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Breaking the Frame: Political Acts of Body in the Televised Dark Knight

By DT Kofoed

Comics as a generic medium is implicitly defined by the dual boundaries of panel and page. The implications of transgressing these constraints are doubly encoded according to the conventions of both graphic representation and narrative significance. Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s 1986 series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is politicized according to its trans-conventional breakages of both categories of containment. The violation of a strict paneling authority by the bodily action of the superhero mirrors the narrative emphasis on the physicality of the body, as the deconstructive narrative presents a correlative spectacle of mortality in its middle-aged protagonist. On a higher order of structure, the page itself becomes transient when the creation of panels as television screens broaches an interpellative gaze towards the position of the reader, an inescapable assertion of ideology which by its prevalence affirms the monolithic power of a contemporary, politicized media over the entire narrative. Just as the page grid posits a conservative social field in replication of a Cold War ideological parody, Batman’s radical bodily violation of any graphic containment is reflective of his position in the political realm of the narrative and is itself an act of political significance. This concentrated movement against conventional generic constraints simultaneously draws in the reader and excludes the sympathetic protagonist – effected through a systematic management over the formal principles of the comics page – positing the reader in a position analogous to that of Superman, who is at once both wholly subsumed into and continually superior to his position within the Reaganomic ideological superstructure of the comic. Batman and Superman ultimately assume representation of a dialectical struggle that fails to reach synthesis as it fails to accurately encompass their characters, reconciled imperfectly within the mind of the interpellated reader who cannot read this final confrontation outside of a reference to the narrative’s apparent dialectical formulation (see plot synopsis in Notes). Ultimately, Batman’s characteristic violations of the paneling authority are constitutive of his political threat to the prevailing political order whose base expression is the television panel.

While considerations of panel structure and page layout are central to any analysis of a comic, the definitional characteristic of these structures for the comics page allows traditionally narrative considerations to occupy the foreground of reading. Accordingly, in The Dark Knight Returns, it is the radical conception and depiction of the iconic body that demands attention, an emphasis on the physicality of realism that drives the deconstructive process of the narrative. Foremost, Frank Miller has fundamentally broken with the iterative tradition of the superhero genre, recognized by Umberto Eco in his 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman,” allowing narrative time to progress such that the actions of Batman are able to “consume” his self in an unimpeded temporal movement towards inevitable death (113-4). Bruce Wayne fixates on death both in retirement, labeling himself “a zombie … a dead man, ten years dead” (Miller et al., 12, ellipses in original), and as Batman, a “senile … doddering … helpless[…] old man” (158, ellipsis added). The complementary visual characteristics of the protagonist are as striking as the narrative, especially in comparison to contemporary depictions of Batman (see Figure 1). The muscular definition of youth has yielded to mere bulk, especially pronounced in the thighs and chest, while Miller illustrates the effect of weight in his figure through a consistent depiction of the hero in descending arc motions. These exaggerated proportions are evident in comparison to Carrie as Robin, whose shoulder width is roughly equivalent to Batman’s waist and who stands at half his height. The realism of Batman’s physical limitations in his return to action, as a man “old enough to need my legs to climb a rope” (37), combined with the markedly aged character design, is central to the text’s periodizing function as a modernist deconstruction and re-evaluation of the icon fantasy embodied in the figure of the superhero. Batman’s physical body thus presented must be contextualized according to its graphic placement within the comics page space, the structure of individual panels, in order to eventually isolate the political significations of its actions.

Figure 1: Aged character design in The Dark Knight Returns, 142. Conventional Batman, circa 1988, from A Death in the Family ch 5.

