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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Life and Times of Batman according to Frank Miller - The Later Years

Kyle cracks open the later years of Frank Miller's Batman, The Dark Knight Returns and its sequel

This week, I continue my look into Frank Miller's radical evolution of Batman through not only his seminal works (The Dark Knight Returns and Year One), but also his divisive entries into the canon (All Star Batman and Robin and The Dark Knight Strikes Again), not from a critical perspective, but from the analytical viewpoint of: can these works be unified into a cohesive whole, forming a narrative backbone for Miller's version of the character? Earlier, we looked at the beginning years of Miller's Batman, experiencing his rookie year, working to disrupt the corruption in the Gotham PD, becoming a pain in the side of the newly forming Justice League, and slowly devolving into an anti-hero due to his on-going nighttime activities.

Yet, it took the introduction of the young Dick Grayson into his life for Bruce to understand that he must instead stop being "The Batman (or The Goddamn Batman, if you will)" and embrace the idea of becoming an adoptive father for a grieving boy, a reflection of what he once was, with the grief that he denied himself outwardly. Instead, by the end of All Star Batman & Robin, we were headed towards "The Caped Crusader" who is a part of the "Dynamic Duo" and a fully fledged member of the Justice League, rather than an antagonizing force.

When we return, it's fifteen years later... what the hell happened?

Bruce Wayne is a recluse, more or less, mustachioed and has a heavy drinking problem. He's also gained a fairly significant amount of weight and near suicidal attitude. The opening scene of The Dark Knight Returns features Bruce in a high speed, Formula-One race that risks his life and his opening statement "This would be a good death, but not good enough". Bruce clearly is ready to join his parents in the afterlife.

How can a man, who was at peak physical condition over a decade previously and was at near manic states of glee with the life he was living, so easily slip into hulking brutishness and despondence?

To fill in the gaps, we have to put varying pieces together between ASBAR and TDKR.

Regarding Bruce, we know that at some point he and Dick's relationship disintegrated, though we're unsure why that is. The running line on this is that he was "fired for gross incompetence". Miller doesn't dwell on what that could be, but we have to assume that this language is a fairly shaded version of the truth from Bruce's perspective. Most likely what occurred was, Bruce fired Dick for some mistake that may have occurred during his teenage years. In the mainstream Batman mythos, Dick leaves Bruce because he wants to strike out on his own and basically no longer be under the shadow of the man he's become so intrinsically associated with. Miller's Bruce is a much more broken individual, and one could imagine that once Dick stopped being the child that Bruce could care for as a father and instead, the somewhat more carefree "laughing daredevil" teenage Robin, his tolerance level would evaporate. It's even possible that Bruce might have seen Dick as a competitor for the notoriety he was beginning to enjoy as The Batman, once Dick entered these prime physical years. Regardless, Dick is gone, and headed to a dark place. Namely becoming a genetically engineered tool for the Government to eliminate super-humans.

Bruce, at some point, hired Jason Todd to replace Dick, probably around the same age or just a tad bit older; in keeping with the theory that Bruce wanted to keep the father-son relationship in his war on crime alive, as well as whatever appeal that chemistry might have held for him psychologically. Bruce himself was likely addicted to the idea of someone needing him, particularly a troubled, young man that he could continue to fill that gap of a childhood that he felt was ripped away from him. This ended in Jason's death, possibly at the hands of The Joker, and was the catalyst that brought the reality of what Bruce was actually doing to the fore: risking the lives of innocent people. He had to stop, and so he did, altogether. This is ten years before his eventual return.

Sometime in the midst of all of these personal happenings for Bruce, he teamed up with the Justice League and formed a relationship with Green Lantern that is somewhat akin to how "mainstream" Batman and Superman have developed a bond. Apparently, Hal Jordan is able to forgive and forget the near fatal abuse he suffered at the hands of Batman and Robin in the past. On that subject, another event leads to the dissolution of the Justice League after Batman's retirement. While Miller's text seems to indicate the involvement of "political correctness groups", this should probably be read as Federal Governmental enforcement and oversight. The most telling sign of this action is due to how quickly the President and Superman enter into friendship and partnership with one another post JL break-up. Superman had already shown the signs of wanting to work with the Government in ASBAR, and as that relationship grew, any distrust of the actions of the Justice League would likely have led to a Superman-endorsed dissolvement. With no Batman around, only Wonder Woman would have been strong enough to counteract any decision he made and due to their romantic entanglement (and their eventual child), this did not occur. Green Lantern takes to space and establishes a life amongst the stars. The Flash, Plastic Man, Hawkman and The Atom aren't as lucky, each falling victim to some form of imprisonment, servitude or execution by the Authorities. Captain Marvel is the only other hero to continue on in some capacity. Green Arrow and The Question are on the outskirts, somewhere, though Oliver Queen has kept in touch with Bruce as we learn.

