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Transcending Superheroism

Through Abu Aardvark I happened upon this collection of blog posts on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and I must say that I found them to be rather off-base. I've never enough of a comic book fan to have read secondary commentary on the subject except when I happen to come across a post on a book I've read while purusing my usual set of political blogs, so maybe I'm just well outside the mainstream sophisticated view of DKR or something. Beyond the strains of slightly naive political, social, and media commentary, this is a book about overcoming superheroism. Rather than being a paragon of apolitical justice, Batman's trajectory in this book is about a rejection of that model. For most of the book, of course, an apolitical dispenser of justice is just what Batman is, just as Batman has always been. A man driven by the murder of his parents to adopt a secret identity as a masked man who fights for justice on behalf of the innocent.

But you have to ask yourself what happens to him over the course of the book. As in Watchmen the book is replete with suggestions that this mode of behavior is more like mental illness than heroism. Specifically, in Batman's case it's clear that on one level at least his crime fighting persona is more about a death wish ("this would be a good death") than a genuine desire for justice. Batman is, it's true, embued with a certain anti-evildoer zeal by the murder of his parents, but he also seems to be suffering from survivor's guilt. He fights bad guys because he wants the bad guys to kill him. Certainly, it's clear that all his ass-kicking isn't actually solving anything. Gotham City just gets worse and worse, despite Batman's best efforts. But on another level, the desire for justice is genuine. He recoils away from his death wish repeatedly ("but not good enough").

By the end, Batman has abandonned the lone crusader model of do-gooding in favor of a more political role as the leader of a social movement-cum-army that aims at a systemic remedying of Gotham's problems. He seems intent on abandonning not only his Bruce Wayne persona, but also Batman's public role, in favor of a role more befitting an older man who wants to do good -- as a trainer, leader, and inspirer of others. One man's actions, no manner how skilled or well-intentioned the man is, can't make a fundamental difference. Going out along and beating people up is a way of trying to assuage his internal demons. Leading a group is a way of trying to make a real difference.

January 4, 2005 | Permalink


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There've been some interesting discussions in the comics "blogosphere" lately about Super-Heroes being fascist1 as well as some particular interpretations of Batman as he is portrayed in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns regarding his being a fail... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 8, 2005 4:03:47 PM


The other difference between DKR and Watchmen is that in Watchmen, superheroism is again embraced in the end by the characters, whereas in DKR it's firmly rejected.

Posted by: Alex Knapp | Jan 4, 2005 11:46:31 AM

I think you're close, but you're glossing over one fact: at the start of both series, the state has outlawed superheroes (except for Superman in DKR and the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan in the Watchmen).

The moral is thus somewhat more subtle. It isn't that individuals can't make a difference; once Batman decides to violate the law, he _does_ improve Gotham. It's that individual do-goodery, unchecked by any popular limits or connections to broader society, is inherently authoritarian.

Posted by: AWC | Jan 4, 2005 12:09:59 PM

In DKR, Superman is more "authoritarian" than Batman -- precisely because he is "connected to broader society" through his government controls. Superman has opted to work within the system; Batman has not; this hampers Batman but also gives him certain leeway to do what's right rather than just what he's "supposed to do."

Matthew, I haven't followed through to the blog posts that inspired this entry, but thanks for alerting people to a couple of the best graphic novels yet created.

Posted by: Shelby | Jan 4, 2005 12:23:19 PM

Matt, I think you're right about the commentary on the shortcomings of individual action, and Batman's decision to build a social movement instead. But I'm not so sure that it's all about transcending superheroism.

At the beginning of the book, Batman has been "retired" for a decade... and society has gone to hell. Miller shows us runaway crime, political correctness run rampant, ineffective politicians, corrupt lawyers, a chattering and sensationalist media, and social workers/ psychiatrists who sound like an Ann Coulter parody of "Liberals". That's what kind of society you get without the superhero, it seems - weak, soft, nuts, and doomed.

