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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns"

When Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" was published in 1986, the Batman franchise, owned by DC Comics was not in good shape. Ratings were steady but never competitive with those of the rivals, Marvel Comics. Miller was a young superstar whose work on the Daredevil comic strip had already drawn rave reviews. The onus was on him to resuscitate the dying series.

So what does he do? He begins by making the Batman an old, bleeding, fading man grappling with his own inner demons. We are told that the second Robin, Jason Todd, died in combat, which caused, among other things, the caped crusader to call it a day. Where lesser men would have brought fresh villains for Batman to bash up, maybe even exaggerated the Batman's skills, Miller opted to tone them down. And then trained his eye on Gotham.

Miller's Gotham city is eerily disturbing and fascinating in equal measure.It is a city which doesn't have huge arch-villains, it has 15-year olds committing acts of unthinkable violence. Where the cost of a human life is shockingly low. It is a city where anarchy is always waiting in the wings, just in case..... Above all, it is a place ridden with paranoia and ignorance.During a news broadcast, it is actually suggested that "the heat wave in the city has led to the recent spate of violent crimes"

Batman's old foes Harvey "Two-Face" Dent and the Joker have both been locked up in Arkham Asylum for years. Harvey's half-burnt visage and his twisted alter-ego have both been apparently put to rest by a duo of doctors who seem curiously keen to let him loose among society again. At the same time, a gang of nihilist young goons calling themselves the Mutants are growing in power and influence on the streets of Gotham. Meanwhile, veteran cop Jim Gordon(Batman's old ally, one who apparently knows his identity has Bruce Wayne) is nearing retirement and contemplates the fate of Gotham in the days to come.

Clearly the stage is set for a comeback. For me, here's where the novel transcends the genre. Bruce Wayne's monologue about the bat, whom he describes as "the ancient one, the purest warrior, the ultimate survivor..." is chilling. Here's what he has to say about the revival of the bat within "You are are are a rusty trap which cannot hold me......feel me within your soul......for I am your soul....smouldering, I burn you....burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful." All this is set accompanied with images from Bruce Wayne's past.....with a series of stunningly vivid black-and-blue ink sketches, the incident of a young Bruce falling down a bat-infested cave; as well as that of the brutal murder of his parents, is reconstructed in breathtaking fashion. On an unrelated note, I couldn't help but notice how faithfully Christopher Nolan has followed Miller's sketches while filming the aforementioned scenes in the stunning "Batman Begins" !

Batman does manage to quell Dent, who though cured of his scars, has found out that some scars are too deep to heal..... In fact, in the scene where Batman finally confronts Dent, he says "At least, now both sides are even ...." and the frame shows Dent with both sides of his face scarred. Batman, realising this is how Harvey Dent sees himself, thinks....."Not fooled by vision, I see him as he is..." and then "A reflection....." as we are shown two adjacent frames, one of the Batman, and one of the fierce-as-ever bat.... this intelligent juxtaposition of words and art is sometimes hard to follow, as the visual tricks keep getting more and more subtler.

The next issue of the four-part novel deals mostly with how Batman takes down the Mutant gang and also the emergence of a new Robin, thirteen-year old Carrie Kelly. Frank Miller, in the tenth-anniversary special edition, says in the preface, "One of the first things we decided was that Robin has to be a girl." However, the underlying problem addressed is not about the mutants; it is "escalation" , the idea that Batman's presence might actually increase crime and attract criminal sociopaths from all directions. We are shown a visibly aged and watered-down Joker quietly watching television at Arkham asylum. When there is news of the Batman's return on the news, something seems to wake the Joker up from his lull........the gleam in his eyes his back, and he slowly breaks into the same old ear-to-ear grin......A pompous psychiatrist, Dr. Wolper, who is treating both the Joker and Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, comes on television to go on a long-winded rant against the Batman.

"Every anti-social act can be traced to irresponsible media input. Given this(the Batman), the presence of such an aberrant, violent force in the media can only lead to anti-social programming. Just as Harvey Dent, who is recovering fine,thank you, assumed the role of ideological doppelganger to the Batman, a whole new generation, confused and angry will be bent to the matrix of the Batman's pathological self-delusion. Batman is, in this context, a social disease....." In the climax of "Batman Begins", Commissioner Jim Gordon explains the problem of escalation to the Batman, introducing the character of the Joker which was portrayed memorably by the late Heath Ledger in the sequel "The Dark Knight"Gordon says "This guy, for instance......he has a penchant for theatricality not unlike your own..... leaves a calling card..."
The weakness of the media and the blinkers-on attitiude of the government are also key themes Miller addresses here. The government, in Miller's universe, is openly and notoriously cares only about "public perception". The newsreader on the TV says, "The Political Performance Commission has just awarded the President an unprecedented five credibility points for his handling of public perception during the recent economic crisis..." Here, Miller dons the hat of an unlikely prophet as he introduces the President, a pandering, bumbling guy who speaks almost entirely using cowboy metaphors. The President explains to Clark Kent/Superman (who has now become a government agent) why Batman must be reined in.