The other pressing detail of note is just how much Gotham has altered in Batman's absence. Gone is the pseudo 70's Scorsese-esque decor that marked the city within Year One, and the somewhat nouveau-40's sheen that was beginning to mark the city during the All Star era (though with its own fair share of the grittiness of the earlier year or so). Without a Batman, without a Justice League, without superheroes on a regular basis, Gotham has become a sort of dystopic, almost cyber-punk (without the cyber) 80's style nightmare. Violent crime continues to rise, but the colorful costumed bad guys are no more. Instead, they're replaced with a angry youth movement called The Mutants. An overbearing government, with a suddenly all-pervasive new media-cycle, as we come to see within just the opening pages of TDKR, is the perfect melting pot for a ugly revolt amongst some of its more impressionable and radical citizenry. With no role model to strive for, these militant teenagers turn to a cannibalistic psychopath, setting the status quo we see at the story's beginning.

There's likely something to be said for the state The Joker finds himself in as well, given the important role he plays in the story, but unfortunately as stated in the previous article, Miller's incomplete narrative fails to give us enough to work with regarding the earlier years of The Joker to understand what exactly his relationship with Batman could be in this context. In its release year, readers were able to presuppose that this was the Joker of the your standard Denny O'Neil Batman comic that had fallen into a comatose state due to Batman's disappearance. Looking at it from this particular lens though, we can only again assume what may have occurred in the fifteen year long gap that comes between his two bookended appearances in this particular narrative. The Joker still has the same symbiotic relationship with Batman, and killed Batman's former partner, taking their game of cat and mouse too far, despite that we know The Joker himself is a ruthless killer. Because of Joker's actions, Batman removes his playing piece from the table, and Joker has no one to play with anymore. He remains in this state for ten years.

The Dark Knight Returns - "The rain on my chest is a baptism - I'm born again."

There's much that could be said about the plot beats about The Dark Knight Returns, but they've basically already all been parlayed for decades upon decades. So instead of re-stating the obvious about this landmark of the comic form, I'll focus in on just a few aspects that are relevant to the picture we're forming of Bruce.

When Bruce is first reintroduced to readers, he's basically reverted back to what he once was in Year One, the parallels are very clear. Instead of being a young, suicidal man seeking answers for the life that was robbed from him, he's an old, burly individual that has returned to the directionless risk that marked his earlier years. The common denominator is, he is not wearing the mask of the Batman, and without it, this version of Bruce Wayne is a void. Devoid of purpose, devoid of direction, other than whatever is at the bottom of a whiskey glass. His dynamic with Jim Gordon has altered as well, particularly enough for Jim to be let in on Bruce's past identity under the cape and cowl. Gordon's role in TDKR is more pronounced here than in ASBAR, but his role is basically that of the old guard in Gotham giving way to the new, and a sign that the corruption that was present when he came to the city in Year One goes far, far deeper than we could have imagined.

Gordon's changing role is also reflected in the amount of time he's spends as a focal point in the story. In my previous entry, I noted that he was the co-star of Year One, splitting time more or less evenly with the young Bruce Wayne. In ASBAR, he's reduced to a glorified cameo role, a part of a large cast that's begun to spring up around Bruce's "entering his prime" Batman. In TDKR, he is one of two key supporting players in the story's first two (of four) chapters, but in the latter two, his role is replaced effectively by a returning Superman. By The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he makes a brief appearance as a part of the now almost revolutionary style media, advertising a book he's written entitled "Triumph of the Pygmies: Why We Killed Bruce Wayne". We never hear anymore from him or anything related to the book he published. As his role in Batman's life is completely redundant based on what Bruce eventually becomes.

Circling back to our centerpiece, in TDKR, Bruce experiences the crime that has grown around him first hand when attacked by members of the Mutant Gang. Suddenly, the part of him that he's pushed aside of so long begins to awaken, leading to a full rebirth by the same window that the titular bat flew through that caused him to choose his namesake in the first place. Bruce redons his alter-ego, in the very same costume that he must have retired from: the blue and grey outfit Neal Adams style outfit with the yellow Bat-oval. Bruce has not yet become the figure he was destined to be, but he's almost there. And for a pretty big guy, he's still a rather fast and terrifying figure.

