From laughable, comic to graphic, novel


Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Back, by Alan Moore and Frank Miller

"What happened to them? Where are they? Where are our heroes?" cries Jimmy Olsen, now veteran reporter at the Daily Planet, at the start of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again. What has happened to them? All of the ones in these three books are suffering mid-life crises. Alan Moore's own creations, the ageing remnants of the vigilante group Watchmen, are combing their widow's peaks and obsessing about their parentage, their paunches, their erectile dysfunction and occasionally the odd crime or two. Meanwhile, Miller turns the golden years of the legendary Batman inside out, as all of Bruce's old certainties come crashing down and the world begins slowly, hectoringly, to reject its onetime saviour. And when the Dark Knight finally returns from a self-imposed exile, Lex Luthor and Brainiac are in charge of everything, and the Justice League are in their thrall. "We must not remind them," Superman says of mere humans, "that giants walk the earth." But what if the giants are their only hope?

The comic was arguably raised to the art form of "graphic novel" by a whole pantheon of contributors, including Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman who, with his Sandman series, showed that comics could be beautiful, have complications, contain multitudes. But Gaiman's work was still arguably a comprehensive cleaning-up of comics, rather than a stretching of the medium beyond any of its existing limits. Although Sandman was ingenious in the way it metatextualized any and every mythology you could think of, it still told remarkably straight fairy stories, however well. In the mean time, though, Moore's 1987 classic Watchmen had already pointed the graphic novel in a whole new direction: tortuous self-doubt, both within the story and the genre itself.

While others were asking whether the comic could be something so much more reputable (a question that he had already answered to himself in the affirmative) Moore instead took as his starting point: what if the world is sick of comic-book heroes? How can the comic tell the story of when the muscles start to sag, the spandex tights are no longer tight, and everyone's fed up with crypto-rightwing molly-coddlers masquerading as freedom-loving ultra-libertarians and saving the day all the damn time? Dare it even tell such a story? Boldly, Watchmen began from this premise, and blossomed miraculously in all directions.

Where one might think comics could never really take root---beyond the reach of the zap, the biff and the pow---they actually found their most fertile soil yet. When a Watchman-turned-gun-for-hire is thrown out of a tall building, the remaining (and long-since outlawed) Watchman tries to round up the team he once felt he could rely upon. But time is running out: who is pulling the strings? Who is killing the masked men? Even Doctor Manhattan---immortal, blue, freak of accident and the only genuine superhuman in the book---is powerless in the face of... something, that not even he can foresee.

This seminal work has aged reasonably well; yet it's clear that, its subtlety is a largely unsubtle subtlety. The same leitmotive are played again and again---look out for the "besmirched circle", appearing as a smiley face with a drop of blood, a goggle lens covered in dust or the sunrise through a smeared window---and the plot, while complex, has a jet-black irony at the core of it rather than any moral ambiguity. The only questions remaining are not "was such an act good or evil?" but rather "did you agree with it? did it do the global trick?": in effect, politics rather than ethics.

It took Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns to provide us with shades of grey and, with its beautiful, quiet, relatively photorealistic artwork, yield the apotheosis of the self-deconstructing comic-hero myth. This was the high water-mark, where the genre finally adopted ambiguity, irony and self-pastiche in its very core, as badges of pride, both in the legacy of material that (for better or worse) supports the modern-day comic and in the way that comics must henceforth treat their stories.

Bruce Wayne is in his fifties and effectively retired: a smart, wise, well-built middle-aged man. But the city he once protected is in slow collapse, and cries out for the Batman in high-pitched screams that only he can hear. And so he dons the cape once more, fighting all the old villains and finally putting demon after demon to rest, in one way or another. But the president---an ageing, Ronald Reagan lookalike---is wary of this old buck from Gotham, and decides to send in his most crack of troops, a somewhat older buck from Metropolis, who has made a deal with the establishment in order to keep saving lives on the quiet. Now, if only the Soviets can be prevented from launching missile attacks at the USA for long enough, then the problem of Batman can soon be dealt with.

From the very beginning of The Dark Knight Returns we are subjected to a kaleidoscope of conflicting opinions, news reports, sound bites. Is Batman fighting crime or encouraging it, as the Joker kills knowing full well that Batman is keeping a body-count? The psychological clap-trap (and its clap-trappers) who free first Two-Face and then the Joker are parodied, yes: but so, in a quiet way, is Commissioner Gordon, taking the expected lock-em-up stance of the ageing policeman. While he's eventually vindicated by both of their actions, it's not clear whether such empirical justification is sufficient moral justification. Indeed, it's never made clear. Nothing is clear in this novel, not even the art work: dusty, cloudy, semi-darkness pervades all but the brightest explosions, in a stark contrast to Watchmen's use of primary colours. Ambiguity of form and ambiguity of content have come together, and have fused into this smoky, multifaceted gem.

So it's all the more surprising that, five years on, The Dark Knight Strikes Back marks in so many ways a return to the more obvious irony of Watchmen, and the straighter storytelling of even earlier comics. Although Miller is still employing all his techniques of blending the action with (now) more modern media and sources of commentary, and there are still at least half a dozen plot lines at work, with the climactic scenes barely anticipated ten pages beforehand, this novel has all its stops pulled out, and screams along from start to finish with the reader breathlessly in tow. No time to dwell on good and evil: Batman, and a number of other superheroes including The Flash and The Atom, have only time to act.

Whereas The Dark Knight Returns portrays superheroes as more well-sculpted versions of ordinary men, in the sequel all but the heroes are portrayed as, well, sub-human, squat, comic-strip beings, with large heads and manga eyes. Outside the ranks of this novel's stars and celebrities, we are truly in The Boondocks, or even the backyard of Calvin & Hobbes. Granted, a darker, nastier version of either of those; but the nods and winks to traditional styles of drawing are implemented more often than just in passing. The untermensch matter little in this novel except as spectators and agents; the news feeds advance the plot; Superman gets the shit kicked out of him a number of times but we understand that particular emotional trick now. The Dark Knight Returns is bombastic and strong. It belongs to a new generation that has seen the lyrical, tangled work of its predecessors, and learnt from it, even if that only means learning what's been done so that it isn't repeated.

More than anything else, The Dark Knight Strikes Back shows us the resilience of the graphic novel to the fashions that beset it, however energising and ultimately healthy those trends might be. The medium has nurtured Miller's earlier style, shaped it, polished it, released it into the world... and then happily absorbed it; understood it, studied it, but ultimately moved on, returned in part to its roots but never completing the circle; rather, transcribing an awkward, ungainly helix towards somewhere entirely different and unpredictable. This is is the rollicking blockbuster sequel to the art-house classic---Miller originally called it DK2 as a pastiche of the then rash of such sequels---but with its increased musculature and an enhanced proprioception the genre can now walk tall once again, safe in the knowledge that anything the written word can do, it can do just as well. Between them, Miller and Moore have reminded us that a giant indeed walks the earth.