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Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 6

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 7 | Part 8

Greetings again after much too long a while. Since the last installment in this series, the new pornographers at Vivid have announced, written, shot, and released Batman XXX: A Porn Parody, so it’s well past time to look at the fourth and final book of The Dark Knight Returns, “The Dark Knight Falls”!

Unlike Books Two and Three, which each start a little while after their respective preceding chapters, Book Four picks up right where Book Three left off. The Joker has just died, his final act having been to frame Batman for his own death. Police Commissioner Yindel cordons her forces outside the Tunnel of Love, readying an assault. Meanwhile, Superman continues fighting in the “police action” in Corto Maltese…

Book Four, page 177 (detail).

The Apocalypse Will Not Be Televised

Now I also believe that there is a powerful eschatological element in modern thought and that it is reflected in the arts […] but I don’t find it easy to see the uniqueness of our situation. It is commonplace to talk about our historical situation as uniquely terrible and in a way privileged, a cardinal point in time. But can it really be so? It seems doubtful that our crisis, our relation to the future and to the past, is one of the important differences between us and our predecessors. Many of them felt as we do. If the evidence looks good to us, so it did to them. (95)

–Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1967)

As in Watchmen (released the same year), TDKR is haunted by the dread of nuclear war. It was 1986. I was ten, and I remember being terrified by the prospect–the certainty–that atomic bombs would start falling any second. (Repeat viewings of Dr. Strangelove didn’t help.)

It happened only in fiction (though we came horrifically close). But that doesn’t mean the apocalypse didn’t arrive–repeatedly.

Despite what today’s zombie movies suggest, apocalypse doesn’t mean “doomsday,” but rather an uncovering or revealing. The end times, in the Christian view, are when the false nature of this earth will be pulled aside (God will pull back the curtain), and the true nature of reality revealed. (C.S. Lewis fictionalizes this very well in The Last Battle, when Aslan unmakes Narnia: “‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream has ended: this is the morning'” (767).)

This pattern of ending as revelation is a very common one in fiction (well, in Western fiction). The best explanation I have ever found of it is Viktor Shklovsky’s, as set down in Chapter Two of Theory of Prose, “The Structure of Fiction”:

The sense of completeness, of a finished state, derives from the fact that the narrative moves from a false recognition to a revelation of the true state of affairs (i.e., the formula is realized). (56)

Thus Hamlet, after five acts of soul-searching and other melancholy dithering, kills Claudius, revealing to all the crime they’ve been ignorant to (King Hamlet’s murder). The prince, dying, begs Horatio to tell the future king Fortinbras (and everyone else), what has transpired, and so the play essentially ends with these words:

[HORATIO:] And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’investors heads. All this can I
Truly deliver.
FORTINBRAS: Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience. [5.2, lines 323–31]

(We, the ignoble theatrical audience, having already seen it all transpire, can duck out here without hearing it recounted.)

So when the apocalypse arrives in The Dark Knight Returns, what is revealed?

First, let’s have the setup. The US Army, aided by Superman, defeats the Russian forces on the South American island Corto Maltese (read “Cuba”). The Russians, in retreat, launch a nuclear warhead at the island. Superman diverts the rocket, causing it to detonate somewhere east of there, in a desert. The warhead turns out to be a “coldbringer” missile; its explosion emits an electromagnetic pulse that leads to a nuclear winter:

Page 168.

Note a few features of the comic here. On this, the preceding page (where the warhead detonates), and over the following sixteen pages (169–184), Miller and colorist Lynn Varley shift the background color from white to black, bleeding it to all four edges of the page. (Having helped develop the printing technology to do this, they are now employing it for a specific, dramatic effect.)

Note also the bottom four panels with Bruce Wayne on this page, as well as the bottom eight on the previous page:

Page 167.

Miller is echoing the earlier creation (and recreation) of Batman:

Book One, page 26.

Another bat has broken through the window. The comics panels cast their shadow on Bruce Wayne’s face, turning crooked, becoming his cross to bear. And so Bruce Wayne once again dutifully suits up, becomes Batman, sets out.

Note also what’s missing in these darkened, post-blast pages. Since the very start of the comic, multiple panels have been given over to being TV screens (96 of them in Book One, 84 in Book Two, 92 in Book Three). But here, in the wake of the nuclear explosion, the TV screens finally go dark, and disappear. (There are only 58 of them in the remainder of Book Four.) The sudden absence of the book’s chorus is rather startling, and very effective.

