In Darkest Knight
Vigilantism is ever vigilant! Steven S. Long leads in this one. For reference so far: Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, and Vigilantes R Us. We’re actually getting into hotter discussion territory now and your comments need to be a part of that – please typetty-type.
HIT IT, STEVE! (wait ow stop)
In theory this particular post is supposed to look at Batman in what I think most comic fans would agree are his best-known and most definitive Eighties appearances: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, both written by Frank Miller, and Batman: Year Two, written by Mike Barr (plus the follow-up graphic novel, Batman: Full Circle). In practice it’ll look just as much at the ugly stepchild of the bunch, Y2, as at the more popular stories. And I’ll leave things like the libertarian aspects of DKR, the fascist aspects of DKR, and DKR as sociopolitical commentary on the times for someone else — perhaps Ron.
I think the importance of DKR and Y1 for our ongoing topic of “vigilantism in Seventies/Eighties comics,” and certainly their importance in terms of how they affected me and my future work, was the hard-edged aspect Miller brought to the character. Even in the early Seventies, as writers like Steve Englehart labored mightily to make Batman more “serious” in the wake of the camp-filled Batman television series (1966-1968), no one had ever shown us a Batman as implacable, as driven, as ruthless, as efficient as Miller did:
There are seven working defenses from this position.
Three of them disarm with minimal contact.
Three of them kill.
The other one… hurts.
You’ve got rights. Lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy. But right now you’ve got a piece of glass shoved into a major artery in your arm. Right now you’re bleeding to death. Right now I’m the only one in the world who can get you to a hospital in time.
It was tough work, carrying 220 pounds of sociopath to the top of Gotham Towers — the highest spot in the city.
The scream alone is worth it.
I’ll count the dead, one by one. I’ll add them to the list, Joker. The list of all the people I’ve murdered — by letting you live.
Can you feel it, Joker? Feels to me… like it’s written all over my face. I’ve lain awake nights… planning it… picturing it… …endless nights… considering every possible method… treasuring each imaginary moment…. From the beginning I knew… that there’s nothing wrong with you… that I can’t fix… with my hands….
This — THIS — is the Batman I always wanted but never knew it until I read it. Just like the Punisher being written so that he rarely lived up to his reputation as a merciless killer of criminals, until Miller no one had ever written Batman in such a way that he truly justified his vaunted reputation. It’s easy to say everyone in the underworld is terrified of Batman, but it never made much sense given that he only punched people and then let the GCPD clean up the mess. He was just another superhero, a member of the Justice League whose major defining characteristic was “he’s a detective who doesn’t have any actual superpowers.”
Miller’s Batman — who disarms people by sticking throwing blades in their hands, who grasps the fact that there are ways to incapacitate criminals permanently without killing them, and most importantly who understands that by letting the likes of the Joker live he’s indirectly responsible for all the murders and other crimes they commit — isn’t a superhero. He’s a vigilante with a capital V. It’s hard to imagine him belonging to the JLA or any other group of costumed heroes; he’s more than that. He transcends that in his quest to protect the innocent and see Justice done.
Year One, of course, lets Miller bookend Batman’s career with a look at the character’s beginning, but with the same hard edge. In many ways this is more fascinating than DKR because it presents Batman as a vigilante at his most elemental. He doesn’t have most of the gadgets or resources yet; in fact he’s still finding his way into his costumed identity. From my perspective as a gamer, this is a great “Batman as a beginning Player Character” story, with DKR showing Batman after several years’ worth of campaigning and a lot of Experience Points.
That brings us to Year Two. It gets short shrift in comparison to DKR and Y1, and deservedly so in most ways. I like Mike Barr’s writing generally, but this story is a hot mess. The whole idea of Batman using a gun and teaming up with Joe Chill to beat an adversary just because that adversary defeated him in a fight or two is absurd.
It doesn’t help that after letting Alan Davis apply his wonderful artistic touch to the first issue of the story, DC brought in Todd McFarlane and his wretched, ridiculous art for the remaining three-fourths of it. As a result everyone in the story looks like a dopey caricature.
