Batman coverI’m a little late to the party, but over the past weekend I read Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knights Returns, first published in 1986. As I’ve written about previously, the first (and until now only) graphic novel I’ve finished was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which is an amazing book. I then started to read about graphic novels in general, picked up a few particular novels, and briefly thought about teaching one of my summer classes on graphic novels by women (I’m teaching a course on Women & Writing and one on Women & Literature).

PJ has been into graphic literature much longer than I have. He read comics as a kid and started reading recent classics — such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Maus — a few years ago. He therefore wanted to encourage my new interest and so he purchased Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life. I had read about the latter one online, so I was really excited when he bought it.

Gravett quotes Stephen King, who asserts, that Miller’s Batman is “probably the finest piece of comic art ever to be published in a popular edition” (78). It is an amazing text.

Not having been much of a comics reader when I was a kid, it took me a little while to decipher the codes on how to read this text. It’s very sophisticated and postmodern. Miller tends to pack as much information in as few frames as possible, which can disorient the reader, forcing him or her to make connections and fill in blanks. The images in the novel are also sophisticated, and Miller uses a variety of colors, styles, and techniques to relate different moods in different parts of the story. (I was so excited when I finally noticed — well into the book — that he color codes character’s thought boxes: Batman’s are grey, Superman’s are blue, and the Joker’s are green, for example.) He also plays with perspective, which he often uses to build suspense and excitement. Everything works together to tell a great story.

The plot of the novel revolves around Bruce Wayne/Batman coming out of retirement. Realizing that he’s getting older, he decides to revive Batman and meet any potential death doing something important rather than just waiting for death to take him. Since his retirement, Gotham City has become victimized by a gang of criminals called the Mutants, and the police force has been powerless to protect Gotham’s citizens from their murderous rampages.

Once Batman reappears, however, city officials begin to use him as a symbol of the problems facing Gotham City rather than as a solution. The only official who openly supports Batman’s vigilante justice is Commissioner Gordon, who is himself near retirement. To make matters worse, the city’s psychiatrist is convincing officials that such villains as Two-Face and the Joker have been cured of their sociopathic ways and should be released back into the population.

This plot is set against the backdrop of the Reagan administration and an international crisis that threatens to embroil the U.S. and the Soviet Union in a nuclear war. Unlike Batman, Superman has continued to fight for justice and the American way, but does so as a deputized member of the U.S. government whose actions are all kept secret. In the end, these different visions of superhero action — vigilante justice or secret government agent — clash, and Superman and Batman are pitted against one another in a final showdown.

I love the novel’s depiction of Ronald Reagan. It would definitely fit in with other works of literature written in the 1980s and 1990s critiquing the Reagan administration in the U.S. and the Thatcher government in the U.K. This is a very political novel, which I think is great!

But the novel also works as a superhero story. We see what’s happened to Selena Kyle, the former Catwoman, we learn that Wonder Woman and other heroes have gone into hiding, and that any belief in curing such criminals as Two-Face and the Joker is just a pipe dream.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is famous for instigating the dark, brooding quality of superhero fiction in the 1980s, a tone that obviously influenced the movie Batman in 1989. The villains in this novel, for example, will literally stop at nothing to achieve their ultimate end — the destruction of society, the Batman, and everything he stands for. The Joker’s efforts toward this end are particularly striking for being in a completely different universe than previous depictions. He’s no longer the “Clown Prince of Crime.” He’s a sociopath bent on murder.

And finally, I also liked the way in which this novel is psychologically dark. There’s a moment in which the Joker considers the fact that he doesn’t keep track of the number of the people he’s killed in contrast to the fact that Batman does. For him, this betrays Batman’s weakness. He cares enough to count. This strikes me as just one example of this novel’s deployment of believable psychology in its characters’ thoughts and actions. I was also fascinated by the depiction of Bruce Wayne’s drive to be the Batman as a kind of wild animal or demon. Some of the book’s most interesting and frightening images are of this beast that drives Bruce Wayne to become the Dark Knight.

I’m currently teaching Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel The Italian in my Women & Literature class. It’s interesting to see how many Gothic elements Miller incorporates into his novel. I’m hoping to find a way to teach a class on graphic novels sometime soon, which means in the next couple of years. If I do, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns will definitely be on the syllabus!