What replaces them is a series of addresses by secondary characters–the citizens of Gotham–who speak directly to the reader, relating what happened to them after the explosion:

Book Four, page 180.

There is also thought narration by Superman, Robin, and former Commissioner Gordon (plus an doomed astronaut on a space shuttle–recall that it was 1986)—but hardly any by Batman himself. (We get his thoughts only on pages 167, 168, and 172.) For the time being, and for the first time in the book, his mind is effectively closed to us, and we are forced to view him through the eyes of others.

Page 173 (detail).
Page 174 (detail).
Page 176 (detail).
Page 183.
Page 184 (detail).

As I previously noted, throughout TDKR, Batman steadily recedes as a character from the story:

  • Book 1: Bruce Wayne/Batman appears in 505 panels (out of a possible 742)
  • Book 2: 428 panels
  • Book 3: 416 panels
  • Book 4: 337 panels

Furthermore, his opponent, and the nature of his struggle, transforms. Book One saw Batman battle Two-Face; Book Two, the Mutant leader; Book Three, the Joker. But here in Book Four, his challenge is to marshal the Sons of Batman into a vigilante force that impose order when society has broken down. As his power and legend grows, he becomes less something knowable, less a person we could actually talk to, and more something—mythological.

This is explicitly commented upon in the subplot involving Commissioner Yindel. She, the chief law enforcement officer of the city, finally realizes that Batman represents an order beyond good and evil–and one therefore unable to be judged. (He is the Übermensch.) As Miller put it to the Comics Journal (and I’ve quoted this already, but it bears repeating):

As far as fascistic implications of a character like Batman, that’s one of the things I’m really having fun with in the series. I think that in order for the character to work, he has to be a force that is beyond good and evil. It can’t be judged by the terms we would use to describe something a man would do because we can’t think of him as a man. I do this series at a very good time for me, because it’s very clear to me that our society is committing suicide by lack of a force like that. A lack of being unable to deal with the problems that are making everything we’ve got crumble to pieces. As far as being fascist, my feeling is…only if he assumed office. [Laughter.] If there were a bunch of these guys running around and beating up criminals, we’d have a serious problem. (34)

Miller’s revelation is truly disturbing: Inasmuch as society is dysfunctional, Batman’s true opponent is society itself.

After the End

A little while later, the TVs come back on. The media tries, as it always does, to return to the status quo.

But something has changed in Gotham City. Commissioner Yindel (like her predecessor, Jim Gordon) may not feel capable of judging Batman, but President Reagan does. And so he sends in his own false Übermensch to stop him, and to restore predictable, bureaucratic order. And so Batman dons his final Batsuit and sets out to battle Superman.

Of course there’s an obvious poetry to Batman fighting his final battle in Crime Alley:

Page 190 (detail).

But note how subtly clever Miller is being here. Batman’s war has over the course of TDKR steadily evolved. The criminal Joe Chill, and all of his anonymous fellow thugs, and even the spectacular super-criminals like Two-Face and the Joker (embodiments of the Id), have been replaced by Superman, and all that Miller accuses the Man of Steel of standing for: the crime of selling out to a false authority (the US government) that cannot protect its citizenry.

By voicing that accusation, Frank Miller struck a nerve that resonates to this day. Ask most readers what single page they most recall from The Dark Knight Returns, and I imagine most will choose this one:

Page 195.

(There are shades of 2001 here: Batman, the mortal master tool-user, can with perseverance overcome anyone–even God.)

The threat of worldwide nuclear war isn’t as palpable today as it was in 1986, but new existential fears confront us: our government’s inability to cut our dependence on Middle East oil, or reduce our carbon emissions, or repair our gutted economy, or repair our nation’s aging infrastructure, or stop the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is this state of helplessness that Batman ultimately comes to oppose, and his victory is a complex one. He simultaneously defeats and loses to Superman, feigning his own death even at the moment of victory.

Here’s our revelation, then, the end of our story. By means of a deceit (pretending to be dead)—a false recognition—Batman chooses to fade from the public view. Stealing a page from his friend Oliver (the Green Arrow, a thinly veiled version of Robin Hood), he takes his war underground–literally.

Just as the narration steadily expanded throughout the story, encompassing more and more perspectives, Batman’s struggle has become a social one. The Dark Knight falls, to be reborn as a movement.

Which is to say that, despite Alfred’s earlier, grim prediction:

Book One, page 21 (detail).

…Batman has managed to reproduce. Bruce Wayne couldn’t, leading a sexless existence–but Batman:

Page 13 (detail).
Page 54 (detail).

