Saturday, January 16, 2010

Comics: The Dark Knight Returns (***/****)

Title: The Dark Knight Returns
Writer/Penciller: Frank Miller
Inker: Klaus Janson
Colorist: Lynn Varley
Letterist: John Constanza
Editors: Dick Giordano, Dennis O'Neil

The real title of this post should be something more like, "My god, I don't want to punch Frank Miller in the throat!"

This came as a real surprise to me, but then again The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986, early on in his career and long before Sin City or The Spirit or, ugh, Daddy's Little Girl. For my feelings on those subjects, please refer to this Shortpacked! strip. Miller never met a fictional woman that he didn't want to turn into a whore and/or kill; witness Batman: Year One, published just a year after TDKR, in which he retcons Selina Kyle's origins from fierce cat burglar to a dominatrix/prostitute. (And let's not even discuss his retconning of the entire Spartan society to a bunch of hetero manly men who use the term "boy-lover" in scorn. Frank, I know some ancient Greek urns you should have a look at.)

But I digress.

Catwoman makes a brief appearance in TDKR as, of course, the boozy madame of an escort service. Yet that was one of the only plot points that got my hackles up. Yes, Batman was presented as a scary psychopath, but hell, everyone in the comic is a little bit crazy. Miller does not have an optimistic view of humanity, an opinion that hovers one skip and a jump away from outright fascism. The denizens of Gotham are presented as mindless and panicky animals who riot the second the lights go out, and are only brought to heel by having a gun pointed at them (by Jim Gordon) or having their femurs broken (by Batman). It must be said that Miller seems at least partially aware of his fascist tendencies, as he has minor characters point them out in Batman. Still, Miller's recent statements about 9/11 and the Iraq war seem to indicate that he's abandoned any hesitancy he had about the right-wing agenda.

While the comic's drawbacks lie in ideology, its strengths are mostly technical. The artwork is fantastic, if jam-packed: every inch of every page is filled with panels, sometimes up to 20 panels per page. It was a jolt when I first started reading, yet once I got used to it I didn't have any problems keeping the action straight, and boy howdy did that make the action fly.

And then there's Carrie fucking Kelley. I love Carrie Kelley, though I worry for her long-term chances with someone as twisted up inside as Bruce Wayne. But I give Miller props for creating a female character as independent and resourceful as Carrie: the 13-year-old progeny of neglectful drug addicts ("Hey...didn't we have a kid?"), she takes up the mask of Robin after seeing Batman in action. It's clearly a quest for purpose, and on the way she saves Batman's ass more than once. I love their relationship, in which Batman punctuates his stern lectures with "Careful..." and "Watch out..." as they hop between skyscrapers. There was a moment in The Dark Knight Triumphant when wee little Carrie embraces a totally-naked Bruce, and I raised a warning fist at Frank Miller; but he didn't Go There, thank god.

There's another moment later, in Hunt the Dark Knight, where Carrie almost falls to her death and barely manages to catch Bruce's cape. He reels her in and murmurs "Good soldier. Good soldier." as she grips onto him high above the city. Fucking awesome character.

Another pleasant surprise to me was Ellen Yindel, the police commissioner who takes over after Jim Gordon retires. Determined to catch Batman, she comes pretty damn close. She's an antagonist, but a principled one, and never comes off as a villain.

On the whole, an impressively non-infuriating reading experience. Well done, Frank. Your throat shall go unpunched today.

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