mayor of Gotham City is a craven buffoon, the new police chief is a well-meaning classical liberal whose principled view of the law blinds her to the necessity of Batman, Superman is a naive stooge to the Reagan administration, with Reagan himself portrayed as a senile cowboy, and the youth of Gotham City is a bunch of cannibalistic mutants who, when Batman defeats their leader, become a sort of cargo cult Batman that endlessly appears on television to say, in the exact same words, that they will not be making any further statements in between beating petty criminals halfway to death.

Figure 882: Batman guns down a bad guy. (Written by Frank Miller, art by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #2, 1986)

Were The Dark Knight Returns an influence on Watchmen in the traditional causal sense that fuels priority disputes, the obvious defense for Moore partisans would at this point be Judge Dredd, which shares its basic structure of an unbeatable hero serving as the final bastion of law and order in a fundamentally mad world, and its aesthetic of continual excess. And like Judge Dredd, the appeal of The Dark Knight Returns is that it is a fundamentally satirical work. And while nobody would mistake The Dark Knight Returns as going to the conceptual extreme of Judge Dredd, where, for all that the comic depends on the basic pleasure of watching the title character blow shit up, it’s ultimately unambiguous about the fact that he’s a bad guy. Ultimately, if nothing else, the idea that the company that wouldn’t even let Alan Moore kill the Peacemaker would allow one of their most popular characters to be undermined and subverted like that. All the same, The Dark Knight Returns clearly pushes in that direction when, for instance, Batman opens fire from the tank-like Batmobile, quipping via voiceover, “rubber bullets. Honest,” a moment that visibly nods at the fundamental absurdity of Batman’s sanitized violence. (Indeed, earlier in the issue Miller unambiguously has Batman grab one of the bad guys’ guns and shoot another in order to rescue a hostage, trading on the absurd contrast between Batman, in shadow, wielding a machine gun with a giant “BRAKKK” caption beneath him and, three panels later, cradling a child to his chest emblem.) 

Figure 883: One of the iconic images of The Dark Knight Returns is a visual homage to the poster for The Birth of a Nation. (Left: Written by Frank Miller, art by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 1986. Right: Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.)

But the balance of frenzied energy and clever irony that fuels this is fragile thing, shattered by knowledge of future Frank Miller texts like Holy Terror, where his satirically excessive version of Batman (renamed “the Fixer,” but blatantly Batman both within the text and in terms of the story’s origin as a Batman project) becomes a crass vehicle for expressing Miller’s opinion that Muslims are a bunch of grunting barbarians and/or liberal arts majors. And once Miller falls off the delicate tightrope of visionary genius the hypocrisy of a Batman who simultaneously dramatically guns people down and moralizes about how guns are “the weapon of the enemy” becomes grating, and the splash page of Batman rearing up on a magnificent stallion before gathering his army of young sociopathic vigilantes in makeup starts to look like the D.W. Griffiths lift it is. In short, what looked like a bleak satire of America in the 1980s now looks uncomfortably like a sincerely presented vision of what America could be.

Figure 884: Not every one of Rorschach's monologues is a work of literary genius. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons, from Watchmen #2, 1986.)

But in this regard the similarities between The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are, perhaps, greater than might be apparent. After all, if The Dark Knight Returns was widely read as being less sincere than it now appears that it was, Watchmen was widely read as being considerably more sincere than it was, particularly in terms of Rorschach (and, though he’s rarely mentioned in these terms, the Comedian), whose excesses are in many regards similar to those of Miller’s Batman. And, it must be said, it is not as though a reading of The Dark Knight Returns whereby Batman is a quasi-fascist fantasy figure, or for that matter one of Watchmen in which Rorschach is viewed as an aspirational one was, in practice, unpopular. For all that Miller’s politics have taken a turn towards the unpleasant and his art has grown self-parodic in its grotesqueries, after all, he can still move an impressive number of units on the direct market. And likewise, for all that it is Watchmen’s pathological formalism that defines its uncanny power, the cold reality is that its success depended on the large number of fans who lovingly remember “dog carcass in alley this morning” while conveniently forgetting “American love; like coke in green glass bottles” when thinking about Rorschach as a character.

This is a central tension within the book, and one that’s crucial to understanding Moore’s eventual and profound alienation from it. Moore has repeatedly expressed his considerable discomfort with the number of people who, as he puts it, “come up to me saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’,” describing his reaction as hoping that they will “just, like, keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again as long as I live.” And it’s difficult to disentangle this revulsion from his concurrent revulsion at fan culture, based on his negative experiences being mobbed at conventions, which left him temporarily suffering from night terrors. It would be ridiculous to suggest that Moore did not want Watchmen to succeed, but equally, it’s clear that the terms on which it did succeed were intensely upsetting to him. In a fundamental sense, the book he wrote and the book people read were two very different things. And the gulf between those two versions of Watchmen is a huge and fundamental part of the reaction to the book.

