Numero dos for today is Frank Miller andKlaus Janson’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It includes sexism, racism, violence, and light gore. If you like grimdark, Batman, and that Alan Moore ambuance, then you’ll like this trade.
Plot: Batman returns after swearing off his secret identity.
Initial thoughts: When it comes to Batman, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns #1-4 are up on the top of the most iconic stories list along with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but I didn’t really enjoy The Killing Joke so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this trade. The Dark Knight Returns has had a huge influence on the Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the upcoming Batman v. Superman, and has spanned two sequels, The Dark Knight Strikes Again and the upcoming The Dark Knight III: The Master Race. Do I care more about the upcoming movie or title after reading the original? No, not really.
As the product of an industry that revamped itself thanks to grimdark, I can honestly admit I’m tired of all the grimdark. That said, I give it some slack because it was written in 1986, so it is truly the beginnings of grimdark rather than being part of the saturation. The point of this point is to demonstrate how much a product of its time it is, and in that sense, The Dark Knight is really fucking scary. You could write a dissertation on culturally paranoia, innovations of 80s psychology, and youth culture using these four issues alone. As a society, this is still true today, I think, but for new readers encountering The Dark Knight in 2015 and onward, I don’t think we young readers necessarily have the background to understand the horror that this comic embodies.
Also, this might just be my peeve but The gang featured, called the Mutants, uses a dialect that is supposed to be young and hip, typical of the youth. The corruption of language is supposed to representative of the corruption of their humanity, but actually I found this to be racist because it is very similar to black dialect written in the cab scene in #1 and the three card monte scam scene in #2. Your mileage may vary.
Itty Bitty Research: I was going to start this off with a vocab lesson (because who knows the definition of words like “septuagenarian,” “perforated,” and “trapezius”?), but actually I’m just going to jump right into it: let’s talk fashion. The one thing that was inescapable as I read this trade was how dated the outfits look. I mean, the Joker’s wearing shoulder pads! There’s one trend of 1980s Americana, but another one is big earrings, which you can see in the news reporter throughout all four of the issues like on this page. I believe it’s every issue she has different sets of earrings, showing the expanse of ’80s fashion. Carrie rocks some big hair and Selina in this limited series has both a pink perm and some bright blue eyeshadow and red lipstick. One woman interviewed in the media in #2 has an ironic “all this and brains too” shirt reminiscent of 1980s feminism and witty slogan shirts. The mutants look like a New Wave boy band than a gang with their neon colored clothing and visor glasses. Oh, and let’s not forget Carrie’s iconic glasses. You can find other fashion trends on this site.
So why bring this up? Yeah, colors and silhouettes are a way of visually reading something, but they don’t add or detract from the message…right? I personally could not get over how dated the colors and style was, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. These fashion choices make The Dark Knight look like it’s a thing of the past, when consumption at the time of publication, 1986, would have made this limited release feel immediate and modern. For somebody like me reading in 2015, The Dark Knight is merely a possibility, one of DC’s many Earths that will never come into main continuity, and style is one way I banish it from immediacy. However, how different would I read this comic if the Mutants were sporting purple jackets and long bangs a la Justin Bieber? This is, of course, inescapable, as any comic will eventually become dated through the style employed in drawing the comic and the style of the world within the comic. Why then single out this comic?
Well for starters, so much of the comic relies on the culture. Media plays a huge role in the narrative, such as how the news anchor relays the latest developments of Batman. Of course, today even this is dated because many people get their news online. Even the technology, especially in #4, pales in comparison of what exists today. In order to truly understand the groundbreaking achievement this comic was able to secure, we need to know what 80s counterculture was blasting around the Arcade and how fashion choices creeped into even conservative, neutral spaces such as the presentation of the news anchor. To really understand how scary it would be to live in a world where the very presence of culture – which Batman is a part of because he has become a myth rather than a superhero – is threatening, we have to understand how widespread culture is in this comic.
References: Miller, Mark, writer. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Art by Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley. Lettering by John Costanza. New York: DC Comics, 2002. Print.