This morning we gave our last lecture of the semester in Writing New York. Most years we’ve taught the course, we end with Angels in America, and hence on an optimistic note (and with a blessing, to boot!). This year, with the financial crisis causing a lot of media hand-wringing about the return of the crime-ridden 70s (a scenario not everyone dreads, it should be noted), we decided to end on an urban gothic note with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
As I’ve written elsewhere, when I was a kid I was a DC kid, and given that I came of age in the mid 80s, the two biggest comics events for me were TDK and Watchmen. Of course when I first encountered them I still lived in a small town in the mountains of northern Arizona and had never been to New York, which is, perhaps fitting: New York was, in my imagination, a city ripped right out of Detective Comics. I might have imagined its geography more like this, though:
The other night I watched a movie from the same era as the Miller novel — Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys. (Schumacher would go on to make, among other things, the neo-camp be-nippled Batman movies of the mid-90s starring first Val Kilmer and then George Clooney.) It’s been quite a while since I’d seen Lost Boys — probably since I was 16 or 17. I noticed in the background of the comics shop where Corey Feldman and his brother work — their cover for their real jobs as junior vampire slayers — a Miller poster I had hanging in my bedroom and that I still have rolled up in a closet somewhere. Maybe it’s worth something; I can’t even seem to find a picture of it on google images.
When I was about that age I drove with some friends to the San Diego Comicon. (One of my friends had self-published a comic book and was looking for a distributor; didn’t pan out as planned on that occasion, but he’s since had a fair amount of success with his own publishing company and more recently sold a series of fantasy novels along with movie rights.) The highlight of the Comicon for me was a panel featuring Miller, who must have been around 30 years old at the time. He seemed to be very moody and mysterious. He signed my issues of Dark Knight Returns — this was, of course, back when it was still only available in its four original installments, not as a single volume the way it’s packaged today.
Anyhow, back then I vowed I’d someday teach both TDK and Watchmen in college classrooms. How nerdy was it that I already knew I wanted to be a professor? More nerdy than wanting to teach comic books?
Today’s lecture didn’t leave any time for discussion, which was a little anti-climactic since it was the last day of class and there’re no discussion sections this week.
The particular point I’d hoped to discuss has to do with what some critics identified as Christopher Nolan’s impulse, especially in The Dark Knight, to draw on what I take as Miller’s ambivalence toward his hero’s moral and mental outlook. Like Alan Moore in Watchmen, he seems to be asking what the world would be like if someone really dressed up in a funny costume and started to fight crime. In Miller’s world, Superman gets coopted by Reagan, much as Moore’s Dr. Manhattan becomes a tool of Nixon’s military industrial complex. Batman would seem to be an antidote to such fascist impulses, and yet it’s clear that Miller’s also grappling with the mental trauma at the heart of the Batman origin myth. Batman is damaged goods. His heroism is likewise damaged. Is it necessary? Or only necessary to him, a sort of narcissistic wound? Moreover, Miller seems to link Batman not just to traditions of urban gothic, detective fiction, and gangster noir — or to the then-recent media sensation of the Bernie Goetz case — but also to the iconography of frontier violence and vigilante violence we tend to associate with cowboy politicians like Reagan and George W. (Hence the horseback splash above?)
In Nolan’s hands, as I noted last summer, this sort of ambivalence — what does it mean to make a mentally damaged hero a figure of American justice? — led to all sorts of conflicting readings of the most recent film. Batman tortures the Joker to get information: therefore, Batman is Bush? And the Joker’s Al Qaeda? Is the movie, as the original Wall St. Journal op-ed piece that started the firestorm in the blogosphere, a conservative defense of the War on Terror? Or is Nolan exposing the evils that flow from state sanction of a “world without rules”? I suggested in class that Miller was similarly ambivalent about Batman, but that his ambivalence constitutes a critique of the Bush/Cheney War on Terror, not a rationale for it.
Am I right that in questioning Batman, Miller and Nolan are getting at something foundational about American origins in violence? Or is there a more redemptive treatment of what Miller was trying to do with the character — or the country? Or the city for that matter?