In the absence of double-page layouts, the page becomes the principle unit of narrative containment in The Dark Knight Returns, within which confines the individual panels function as constituent elements, “interdependent fragments of a global form,” by which the page assumes a performative equivalence to the panel – a multiframe in the semiologic terminology of Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (30). The governing characteristics of narrative significance in the multiframe are established within the first two pages of Dark Knight, beginning most obviously with the uniform, sixteen-panel orthogonal grid (Miller et al., 10-11; see Figure 2). The very regularity of the grid as a narrative status quo, given its primacy in introducing the comic, is central to the perception of its eventual violation as mark of the exceptional. This tight visual control is semantically ruptured by the vast cityscape extending across the second page, an architectural and scenic description typically ill-suited to the complete, close confinement of the bordered panel. Yet even in this apparent violation of an otherwise authoritarian layout, the grid persists. First, larger panels such as this are in every case composite additions of grid-panel units, augmented here by a slight background extension employed for the illusion of an expansion – while this interior expansiveness plays at but does not undermine the griding, the simultaneous off-page bleed creates an image whose very unboundedness undermines the perception of the page as an effective representational ground by unequivocally defining the exact limits of its discursive containment: the hyperframe margins of the physical page (Groensteen 30). Absent backgrounds or borders are elsewhere given to a similar, if localized, effect. Second, the inclusion of inset panels assert the formal grid as interior frames to the base panel, which affirmation of the larger multiframe structure emphasizes what Groensteen considers the “dialogic interaction” of articulating the inset through a spatial referentiality (86). The simultaneity of the individual panel’s presentation in a sequence always-already viewed in the act of reading provides an interplay of similarity Groensteen describes as the braiding of an associative network between and of images across panels and pages (156-8). This is illustrated in purest form within The Dark Knight by the discrete images in Bruce Wayne’s memory of his parent’s murder, whose increasingly significant graphic repetition unifies a forty year chronological gap into a single narrative moment, which sequence also contains the uncommon subdivision of the grid panel as technique to depict a character’s divided focus (Miller et al., 22-4). While not pretending to address all the narrative elements of Miller’s layouts, I have thus far neglected the omnipresent television screen as panel frame, an unusual grid unit that begs further elaboration of its unique functions.

Figure 2: First pages of The Dark Knight Returns, establishing the grid layout, 10-1.

The television as panel is both a singularly distinct visual device and multiply complicit as a bearer of narrative significance. The dichotomy between image and text inherent to the comics medium is augmented through the universal dislocation of the televised voice to the upper half of the grid-unit, disembodied in an extended gutter space between panels, emphasizing its removal from immediate experience. The television frame is a uniformly visual stasis of mediation in the midst of the fluid actions juxtaposed within the multiframe, the embodiment and bearer of the orthogonal grid layout, in its most restrictive form, wherever it appears. Though Tim Blackmore’s 1991 essay “The Dark Knight of Democracy” focuses almost exclusively on textual-narrative analysis, he successfully identifies the employment of the television in structuring the movement of the plot through “channel flips,” establishing an “‘objective’ camera” whose gaze is not that of the reader, and as symptom of a modern media culture structured through the communal viewing patterns of an otherwise fragmentary public (43). In the latter two functions the television panel assumes its political dimension, augmented by the parergonal structure of screen as border which, as Jacques Derrida analyzes frames in The Truth in Painting, serves to paradoxically effect a separation of its content from the surrounding space while simultaneously embedding itself in its contextual referent, the multi-frame page. To begin on a purely narrative level, the television is not only the sole source of public information for members of Miller’s fictive realm, it is also their only forum for civic discourse, mediated through the commercial structure of the network corporation and the public personalities of its hosts and news anchors. Simultaneously, the television effects the reader’s complete knowledge of the text’s social field. In the second half of Dark Knight, the increasingly public nature of Batman’s actions pressures the Reagan-inspired President to action, and Superman’s mysterious presence in Gotham illuminates the indirect governmental control of the media. As one news anchor playfully alludes to the classic mantra of Superman – faster a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, etc. – her counterpart repeatedly attempts to curtail these statements before lamenting “the last thing we need is trouble with the F.C.C.” (Miller et al., 109-11). The television thus transmits the approved ideology of the governing class, reproducing in its audience subjects of and for this ideological order through the hailing address of interpellation developed by the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser in his 1969 essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”