"Son, I like to think I learnt everything about running this country on my's corny, I know, but I like to think it. And well, it's all well on a ranch, I mean, for the horses to be of different colurs and sizes.....long as they stay inside the's even okay to have a crazy bronco now and then.... does the hands good to break him in.....but when that bronco kicks out the fence and drives the other horses crazy....well it's bad for business...."

Clark Kent(yes, nowhere has the word "Superman" been used....apparently the Government has kept the existence of the Superman under wraps. Bruce Wayne refers to him simply as "Clark" ) then is kept in the shadows for a while as the Mutant leader is captured and put in a jail cell, where the mayor goes to see him " for negotiations, with all the ceremony befitting a military procedure..." as Jim Gordon puts it.The weakness of the authorities is sensed by the Mutant leader, who brutally murders the mayor in his cell. The seething outrage of Gordon is captured beautifully in the next scene where he is restrained "by some idiot, who stops me from doing the obvious thing..." Very soon, there is a broadcast by the local authorities who literally plead the Mutants to reconsider negotiations.

Eventually, Batman manages to overpower the Mutant leader.....seeing their leader maimed, the Mutants disband into different splinter groups, among them the "Nixons" who wear Richard Nixon masks! Ironically, one such group becomes the "Sons of Batman" who resort to extreme violence against even petty crime(like breaking up an illegal card game with napalm). By now, the Joker is gearing up for his first public appearance in years, and something big, blue and fast is flying towardsGotham City....

The action hots up when the Joker announces his arrival in style, killing hundreds of people in the television studio at one go, with his killing gas(including the insufferable Dr.Wolper). The Batman shows a twinge of regret at not killing the Joker, "I'll count the dead, one by one. I'll add them to the list..... of all the people I've murdered by letting you live...." Meanwhile, Clark Kent(yes, if Miller doesn't use "Superman" neither will I!) comes to warn his old ally Bruce that sooner or later, he will be forced to take the Batman down. This encounter between the Man of Steel and Bruce Wayne is a treat.....there is the gratuitious page-length sketch of the Adonis-like Clark Kent, albeit minus the costume.Watching him, Bruce thinks to himself , "There he is...there's the sun and the sky and him. Then he ruins everything by talking..."
Clark Kent saves America from a Soviet nuclear missile, harmlessly exploding it in a desert, weakening himself considerably in the process. He is rueful of how Bruce was "ruining it all" with his obesessive ways.....I thought this was Miller's way of cocking a snook at other, more "conventional" heroes like Superman himself.

"The rest of us learned to cope.The rest of us recognised the danger-- of the envy of those not blessed.....Diana went back to her people.....Hal went to the stars..and I have walked the razor's edge for so long now. But you Bruce......with your wild obesession.....". (For the uninitiated, Diana and Hal refer to Diana Prince and Hal Jordan, alter-egos for Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, respectively. They were both part of the Justice League, which also featured Superman and the Batman.)
Later on, even as Superman is finally unveiled in all his red-and-blue glory, he says " We must not remind them that giants walk the earth...." It is hinted that superheroes have been all but stamped out due to public outrage against the growing vigilante justice,and that Batman was one of the major culprits in this. Clark says,

"You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough....when the noise started from the parents' groups and the subcommittee called us in for were the one who laughed....that scary laugh of yours... "Sure we're criminals" , you said... "We've always been criminals....we have to be criminals..."

Make no mistake, the operative word in the title of the novel here is "dark" , not "knight". Bruce Wayne is darker, more violent and even cold-blooded at times. He has no qualms about his methods and is a powerful allegory for rule of anarchy.
The Batman finally subdues the resurgent Joker, but not before he has killed dozens of children at a fair. Oh, yes, the bloodtrail is ever so thick right throughout the novel. The final action sequences between the two arch-enemies are superbly scripted and drawn. Reading those pages made me realize some of the madness comic-book aficionados are associated was just so thrilling and sheer fun! Being a recent convert at the comic-book-cum-graphic-novel cult, perhaps the effect was more pronounced for me. And finally, it all boils down to Armageddon, the final battle, the last showdown between the two titans: Batman and Superman.

The settings are spectacular: Gotham has descended into anarchy as the disbanded splinter groups of the Mutants are wreaking havoc on the streets. Meanwhile the entire police force of Gotham, led by a new commissioner, is after the Batman. When a 747 crashes into a skyscraper(again, eerily prophetic) it's the last straw: ordinary people are at each other's throats, clawing, fighting for food..... Bruce Wayne must rally around the people of Gotham to sanity, and gear up to face the Man of Steel.....
Without giving up the ending, I'll say this: in a novel which steers clear of the cliches of the genre while embracing its strengths, the ending is true to form. Who prevails in this clash of titans? Grab your copy to find out! For "The Dark Knight Returns" is undoubtedly one of the landmarks of its genre and paved the way for a grittier, smarter and denser brand of comic-books and graphic novels, as the same year, Alan Moore released a brand new series called "Watchmen" .....and there has been no looking back since.

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