Illustration © Frank Miller
THE AMERICAN SUPERHERO phenomenon was made possible by young sons shamed by immigrant fathers, fathers who couldn't speak English, worked unheroic yet dangerous jobs, and kept their heads down while bootleggers and white slavers fought for streets in a wide-open city. Those kids helped their European-born or former-sharecropper fathers read Dick Tracy at the end of the day: newsprint was their cultural currency. Little boys burned for a response to the criminal impunity they witnessed all around them, and from the early thirties they found it in Dick Tracy, in radio's Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet, in Superman, and then, in 1939, in Batman.
As DC Comics' two flagship superhero franchises go, Superman has had the more continuous career: his primary-color power fantasy may warp and weft a bit with the times, but it's always essentially the same. Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman is a trickier creature, constantly being pushed and pulled between camp and grit. The character's relative incoherence may owe something to his more confused origin: Superman had a six-year gestation, whereas Batman was ordered up almost overnight in an attempt to match Superman's sales figures. As a violent creature of the night, Batman is sometimes plucked from the world of superheroes entirely and sucked into the vortex of that still-spreading, posthumously-applied-and-thus-faux category, noir. Where Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew on science fiction and the Jewish legend of the Golem, Kane pulled from a contemporary source: the 1922 Broadway hit The Bat and Roland West's film adaptations of it, the 1926 silent and 1930 talkie (the latter titled The Bat Whispers). In the 1930 film — a visually innovative comic mystery in what used to be called the "old dark house picture" genre — a master thief wears a mask and cape and baits the police with mocking notes; the film even features a bat signal. Batman, like West's Bat, wears a mask, though he is the hero and not the villain, and the mask would prove a feature that had an interesting hold on young boys' imaginations. The mask promises self-erasure: it promises that one's deeds will speak for themselves and reveal one's true identity as crusader or avenger, rather than the grubby little kid one really is.
Kane and Finger eventually built up a distinctive gallery of arch-criminals, but in the early comics, only the title-page portraits of "the Batman" had real iconic power. Detective Comics wouldn't commit graphically to a nocturnal world of black-and-white, and so Batman jumps around in an incongruously brightly-colored night. Another misstep was the speedy addition of sidekick Robin, whose introduction in April 1940, one year into Batman's must have insulted all but the title's youngest readers. (If Batman can't be a brooding loner in the night, who can be?) The same year, DC published the first free-standing Batman No. 1 — the comic which introduces the Joker. From this point, the original Batman finds its formula: Batman and Robin versus a gallery of arch villains every inch their sartorial match.
If, for the kids who created and originally read them, superheroes were a wish-fulfillment fantasy, today they're a kind of cultural capital. It is as if American World War II victory culture was so intimidating, and the burdens of the Cold War so intolerable, that the generations that followed suspect any achievements of their own must pale in comparison. And so we easy-living children of the post-war boom reach back to loot the toy-chest of 1920s and 1930s modernism, the result a footrace between the naive appetite of fans and the sour drive of university adjuncts. This collegiate plaintiffeoisie has some apparent need to pose as their own kind of supercritics, always dragging some stand-in for their parents into the dock to "deconstruct" or "subvert."
For a variety of reasons, Batman has always appealed especially to those who want to distort the superhero ethos. First MAD, The Realist, and underground comics published funny, derisive, lewd versions of famous daily comic strip and comic book characters like Batman and Robin, allowing the backroom cynicism of politics, the newsroom, and showbiz to invade our youthful entertainments. Then, there was the infamously campy, Zeitgeist-grabbing Batman television show, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which ditched the vestigial noir elements for a leap into pure pop idiocy.
Such sacrilege demanded a reformation, and Batman fans got it in the 1980s with the work of Frank Miller. Miller, a Gotham lover of the old school, gives his Dark Knight Returns a nod to its pulp sources with a reference to Commissioner Gordon's "sketchy" early days as a Chicago cop. Miller picked the right superhero to revisit. Not only could the 60s devolution of Batman be improved: so could the original.
Miller is a classicist; he loves the melodrama of the comics form. He speaks of forcing his readers to slow down, to work against the impulse to race along with the storyline, in order to appreciate the art. A story chopped into a procession of frames colliding and sparking off each other is a perfect illustration of Eisenstein's theory of montage, but there is a limit. When a comic book is reprinted as a bound book — much less in an extravagant, large, boxed, hard cover glossy re-framing of form like this edition — its cheap glory is corrupted by promising too much. The graphic-novelization of comics is a wrong turn as sure as Cinerama was for cinema. I never saw the first printing of Miller's work, and I'm sure those who have seen the original art value the high-tone reproductions now available. Nonetheless, this deluxe treatment shifts focus from storytelling and the normal porn of form to the distracting fetish of printing specs.
