As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so years would be delighted to tell you, heroes are starting to become rather a problem. They aren't what they used to be...or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty.
The world about us has changed and is continually changing at an ever-accelerating pace. So have we. With the increase in media coverage and information technology, we see more of the world, comprehend its workings a little more clearly, and as a result our perception of ourselves and the society surrounding us has been modified. Consequently, we begin to make different demands upon the art and culture that is meant to reflect the constantly shifting landscape we find ourselves in. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations.
We demand new heroes.
The fictional heroes of the past, while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience. With the benefit of hindsight and a greater understanding of anthropoid behavior patterns, science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer was able to demonstrate quite credibly that the young Tarzan would almost certainly have indulged in sexual experimentation with chimpanzees and that he would just surely have had none of the aversion to eating human flesh that Edgar Rice Burroughs attributed to him. As our political and social consciousness continues to evolve, Alan Quartermain stands revealed as just another white imperialist out to exploit the natives and we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women. Whether most of us would prefer to enjoy the above-mentioned gentlemen's adventures without spoiling things by considering the social implications is beside the point. The fact remains that we have changed, along with our society, and that were such characters created today they would be subject to the most extreme suspicion and criticism.
So, unless we are to somehow do without heroes altogether, how are the creators of fiction to go about redefining their legends to suit the contemporary climate?
The fields of cinema and literature have to some extent been able to tackle the problem in a mature and intelligent fashion, perhaps by virtue of having a mature and intelligent audience capable of appreciating and supporting such a response. The field of comic books, seen since its inception as a juvenile medium in which any interjection of adult themes and subject matter are likely to be met with howls of outrage and the threat or actuality of censorship, has not been so fortunate. Whereas in novels and movies we have been presented with such concepts as the anti-hero or the classical hero reinterpreted in a contemporary manner, comic books have largely had to plod along with the same old muscle-bound oafs spouting the same old muscle-bound platitudes while attempting to dismember each other. As the naiveté of the characters and the absurdity of their situations become increasingly embarrassing and anachronistic to modern eyes, so does the problem become more compounded and intractable. Left floundering in the wake of other media, how are comic books to reinterpret their traditional icons so as to interest an audience growing progressively further away from them? Obviously, the problem becomes one that can only be solved by people who understand the dilemma and, further to that, have an equal understanding of heroes and what makes them tick.
Which brings me to Frank Miller, and to Dark Knight.
In deciding to apply his style and sensibilities to The Batman, Frank Miller has come up with a solution to the difficulties outlined above that is as impressive and elegant as any that I've seen. More strikingly still, he has managed to do it while handling a character who, in the view of the wider public that exists beyond the relatively tiny confines of the comic audience, sums up more than any other the essential silliness of the comic book hero. Whatever changes may have been wrought in the comics themselves, the image of Batman most permanently fixed in the mind of the general populace is that of Adam West delivering outrageously straight-faced camp dialogue while walking up a wall thanks to the benefit of stupendous special effects and a camera turned on its side. To lend such a subject credibility in the eyes of an audience not necessarily enamored of super-heroes and their trappings is no inconsiderable feat, and it would perhaps be appropriate to look a little more closely here at what exactly it is that Miller has done. (I hope Frank will forgive me for calling him 'Miller'. It seems a little brusque and rude and I would certainly never do it to his face, but somehow it's just the sort of thing you call people you know quite well when writing introductions for their books.)
He has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character's mythology. Yes, Bat-man is still Bruce Wayne, Alfred is still his butler and Commissioner Gordon is still chief of police, albeit just barely. There is still a young sidekick named Robin, along with a batmobile, a batcave and a utility belt. The Joker, Two-Face, and the Catwoman are still in evidence amongst the roster of villains. Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different.
Gotham City, a place which during the comic stories of the forties and fifties seemed to be an extended urban playground stuffed with giant typewriters and other gargantuan props, becomes something much grimmer in Miller's hands. A dark and unfriendly city in decay, populated by rabid and sociopathic streetgangs, it comes to resemble more closely the urban masses which may very well exist in our own uncomfortably near future. The Bat-man himself, taking account of our current perception of vigilantes as a social force in the wake of Bernie Goetz, is seen as a near-fascist and a dangerous fanatic by the media while concerned psychiatrists plead for the release of a homicidal Joker upon strictly humanitarian grounds. The values of the world we see are no longer defined in the clear, bright, primary colors of the conventional comic book but in the more subtle and ambiguous tones supplied by Lynn Varley's gorgeous palette and sublime sensibilities.
The most immediate and overpowering difference is obviously in the portrayal both of The Batman and of Bruce Wayne, the man beneath the mask. Depicted over the years as, alternately, a concerned do-gooder and a revenge-driven psychopath, the character as presented here manages to bridge both of those interpretations quite easily while integrating them in a much larger and more persuasively realized personality. Every subtlety of expression, every nuance of body language, serves to demonstrate that this Batman has finally become what he should always have been: He is a legend.
The importance of myth and legend as a subtext to Dark Knight can't really be over-stated, shining as it does from every page. The familiar Batman origin sequence with the tiny bat fluttering in through an open window to inspire a musing Bruce Wayne becomes something far more religious and apocalyptic under Miller's handling; the bat itself transformed into a gigantic and ominous chimera straight out of the darkest European fables. The later scenes of The Batman on horseback, evoking everything from the chivalry of the Round Table to the arrival in town of Clint Eastwood, serve to further demonstrate this mythical quality, as does Miller's startling portrayal of Barman's old acquaintance Superman: The Superman we see here is an earthbound god whose presence is announced only by the wind of his passing or the destruction left in his wake. At the same time, his doubtful position as an agent of the United States Government manages to treat an incredible situation realistically and to seamlessly wed the stuff of legend to the stuff of twentieth century reality.
Beyond the imagery, themes, and essential romance of Dark Knight, Miller has also managed to shape The Batman into a true legend by introducing that element without which all true legends are incomplete and yet which for some reason hardly seems to exist in the world depicted in the average comic book, and that element is time.
All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarek, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo. In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years' time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in the perpetual limbo of their mid-to-late twenties, and the presence of death in their world is at best a temporary and reversible phenomenon.
With Dark Knight, time has come to the Batman and the capstone that makes legends what they are has finally been fitted. In his engrossing story of a great man's final and greatest battle, Miller has managed to create something radiant which should hopefully illuminate things for the rest of the comic book field, casting a new light upon the problems which face all of us working within the industry and perhaps even guiding us towards some fresh solutions. For those of you who've already eagerly consumed Dark Knight in its softcover version, rest assured that in your hands you hold one of the few genuine comic book landmarks worthy of a lavish and more durable presentation. For the rest of you, who are about to enter entirely new territory, I can only express my extreme envy. You are about to encounter a new level of comic book storytelling. A new world with new pleasures and new pains.
A new hero.
- The Mark of Batman, introduction to The Dark Knight Returns