During the course of the story, we meet Carrie Kelly, who Bruce will recruit as the next soldier in his personal war. He failed with Dick and Jason, albeit for very different reasons, just why does he think Carrie will work? For one, it may be because she came to him rather than he did any pursuing of her. He also was quick to hold her at a distance. Bruce is very cautious, given what happened with Jason and any resentment he still holds for Dick, so he threatens Carrie with termination from the job of his sidekick at any possible slip-up or failure to follow command. There may very well be a different dynamic in that she's a female and that Bruce is a different man than the wild, young animal that was Batman during the days of recruiting and training Dick. Bruce is much more comforting of Carrie, cradling her and calling her a "good soldier" when she's in potential harm. This isn't just Bruce trying to cover his own ass, this is Bruce trying to re-embrace the concept of family, but in a different way. This time with an adoptive daughter, in the hope that this will stick and succeed where his past efforts did not.

Deeper into the tale, after Bruce faces down with the Mutant Gang Leader, and almost is killed in the process (a point where his age finally becomes a factor), he knows he has to evolve in order to defeat this younger, fiercer type of foe. Bruce drops all regard for what he once was, casting aside his blue and grey ovaled uniform and adopts the shaded grey outfit of "The Dark Knight". From that point, he is reborn, and a new kind of crime fighter, tougher and with the ability to do the things he never would have in the past, such as allowing The Joker to kill himself when the time calls for it and actively fight back against the government when he's considered a fugitive against their anti-vigilante mandates. The most important part to note about Bruce's journey at this point is the sheer scaling-up of the stakes that occur. TDKR begins with Bruce parlaying a standard "coming back out of retirement" tale, but then builds into the city-wide chaos of The Joker's final attack on the city, and the utter "Ragnarok" of the now legendary to comic canon Batman vs. Superman battle. Bruce quickly becomes more than he ever imagined, with a legion of followers (the former Mutants abandoning their former ideals under the banner of the "Sons of the Bat"). Nothing can stop him, not the Gotham police force, not the Federal Authorities, and not the Government serving Superman. His age no longer matters, he is a symbol, as immortal as they come.

After his battle with Superman, he realizes who the true enemy is and fakes his death. His followers know the truth, as they train underground, readying for a true revolution that will find its apex in TDKSA. But the biggest change in Bruce are his final words that close our TDKR: "This will be a good life. Good Enough".

The Dark Knight Strikes Again - "Striking Terror. Best part of the job."

It's telling just how much younger Bruce appears in TDKSA, while much of that may be a consequence of Miller's art, I would argue that its a part of the continuing theme of just how much the role of Batman shapes him and suitably makes him younger. Bruce's life is that of peaks and valleys, with said peaks occurring when he's donning the cape and cowl. As a father figure to all of the Sons of the Bat and Carrie Kelly, formerly Robin, now grown into the role of Catgirl (which has some questionable connotations given Bruce's past relationship with Selina Kyle), suddenly Bruce has found the positive family dynamic that he hasn't had since his parents were taken away from him. The right answer wasn't just one son, one daughter, or one solider, instead he needed an army that the Sons of the Bat provided. His growing youth appears ever more obvious when he unmasks as well, with a seemingly shaved head and slimmer appearance, you'd be forgiven if you thought you were looking at a man in his forties, not his sixties.

In TDKSA, Bruce finds himself reuniting with his former Justice League colleagues in an attempt to overthrow the tyrannical government that we learn has secretly been controlled by Lex Luthor and Brainiac all along. We must assume that this take-over must have occurred at some point during, and been the driving factor behind, Superman coming under The President's bootheel. At this point, Luthor and Brainiac no longer even hide behind the idea that the President needs to be a physical figure that anyone sees. Instead he's a computer generated PR machine acting as one more talking-head in an utter litany of them that now prevail over the media. The news coverage now active in Gotham, and across the country, by the time of TDKSA, is like an internet by way of cocaine induced version of what we witnessed in the previous tale, even to the point where we have Anime news-casters and Alfred E Newmann hosting his own show.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are utterly broken, and what they hold dear is under threat by Luthor and Brainiac, be it Kandor, Paradise Island or the Marvel family. Thus their inability to fight back against this regime. But Bruce continues to be the thorn in their side, and even when Superman is sent to solidly destroy the planned uprising of Bruce's followers when he finally resurfaces, Bruce and his team are able to take Superman down without breaking a sweat. All of the struggle of the previous volume between Bruce and Kal that basically took up an entire book of TDKR, is reduced to just a few page sequences in TDKSA. Bruce is nigh invulnerable. Sure, he eventually gets captured by the two bad guys, but that's just a minor inconvenience.

