Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dark Knight Revisited

The world casts a shadow in which all works of art must struggle: this is called Tradition.

But some works of art are so large they cast shadows of their own: this is Legacy.

We must never forget this when speaking about Batman. There is no character, not even Superman, who is at once so powerful yet so volatile. To discuss such a figure is to walk a tightrope. And should we stumble, dear reader, think only of the fate that awaited the Flying Graysons.

There is a chasm across the floor here in The Middle Room, and only a wire-thin Bat-line to keep us from tumbling into its depths. There is no net to catch us should we fall, and no one paid Boss Zucco a dime for protection.

In the last thirty years there have been a number of comics which have risen above the rest, which have brought on lasting discussion and contemplation, and demand the title classic. A few come to mind easily: Watchmen, Sandman, The Dark Phoenix Saga, Marvels, Kingdom Come... surely we could continue.

But of all these works and the countless others we could surely name, one stands apart. And that is The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller's dystopian story is surely in its own league, at least in terms of influence and popularity.

Not necessary in terms of quality, mind you. That isn't to say it is anything less than great, but it is far from perfect. Any facet of The Dark Knight Returns can be bested by at least one of the works listed above. While Watchmen feels like a period piece, The Dark Knight comes off as dated on inspection. Elements which once must have seemed cutting edge now feel mundane. And other elements just seem odd or clumsy.

Of course, a good comic is more than the sum of its parts. Here we were truly introduced to the idea that, should it ever come to it, Batman is a match for Superman. Denny O'Neil's version of the Caped Crusader was taken several steps further, both in what he was capable of and what he'd do to wage his war on crime. For the first time in the character's history, we understood why criminals in Gotham lived in fear.

This one book forever changed Batman. What's more, it changes him still.

And, as such, I propose that The Dark Knight Returns cannot be judged as we might judge other books. Its writing, its concepts, its art: these cannot be scrutinized to any effect. Rather, if we wish to examine this at all, we must consider its legacy. We must look to the greater tradition and see what has developed.

I reread The Dark Knight Returns about four years ago and thought it was no near as good as I remembered. I know now that it wasn't the book I found lacking, but rather its shadow. At the time Batman was being written as an angry curmudgeon, who despised criminals while holding his fellow crime-fighters in only slightly higher esteem. This character no longer felt like Batman, and there was little question as to what was being emulated. I could not ignore the character's current state as I read.

Nor should I have. But I only had to wait. Again, just this last month, I revisited The Dark Knight Returns, and found the story again enjoyable and exciting. DC Comics has, over the past few years, returned Batman to a version reminiscent of Denny O'Neil's, while leaving in touches of Frank Miller's work. Batman is still a force to truly be feared, still a man who can stand toe-to-toe with the Gods and, if necessary, against them.

In the context of this Batman, knowing that Miller's work had improved the character, I was able to look back fondly on this classic work.

But there were still reservations.

Frank Miller still has an enemy out there, a man who does not understand what was created with The Dark Knight Returns, what should be kept and what must be discarded. This is Frank Miller, himself, who continues to mock and desecrate his own work. First in The Dark Knight Strikes Again and now with All Star Batman and Robin, Miller distorts and derides his own legacy.

Yet as long as level heads prevail, as long as Batman's guardians remain truly vigilant, then the legacy of this book will endure. Even as much of Frank Miller's other work is forgotten, this may continue to stand the test of time.

But The Dark Knight Returns cannot stand on its own. Only with the larger tradition around it, can the book truly shine.

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