Althusser sought to explain the reproduction of societal labor by an individual “submission to the rules of the established order … under the forms of ideological subjection” (85-9) through a separation of political control into distinct systems given the mechanical appellation of apparatuses, the Repressive State Apparatuses of implied force embodied in the legal structures and the military (92-5), and the Ideological State Apparatuses; these include the totality of cultural institutions, exemplified here by the medium of television, through which the human subject is addressed by impersonal ideology, which address the subject is socially predisposed to recognize and thus cannot escape (115-9). The television panel in The Dark Knight Returns visually contains, and narratively both transmits and addresses, the individual subjects of the story. Yet as has been established, the television screen as structural support of the frame institutes a gaze separate from that of the reader, a gaze which breaks the frame of the page to directly address itself to the reader in a manner textually and graphically indistinguishable to that address given to the fictive characters in the story. Miller thus subjects his reader, audience of the television panel, to the interpellative gaze of his Cold War ideological world, an address doubly encoded with narrative significance such that it cannot be ignored without simultaneously losing the thread of plot, implicating the reader as subject to the politics of the text. This is not a self-conscious, winking aside to the reader, but the replication of a media effect. From this complicit vantage, the figure of Batman is rendered a political body.

This media effect can certainly be read as a rhetorical function equivalent to the poetic apostrophe, if by the invocation of rhetoric one does not seek to undermine as merely gestural the significations of the discourse thus described. Analogous to Jonathan Culler’s oft-cited 1981 semiotic explication “Apostrophe,” the presence of the reader’s perceiving gaze is an interference of the presumed fictive communicative path of the televised address in Dark Knight, presupposing and thereby effecting a rudimentary relationship between the addressing and addressed “subjects” (135, 141). Culler’s initial formulation of the poetic apostrophe as images of an “intense involvement” (138) echoes Will Eisner’s assertion in Comics and Sequential Art that framing devices – exemplified by the television screen as panel frame – serve to “heighten the reader’s involvement with the narrative” (46). Culler also accounts for another of the multiple narrative functions of the apostrophic television, its temporal effect in creating a continual present “of discourse rather than story,” where the apostrophe as a “happening” precludes a strictly narrative, temporal content (149). The creative, vocative nature of this device for poetic address creates through its reception that which it seeks to depict, effectively a rough paraphrase of Althusserian interpellation. Despite the body of criticism against Althusser’s conception of interpellation, an emphasis on the strictly ideological function of an electronic apostrophe is more immediate to Dark Knight than the more general rhetorical effect Culler presents. The comic mirrors the rigidly statist formulation of Althusser’s theory, while Batman and Superman in turn assume proxy positions for the Ideological and Repressive apparatuses, respectively, while the inherent always-already proposition of subjectivity here entailed renders Batman doubly significant in his ability to assume the position of an other outside the established, televised ideological order.

In lieu of arguing the apparent, I will briefly cite moments illustrative of the positions both Batman and Superman occupy in relation to the political structure in The Dark Knight Returns, through the icon of the American flag (see Figure 3). Superman is introduced to the narrative in an off panel conversation with the President, who orders Superman to suppress Batman’s power in the trite cowboy metaphor of a wild bronco upsetting the herd. This dialogue occurs over the background of a flag, increasingly enlarged until the red and white stripes deform into the red and yellow symbol on Superman’s chest (Miller et al., 84). Batman’s relation to the flag is equally unambiguous, where a flag wraps the corpse of a corrupt General’s suicide in a high contrast composition which systematically removes any alternate colors (70). This exemplifies the distinction, drawn by Mike S. Dubose’s 2007 essay “Holding Out for a Hero,” between Superman as “police vigilante” and Batman as “vigilante proper,” determined according to the characters’ respective political beliefs, while ultimately becoming a simple question of control (918, 921). Miller’s extrapolated reading of his characters, based upon a thorough knowledge of their histories, is at once both innovative and familiar, a return for each to an origin that never existed, yet remains unchallenged by the reader (see character histories in Notes). The narrative overdetermination of these alignments conforms to Carl Schmitt’s classic 1932 definition of the political as reducible to a single criterion, the concrete differentiation of friend from enemy (26-7). Thus Batman derides Superman for participating in covert police actions with “military friends” against the Soviets, “you always say yes – to anyone with a badge – or a flag […] You sold us out” (Miller et al., 168, 190, 192, ellipsis added). In a scene prior to Batman’s return, during his political/ideological withdrawal from the world, Bruce Wayne refuses to signify members of the Mutants gang as targets of his personal crusade against crime. Comparing them to the man who killed his parents, Wayne asserts “he flinched when he pulled the trigger […] These are his children. A purer breed … and this world is theirs” (14, ellipsis added). In this conceptual realm without friends or enemies, Batman cannot exist as a political entity, but remains the perfectly impotent dead man Wayne laments. Upon resuming what Superman characterizes as his “holy war” (139) – differing from Batman’s own conception only in the use of “holy” as epithet – the newly political Batman must contend within the conventional ideological battleground of a televised mediation.