At the beginning of the book, Bruce Wayne is trying to fit into that society without being Batman - right down to putting his faith in the social workers and trying to rehabilitate Two Face. When Wayne finally gives in and becomes Batman again, he isn't just succumbing to mental illness. He's also rejecting what he sees as this failed liberal society. Mental illness or political statement? It's at least plausible that Wayne's "mental illness" is caused as much seeing how society is collapsing due to his own inaction as it is by the murder of his parents, et al. When he puts the mask back on, he loses this societally-induced insanity.

In that reading, the Old Batman version of vigilantism would be a necessary step along the way towards rebuilding a well-ordered, sane society, rather than a mental illness or something to be overcome.

(cross posted at http://www.comicbookpolitics.com)

Posted by: cbp moderator | Jan 4, 2005 12:41:18 PM

Somewhat along the same lines, the prerequisite for Batman to finally go ahead and start his movement is for the previous forms of social cohesion to finally break down. One of the themes running through the Batman mythos is the insufficiency of the system and Batman's inability to see anything better. He works outside the system, but he is desperately careful not to upset it, because he has thought it through and does not like any of the alternatives. It's when the system finally completely collapses -- that is, when one of the basic tensions of the Batman mythos is resolved -- that he moves to another role.

In other words, Miller is writing an ending to the Batman comics; he's resolving the crisis and letting the character move past it.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Jan 4, 2005 1:15:16 PM

This may be obvious to insiders, but how do you pronounce the word "Beinart"?


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Jan 4, 2005 1:49:46 PM


Pleased to see you mention DKR, as it is one of my favorite stories ever.

However, I think you are way off track in your take on it. Its funny how people can interpret good art in their own way, but I don't think the work supports your interpretation.

To sum up the theme of the book, (or at least try to encapsulate it) you have to turn to the quote in what is probably part III. Batman has just watched an apartment building where the Joker laid a trap explode and collapsed, killing many innocents.

"How many Joker? How many people have I killed BECAUSE I LET YOU LIVE?"

This is the paradox. Even Batman, keeping to his code of crime-fighting (but not criminal killing), by his inaction, has doomed how many innocent people to the deprivations of a psychopath? But, how much more have been killed by society's failure to even fight crime?

The conflict in the book, is the one between civilization and barbarism, but not in the way one may think. In DKR, the superheroes (people who operated outside of the law because they dealt with those who ignored and were beyond themselves) have been vanished. One by one they were exiled, forced into retirement, some perhaps even murdered. Society deemed them a threat to the established order, and to itself, and crushed them. The result, at least for Gotham, has been a steady spiral down into hell. Society does not punish criminality, it coddles it. It does not codemn deviancy, it embraces it, etc.

Batman may be, in fact, somewhat insane, but is he wrong? In a society that allows rapists and killers to run rampant, he takes the fight directly to them, and while they no longer fear the law, they damn well fear him.

During the course of the book, one sees that Batman's actions have positive effects. People in Gotham start to fight back against crime themselves, inspired by him, reversing the trend. True, some are inspired to acts of evil, but whose is responsible for that? And the end, what serves the greater good?

I also think you misinterpret the ending. Batman does not retire so he can become a teacher or instruct others in positive change. He goes underground because he realizes that he cannot fight the powers that be right now, because he is still only one man; a human one at that. What he is seen doing at the very end of the book is training an army of HIM, that at some point will take the battle back aboveground.

There is more to this, and I just threw out some thoughts. What is great about DKR is that it does have complexity to it. Batman as a force has a darkside, no doubt, but like everything in life, there is a balance. Reading through it, people try to discover what the proper one is.


Posted by: Captain Wrath | Jan 4, 2005 2:58:09 PM

Good points in the comments about DKR. Let's not discuss the horrendous DKR II. God, that was bad.
My favorite graphic novels/collected stories, in order:
1. Watchmen--Wow
2. DKR--Creepily fascistic Superman, well written
3. Kingdom Come--incredible art, thought the story was strong and the evolution of characters believable
4. Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters--Brutal; definitely made Oliver Queen more than a boxing glove arrow

Posted by: Steve | Jan 4, 2005 3:39:32 PM

Re: Bruce Wayne's death wish, in the "Broken City" story, we get to see an interesting series of Batman's recurring dreams about the murder of his parents. In one, he has all the badass superhero fighting skills he'll acquire as an adult and prevents the murder. But in another, as he puts it, it's "not 'bang, bang' but 'bang, bang... bang'" and you see the young Bruce with a bullet in his head and a smile on his face, slumped in the alley with his parents. Later, you see him lifting weights and repeating "What kind of man kills a boy's parents... and leaves him alive."

