Tuesday, October 14, 2008

watch your language, son

The Dark Knight Returns

It was indeed ironic that this book came up right after its sequel at the library, so I read them in reverse order, which gave the experience a twist all its own. I liked the original better than the sequel, though reading it gave me a better appreciation for the sequel and helped me understand what the heck was going on there. The main difference is that Klaus Janson is doing the art, Frank Miller sticking to the writing.

At the outset, I think one fundamental difference between Mr Miller and myself is that he wanted to see Batman at the end of his career—having fought crime for 25 years—at the ripe age of 60. I, however, am happy to maintain the myth of Batman being forever young, forever fit. Sure, Miller contributed much to the mythos when he caught both Gordon and Batman at the dawn of their careers in Year One, and I can certainly see the symmetry in bringing him to his end. I feel a bit schizophrenic, too, toward Janson’s art. Sometimes he is capable of large panels of extraordinary beauty and power. But when the pages are divided into tiny panels of sixteen, swamped by text, by sheer fact of doing that much drawing, the drawing quality goes down. I am sure that for myself, if I had to do sixteen panels a page and leave room for text, I wouldn’t go beyond the cartoony either.

Miller likes that text. His characters talk a lot, and what’s more, they think a lot. Which is an interesting combination with the action-oriented art, but I have to say I kept getting confused at whose thought bubble (or rather soliloquy) I was reading. The plot is simple: Batman has retired for ten years and just as a new threat hits Gotham—the Mutants—and Jim Gordon is retiring, he dons the cape and the cowl one last time. He’s got a new sidekick, too, Catgirl from the sequel, Carrie Kelly, who serves as his Robin. Alfred, who must be pushing eighty, is still around as is Gordon, a newly surgically-altered Two-Face, and Selina Kyle. (Selina is presented as a washed out old woman who runs an escort agency. I was highly disgruntled with this; she should have gone out in her own blaze of glory.) There’s a huge confrontation with Superman at the end, which results in Batman/Bruce Wayne faking his death, which I still don’t understand. As wonderfully as Janson draws Superman, the character has always bored me.

As I’ve said before, the modernistic approach—and even here, some of Janson’s art—cannot but have inspired the mood of Batman Begins. The origin story—falling down a well, being attacked by bats, his parents being gunned down in the alley—is practically the same in the film. One vital difference I don’t think I brought up before is that in every comic I’ve ever seen showing the Waynes’ death, Thomas Wayne always fights back. In my opinion he’s much more admirable (and the pathos that much more sincere) when in the film he and his wife attempt to placate their assailants—paying for their lives with such compassion. Miller’s Batman, especially in this story, is rather brutal in his methods. In a way, the Batman Begins/TDK Batman had his moments—the torture of Sal Maroni in a back alley—but I guess it’s just down to Miller’s vision of Batman. He does warn a collaborator bent on revenge, “Pull that trigger, and I’ll be back for you.”

Miller loves satire, and over half the narrative is taken up (and sometimes bogged down, in my opinion) by ongoing news reports showing the public’s reaction to Batman, including interviews with Gordon, Harvey Dent’s surgeon and psychologist, etc. The shrink puts it all down to “Batman’s psychotic sublimative/psychoerotic behaviour pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics, like Harvey, are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns.” Harvey’s been in “Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled” where the Joker’s been in a catatonic state since Batman—“darling”—retired. Miller/Janson’s vision of the Joker is . . . unique. He looks a bit like a beefed up David Bowie or the Emcee from Cabaret. I’m most amused when he uses special lipstick to kill an entire television audience (um, not the killing part, just the method, oy). Captain John in Torchwood operated in a similar manner, and I can’t help thinking the TDK Joker would approve. There’s a very brief insight into his state of mind in the carnival, where he’s just murdered tons of kids by giving them poisoned cotton candy/candy floss, “They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine—and it would never be enough. No, I don’t keep count. But you do. And I love you for it.” Apparently, after 30 years of cat-and-mouse (though we’ve had almost 70) Batman has decided enough is enough and he’s going to stop the Joker for good. Which he does. To me, if he’s going to abandon his principles, he should have done it way back when the Joker first appeared. It would be a bit silly to compare them to the Black and White Guardian, but it is archetypically satisfying to think of them as, well, as the Joker says in the movie, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

I like Carrie Kelly. She’s easily the most likeable character in the comic. I don’t even mind the notion of Robin being a girl. But if I’m supposed to believe she’s 13 and can be the superhero she is (plus with the emotional maturity) then I’m Santa Claus. I finally figure out where the “Batboys” from the sequel—and their ludicrous dialect—came from as Carrie infiltrates the Mutants’ hideout. She’s also the Scarlet Pimpernel, apparently. Well, a chip off the old block. She brings a sorely needed humor to the proceedings. And her relationship with Batman is soo sweet. Her character design is very cool.

So, my overall reaction was positive one, but I think in both this volume and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller let his tendency toward wordiness run away with him while in Year One he revealed the perfect balance between his narrative-driven story and letting the artist get a word—or drawing—in edgewise.

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