This happened years ago, at the steps of the Humanities Building at UP Los Banos. I was waiting with a girl I used to hang out with for the next class when she abruptly asked me what I wanted for my birthday. It was mid-October but the air did not yet have that crisp Advent chill we so love and dreamed of. I thought for a moment. Frankly, I thought about asking for sex. This was a girl whom I’ve always wanted to sleep with. She was just too cute for words. But I knew, even then, that my infatuation would not be reciprocated. I knew she would never put out. At least, not to me. Sigh. AnywayÃ¢Â?Â¦ moving onÃ¢Â?Â¦ Instead of sex, I asked for a Dark Knight Returns trade paperback, the next best thing. I’ve read it but I didn’t have my own copy back then. She frowned her cute little frown and asked what Dark Knight Returns was. So I told her.
“Dark Knight Returns,” I said, “is arguably the best Batman story ever written. The trade paperback is the collected edition of the critically acclaimed mini-series written and drawn by Frank Miller. This dude is like a god among writers and artists working in the comicbook milieu. Anyway, the book is set in the future. Batman, now pushing 60, gets out of retirement to battle crime anew in a world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. James Gordon is retired. There’s a new Gotham Police Commissioner out for Batman’s blood. This is not your grandfather’s Batman, mind you. This is a bulkier, more militant and terrifying Batman. More than a mere vigilante playing games, Miller’s Batman is a terrorist playing for keeps.
“His return also, sort of, forces some of his archenemies (Joker, Two-Face) to come out of their cocoons as well. Batman gets a new Robin, a girl this time. Superman gets involved but they’re not allies on this one. They’re on opposite sides of the fence. Superman has become a top-secret government weapon while Batman has become a liability. You can just imagine how that battle’s gonna turn out. It’s great stuff.”
I stopped; feeling ridiculously like the blurb on the back of a book.
For a moment, she seemed deep in thought, as if absorbing what I said.
“You mean this is comics?”
I nodded. This seemed to bother her a lot.
“But you read books!!” she said. I know that an extra exclamation point is a little over the top but that’s how she said it. I am not making this up.
“And?” I challenged.
I hate people who have a prejudice against comics. They think comics are kiddie stuff, sophomoric, not worth the trees that died to make the paper they were printed on. My girlfriend now first thought of them in the same light as the wakasan and tapusan trash you see peddled on the sidewalks. She only did change her mind about them when I introduced her to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Speaking of whichÃ¢Â?Â¦
“Aren’t you too old to be reading Superfriends?” snorted the girl I was with at the Humanities steps. This was before the Justice League cartoon was shown on TV. Then she added, “at least read Sandman,” in a tone so condescending that I wanted to wring her little neck (kiss it then wring it because, let’s not be hypocrites here, condescending or not, she really was a knockout).
What I hate even more than people who are prejudiced against comics are those who think Gaiman’s Sandman is the end-all and be-all of comicdom’s literariness. Yes, I have read Sandman and, yes, it is good.
BUT (and it’s so big a BUT that it warrants the all-caps) Sandman is not all that comicdom has to offer. Sandman is, in fact, one of the best pieces of literature of any format BUT then so is DKR. So are a lot of other comics, for that matter. DKR revolutionized comics in the 80s like nothing before it. Its success opened doors for such monumental works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Gaiman’s aforementioned popular soap opera. And the Tim Burton Batman movies were inspired by Miller’s DKR.
But what, essentially, is the big deal with DKR?
For starters, DKR is a terrifying political statement. Like all true literature, DKR is a reflection of the period that spawned it. Its author, Miller, used the book as a platform to express how he felt about what’s going on in the world back then. And express it he did with fervor and fire. DKR was written during the mid-80s, a time when the world danced on the razor’s edge. Picture this: Ronald Reagan was president of the USA and the USSR had not yet been dissolved. The cold war was turning warm. The Berlin Wall had not yet come down. The Middle East was a hotspot of activities even then. Plane hijackings were as common then as Starbucks is now. The air reeked of paranoia and progressive rock music. Mohawks went side by side with shoulder pads and Michael Jackson was still black. Of course I was too young then to actually know what I’m talking about.