Posted by: Julian | Jan 4, 2005 3:43:59 PM


I'm not certain why Superman is more authoritarian because he works for the state. Could you give a single example of him behaving in a negative manner in the entire series? If I remember the comic, the guy sacrifices his life to protect the US from nuclear holocaust. Superman does put the clamps on Batman, but then he also goes along with his phony funeral.

I should add that I wasn't expressing my opinion about do-goodery but rather Miller and Moore's take on it. Perhaps my argument applies better to Watchmen, where Ozymandias is considerably more authoritarian (in my own terms) than either the Comedian or Dr. Manhattan.

Posted by: AWC | Jan 4, 2005 4:41:14 PM

Well, AWC, it was broadly hinted that Superman took part in a "police action", he's at the beck and call of President Reagan ('nuff said) and it's Superman who tries to arrest Batman for being a criminal.

By the by, folks, is DK a suggestion of Miller's politics? Joker is a maniac who just *happens* to be gay (right), the big-boobed feminist with the shirt "all this and brains too", the weak (re: liberal) mayor who wants to negotiate with a monstrous gang member... I expected Batman to take off the mask at one point and we'd see not Bruce Wayne but Bill Frist.

DK2, I hope we all agree, was huge steaming pile of crap, absolutely beyond any defense. Miller gets a lot of attention, but there's better comic art out there. A lot better.

Posted by: Alar | Jan 4, 2005 7:18:16 PM


I admit I'd forgotten about the police action comment. I did mention Superman's attempted arrest of Batman, but also noted his ambivalence and eventual refusal to turn Batman in.

My purpose is not to defend Superman or the government or anything. But, to my read, Miller and especially Moore see vigilante superheroes as crazy, reckless, brutal, and fundamentally condescending. Yes, they blister the establishment heroes (Superman, Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan), but in the end all three of the government supes do the right thing.

Posted by: AWC | Jan 4, 2005 7:40:31 PM


Miller's masculinity issues have always been a bit...weird. I remember reading The 300 and at one point one of the Spartans calls another character (an Athenian, if I remember right) a pedophile as an insult.

The commentary on DKR is interesting here because it is, for something so relatively short, a rather multilayered work. I'm actually a bit surprised that less emphasis here has been placed on the fact that Bruce Wayne is old in the book. One of the particular tropes of DKR is to ram a lot of the consequences of vigilantism down the main character's throats - Bruce Wayne gives up the Batman career at least partly because of Robin's death, Green Arrow is a one-armed borderline Abbie Hoffman figure, and Superman has made a devil's deal to do what he still sees as his duty - rescuing people from harm.

I'm going to have to pay attention to that Blog for the Transmet discussion. Transmet strikes me as going very wrong around volume 3, at least partly because Spider, like most heroic figures has a whiff of fascism around him - He Is Right Cos The Author Sez So.

Posted by: Mike Collins | Jan 4, 2005 9:27:03 PM

Dr. Manhattan did the right thing? I think the Watchmen is a bit more ambiguous than that. If anything it suggests that he did the wrong thing.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Jan 4, 2005 9:48:29 PM


You'll have to be a little more specific.

My memory is that Dr. Manhattan recovers his humanity and decides to chase down Ozymandias. He is destroyed, then is reborn after he cannot stop the holocaust. Dr. Manhattan then departs the Earth, leaving Laurie and Owlman together. He doesn't arrest or kill Ozy because he sees that such an action would destroy the good that could result from Ozy's crime.

Or am I supposed to sympathize with Ozymandias? I grant that his actions are ambiguous if you're the most ruthless sort of utilitarian. But I'm dubious about a utopian world government built upon a belief in imaginary space aliens.