So in desperation, Luthor and Brainiac attempt to remind Bruce of his great failure in one last "hail mary" style tactic to break him down. As mentioned above, Dick at some point during the time last time Bruce saw him (and perhaps even earlier) turned to the government and was recruited as an anti-superhuman assassin. The scientists working for Luthor and Brainiac gave him some form of shape changing abilities, and likely altered his mind to a point where he believed he was the new Joker. Instead of embracing the destiny his mainstream counterpart eventually took on (the mantle of the Bat as Bruce's successor), this rejected version took on the visage of Bruce's greatest foe and the source of his deepest pain. As a way to try and defeat the man part of Batman, it makes a good deal of sense. Dick also steals the costumes of heroes that he kills along the way and wears them, perhaps mocking his "would have been" destiny. But what Luthor and Brainiac don't realize is that this part of Bruce doesn't matter anymore, he no longer holds attachment to the past. The closing lines of this Dark Knight sequel are very clear when Bruce says: "I was sentimental...when I was old". This has a double-meaning in that Bruce has found a new metaphorical "fountain of youth" in his role as a revolutionary figure and as The Dark Knight (as opposed to The Caped Crusader) and that he's moved on mentally for the trappings that marked his time at The Batman, such as when he kills Dick by throwing him into a volcano/crevasse filled with lava that also swallows up all of the trophies that littered the Batcave. None of this matters anymore, the mission is all that takes precedence. He even mocks his old inspiration, in a sense, when he cuts a Zorro-styled "Z" on Luthor's face earlier in the story.

There are other plot developments that build Miller's universe, such as the appearance of Supergirl, newly revealed and working side by side with her father to finally break him free of his government imposed shackles. Additionally, we see the return of Green Lantern, who plays a key role in in saving the earth and finally lives up to the potential that Bruce criticized him for in ASBAR. But the key prime mover here in Bruce, his recruits are what put everything into motion. His Sons of the Bat and Catgirl are the ground forces, the son of Hawkman kills Luthor, and Green Lantern is only back because Bruce asked him to; wrapping a giant revolutionary fist around Earth to disrupt/destroy Luthor's satellites and utilizing a much larger version of the weapon that Bruce used to defeat Superman at the tale's beginning (giant green fists). Our Dark Knight has a plan and executes it to perfection, finally disrupting the biggest source of corruption that permeated not only Gotham, but the entire world. Bruce has accomplished, in a very over the top fashion, his mission as layed out in Year One. The only question becomes, what does he do now? Miller's story closes here, but Paul Pope may very well have picked up some of these story threads in his Batman: Year 100, fully bringing to life the Miller-esque youth formula that the Batman persona gives to Bruce Wayne and combining the concepts of TDKSA and Year One, bring Bruce back to being a ground level crime fighter while being the thorn in the side of an overly oppressive police state. But, this is a story for another day.

In all, do the four key Miller Batman stories form a coherent narrative? For the most part, I'd argue yes. Year One, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Strikes Again all work together well. The gaps are easy enough to fill with just a little bit of context clues and imagination. All Star Batman & Robin is a little more problematic in its unfinished nature. It serves its role well enough in the key information it provides about the Bruce and Dick relationship and the background that Bruce has with the other members of the Justice League, but the missing Joker plot beats and any further info on Jim Gordon (which was seemingly coming) does make the entire affair feel more like a tertiary work, though the Bruce and Dick material lends it a power that's difficult to ignore given the argument Miller seems to be making. ASBAR also utilizes modern day technology, such as cell phones with texting, TDKR is definitely set in the tech of the 1980's, with Bruce's open surprise that Carrie knows how to utilize a computer. It's a stretch, but we could blame that on the budding oppressive regime if need-be, or disintegrating economics that would come with a dystopian future. Continuity nit-picks aside, Miller's Batman is a stunning statement on the evolution of Bruce's mental state and Batman as a symbol, with its latter chapters particularly showcasing the kind of character changing guts that you don't often see in corporate owned IP. From "The Batman" to the "The Dynamic Duo" to "The Dark Knight", Miller built a better Batman, that may finally been able to put his mission to rest and find solace in a new kind of family.

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