Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Dark Knights Returns

Over the past ten to twelve years, comic books have been increasingly accepted as legitimate forms a reading material for adults. This shift in acceptance can be directly traced back to the advent of the graphic novel. The graphic novel is a collection of a comic book series, bound together in a trade paperback form, and re-released as a complete story. This format accomplishes three things; one, the reader can read the story in its entirety without having to wait month to month for single issues; two, it reduces the cost of the story by 15-20%; three, it gives the artists and the writer the forum to take greater creative risks than in traditional comic books. It was this third thing that helped Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (TDNR) revolutionize the possibilities of the comic book form. Originally created by Bob Kane, Frank Miller took the Batman mythos in a bold new direction.

First and foremost, TDNR made a bold statement that comics weren’t just for kids anymore. The story, about a retired Batman and the murderous events that force him back to active duty, had never been seen before. It wasn’t that there weren’t any mature comic stories written before this time, but TDNR presented Batman through a psychological lens, thusly rendering Batman, and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, as three-dimensional characters. Throughout the course of the graphic novel, we are given intense views into Batman’s psyche. We discover that he considers Bruce Wayne his alter ego, and Batman his true self; Wayne being the mask that Batman has to wear in order for him to effectively wage his one-man war against crime. Age is also something that Batman has to consider. Once the perfect human specimen, he is now in his sixties and isn’t nearly as athletic as he was in his youth. But instead of letting the soreness of his body and the stiffness of his joints slow him down; Batman changes tactics.

Where once he would fight his enemies head-on, throwing caution to the wind, trusting—and reveling—in his physical prowess: Batman became a whole lot more sneaky. And on top of his sneakiness, Batman became vicious. Before explaining this, a brief intro to Batman’s origins is necessary.Bruce Wayne becomes Batman when he is witness to the murder of his parents by a low-level thug named Joe Chill. They were coming from a showing of a Zorro film, when Joe stepped from the shadows, gun in hand, and demanded Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace. Dr. Thomas Wayne, one of Gotham City’s most respected and wealthiest citizens, intervened and he and his wife were subsequently gunned down for his heroic attempt at protecting his family. This tragedy forced the young Bruce Wayne to grow up quickly.Using the old money fortune of his forefathers, Bruce traveled the world training under the best detectives, martial artists and crime-fighters of his day. After several aborted attempts at vigilantism, Wayne had not yet found his crime-fighting stride. While sitting in the study of Wayne Manor, a bat crashes through the window, interrupting Wayne’s thoughts. “That’s it,” He exclaims. “I’ll become a bat. Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot.” And Batman Was born.

Bruce had finally found the guise in which to hunt criminals. While he wasn’t above pummeling the hoods he came in contact with, in TDNR Batman crossed a line that he had vowed never to cross: he took a life. And the life that he took was his arch-nemesis: the Joker.The Joker was an unpredictable, maniacal villain that killed, raped, maimed and kidnapped just to get Batman’s attention. Pre-TDKR, the Joker was Batman’s opposite number. A villain worth of the Dark Knight Detective’s attentions. In TDKR, it is implied that there is a homoerotic, unrequited longing on behalf of the Joker. This tidbit caused such a stir in the comic book community that there were several news programs, including Sixty Minutes, that commented on it. That’s how much of an impact this work had on the culture-at-large. To say any more about the TDKR would ruin the pleasure of reading on of the best comics stories ever told.I choose to present this because The Dark Knight Returns was ground zero for the legitimization of the comic book form for adults. It was the harbinger that signaled the change from the four-color, pop art of the past, to the gritty, iconoclastic, adult-themed work of the present. Everything from the Matrix and Batman films and cartoons, to other comics work; such as Alan Moore’s superb Watchmen graphic novel, can trace their roots directly to The Dark Knight Returns.On a personal note, TDNR taught me how to tell an effective story. Through pacing, seemingly contradictory story elements and deconstructing the popular, TDKR was one of the doorways through which I could approach the grittier side of my storytelling and my performance. Even if you are not a comic fan; or have just a passing knowledge of the Batman mythos, I encourage you to read this book. Taken into context, it is one of the most revolutionary pieces of popular culture in history.

--Shawn Taylor


Post a Comment

<< Home