Posted by: AWC | Jan 4, 2005 10:22:16 PM

Batman having a death wish? Eh, sorry, no. Now Batman is probably fairly insane, one of the traditional threads running through most of the Batman comics is that he is just slightly less crazy then his rogues gallery. Its no accident that Joker is his main antagonist, in fact Joker actually feels a special connection to Bats and deep down feels that they are almost kindred spirits. Also, what fuels Bats is cold vengeance, that’s where that whole “he is darkness, he is the night” mythos comes from. Bats is obsessed with delivering vengeance to obscene levels, that what drove him to become what he is. As he cannot deliver his vengeance once he is dead, him having a death wish would kinda contradict his very being.

Posted by: Alulion | Jan 4, 2005 10:24:38 PM

On a similar note, I always thought that the proper continuation of the Batman Story would be Bruce dying of old age, and coming back as the Spectre, as his thirst to deliver vengeance would not let him find peace even in death.

Posted by: Alulion | Jan 4, 2005 10:30:01 PM

Mike: I agree about Transmet, maybe not about it "going wrong" (it's way too much fun for that), but in terms of the conservative streak running through the series. For all of Spider Jerusalem's commitment to the truth and rage against the machine and all that, he sure does have a self-righteous streak. And the political world Warren Ellis paints is one which is deeply pessimistic about human nature, about elected politicians, about most of society - conservative, perhaps, in an older sense. I'm looking forward to that discussion too - hope to see you there!

Posted by: cbp | Jan 5, 2005 7:38:27 AM

Additional Thoughts/Observations:

Regarding Miller's Politics-

I won't say I know what they are, but here is what I took from DKR. There is a rejection of 60's liberalism (radical as opposed to more classic liberalism) in it. The books seems to show contempt for much of that mindset, ex. sympathy for the criminal, rather than the victim; rebellion and anarchy for chaos' sake; rejection of the idea of the individuals self-defense; abdication of individual responsibility, etc.
Thus, you have the joker sympathizing psychiatrist, the uncaring hippie parents of 'Robin', the pundits decrying Batman's actions while silent about the criminals running rampant in Gotham, even blaming HIM for all of them. I think it is safe to say Miller is hostile to radical liberalism, which some might say has simply become 'liberalism' in today's jargon.
There is also criticism of extreme right politics as well, here, of course, and others have mentioned it here. There is obviously a threat from individuals taking the law into their own hands; becoming an authority unto themselves, of fascism, to use a term.
But, Miller seems to be illustrating the concept of balance here. In Miller's DKR world, society has gone to the other extreme, allowing freedom to devolve into chaos, so that even psychopathic gang leaders run free and master criminals are treated as celebrities. The ‘legitimate’ lawful authorities have stopped functioning for everyday people, almost in a sense turning on them. Or, perhaps they have become toothless an impotent. Either way, there are being victimized by the system.
Superman, the only ‘legal’ super-hero, is at the beck and call of the government. He is not a super-hero, but a super-agent, and he no longer serves the interests of his fellow man, but that of a government. True, he DOES get to save lives in doing so, but lives are also lost in places like Gotham, where Superman does not bother to visit except when to take down the Batman, a threat to the established order. When Batman was/is operating there, people were/are saved, but he was forced to stop by the Uber-hero, the big blue boy scout.
When Batman returns, he is reclaiming his power from superman, the government, this system. It is the individual’s right and responsibility to defend himself and his society, and should not be left to others because they might not do so either from malice or indifference. Batman lives for this, and he inspires others with his example, exemplified by his rallying everyone, including gang members, into saving the city.
Okay, getting a bit wound up now, so I should stop, but makes this a great piece of work is that there is so much to explore.

Posted by: Captain Wrath | Jan 5, 2005 8:20:48 AM

Captain Wrath's take sounds about right to me in a lot of ways. Miller's conservatism seems to dominate the surface of DKR, but there are quite a few points along the way where he seems to undercut it. He's pretty savage towards Reagan, obviously.