It is also a gulf explored by Grant Morrison in his 2014 comic Pax Americana, part of his larger Multiversity series of semi-connected one-shots exploring alternate Earths in the DC Multiverse he had helped restore in 2007. [continued]

Comments

Eric Gimlin 1 year, 5 months ago

Super small detail that's slightly poking at my brain: I'm not sure "the comic was published in what DC called their “prestige format,”", but rather that the comic was published in what DC later came to call their "prestige format". I vaguely recall some promotional material on The Longbow Hunters using the "prestige format" name and explaining that it was the same format Dark Knight had been published in.

I could be way off base here, but I was just getting back into comics around this time after about 2 1/2 years not bothering (a friend introduced me to the concept of a comic book store) and I do remember us not having a name for the format at least to start.

Lots of memories about Dark Knight Returns as it was coming out, although the only issue I wound up getting the week of release was #4; and I never did get to read #1 until the collection (with the Alan Moore intro) came out.

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 5 months ago

Wasn't the 'Prestige Format' originally refered to as the Dark Knight Format by DC in various solicitations thanks to the story's early success in that format leading to DC marketing to realise they could make big profits from milking it for as much as they possiby could.

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Eric Gimlin 1 year, 5 months ago

They probably did, Timber-Munki. That matches what I recall of the hype for Longbow Hunters; either than or Blackhawk could have been the switch-over in names. Then again, this was a point where DC had multiple formats and less than spectacular naming trends. It's one thing to temporarily label something "New Format", it's quite another to put it on the cover of dozens of books for over two years.

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Matt M 1 year, 5 months ago

Oh man, Frank Miller.

I suppose this gets into the question of 'death of the author'. I think it's less a case of 'just' Islamaphobia (I'm not sure I got that feeling from him, more a general 'right wing' and 'terrorism is bad mmmkay' though I can't say I've read much of his later stuff) and more a general case of "my goodness, it turns out he wasn't being satirical, he literally believes all this right-wing stuff" that has caused a lot of people to look back and reassess his previous work in that light. Much like "All Star Batman and Robin" works if you think it's written as satire and fails miserably if it's not.

Does it matter though? Should it matter? Nothing in the actual text has changed given subsequent revelations about the writer, just the context of the work. Was everyone who praised Dark Knight Returns wrong because it was seemingly written more straightforwardly as believed?

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John 1 year, 5 months ago

I read it for the first time recently. not really knowing what to expect. I was familiar with Miller's recent shitty politics, but had the vague sense that his 80s work is mostly free of that. My take on finishing was that it's really fucking fascist.

And I don't think this is just my knowledge of Miller's current politics infecting my understanding of Dark Knight. I read Year One and Miller's first Daredevil run after Dark Knight, and I didn't find them nearly as objectionable, even though at that point I was inclined to look for the fascism.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 5 months ago

I read Holy Terror for this section, just to make sure I was characterizing it fairly. (I almost used an illustration from it, but decided the horse parallel was better. Hat tip to Lance Parkin, incidentally, who was the first person I saw make that connection.) Based on it, I think Islamophobia is actually the key ideology for Miller, and the fascism is just sort of an incidental (and given his earlier work inevitable) consequence.

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Eric Gimlin 1 year, 5 months ago

I find it interesting just how revolting I find that horse parallel now that you've pointed it out. Makes me glad I had already told my local shop that I don't want DK3 under any circumstances, and please don't pull a copy for me "just in case". Which is fine, as the owner was already considering ordering just enough to meet pull requests and none for the shop.

But... I think this reaction would have been completely different in 1986. To the very limited extent my 15 year old self would have been aware of The Birth of a Nation at all, it would have been "Primarily a Classic Film that is, unfortunately, also racist.", not "A racist piece of garbage that is, unfortunately, also a classic film." Song of the South had its last theatrical release in 1986 as well, for example.

Then again, the more I look back at it, the more it seems that Dark Knight was more mindblowing, shocking, amazing, inspiring, and other words of that type... than actually fun. I so loved how it did what it did that I missed the fact for years that I didn't really care for what it did.

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John G Wood 1 year, 5 months ago

"Then again, the more I look back at it, the more it seems that Dark Knight was more mindblowing, shocking, amazing, inspiring, and other words of that type... than actually fun."

Yeah, this was my reaction. I've never been a particularly big Batman fan, but picked it up because I'd enjoyed most of Miller's Daredevil run (plus the hype, of course). At the time I found it gripping... but never felt in the mood to reread it, so eventually sold it or gave it to a charity shop. I preferred Batman: Year One, but even so I haven't felt the urge to buy any of his work since then (or see the movies).

Hearing about his politics here kind of confirms the impressions I've received since, although at the time I assumed DK was satirical.