But what makes this story stand out, and strongly, for purposes of this series of columns is its villain: the Reaper, a vigilante who fought crime in Gotham twenty years before Batman took up the crusade. He’s the exact opposite of Batman, who has vowed never to kill: the Reaper slaughters criminals with gruesome regularity using his trademark sickle weapons. From streetwalkers and minor thugs all the way up to major crime bosses, no one is safe from the Reaper’s deadly brand of Justice. He’s what Batman might have become had bitterness and anger at crime, rather than a desire to protect the innocent, become uppermost in young Bruce Wayne’s mind.
Students of the comics have often said, and with some accuracy, that Batman’s best villains are dark reflections of Batman himself: the Joker is his obsessiveness and discipline turned to psychotic madness; Two-Face his desire for orderliness and Justice twisted by a perverse randomness. What’s missing from this is that no villain embodies Batman’s vigilante mentality taken to a villainous extreme. I don’t know if that’s what Mike Barr had in mind when he created the Reaper, but the sickle-wielding vigilante fits the bill perfectly. Which makes it a damn shame that he only ever returned in one graphic novel, Full Circle, in which Joe Chill’s children use the Reaper’s gear to try to get revenge on the man who destroyed their father. The Reaper is a villain who ought to re-appear to grapple with Batman every few years, and thus raise intriguing questions about the vigilante mentality and the ethics of crimefighting.
RON’S LURKING IN THE SHADOWS
(just a moment for breathing heavily) I’ll take Batman seriously when I see him swoop down on a cop who shoots a little kid, then beat the cop half to death, then torture him for information on other cops who’re doing it, all the while “making it hurt” and snarling “punk” in in his full Miller mode. Full points for working his way “up the chain” to discover that this isn’t a bad-apple situation, and then to keep going. (OK all done)
There is something quite moving in the tension between stopping-the-pain vs. crime-fighting. They really aren’t the same things, and we have this guy who has it knotted up inside him that they are. The early-70s Batman really highlighted this contradiction, but Miller’s Batman doesn’t recover or consolidate it so much as turn up the volume into a nigh-raving mess.
Fascism is a precise term, and I dislike using it loosely, so to start, Miller’s Gotham isn’t fascist at all – it’s apocalyptic. There simply isn’t any society; it reads like something out of Heavy Metal or A Clockwork Orange rather than a take on America of any kind. Gordon is, well, a dinosaur, more-or-less pretending that there are police who do police work. I referenced A Clockwork Orange specifically because the ordinary people of that story – never mind the young hooligans – are almost all completely despicable and/or beaten-down into nothing. It’s the same here; the citizenry are either some combination of venal, stupid, and mean; or trembling victims hoping the countdown hits the guy next to them instead.
OK, that isn’t in itself a “mess” – what is, is the indigestible stew of conflicting content. There’s the utterly contemptuous portrayal of Reagan, the unmistakable message of “no nukes,” and the almost-as-contemptuous portrayal of Superman’s patriotism. There’s the general who sells weapons to the mutant gang, Iran-Contra style, presenting the most glaring hole in explanation/story-logic ever, which even the text openly admits. There’s the contempt for the hippies, which is weird because, uh, it was hippies who objected to all those things I just mentioned the text objects to. There’s the bizarre racism … I mean, are the “mutants” black or not? Never mind that every black character is an especially disgusting person. There’s the confusing gun-content – Batman mows down a kidnapper with a machine gun, granted, taken from the kidnappers, and then later turns his tank-turrets on the mutant gang, using what is heavily implied to be live ammo, either crossing on or walking the line between whether he is about preserving/restoring civic order, or he knows that it’s the apocalypse so all the old values/rules are simply gone.
I would say that Batman in Year One is the more sympathetic and interesting version, in a much more coherent story concerning one thing, police corruption, but … there’s this odd text bit describing the Wayne mansion as a citadel against an age of equals … Uh? Bruce is John Galt? Is this about a rich guy who runs around punching poor people because they deserve it? Oh wait, no, he goes directly after Gotham’s rich establishment community. So …?
