Saturday, March 27, 2010

Out of the Vault - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 3

As our in-depth look at Frank Miller's 1986 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns continues, Batman has appeared once again in a corrupt and frightened Gotham, drawing the attention of both the criminals and the law. And in chapter three, "Hunt the Dark Knight," they close in on him from both sides like the jaws of a trap.

The book opens with a couple of former Mutants (who vaguely function as Miller Batman versions of C-3PO and R2D2) having joined up with a woman named Bruno, who is a fusion of the triple Miller fetishes of Amazons, Nazis and leather bondage gear.

Batman, disguised as a bag lady, fights with Bruno (from whom he wants to learn something important), but is on the verge of losing when Bruno's bullets melt in midair, her gun grows red-hot and she is suddenly tied up in steel pipes. A voice says, "Bruce, we need to talk," but Batman puts him off until the next day.

Meanwhile, TV news is abuzz with talk of a number of unexplained incidents in Gotham which seem to indicate the presence of a certain figure who's faster than a speeding bullet but cannot be named lest they lose their FCC license.

Next day, Bruce and Clark meet in a field, and it is clear they don't like each other much, which was a huge change from the former characterization of these guys as best friends.

I mean, they had shared a monthly book, World's Finest Comics, for over forty years (the book was cancelled in 1986, the same year as the Superman reboot and Miller's graphic novel). They had known each other's secret identities and covered for each other seemingly forever. Now suddenly here was Miller, changing not just Batman's characterization, but a central relationship of the entire DC Universe.

Also notice that the President of the United States is depicted as a decrepit Reagan. This story was published during Reagan's second term and was taking place over ten years in an imaginary future, which gives it another point of similarity with Alan Moore's Watchmen--both postulated imaginary Americas in which a Republican president somehow refused to give up office and stayed in power long past the two-term limit prescribed in the Constitution. I don't know how that meme got established, nor why it endures (during W's term, it was constantly bandied about by leftist paranoiacs that Bush would somehow declare martial law rather than give up the presidency), especially given that the only President in history who actually served more than two terms in office, and actually inspired the 22nd amendment, was liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Before Clark leaves, he delivers a warning to Bruce that he may be sent to bring Bruce in. And on a completely unrelated note, the new Commissioner of Police, Ellen Yindel, has also issued a warrant for Batman's arrest.

Which is unfortunate, because the Joker is planning something big. He's appearing that night on David Letterman, to show how harmless he is or something. When Batman shows up at the studio, he gets in a massive battle with the cops on the rooftop while the Joker and his fat flunky Abner kill everyone in the television studio. The Joker escapes downstairs as Batman barely gets away from the cops in his voice-activated Batcopter, which inspired the voice-activated Batmobile of Burton's movie.

Yeah, Carrie Kelly aka Robin is a computer genius who reprogrammed the chopper, but Batman doesn't mind a little initiative if the results are good.

So Batman searches for the escaped Joker, leading him to madam Selina Kyle, who has been beaten and tortured to help the Joker in the next stage of his plan. Meanwhile, Superman is battling enemy forces on the island of Corto Maltese (a name taken from an Italian comic strip from the 60's and referenced in Burton's "Batman" as the location where Vicki Vale had taken her pics for Time magazine) in a sequence that takes visual inspiration from the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 40's.

Batman races to the county fair too late to stop the Joker from murdering sixteen Cub Scouts, but is determined to end the Joker's murderous ways once and for all. And once again, the Batman uses his bat-shuriken to painful effect...

which, by the way, inspired the use of similar implements in Nolan's "Batman Begins."

The battle between Batman and the Joker builds to a final savage confrontation, with the Joker knifing Batman in the ribs multiple times just before Batman breaks his freaking neck!

Of course, he doesn't kill the Joker, just paralyzes him. But the Joker, with one final act of superhuman will, kills himself, knowing that the Batman will be punished for his "murder." As the third issue comes to a close, Batman collapses next to the Joker's corpse, bleeding from his belly as the cops close in and the world goes dark.

And what you may not realize at this point is how unprecedented all this was, how Miller was literally breaking all the rules--Batman fighting the police, Batman and Superman as enemies, or at best uneasy rivals, Batman breaking bones, maiming, Batman being hurt (Batman got knocked out a lot in the 70's, but broken arms and stab wounds were on a different level).

And then there were the satirical jabs being taken at politics and media, the alternate takes on stagnant supporting characters like Lana Lang as the chubby managing editor of the Daily Planet and James Olsen as the head of Galaxy Broadcasting, the cursing (which had been absent from both comics and filmed versions of Batman prior to this, but which was present in Burton's "Batman"), the usual Miller fetishes of bondage gear and prostitutes among others, and perhaps most disturbing of all, the weird, almost sexual relationship between Joker and Batman (the Joker keeps calling Batman "darling" and "dear" and "my sweet" throughout the entire book, at least until he dies).

And because all the rules were being broken, we really had no idea what to expect in the next and final issue. Batman appeared mortally wounded, his reputation ruined. Everything had grown progressively darker, more brutal, with every issue. And let's face it, Bruce Wayne had been pining for death since literally the first page. If this were any other book about Batman, we would have said, "No way he could actually die," because DC would clearly not allow that.

But this book, this Batman, had done all sorts of things already that DC would not normally allow. Miller was coloring outside all the lines, so for the first time in literally my entire life of reading comics, I had no idea what was going to happen in the next issue and was preparing to accept what seemed at once inevitable and unthinkable: the death of Batman.

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