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Aylwin 1 year, 5 months ago

It may be a parallel, but isn't it a bit of a stretch to call it a "lift" or "homage"? I mean, "man on rearing horse" was already a stock image centuries before D. W. Griffith was born, and beyond its basic man-on-rearing-horseness there's nothing very similar about the composition.

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Matt M 1 year, 5 months ago

And let's be fair, that would be like claiming Star Wars is fascist because it uses imagery from Triumph of the Will

(Or maybe it is, but I don't think so?)

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John 1 year, 5 months ago

Or, I guess, that every film that features cross-cutting between two different, but related, scenes to build tension, is a tribute to Birth of a Nation.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 5 months ago

"Much like "All Star Batman and Robin" works if you think it's written as satire and fails miserably if it's not."

It's my opinion that ASBAR doesn't work as satire, but this is based on flicking through it and putting it back on the shelf very quickly, so ICBW.

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BenJ 1 year, 5 months ago

He certainly seems to believe "all this right wing stuff" now. Whether he credited all of it back then is a different question. From reading interviews with him back within the decade after TDKR was released I remember that he used to have interesting, nuanced things to say about comics and their place in the world, before he started to pound the "fuck Muslims and hippies" note over and over.

As an artist he still shows some skill and flair even as his writing deteriorates. The excerpts of Holy Terror that I've seen do have some sharp compositions, despite the depressingly limiting subject matter. His style as a writer suited this project but unfortunately the big two were too slavish in imitating it. Which is to say that while terse first person narration is good for a comic about Batman as a monomaniac, it soon became mandatory

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Sean Dillon 1 year, 5 months ago

I could be wrong about this (and this wouldn't be the first tim I've been wrong about something like this), but I could have sworn the "Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” quote is from Grant Morrison's Flex Mentallo. If it's not, I'm curious where Neil Gaiman said it.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 5 months ago

You know, I'll admit, I credited that one to him from memory, so I could be wrong. I'm 99% certain I saw the quote during my undergrad years, though, and I didn't get into Grant Morrison until grad school (and didn't read Flex Mentallo until I was in the earliest stages of prepping for this project). But I have fairly vivid memories, albeit possibly totally false ones, of reading some interview with Gaiman where he talked about being a journalist in the late 80s and trying to get people to cover comics only to have every article he wrote retitled that.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 5 months ago

It was a standard "thing" at the time; Moore has a variant in his intro to Lenny Henry and the Quest for the Big Woof (as "Bam! Sock! Pow! The Comic Grows Up").

Because the fact was, all newspaper articles about comics did have that headline.

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 5 months ago

The hero worship of Rorshach has always left me simultaneously completely baffled on a personal level and not surprised at comic fandom not getting it at a heroic level.

Dark Knight really is puzzling, The art is for me the redeeming factor - Interesting to see in the slew of variant covers for DK3 #1 David Gibbons has chosen that iconic page from Hunt the Dark Knight of Batman & Robin leaping across the skyline, which apparently was the first image the Miller came up with when initially developing the series. It is, also all one of the most straightforwardly innocently heroic images from the book.

As to DKSB, my initial thoughts were that it was an incredibly ballsy move from Miller to get DC to pay for Lynn Varley to learn how to colour on computer and a canny decision to make it only 3 issues long, because it really does stretch fans patience. Looking back at it now again it's the art, this time in a febrile-hot-mess-looseness-Captain-Beefheart-genius-but-I-couldn't-have-all-my-art-like-it kind of way.

I'm not even going to bother trying to get hold of DKMR illegally for all the bien pensant reasons - the title, the format, the man's politics crossing the subjective line of giving it a pass for great art, the lack of Miller art, the banal trilogising of the story from Warner Bros marketing, the niggling sense that a fitting way to honour the man's work would be to instigate wholesale changes in the way the big two treats creators rather than some kind of blatant cash grab to help one of the masters of the form (Pre 9/11 IMO) & one of your major revenue sources for nigh on 30 years (Why do you think the second Nolan film is called what it is, and you can't deny that the Arkham video game's aesthetic is indebted to his work) and who may be struggling with health issues currently.

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Timber-Munki 1 year, 5 months ago

(And also more specifically Miller indebted title of the 3rd Nolan film)

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John 1 year, 5 months ago

Jeet Heer had an interesting series of posts on Twitter about why readers are not in fact wrong to see Rorschach as the hero of Watchmen. See here. I generally find this line of argument fairly convincing.

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John 1 year, 5 months ago

Actually, this is the better storify.

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Daru 1 year, 5 months ago

Man, that parallel with the horse image from Birth of a Nation is shocking. One of the things, in fact the main thing that really brings vibrancy to The Dark Knight Rises is Lynn Varley's absolutely exquisite colouring.

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Karl Thomasson 1 year, 4 months ago

"Ultimately, if nothing else, the idea that the company that wouldn’t even let Alan Moore kill the Peacemaker would allow one of their most popular characters to be undermined and subverted like that."

This sentence seems to be missing something...

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