Figure 3: Superman introduced off panel, 84. Batman’s relation to the state and its authority, 70.

The television transmits the superhero, but cannot contain either the heroic narrative or image. Throughout and following the first night of Batman’s return, the television provides commentary on his actions as it lacks any footage of the events themselves (Miller et al., 32-42). The media can only react to his presence, shaping the interpretation but not the form his actions take. At the beginning of Book II, the television is graphically depicted in its contradictory effects of undermining while supporting his presence, as various interest groups seek both positive and negative sanctions of Batman (59, see Figure 4). His influence cuts across social strata but his figure is elusive, and the attempt to confine the hero within the official public discourse of the media fails; not once is the image of Batman himself included within the frame of the television panel, even in death. As Batman’s obverse, Superman is formally excluded by the rules of this same discourse, yet the depiction of his figure – the only icon other than Batman granted the singular privilege of isolation before a full-page splash panel – hints at his inherent superfluity to the ideological constraints within which he has chosen to function, his undocumented existence (130, see Figure 5). Their expansive actions within the multiframe authority of the comics page literalize visually a narrative confrontation with the limitations of the existing discourse through which the heroic figure struggles, where the page bleed of this bodily exertion – a semantic characteristic of the paneling – is doubly encoded as a slippage of containment and a linguistic figure of conflict. Yet while both figures possess the representational power to exceed the prevailing framing constraints, a general visual distinction is retained. As Batman predominantly displays a lateral expansion and earth-bound gravity, Superman is given the vertical axis almost exclusively; this is maintained through to the climactic action. Even when confined to page-width panels, Superman’s power of flight and the positioning of his body within the page space continue to present a vertical reading (120). The clear narrative and political distinction between the heroes, partially elided by the similarity of their visual depictions, stems from events that precede the beginning of The Dark Knight Returns.

Figure 4: Television commentary and its subject, 59. Superman’s depiction in comparison to Batman, 130.
Figure 5: Superman’s depiction in comparison to Batman, 130.

Superman provides the outline of this backstory as he ruminates over the precarious position Batman has taken in their contemporary political climate, “the danger – of the endless envy of those not blessed […] We must not remind them that giants walk the earth” (Miller et al., 120, 130, ellipsis added). Under public pressure, before an unnamed governmental committee and the power of the ominously acronymic PBI, the world’s superheroes capitulated to terms: Superman traded silence and obedience for a license and the mutual survival of his fellow heroes. Batman was “the one they used against us[…] the one who played it rough,” whose return threatens this balance of power, just as he mocked and incited the committee a decade earlier, laughing “we’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals” (135, ellipsis added). The differing responses of Batman and Superman to this pressure assumes a parable of the Lacanian concept of alienation as the vel, the unconscious choice presented in the formation of an individual subject within the social totality, between Being as the subject and Meaning as the other. In his seminars, Lacan presents this as an ultimatum for the potential subject, an either or neither proposition with a single rational outcome, that of assuming an appropriate subject position (210-1). Superman retained his being as a subject of the prevailing ideological and political order, losing his meaning as a hero. Batman chose the irrational impossible, rejecting the governmental/social imposition of a subject position to retain the meaning of his war against crime and become an unbeing, the dead man encountered at the beginning of Dark Knight whose meaning is in turn rendered empty without reciprocal expression in its being, the absent iconic Batman. It is this alienated lack of the subject in Wayne that resists interpellation, a pure other outside the social order. As Gotham descends into anarchy, this othering movement positions Batman the ideologue advantageously to interpellate the Sons of Batman and Mutants remnants, the outcast dregs of society, into subjects of and for his militant alternate ideology: “tonight, we are the law. Tonight, I am the law” (Miller et al., 173). Batman replicates the vel dichotomy in the service of his own social system, as any in Gotham who refuse his stark interpellative address are summarily expelled, criminalized. Yet in this I have, through narrative analysis, returned to replicating the obvious inside/outside dialectic of the final confrontation between Superman and Batman, and must return to a consideration of its visual determinations posed initially.