Miller wrote of a convincing world that could have been the result of Reagan’s haphazard politics. His dystopic world featured an America virtually untouched by other nations, thanks mainly to Superman’s intervention. But underneath the calm illusion of peace lies the truth – the world is dying from social, political, and moral cancer.
Enter the Batman. His brand of justice, a sort of chaos amidst the new world order, is disruptive to the status quo. It’s then up to Superman to try to stop his former ally.
The dichotomy between Batman and Superman is played out by Miller to near perfection. For Superman – in his eternal goodness – it’s not important if his presence doesn’t get recognized, if he blitzed in and out of places, without being seen, like a symbolic wind of justice. It doesn’t even matter so much that all the life he’s ever known is gone to ash, that he is being used by the government, that he’s become a pushover. He doesn’t care if he’s perceived either as a hero or a government lackey. For Superman, what’s vital is that he gets to save lives. Batman, on the other hand, doesn’t buy this meretricious propaganda. He doesn’t take shit from anybody. Not the government. Not Superman. He believes, unconditionally and without exception, that the ends could never justify the means. Just because Superman is doing good doesn’t make him ultimately good, if all he’s doing is maintaining the status quo.
That this book is called Dark Knight Returns doesn’t necessarily mean Miller is playing favorites. His Machiavellian juxtaposition of the two characters is never black and white. You sometimes wonder if Batman hadn’t gone too far. You think maybe, in the final analysis, Superman’s position is in the right. Why stir the water when all it will do is rouse the fishes?
But in the end, you see Miller’s unforgiving point. An illuminating albeit possibly insane point that somehow made its way to Alan Moore’s terrifying Watchmen comicbook (another of my favorite) through its creepiest character Rorschach. In Watchmen, Rorschach had just witnessed the death of half a million people. This unimaginable death toll forced the world governments to cease a forthcoming nuclear war that would have spelled the end of the world. So Rorschach is faced with a moral dilemma. Will he let a horrible crime go unpunished if it means absolute world peace? Does he stay silent and give the world a second chance or does he give five hundred thousand dead people justice and in doing so ensure the death of millions more?
His answer is swift, straight, and calm: Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.
(I realize this is a bit of a digression but I wanted to show that there are more to comics than fisticuffs and well-endowed women.)
Whether or not Rorschach is right in dictating black and white absolutes in a gray world is debatable and not the point anyway.
Miller’s Batman is as cold, as uncompromising, as Rorschach’s character in Watchmen. Does this make him a hero or a terrorist? Hard to say. When questioned about his office’s relationship with Batman, why Batman’s presence in Gotham was tolerated, Commissioner Gordon doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he explains about how Franklin Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor but he did nothing to stop them beforehand. He needed an impetus to thrust America into World War 2. Gordon says he could not bring himself to get angry over this. It was too big for him to judge.
“He’s [Batman] too big.”
That’s not all that’s cool about DKR. Here, finally, is a Batman you can be awestruck with. He doesn’t have that cheesy yellow oblong around the bat insignia on his chest. He’s wearing heavy military boots that he actually stomped Superman with.
But strip away all the cool gadgets, the political scenario and the literary devices, more than the really cool artwork (and beautifully murky colors), at the heart of it is a story of an old man struggling to find his place in a world he no longer recognizes and no longer recognizes him. Despite his apparent invulnerability, he’s just a frail old man, lonely and sad and regretful. You see it behind his angry eyes. In between the fights, you see his body sag.
Even though the author has had his share of crappy books, Miller, at his best, is the best there is. There is no one better – not Gaiman, not Moore, no one. Good writers write with heart, but he writes from the gut.
When my birthday finally arrived that October, the girl I was hanging out with gave me a copy of Chicken Soup For The Soul, a real book as she called it, one which I politely took, tried to read, and never got past the second page.