Saturday, March 13, 2010

Out of the Vault - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 1

So okay, it's been a long time coming, but I have finally gotten up the nerve to talk about Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. And because it is so big and there's so much to say about it, I'll probably be doing each of the four issues in their own post.

It's hard to overstate the influence this comic had, on the character of the Batman and on the comics industry as a whole. Without this comic to mine ideas from, Tim Burton's "Batman" would not have been made, nor would it have been as successful. Without the success of Burton's "Batman," the subsequent Batman films would not have been made, nor would the market have been proven for subsequent superhero films like "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man." But I'll talk more about that at the end. Where to start?

Let's start before the beginning, with the state of the character before Miller redefined him. Here are some sample panels from Batman #366, written by Doug Moench and drawn by Don Newton and Alfredo Alcala, cover-dated December 1983, a little over two years before the graphic novel debuted. The storyline: Batman has headed down to Guatemala with Vicki Vale, to stop the Joker from exploiting the civil war raging in the country. Joker plans to take over the country and remake it into a criminal paradise, known as Joker-Land.

This issue, by the way, was the first one to show Jason Todd in costume as Robin. It's not just the silliness of the story I want to point out here. Moench was at least trying to open up the book's horizons a little and not have the same tired plots in the same tired city.

But everything about the character had just become static and stale; the costume was really the only thing distinctive about him anymore. Otherwise, he was just another do-gooder in tights (tights that he's been wearing for who-knows-how-long in the Guatemalan jungle without a single sweat stain or tear, not even a snag of the cape), throwing the same Batarang on a rope that TV viewers saw him use on TV 20 years ago. And the people around him barely even notice that there's anything unusual about a dude in a bat costume anymore. He's not striking fear into anybody.

That was what Frank Miller confronted when he did his take on the Batman in 1986: a character with a unique concept who had stopped being unique and interesting years ago. So let's see what Miller did to bring life into the old boy.

The first thing he did was to shift it into an "imaginary" reality, outside the canon DC universe and years into the future, so he could take chances with the character. Bruce Wayne is now in his 50's and has retired from Bat-adventuring. He now risks his life doing things like racing cars to replace the adrenaline rush of crimefighting. And he seems to have lost all purpose in life; while trapped in a crashing car on page one, he speculates that "this would be a good death," and returns to that line throughout, giving us one of the central themes of the story: an old man whose life has lost its meaning, now searching for a meaningful death.

Yeah, that's right, I said "theme." This story had actual themes, which was not something you encountered often in mainstream superhero comics and which was one of the things that lifted it above the rest of the pack.

We find out that Bruce has not been Batman for 10 years, though we never find out exactly what made him quit. The story implies that it had something to do with the government making superheroes illegal (a trope it shared with that other 80's comics mega-event, Alan Moore's Watchmen), but it also implies that it may have had something to do with the death of Jason Todd. (Let me apologize right up front for the blurriness of many of the scans; all I have is the square-bound trade paperback, so I can't get a clean scan all the way to the edges without taking the entire book apart)

Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before the 1-900-Kill-Robin storyline, "A Death in the Family," in which fans voted to kill Jason Todd off. In fact, you could say that entire storyline came about because it was inspired by this peek into a possible future.

One other thing to notice here: the colors. The book was drawn by Frank Miller and inked by Klaus Janson, with beautiful painted colors by Lynn Varley. And as you see here, the colors echo the themes. The scenes of normal people, including Bruce Wayne out of costume, feature muted colors, almost monochromatic. It's not until Batman bursts forth again on a stormy night that the color palette returns to something approaching normal.

Those lightning panels are gorgeous. Varley's colors brought a depth to the sometimes-crude artwork that gave it much of its impact.

But let's take a quick step back. This all comes to pass as Bruce, ever more frustrated with his meaningless life and the way the city is deteriorating all around him, one evening watches "The Mark of Zorro" on television. It just happens to be the movie he saw with his parents the night they were killed, which triggers a particularly vivid flashback of the event, which I mentioned before in its influence on Tim Burton's "Batman" movie.

Next thing you know, Batman is once more on the streets, terrorizing the criminals of Gotham, only this is not the Batman we thought we knew.

That's no tired old Batarang-on-a-rope. This is not the boring old establishment Batman, the jolly old uncle from the 40's comics, or the good citizen in a mask who delivers safety lectures to an adoring press as in the 60's TV series, or a guy who just shows up in costume in the middle of the jungle and nobody cares, as in the comic above. This is a Batman who breaks the law in the quest for justice and isn't above breaking a few bones as well.

I love the contrasts of that moment, the professional, mathematical detachment of analyzing all possible ways out of the situation, then picking the one that hurts the other guy the most. As soon as we saw that moment, we fans, we realized this was the Batman we had been missing all these years, the Batman we'd wished for, but didn't realize we were wishing for until we saw it presented to us. And from that moment, Batman would never be the same.

Batman learns that Two-Face might be involved in some of what went down that night. This hurts Bruce, because Harvey Dent has just been pronounced cured and released from Arkham, and Bruce wanted to believe that he could be redeemed (as much for himself as for Harvey). So Batman goes on a hunt for the truth, ignoring any niceties along the way.

This was Batman as Charles Bronson in "Death Wish," or Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry." Which is to say, what Miller was doing with the story here may have been old hat in movies or books, but it was virtually unprecedented in comics at the time.

Of course, Batman's return doesn't go unnoticed, by the media or by his old friends and enemies, including a Joker who is still being held in Arkham Asylum and has said nary a word since Batman disappeared ten years ago.

Which brings us to another of the questions the series asks, which is if the mere presence of a figure like Batman brings out the evil in folks like the Joker. The entire story features a satirical counterpoint to the action in the form of TV news broadcasts featuring clueless anchors and windy pontificators and self-help gurus posing as mental health professionals. And though I have taken Miller to task before about his unfunny satire, it works better here, if only because it's a counterpoint to the serious themes, rather than the main point of the story.

Everything in this first of four oversized issues leads to a final confrontation between Batman and the man who might be Two-Face, including this almost-throwaway moment that would inspire a big-budget movie and ultimately, some really sad rubber nipples.

Two things going on here that would provide inspiration to the Tim Burton "Batman" and all subsequent Batman films: number one, Batman's wearing body armor, and number two, Batman's using a gun to fire a special cable harpoon rather than swinging on a Batarang-rope. His character didn't change in the comics so much after this, but all movie versions of Batman since then have included those two elements.

Batman finally confronts Two-Face and learns that Harvey Dent is truly irredeemable. And in Harvey, Bruce sees a reflection of himself. But that doesn't mean Batman is giving up the cape and cowl again. No, the Dark Knight has returned, and there's no going back.

At least, not in this lifetime.


edtonner said...

That's a really in-depth review.I never noticed that about the colors before.

edtonner said...

Great point about the colors!