The narrative distinction between Bruce Wayne and Batman is maintained through the visual semantics of Miller’s page layout, for it is the iconic figure of Batman that transcends the griding authority. In response to the memory of Batman’s originating trauma, the random murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the symbol of the Bat is personified, speaking to Wayne from the repressed depths of his psyche. Under pressure of the Bat’s presence, the austerity of the paneling regime begins to bend in the imagery of the windows at Wayne Manor (see Figure 6). First, the panel borders blend into the leading which traditionally separates panes of glass, while the foreground figures, a horizontal rush of crumbling statuary unprecedented in its representation of dynamic rapidity, impose their active bodies across these questioned frames in an ambiguous composite panel (Miller et al., 25). The personified voice of the Bat as ideological force persists through the lower half of the page and its seamless reiteration of the multiframe’s grid, interspersing an expressionistic shower with repeating echoes of the previous pages’ central motifs, the necklace of Wayne’s mother and the robber’s gun remembered at the moment when “everything my mother was struck the pavement as a bloody wad” (187). The obverse page continues to present the window pane as structural elements within the individual panel compositions, echoes contained within their grid spaces (26). As lighting shadows the intersection of panes upon Wayne’s face, rendering him a visually marked man, the omnipresence of these internal structures builds to the sequence conclusion. The triumphant Bat, localized as an actual animal, bursts through the window panes towards the panel perspective in a full bleed composite panel from which the internal panel gutters have been removed, a skillfully braided rhyme on the simultaneously perceived images of the page spread it culminates, this very moment of Batman’s titular return eliminating the constraints of both the general multiframe and its specific panel composition.

Figure 6: The preliminary breakdown in the paneling authority is initiated for Bruce Wayne by the personified Bat, anticipating the narrative return of Batman, 25-6.

The first revelation of Batman in costume then initiates a wholesale breakdown in the prevailing paneling aesthetic, dramatically established with the first true splash-page of Dark Knight combined with a unique horizontal refiguration of the grid on the facing page, to name only the most obvious and initial of the unique signifying visuals which comprise this seven-page sequence (34-40, see Figure 7). Batman’s body physically exceeds even the hyperframe of the page boundary. Yet the television persists, enmeshed in this inaugural splash, a pervasive cultural power the reborn hero never fully acknowledges. This paneled embodiment of the dominant ideological order is established here in its dual role of questioning while disseminating his presence, expressing the media’s constituting, irresolvable confluence of the popular and political in the social order. The onomatopoeic sound effects are inescapably prominent in this first night, dynamically crossing panel boundaries, bleeding off the page, and assuming framing functions for the image they emanate from; they are effects produced by the very spectacle of heroic physicality they reify, which exceeds the limiting distinction between text and image and generates such reactive, dramatic combinations, abandoned in its wake (31, 35-6). This contrasts with Batman’s silent stalking of his criminal prey as he attacks through floors and from beneath stairs, a mode of action suited to the text’s continual refrain to a bodily realism (38-9).

Figure 7: First appearance of Batman in full and the resulting breakdown in the paneling authority of the multiframe, 34-5.

The most persistent characteristic of Batman’s depiction here and throughout Dark Knight is the larger panel scope his presence commands, repeatedly assuming control of the page multiframe he ostensibly serves, a violation of the narrative status quo that delegitimizes the prevailing paradigm of the layout and illustrates the discursive constraints of Miller’s statist modernity. Concerning the other characters of the comic, only Superman has an equivalent representational command of the page space, though on a markedly less frequent basis. This violation of visual authority by the figure of Batman is both an effect and cause of his narrative transgression of ideological power, which occupy a symptomatic reciprocity of signification. The excess of body over boundary expresses a superiority of political power from which materiality it cannot be separated. A dialectic conflict between the two opposing expressors of such power then seems inevitable.