Even on gender and cultural politics, it's not so clear cut - yeah, he hates "liberals" and 60s culture. But take Commissioner Yendell, the woman who replaces Cordon. She starts out looking like the epitome of what's wrong with the system: not just a political appointee, but, as Commissioner Gordon puts it disgustedly, "a woman. Christ almighty." But she turns out to be a strong, independent Commissioner, who by the end of the book has come around to Gordon's way of thinking on the Batman issue. She doesn't fit the anti-feminism/anti-woman label which some want to throw on Miller here.

Posted by: cbp | Jan 5, 2005 8:50:36 AM

People wanting a better understanding of Miller's politics ought to take a look at his collaboration with Dave Gibbons, Give Me Liberty.

As a graphic novel, it's pretty shoddy (although entertaining nonetheless). But here, at least, Miller makes his political views absolutely explicit. He's definitely a liberal -- as his sympathy for President Nissen clearly reveals -- but he's also deeply suspicious of utopianism (even well-intentioned utopianism), hence poor Nissen's downfall.

[Yeah, yeah, among the multitude of bad guys are the gay Nazi terrorists, the Aryan Thrust. I know, I know -- Frank clearly has "issues"... ]

And I have to speak up for The Dark Knight Strikes Again. I feel that everyone has this knee-jerk reaction against it because the tone is so wildly different from The Dark Knight Returns. But taken on its own terms, it's an enjoyable bit of fluff, a wonderfully light-hearted satire of the insufferably pretentious, incoherent Kingdom Come. (Yes, yes, we all agree, Alex Ross is a genius, but god is Mark Waid ever a fucking hack.)

RE: DK2, how can you not love at least that opening sequence with Ray Palmer in the petri dish?

Besides, it's worth it for Miller's caricatures of the punditocracy alone! Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, George Will, and best of all, the bug-eyed Douchebag of Liberty himself, Bob Novak, in a Crossfire segment (opposite Jimmy Olsen), sputtering and pointing: "He's the goddamn president and he can do whatever the goddamn hell he wants to do and no matter what you goddamn say he was elected fair and goddamn square!" (Olsen: "Elected? He doesn't exist! We all saw it! He's a computer-generated image!")

Posted by: Thad | Jan 5, 2005 12:47:18 PM

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the sequel. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller ups the ante to outright superheroic revolution against an irretrievably corrupt state. Apparently, superheroes -- or anyone else -- have the duty to use their power to reshape the world, without regard for law or society.

Anarchism or fascism? You make the call.

It's not as good a book as the original; too simplistic for that. But it plays out the themes to their logical conclusion.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 5, 2005 1:15:25 PM

I see you beat me by a few minutes, Thad. That's what I get for stepping away before hitting "post".

Good point about DK2 being a satire of Kingdom Come. That raises the question of how seriously we can take the politics in the sequel.

And I thought the Chris Matthews caricature was even better than the Novak. Of course, Matthews is pretty close to being a comic book character himself sometimes.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 5, 2005 1:21:46 PM

Actually, I'd characterize the politics in DK2 to be pretty damned fascist, seeing as how the end result of the superhero "revolution" was to make Superman and his daughter the rulers (and gods) ofthe Earth...

Posted by: Alex Knapp | Jan 5, 2005 2:31:05 PM

Wellllll...one person does have to set an example, and set up some people emulating his example. It's true that one person, even a superhero, can't take care of crime and society by himself. (Although, really, if the Flash was THAT fast,he could, ditto Superman---although in real life anyone whipping by at Mach 40 or so would cause more damage by the vacuum left in his wake then a dozen crime waves. Windows would blow out, people would be caught up in his wake, destruction would be left in their path...)
But that's true of real police, too. There aren't enough cops out there to prevent most crimes. (How many of us have had our car CDs stolen, for instance, with no police around?) But they have to be out in enough numbers to DETER it. SImilarly, you would think the idea of running into Superman or Batman in their respective cities would cause some criminals to think twice.
It's interesting that the EARLY Superman often took the law into his own hands, dispensing justice while being hunted by the police, and often much more interested in cleaning up corrupt governments than stopping bank robbers. I miss him---he was a much more interesting character than he later became. Hulk's strength, Quicksilver's speed, Green Arrow's social consciousness, all rolled into one character.---Al

Posted by: Al Schroeder III | Jan 13, 2005 5:38:32 PM

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