Welcome to part four! Today we’re facing one of the most hotly contended questions for any Standard for any Canon: Where do we put our genre works? While something that meets the literary standard transcends genre, sometimes there are works of genre so resoundingly good within their own storytelling context, that while they fall short of “literature,” they achieve a crowning moment of their respective genres.
Taking genre into consideration is extremely important when we talk about comics. Genres, and their subdivisions and permutations, are endless. There’s crime, horror, fantasy, westerns, non-fiction, memoirs, science fiction, literary fiction, melodramas…I can keep going. But today, there is one dominant genre that requires our immediate attention:
You know what they are; we don’t need to parse them. Superheroes are a sub-subgenre of science-fiction and fantasy, teetering somewhere within the alternate reality/super-human/dystopian branches of the genres while simultaneously acting like a catch-all for others. They’re a strong and highly specialized component of idealized sexuality and power-fantasy within the superhero genre, one that manifests itself in constantly shifting variations throughout the decades, from the subversive content of the old horror and crime comics published by EC, to the hyper-sexualized visual representations of superheroes today.
Because superheroes are so dominant, we need to talk about three high-profile works that transcend, or pretend to transcend, the superhero genre: “Kingdom Come,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen.”
All three have their merits, but in the face of as objective a standard as we can attempt to apply, well, two of the three don’t meet it. One doesn’t even come close. And one exceeds the Standard on all three fronts.
Let’s apply the Standard to Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” first (I’ve always had a soft spot for Batman when he’s written well, even though I’m more of a Question fan myself). When I read DKR for the first time fifteen years ago, I was blown away. This was a Batman of greater thematic depth than anything I’d seen. It was a great take on Batman. One that was worthy of the widest possible audience. One that was deserving of every bit of praise it received. Then I read it again as I wrote this column, scribbling notes and asking all the questions I put forth in the first column.
We’ve got a big problem: When we apply the Standard to DKR, we end up with a great superhero comic, one that almost steps outside of its genre, but is ultimately hobbled by the weight of its own overly specialized visual stereotypes, i.e. superheroes.
There is a moral argument to DKR. It’s that a man must finish what he began. Bruce Wayne began his crusade as Batman to rid Gotham of its criminal element, and he comes out of retirement when he realizes the job isn’t done. But in the end, he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker, perhaps the greatest nemesis his career spawned, and is forced into a second retirement, where all he can do is train the future.
It’s a rather bleak interpretation, but one that is fitting with the character of Batman and embodying the theme that the eradication of crime is too big, too great, for one man to accomplish alone. And the beauty of the book is that it has everything you need to know about Batman – that he’s a superhero who dresses like a bat to avenge his parents’ murder. He has gone into retirement because a sidekick, Robin, was killed and he had trouble dealing with emotionally. He uses his considerable wealth to bankroll the rehabilitation of Two-Face, a former foe, as a way to alleviate some of that guilt. Miller does his best to get us up to date, to keep those of us without fifty years of Batman stories in out long boxes in the loop, so to speak.
But there’s a problem. In the third act of the book, around “book four,” Miller starts drawing on DC Universe characters, and he doesn’t play fair.
If a reader goes into DKR without knowing anything about Batman and the symbols that surround him, the reader will be okay. Those symbols are defined within the context of the story. But when the symbols of the DC Universe, in this case, Superman and Green Arrow, are introduced at the end, it becomes a deus ex machina. They are a poor storytelling shortcut that acts as a crutch.
This isn’t fair to any reader. To require prior knowledge of a set of symbols is asking too much. No matter how “fitting” the interpretation is, it’s the equivalent of telling a story about Miyamoto Musashi without ever explaining what a samurai is. And if you have no idea about what I’m referring to, then you’ll understand why requiring prior knowledge of anything relating to the DC Universe, outside of Batman, is inappropriate.
Why are those characters here? Because their symbols interact with the Batman symbol, but not within the story itself. They are extraneous symbols, not even characters, and they detract from the story, requiring knowledge of yet another set of symbols. These aren’t archetypes. The use of archetypes is a fair literary practice, and they are always clearly defined in works of literature that achieve that Standard in prose.
DKR falls short in the depth of character department. Too much weight is put on the symbology and the interactions of those symbols. Superman’s play-by-my-rules attitude is used as a diametrically opposing force to Batman’s ideology. It’s put forth in the climax of the story without flowing naturally from it. It all hinges on knowing who Superman is and what his symbol represents. You could argue that Superman in particular serves the story well because he is a symbol! It works in the story’s context because the Superman symbol represents the Reagan era and the climate of fear in the Cold War during the ’80s. But Superman appears as a deus ex machina. A page of narrative that has been lain over the “s” shield isn’t enough to make Superman work.
These are stereotypes, extraordinarily genre-specific stereotypes. Taking a strictly objective point of view, this immediately disqualifies it from the literary standard because there is no depth of character.
But it’s a great superhero comic. The use of the superhero symbols are handled deftly, and they interact within the expectations of those symbols. But as far as our literary standard for the Canon goes, DKR falls short.
But not in the art department.
Miller has proven himself an expert draftsman over the years, and DKR is no exception. The staccato style panels he uses to shove the narrative forward, juxtaposing images in sequences to great effect. He uses TV shaped panels for “talking head” moments, and series’ of long horizontal panels to give the action a more fluid appearance. And for the most part, he’s extremely clear about the action taking place, though the abstractions of shadows, while appropriate for the tone, do muddy the art from time to time, but not often enough to hurt the rest.
A perfect example of Miller using the medium to its potential is on page 47, when he and Harvey Dent come face to face. The first panel on the page, they are both rendered in stark black and white, setting the stage for a clear-cut difference in perspectives.
The second tier shows Harvey in close-up twice, before showing thematic images of his face fully scarred, showing how Harvey sees himself on the inside, regardless of external appearances. The third tier does the same thing, but with Batman himself, slowly meshing the black and white dichotomy of the two characters. While the pacing is identical, and Batman’s internal view of himself is that of a furious bat, it’s interesting to note that his “normal” face is that of “Batman,” not Bruce Wayne.
The final panel shows the background in solid black with the windows appear a shade of gray. Despite the over-reliance on the Batman symbols, once you know what those symbols are, you see that Miller manipulates them on this page to show how Batman is no different from the monsters he puts away.
This page alone dispels any doubt of Miller’s mastery of the form. The art meets the Standard.
Historically, “The Dark Knight Returns” is extremely important. It, along with “Watchmen,” defined the tone of comic for the next thirty years, and even up to today. For raw, all-encompassing influence, it resonates importance.
Falling short of the literary, achieving the artistic, and making a huge historical footprint on the media…it’s a tough call. I reluctantly include it in our Canon for two reasons, one the historical aspects of the book; two, the fact it is part of Frank Miller’s bibliography. He has achieved the Standard outside of the superhero genre enough that his whole body of work should be acknowledged and studied, whether or not it’s worthy of Canon, much like Will Eisner’s. But the latter is a topic for another day.
But if excessive, genre-specific symbology is a problem with DKR, then it is the anathema of “Kingdom Come.”
Chew on that till next time.
The Dark Knight Returns; Miller, Janson, Varley; DC Comics, ISBN: 0679406417
As usual, editor Paul Hanna is the man who keeps this on the straight and narrow.
Scott O. Brown is a comics writer, editor, and publisher. He lurks underground consuming toxic levels of caffeine and information. You can find him online at www.scottobrown.com.