Such stuff will occupy sociology and lit crit indefinitely. I prefer to go into the more gutsy material Steve focused on, with more straightforward, personal, experiential agreement. Let us not discount anger as a reality (spare me your pious shock), even reactive sadism and its attractions, especially in the context that fictional expression isn’t a sin. Nor is grounding it in nonfictional honesty – I may think little of Bernhard Goetz, but I don’t find Theodore Streleski’s position to be unreasonable. I did, after all, complete two graduate degrees.
The core of good fictional work on these matters – and here, I think Steve and I are way on the same page – is to engage the reader, to raise questions, rather than to wallow in justification. Not “Goetz was right!” but rather (i) to admit that one might be capable of such an act, and then (ii) to say, “Is Goetz right if he uses his fists instead? Or performs some due diligence about what his targets have done? Or ‘protects innocents’ in direct ways, often proactively? Or includes corrupt cops as targets?” Capped by, “Wait a minute, with all these caveats, did we lose Goetz-ness along the way?” If nothing else, Miller’s Batman doesn’t tap-dance his way past that latter thing, and when I give it a sympathetic reading, I find myself intrigued by the questions that come up.
Specifically, does Bruce Wayne give up being Batman in The Dark Knight Returns? Which raises the interesting possibility that given the events of the funeral at the end, that Superman may be understood as the hero of this story after all.
STEVE, BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED
I am definitely on board with your penultimate paragraph. I think that’s just the sort of thing a good vigilante comic story does, and in many ways it’s what we’re looking for as we read back through these things and consider them from our now (theoretically) more mature, over-educated perspectives.
I’m not sure I can entirely agree with your views on Miller’s Gotham. I agree that many parts of it aren’t great places to live. But speaking frankly (no pun intended!) as someone who doesn’t particularly care for big cities, I see Miller’s depiction of Gotham City as any modern metropolis — it’s just exaggerated for dramatic effect. But I don’t deny there are arguments to be made on your side. And the idea of analyzing the text in terms of “Batman trying to preserve the old order,” perhaps much like post-World War I Europe, is definitely intriguing.
As for the depiction of black characters, I’m not sure I can agree with you here, either. First, while I concede that few black characters are depicted in a positive light, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “disgusting.” More importantly, I don’t see the black characters being singled out in any way — with the exception of a few key protagonists, nearly all the characters are shown with their worst sides facing the camera. Byron Brassballs, for example, is a pretty stark depiction of “the selfish, ugly-minded rich white guy.”
Second, it had never even occurred to me that the Mutants are supposed to be black, and now that you’ve suggested it to me I can’t buy it. The Mutants are uniformly depicted as white to my eyes, even pale. I suppose you could make some argument that they wear full-body white skin dye or something, but (a) why in the world would they?, and (b) I’d expect Miller to explain such an important point somehow, even if only visually.
If anything, I think the really intriguing issue here, and perhaps the root cause of this discussion point, is the color palette chosen by Lynn Varley. The washed out, somber tones that dominate most panels make it difficult to distinguish who’s black and who’s white. And perhaps that was the point. This way each reader can decide for himself which interpretation makes more sense to him.
I take the bit in Year One about Wayne Manor being built as a citadel against an age of equals as a reference to what Bruce’s ancestors’ thoughts, not his own (and he’s certainly not a John Galt-ian figure, at least not the way I see it). In fact, the sardonic way he says it leads me to believe that he recognizes the ultimate futility/foolishness of such an idea. Though Miller’s certainly made some very right-wing statements in recent years, from looking at DKR and Y1 I think it’s tricky to try to suss out his politics. He seems to be all over the map — and again, maybe that’s the point.
Next: Getting it just right
Posted on February 18, 2016, in Guest posts and tagged Batman, Batman: Year One, Batman: Year Two, Bernhard Goetz, Reaper, Steven S. Long, The Dark Knight Returns, vigilante. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.