The Passion of the Batman, part 4

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 10, 2005

This is the fourth part of my homage to Batman.  Please read my previous posts first, to get up to speed.


By writing the Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller broke new ground. Geoff Klock, one of a growing number of comic
book scholars, explains Miller?s innovation: “Frank Miller?s Dark Knight
Returns is a radical move in the history of the superhero narrative because it
is the first work that tries to compose a story that makes sense of its
history, rather than mechanically adding another story to the Batman
folklore. It must participate in the
tradition in order to be recognized as a Batman story, but it consciously
organizes that tradition in such a way as to comment on forty-five years of
Batman comic books.”[1] In
other words, Frank Miller not only adds to the Batman tradition, he attempts to
reinterpret the entire history. Two
areas which stand out in Miller?s reinterpretation are the way in which he
infuses the Batman story with a greater level of realism and the way in which
he paints a richer psychological picture of Bruce Wayne/Batman.

A Deeper Realism

Throughout most of the Batman?s
history, Gotham City has been essentially fixed. There has been some interplay with real world
events, but for the most part, the world of the Batman has lacked realism. Miller seeks to remedy this by adding
elements which can give his story a sense of place-a fictional world, but a
world that looks and feels like the world we live in. So instead of merely re-creating the Batman,
Miller re-creates the world of the Batman, and asks himself, “if the Batman
were to live in a world like ours, what sort of hero would he be?”

One way that Miller bolsters the sense
of realism in his work is to introduce the passing of time. Instead of showing the perpetually
thirty-something Batman fighting crime in a new setting, Miller makes the
Batman middle-aged-finding himself a sort of relic in a world in which he is no
longer an active part. With age comes
other things uncommon to many super-heroes-aches and pains. Throughout the Dark Knight Returns, it seems
as though the Batman is always on death?s door. He is no longer in the physical condition he once was, and as a result
he gets hurt much worse and much more easily.

There is also a new sense of history
in Miller?s work. The world in which
Batman lives is the height of the Cold War with Ronald Reagan at the helm of
the American government. References to
the Cold War are found throughout the Dark
Knight Returns
-which is used as a device to contrast the vigilantism of the
Batman with the vigilantism of Ronald Reagan. Though the details are largely fictional, by placing Batman within the
Cold War, Miller is able to bring the Batman into OUR world, instead of just
asking us to enter HIS world with our imaginations.

Perhaps the most innovative way in
which Miller has brought realism to thecomic genre is by his constant use of
little television screens throughout the story. This device mirrors the omnipresence of news
media in our culture, as well as offering commentary on the Batman?s
exploits. The constant barrage of
television images in the Dark Knight
is a delicious commentary of
the piranha-like nature of the news media in our society.

A Richer Psyche

Though Miller was innovative in how
he brought realism into the comic book genre, he is perhaps better known for
the way he added psychological richness to the Batman. Given the serial nature of the comic book genre, it is difficult to
introduce character growth throughout the story. However, it is clear that the Batman we end
up with on the last page is not the same man as we start with on page one. In an interview, Frank Miller commented on
the growth of the Batman?s character: “The book starts with Bruce Wayne
contemplating suicide; at the end he?s found a reason to live. He?s adjusted to the times.”[2]

However, this “adjustment” isn?t
exactly positive. Miller brings a lot of
dark elements into the Batman?s character-darker elements than had been seen
before. Miller taps into the darkest
scene in the Batman?s history-the death of his parents-in order to show the
psychological split which occurs. Throughout the Dark Knight Returns,
Bruce Wayne seems to differentiate himself from the bat part of his identity.
For example, on page 87, Bruce Wayne seems to have an internal dialogue with
the bat part of his identity. The idea
that the Batman suffers from some sort of psychological split is strengthened
by his recognition, as seen on page 55, that he is a reflection of Harvey Dent,
the man known as Two Face, for his split personalities.

The Batman is also much more violent
in the Dark Knight Returns than in
previous comics. Klock writes, “Unlike
the comic books that came before, the reader cannot wholeheartedly agree with
Batman?s methods, but is instead invited to question his extremity.”[3] One example of questionable methods can be
seen on pages 44-45, where the Batman disregards civil rights in his attempt to
extract information from an injured criminal. The moral ambivalence of the
characters is not only the product of Frank Miller?s writing. Some of it can be attributed to the job Klaus
Janson and Lynn Varley did with color: “Lynn Varley?s colours on Dark Knight undeniably contribute to the
book?s feel of ?gritty realism,? providing subtle tones and textures which
contrast with the traditional ?four-color? comic palette just as Miller?s
morally ambivalent characters contrast to the clear-cut heroes and villains of
earlier comics.”[4]

his greater level of violence, the Batman in Miller?s work is certainly more
human. Miller helps foster empathy for
the Batman by using internal monologue. “[Internal monologue] brings us closer
to the character by making us privy to his own thought patterns…Through this device, Miller is able to suggest Bruce?s state of mind.”[5] This device allows The Batman?s dialogue to
be terse, cold-showing that he is control of himself and those around him,
while the reader is allowed a glimpse into his troubled inner-thoughts.

Miller shows us a troubled Batman in
a troubled city during a troubled time. But in the midst of the darkness, there is hope. Batman may very well save the day. But the stakes are higher and problems are
greater than any he has ever faced. Given this background of mythic proportions, Miller uses religious
imagery to show the way in which Batman rises to the challenge, and brings new
life through his suffering and death.

[1] Geoff
Klock, How to Read Superhero Comics and
(New York:
Continuum, 2002) 28.

[2] “Batman
and the Twilight of the Idols”, 39.

[3] Klock,

[4] Will
Brooker, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a
Cultural Icon
(New York:
Continuum, 2000), 274.

[5] Brooker,

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


2 Responses to “The Passion of the Batman, part 4”

  1. Michelle on June 10th, 2005 4:13 pm

    so then what role is superman playing in all this?

  2. dave zimmerman on June 13th, 2005 8:25 am

    It’d be good, now that we’re twenty years past Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and especially now that Batman Begins is borrowing from his Batman: Year One, and his Sin City has been given a film treatment, to explore Frank Miller’s concept of city or community. Gotham is certainly front and center in his Batman stories, and Sin City is the thread of several stories for Miller. He’s done other bleak-near-future projects as well (Robocop II, for example–not his best work), and given the importance of the city in our understanding of community and especially now that we’re out of the Cold War with the Soviets, I’d be interested in a fresh discussion of his vision for redeemed community. He did a sequel to DKR that I’ve forgotten pretty much all the details, but it was written in the last few years and would show some of his own progression, I’d imagine.

    Thanks for posting this article. I wish I’d found it sooner–it could have shaped some of my own recent writing about Batman.

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