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“Bb… Bbbat… Batman. Darling.”

LB, in the comments section of my previous post on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, notes that Superman is a necessary figure in any potency-based reading of DKR. I think I’ve covered some of this stuff already, so I’ll be brief here. Superman is an odd fellow here—probably the strongest guy on the planet, but one of the weakest characters in the book. He’s sided with the politicians, and we’ve seen how effective they are. If Batman stands up for super-justice, Superman is all about super-politics, super-capitulation to the parents’ groups and Senate subcommittees leading the movement to outlaw superheroes, and that makes Superman so hopelessly impotent that he ends up actually helping set up two of Batman’s moments of greatest triumph. He can’t stop the Soviet missile (of course not—the missile is the ultimate sign of politics’ defeat), and so Batman gets an opportunity to extend his iron fist of justice over Gotham. Then Superman unwittingly plays a role in Bruce Wayne’s death and Batman’s apotheosis.

Jesus, you know, this book seems about the most crashingly unsubtle thing I’ve ever read. I think Dave Intermittent in a post about Frank Miller’s aesthetic techniques gets at why:

…the genius of Frank Miller is that he at once strips characters to their essence and then inflates that essence until it fills the whole world… Miller boiled Batman down to his essence; an obsessive, calculated need for violent justice. And then he took this essence and juiced it up into a narrative juggernaut.

Hmm, hmm. Well, Batman is certainly not a subtle character—well, he’s hardly a character at all by the end, more a super-symbol of justice. What about Bruce Wayne, though? I’ve hardly mentioned that name in these posts, and it’s time for him to make his appearance. I was just talking about this with Rose on AIM, and I’m just going to quote her now because she said it all so well:

Who made him a symbol of super-justice? Can he be a symbol and a man? That’s the Big Martyr question, and I think Batman’s too frightened to answer it. He’s only a symbol because he can’t deal with anything and would rather be a big batimage in the sky than be a man. Even when he upbraids Superman for basically the same thing, he’s guiltyguiltyguilty. At the end, is he being Batman on his own terms, or is he just being eaten by the symbol?

Just think of that… Bruce Wayne eaten by his own symbol! Now that’s horrific. Inevitable, really—after all, Batman’s origin lies in that day young Bruce fell into a cave and came face to face with some monster bat, “…the fiercest survivor—the purest warrior… glaring, hating… claiming me as his own” (p. 19). Throughout the story, Bruce has visions of that bat, its mouth gaping and filled with flame, ready to devour him. And here’s something really scary: turn to page 156, see the sixth panel? The Joker’s corpse, surrounded by fire, burnt to a black sillhouette, mouth gaping and filled with flame.

I think my reading here is returning to a theme that runs through a lot of the textual analysis you’ll find here on Peiratikos: “creation of self through narrative”. How’s it work? Let’s return to a quote I pulled from David Fiore’s Watchmen blogging. David said, what if a superhero’s superheroic “adventure consumed his entire life? … [Peter] Parker’s activities as Spider-Man enable him to lead a more genuine life–but those activities themselves are most emphatically not ‘life’… it’s not Peter’s ‘true self’ unleashed. And if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a ‘free spirit’, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost.” I said in my first DKR post that this is what happens to Batman, but of course I should have said that this is what happens to Bruce.

Bruce, a little boy scarred by the murders of both his parents right in front of him, invents Batman to make sense of the world: there is Justice, which is Batman, and the only crime is to be unjust. He creates Batman to make sense of the world, but of course the world doesn’t cooperate, and so Bruce/Batman finds others like him, hiding behind masks, to help him make sense of the world. Two-Face, the Joker. Mere criminals aren’t enough for Batman—a symbol of super-justice needs symbols of super-injustice. The Joker has far more insight into his and Batman’s relationship than Batman does. His vision of their relationship has poetry:

They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line up the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine—and it would never be enough. No, I don’t keep count. But you do. And I love you for it.

Batman meets his greatest defeat in DKR when he can’t bring himself to kill the Joker. After all, the Joker is Batman’s reason for existence. This is where Dr. Wolper’s psychoanalysis of Batman as a “social disease” almost gets it right, but misses the point—Harvey Dent and the Joker may well be weak-willed, but the real weakling here is Bruce Wayne.


  1. David Fiore says:

    THis is great stuff Steven–I’ve been taking Dark Knote; gonna try to read Miller over the weekend…


    — 13 February 2004 at 4:07 pm (Permalink)