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)
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 4×4 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.
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.)
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]