However he might feel about this edition, though, Miller is, as I say, grounded in the original real thing of comics. While he's influenced by the underground trends of the 60s and 70s, he doesn't surrender to them. There was, of course, no turning back from the midcentury's mocking suspicion of the caped crusader, and in his introduction to the recent collection Absolute Dark Knight (which gathers 1987's The Dark Knight Returns with 2002's The Dark Knight Strikes Again), Miller makes veiled reference to Frederick Wertham's 1954 anti-comic book polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, in which the good doctor accuses Batman comics of being "psychologically homosexual." By the mid-60s, The Realist was able to revisit Wertham's attitudes for laughs, but also for real in an assertion like John Cochran's "Batman and Robin were lovers." Miller responds to this over- and underground derision by enlisting a new female Robin (Dick Grayson having gone bad), at once squashing the rumors and contemporizing the aging Batman's world.
Throughout Dark Knight, Miller cannily extracts drama (and comedy) out of the mismatch between the dark, hard core of Batman and the incorrigible silliness and softness of the American culture in which he is embedded. First and foremost on Miller's list of satirical targets is the media. In Kane's original, newspapermen are merely bumbling fools, blaming Batman for crimes he is on the brink of solving. What concerns Miller is the corruption of truth that the electronic news media yields and wields. The omnipresent faces on screens seem a willful chorus of some sealed-off collective id: reporters barely see the streets, and by the time we get to The Dark Knight Strikes Again we have "News in the Nude" and a holographic president.
While the mediascape grows ever more ludicrous, the streets get darker and tougher. In The Dark Knight Returns, Miller placed Batman in the decaying seventies New York that had inspired films like Death Wish, The Warriors, and Escape from New York: a reminder of his roots in gangland squalor. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller updates the city from the late Lindsay era to the end of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's tenure. One-party Democratic New York had turned to their own dark knight, a Republican, seen as a last hope crime-fighter, and, amazingly, he delivered (to the point that it's now safe for even the suits to claim they miss the old Times Square). As reward, Giuliani was set to exit a lame-duck laughingstock, dragging himself towards divorce and the sideline of punditry. And then super-villains attacked from their secret lair on September 11th.
In the introduction to Absolute Dark Knight, Miller writes:
Much of what I was after was to use the crime-ridden world around me to portray a world that needed an obsessive, Herculean, half-maniac genius to bring order. But that was only half the job. I saved my nastiest venom ... for the vapid, pandering talking heads who so poorly chronicled the gigantic conflicts of the time. What would these little people do if giants walked the Earth? How would they regard a powerful, demanding, unrepentant hero? Or a villain whose soul is as black as death? Fifteen years passed. I found out. I was halfway thru The Dark Knight Strikes Again when the Twin Towers collapsed and thousands of my neighbors were slaughtered.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again couldn't thereafter be the "affectionate romp" he'd originally intended. While the color shifts after 9/11 into an unhinged computer-chromaticized scheme - not quite air-brush minimal, not quite psychedelic - the story skids out into end-times for this hero, as Batman, or Bruce Wayne, begins to break down due to age and the increasingly hopelessness of his attempt to bring about a revolution against the corporatized government ruling America.
Even before 9/11, Miller was frankly a man of the right: his vision of the superhero is a fundamentally conservative one, and this is what separates him from his closest peers. In 1980s London, Alan Moore and David Lloyd tried to rationalize terror in V for Vendetta by turning Guy Fawkes (a militant Catholic to the right of Franco) into a Nechaev of style and taste who delivers freedom, via propaganda, by the deed, and succeeds in destroying the structures of bourgeois democracy, something of an idée fixe of both national socialism and international socialism until the cataclysm of the 1940s. Moore and Lloyd surrender to countercultural subterfuge: they subvert the superhero by making him a revolutionary. They make Miller look like a genius for accepting that comics can bear no redeeming. Miller believes that human nature is "immutable," and with this simple declaration he throws off much of the worst political pretense of the twentieth century. The swinging 60s version of Batman was dumbed-down New Left cant, proffered by poli-sci washouts and pseudo-artists who moved in the wake of the old left, the civil rights movement, rock and roll, and R. Crumb. But the only New Man possible in the world of 80s comic book crime-fighters is the next hideous, black-hearted mutant announcing himself with some insane outrage.
Still, the Dark Knight books aren't quite the millennial allegories they strive to be. To his credit, Miller understands that the story of the superhero is a profane version of the story of Christ, and not so far removed from that of those mortals who intervened in the history of their nations — Fujimori, Pinochet, Franco — and were rightfully called fascists for their trouble. But those conflicts are specific, and superheroes should be universal; the world of comics should be a single city: the city as planet. It's a mistake to allude to New York as directly as Kane and Miller do, or even to acknowledge Chicago or Washington as Miller does. What works on a local level is unreadable when blown up to national or global proportions. Giuliani's tenure in New York is about as perfect a model of this comic book truth as reality can provide, though the Al-Qaeda outrage unaccountably afforded him the rare opportunity to leave office with honor. Even so, he should never have run for president. And the professors should give it a rest. There are limitations to the pop metaphysics of comics, and they are unforgiving. The world they describe implodes at the slightest attempt to make any more of it than what a son can describe to his father in this strange new world.