In this column, I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time we look at one of the most important Batman comics ever written, The Dark Knight Returns
*This week marks the release of Detective Comics #1000. You may notice many Batman articles on this site. While the comic did not always feature Batman (That wouldn’t happen until Detective Comics #27) it is still intrinsically tied to the character. Of course, there were a few times after issue 27 that Batman was no the focus (Batwoman took over in some of the best issues of the series ever) but it was solely focused on the Batman Universe and family since. I hope you enjoy this article and check out all our other super cool Batman material, all done by people who are far more interesting and well written than I am.*
The Dark Knight Returns Background
If you ask anyone to name the most essential and important Batman stories, you can bet that The Dark Knight Returns will be named. Set in Batman’s “future” where he is a retired superhero, forced back into action due to the new crime wave sweeping across Gotham. They got the incredibly red-hot writer Frank Miller to write and draw the issues (Klaus Janson helping on art duty and it shows). He became a rising star on the Marvel title Daredevil and Batman seemed like a natural fit. Frank Miller has had an interesting career, to say the least. Going from beloved star to controversial figure. But one thing is undeniable, regardless if you love him or hate him, his work is very political.
Television Changes Everything
Probably the most important political message comes from the layout of the comic. Each page is a whopping 16-panel grid. Miller does combine some of these panels at times and plays with the format, but by in large it focuses on this very sporadic version of sequential storytelling. The main reason for doing this was to emulate the main medium of the time, television. Miller was critiquing the nature in which we consume our messages. Often panels look like 4:3 CRT television screens and switch rapidly between weather, crime, and interviews. We don’t just get to see Batman’s actions, but how the public would perceive him through the media. Fox News was not a force at this time (the public would have to wait 10 years for that) but CNN was gaining ground. Miller’s foresight into seeing how news media would work and cover these stories with their severe bias and sensationalizing horrible events is eerily realistic for a contemporary reader. Frank scripts out debates surrounding Batman’s actions and even has a bumbling “professional psychiatrist” from Arkham Asylum who evokes the coming of Dr. Phil. Our fascination with the spectacle over the news and need to glorify things over reflect on them is damaging us. Now we don’t have a Batman fighting colorful villains on our streets (which would most likely send our media into a frenzy) but there are many things this comic predicts. The Mutants (the main antagonistic force) are able to gain notoriety through the news and TV. Reading this book shortly after a white supremacist streamed his killing spree on YouTube really hit hard. Really what the Mutants are doing in this book is only a slightly hyperbolic look at what is going on today. The message is clear here, and it is that the message is no longer clear.
1980s Conservatism Again
Earlier I mentioned that this book was set in “the future” but that isn’t really the case. Yes Batman is older, and it is a future for him, but this book is firmly set in 1986. Reagan is president and the book is set during the Cold War. Reagan himself is shown as a slippery yet charming individual. While he doesn’t show up often in the book when he does you don’t have the most respect for him. This is all played out with the conflict between Batman and Superman. Batman is a vigilante taking on the police and Mutants, while Superman is in the back pocket of Ronald Reagan. This is a Superman that doesn’t really jive with many interpretations of the character but works in the context of this story. Superman is seen as an all American hero, even drawn like he is posing for propaganda posters.
It is Superman who enters a conflict during the Cold War and indirectly encourages the Soviets to strike with nuclear force. It is almost impossible to have a 1980s comic with the fear of nuclear war seeping in. Superman does save the day but still attempts to take in Batman. If you need to know Miller’s stance I will point you toward the ending, and Batman ALWAYS WINS.
To Kill or Not to Kill
Finally, the biggest issue in this book is Batman and killing. Zack Snyder claimed that Batman killing was valid in his film because of his actions in Dark Knight Returns. However, with a close reading, Batman does not kill once in this comic. There is an instance where he shoots at a Mutant but there is no death. We know this because when the commissioner is reading out his crimes murder is not one of them. Furthermore, it would make no sense to have him kill in a comic where Batman refuses to kill the Joker (who is a serial killer), and Joker has to commit suicide in order to pin the death on Batman. He uses a tank (a modified Batmobile) but only has rubber bullets. Again, this is used against the Mutant gang who cause chaos and death around Gotham. Batman’s aversion to murder is one of the things that makes him likable. If he went around killing he would just be another serial killer. Batman does wield guns in this comic a few times but when he gains control of a gang that worships him he immediately disarms them and tells them to use non-lethal force. This is where I have coined the term Batman-pacifist. Someone who is willing to use everything in their power to stop the evil in the world but will not kill under any circumstances. If we were to look at Batman in the real world we may call him a fascist (and some do use that term in this comic), but because we know the lines he draws and the evidence he gathers as a detective we understand his benevolence and respect for the public. Batman is an impossible creation in the real world, but an inspiration nonetheless. Batman does not kill, or it would shatter the entire thesis of his character. And that stance is a directly political stance to have.