The problem that must be addressed is the manner by which a fight between two individual, physical bodies becomes perceived as a larger conflict between two opposing conceptions of political power, the readily apparent dialectic in The Dark Knight Returns. Through their depiction as superior to paneling constraints, and their obvious political affiliations, Batman and Superman cannot easily be read as anything other than opposing equivalences. The interpellation of the reader through the apostrophic address of the television screen implicates one’s perceiving consciousness in this ready-made conflict. Yet like these characters, the reader’s interpellated subjectivity is imperfect; the reader will always, and necessarily, exceed the subject position imparted by the narrative, for the reader by definition is both exterior and superior to the text, existing prior to and after the reading act. This qualified omniscience grants the thematic of dialectic a position of interpretive preeminence, evolving from the interested subject position’s awareness of these political significations. However, at the moment of victory, Batman famously inscribes a double failure: “we could have changed the world… …now… look at us… I’ve become… a political liability… …and you… …you’re a joke” (194, ellipses in original). There is nothing inherent to this final battle that of itself enforces a framework of dialectic; only in consideration of the comic as a whole – the subjective experience of a simulated mass media inclusion – does this reference emerge.

This paradoxical formation of the final battle, a dialectic devoid of thesis and antithesis – or else a thesis and antithesis that eschew the dialectic – is represented through the same component units of the multiframe page space that drive the narrative to this conclusion. Only in light of the ideological social system revealed through the television is Batman rendered an oppositional figure, whose significance to the social totality is effected through this mediation, yet the television has no role to play here; the contest is truly beyond commentary, while the whole is rendered meaningless without incorporation into the social discourse. Likewise, the expansive panels provide a broad canvas for the massive forces depicted, yet the overall ideological support structure of the prevailing paneling authority remains, building larger panels through simple addition. It is important to recognize that no true splash panel occurs in the course of the battle, for just as the military maintains an observational perimeter, the state and its ideological apparatuses merely wait for the dust to settle in order to carry on business as usual.

Ultimately, the titanic struggle of The Dark Knight Returns‘ climax reverts to the grid-layout upon Bruce Wayne’s apparent death as the apostrophic television panel returns in the mass media equivalent of an elegy (197-8). The dialectic terminates with an unspoken truce, a failure of synthesis that belies the assumed nature of their battle. The terms of conflict have shifted below the surface, and both Superman and Ronald Reagan are but ephemeral foes in Batman’s larger mission of redefining justice. Batman, Superman, and ancillary characters have been exposed to the reality of 1980’s political discourse and emerged refined, rather than redefined, by the journey of iconic deconstruction, creating a new model for the genre of the American superhero comic.


Plot Synopsis:

It’s been ten years since Batman’s retirement from public life, his response to a government led and enforced popular movement against all superheroes, and fifty-five year old Bruce Wayne lives a hollow life, lost in a corrupt modern Gotham whose streets are ruled by the Mutants gang. The release of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent from prison, and his subsequent return to crime, prompts Batman to reemerge in a world that has forgotten both its heroes and its need for them. Police Commissioner Gordon retires, and with him goes the last vestige of Gotham as it was, the department’s goodwill towards Batman. The new Commissioner promptly issues a warrant for the newly active Batman’s arrest. Following his recapture of Two-Face, and the addition of adolescent Carrie as the self-appointed Robin, Batman takes down the leader of the Mutants in single combat. Thus dismantling the gang, most of its former members declare themselves Sons of Batman, an ad hoc, uncontrolled vigilante gang. The psychological impact of Batman’s return is widespread, ambiguous, and heavily reported, drawing the Joker from deep catatonia to stage what will be their final battle.

Meanwhile, Superman is engaged alongside US forces in a covert war with the Soviet Union over the island nation of Corto Maltese. When the Soviets launch a nuclear first-strike, diverted by America’s personal deterrent, Superman, the resulting electromagnetic pulse plunges the world into darkness and nuclear winter. Batman assumes control of those who have taken his name, the Sons of Batman, to restore order to Gotham by militia. While this reaffirms his amnesty from the Gotham Police, the blatant display of a dangerously subversive power cannot be ignored by the federal government, whose own martial law is thus superseded. The old fears renewed, Superman is sent by presidential order to a final confrontation with Batman, a symbolic contest between the forces of the state and the individual. Batman famously defeats Superman, faking his own death in order to continue training his new soldiers in secret against “a world plagued by worse than thieves and murders” (199). Batman’s war on crime has been transformed into something grander and more dangerous, a war against the faults of the global political structure.