…Batman thrives on violence. It turns him on. And so we’re left with a happy ending, I suppose–but a pretty dark one. (The Vivid porn parody is much more optimistic, but Miller’s vision is clearer-sighted.)

And so finally, down there in the Batcave (of course), newly and for the very first time a father, Batman begins instructing his army. Having chosen to live, his first priorities are to establish an infrastructure (lights, water):

Book Four, page 199.

(He is, of course, a billionaire who delights in building things.)

Next: The final part of this series, in which I look at more of Frank Miller’s career, and the impact TDKR had on the comics industry. Until then…happy reading!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

20 thoughts on “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 6

  1. did the final installment of this ever get written/published? i just read through all 6 of these and it’s the clearest, most comprehensive analysis i’ve seen yet of TDKR, and of frank miller’s weird career trajectory and politics.

    1. Hi bill,

      Thanks for the feedback! Regrettably, I’m still working on the seventh part. I had some computer problems that slowed me down a lot… But I think I recently resolved them, and when I get a free moment, I’ll try to get the rest posted.

      Thanks again!

      1. Hey, could you tell me why Selina was dressed up as Wonder Woman by Joker? I don’t think you mentioned it again.

        1. Although here’s one idea, I suppose. Selina Kyle was running an escort service, right? So perhaps one of her services was providing superhero fantasies? Meaning, her escorts would dress up as Supergirl, Huntress, Zatanna (mmm)… As well as Wonder Woman? (As well as Catwoman?) And so the Joker dressed her up in one of those costumes?

          I don’t think there’s any textual evidence for that, but it’s perhaps one possibility?

          What do you think? Do you have any readings of it?

          Cheers, Adam

  2. Awesome analysis. I’m glad I stumbled upon this. Are we going to see the teased 7th chapter?

  3. Adam, I’ve dipped in and out of your analysis for a few years now, as I teach (in various English courses) DKR occasionally. Great work and insightful. The Wonder Woman thing: I’ve given this idea a lot of thought, read most of what Miller’s had to say, and there’s no good explanation, but so much of the work is solid and thought-out, there must be something here. Here are my ideas. Miller’s DKR is rather prophetic, much is anticipated: 9/11, media saturation, news replaced by commentary (which leads to the idea, currently, that all news is fake or alternative). In later works, maybe influenced by Miller, we often see Superman, Batman, and WW, the big three. They are the ones who survived the attacks of the 1950s, so maybe a nod in that direction. But, the Joker, hog-tying Selina, recalls various bondage imagery from earlier WW tales, leading to her helplessness. It’s intimated that the Joker has raped Selina; she says Batman shouldn’t take the girl (Carrie) to the amusement park: “Don’t take the girl. He’ll…,” and she trails off. Having the Joker rape a Batgirl figure or Robin, the image is too overt, disrupting the implied homo-erotic nature of Batman and Joker’s relationship. (Had we, though, had a Robin figure, a male one, similarly, bound–that would be interesting.) We also, throughout DKR, have various images of America in decline: the White House, behind a fence, Miller’s later Pax guards, weapons drawn–the flag also behind the fence; the iconic increasing close-up panels of the waving flag becoming Superman’s “S”; and the suicide of the general, Batman cradling the general, his body swaddled in the stark and vivid flag. Perhaps, having Selina (or anyone) in a flag costume helps to complete the idea of a failed America, especially in the absence of “giants.” The Mutants have acted with impunity as the world (or Gotham) has acquiesced to the Wolper’s and Gallaghers and media figures–the only one who opposes the current status qua is the little known hold-out, Lana Lang (we’re also reminded of the gossip columnist Lola B–something from middle 1970s Superman comics who is cheeky at times courting danger with the FCC). Like Bruce Wayne, America is “a zombie…dead…,” taken over by media (hence the chorus of television screens, complete with an actor-personality president), and the above-mentioned images of the flag reinforce such a reading. Forgive my long-windedness, but I was reminded of this post as I teach DKR to a group of high school seniors in AP Literature.

    1. Thank you for all of this, Rich, which really helps! I think you’re right about the sexual assault (which I missed), as well as the sense of Miller wanting to communicate an America in decline—I recall reading interviews with him from the time period where he said words to that effect (which seems to have been a popular sentiment in the ’80s). And I’m thinking now about how Bruce Wayne is drinking booze and watching TV at the start of the work—the TV stands out in a new way, implying that he’s caught in the zombie-like state along with everyone else. … Thanks again! And I’m glad you’ve found the posts useful!

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