Character Histories:

Superman: During an undeclared war against the Soviets, Miller’s President assures the public ” we’ve got god on our side… or the next best thing, anyway” (119, ellipsis in original). This deification of Superman and his cooptation by the American government are far removed from his origins in the Depression era as a vindictive thug, vigilante, and radical anarchist embodiment of the New Deal reforming social consciousness. The first superhero proper, he fought against corruption in industry and local government, physically assaulting production facilities, public officials, and both the police and National Guard, long before supervillains became the established convention of the genre. This strident social criticism disappeared during the course of World War II, while his powers became more godlike, and any contemporary political relevance Superman held became relegated to public service announcements. The fifties television series Adventures of Superman completed this realignment with the weekly assertion of his ‘never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.’ Following this trend, Jules Feiffer famously articulated Superman, by virtue of his alien birth, as the embodiment of the American integrationist ideal, though this interpretation has not been received uncritically. By the sixties, Umberto Eco observed that “in Superman we have a perfect example of civic consciousness, completely split from political consciousness” (123); this continuing characterization – the moral hero as the penultimate law-abiding citizen – in the ensuing decades provided the material Miller expands upon in his figuration of Superman as the well-intentioned accomplice, naive enough to support the cynical, corrupt ruling powers of a Cold War American conservatism.

Batman: As Miller’s Batman contemplates his quarry’s plummet from a helicopter, he observes that “it takes nearly a minute to fall from this height. And despite what you may have heard, you’re likely to stay conscious all the way down. Thoughts like that keep me warm at night” (53). Miller’s treatment of Batman, as opposed to his accepting the evolved traditions of Superman, is very much a return to the character’s origin. From his first appearance, Batman’s motivation is tragic, his surroundings a bleak conglomeration of the modern cityscape, his figure frightening, his method utterly rational, each element wrapped in a surreal mix of innovative, expressionistic artwork. Even the introduction of Robin in 1940 did little to alleviate the gloom. The optimistic post-war climate, however, changed Batman far more radically than his caped counterparts. The necessity of pursuing his personal justice outside the strictures of a failed legal system yielded before the perception of our American Century, producing instead a paternalistic, deputized hero – a policeman in all but name. The camp of the infamous Adam West’s mid-sixties television series was not much different in kind. While Dark Knight is not unique in moving against this sanitized, popular version of Batman, Miller takes his hero to a depth of darkness thus far unplumbed, creating a far-right extremist threat to the tradition of American heroism in the twentieth century: the comics prototype of pure vigilantism has turned unrepentantly militant. It is telling that Batman must reassuringly narrate, during his assault of a Mutant mass rally, that he’s using “rubber bullets. Honest” (76). Miller’s watershed refiguration has since become the status quo for contemporary versions of the Dark Knight, which tend to emphasize the internal darkness of the traumatic figure while risking the loss of a more chivalric heroism.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation.” 1969. Trans. Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. 85-126. Print.

Blackmore, Tim. “The Dark Knight of Democracy: Tocqueville and Miller Cast Some Light on the Subject.” Journal of American Culture 14.1 (1991): 37-56.

Culler, Jonathan. “Apostrophe.” The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. 1981. Augmented Ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “Parergon.” 1974. The Truth in Painting. 1978. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. 15-147. Print.

Dubose, Mike S. “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America.” Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007). 915-35. Print.

Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” 1962. Trans. Natalie Chilton. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979. Print.

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. 1985. Tamarac: Poorhouse P, 2004. Print.

Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. 1999. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 2007.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: the Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI. 1973. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1998. Print.

Miller, Frank (w/p), Klaus Janson (i), and Lynn Varley (c). Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. 1986. Ed. Archie Goodwin and Bob Kahan. New York: DC Comics, 1996. Print.

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. 1932. Trans. Tracy B. Strong. Expanded ed. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2007. Print.

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