Alan Moore and Frank Miller are the two writers most frequently credited with launching the “new mainstream” in the comics industry. Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are generally cited as instigating a turn in mainstream comics to more adult-oriented offerings, a focus on the conflicted interiority of superheroes, and darker, morally ambiguous narrative. Yet, while graphic narrative has grown considerably as a topic for academic study within the last decade, neither Miller’s nor Moore’s texts have received as substantial published critical attention as might be expected; indeed, I have not been able to find a single reference to Moore and artist David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta that is not in passing and/or a reference to the film adaptation. In their introduction to the 2006 special issue of Modern Fiction Studies dedicated to graphic narrative, Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven make a convincing argument for the literary significance of comics and for the uniqueness of the formal elements of graphic narrative that work to broaden and complicate our understanding of how reading functions. Nevertheless, Miller and Moore appear in this introduction only as a footnote stating that “in 1986 … two other works [Batman: TDKR and Watchmen] also significantly participated in reorienting comics readership towards adults … Neither of these works, however, entered broad public and critical consciousness with the same profound effect that [Art Spiegelman’s] Maus did” (Chute and DeKoven 779-80n7). While Miller’s and Moore’s comics did not have nearly the general cross-over appear of Spiegelman’s text (although the plentiful film adaptations of their comics have certainly been popular with non-comics reading audiences), this seems to have more to do with how the texts have been marketed and publicized than with their literary importance. Insofar as Miller’s and Moore’s texts raise questions about the relationship between heroes and subjectivity, as well as the reader’s position within that relationship, their texts represent significant interventions into theoretical and social questions about the formation and role of the subject that extend beyond the transformative effects of their work on the mainstream comics industry. Miller and Moore raise issues of the formative necessity of intersubjective dynamics for transcendent models of subjectivity that resonate with questions about the subject that have proliferated within literary, linguistic, and psychoanalytic theory since the mid-twentieth century. In Miller’s and Moore’s writing, the superhero comics trope of the hero/sidekick relationship becomes the exemplary model through which to approach the broader social function of inter-subjectivity itself.
Though often paired because of their aforementioned effects on the industry, Moore and Miller embrace radically divergent political projects, and this divergence plays out indirectly, but strikingly, in the construction of superheroic and/or human inter-subjectivity in their work. While critical and scholarly attention to Moore has tended to gravitate towards Watchmen, V for Vendetta, which shares similar ethical concerns about the exercising of heroic power, foregrounds the construction of heroic subjectivity through emphasizing a central (if arguable) superhero/sidekick relationship. Although Watchmen does interrogate the functioning of the heroic self, such a self is constructed within a group dynamic, with no specific character serving overwhelmingly as an iconic stand-in for the transcendent potential of human subjectivity as a whole. In emphasizing subjective transcendence, particularly as achieved through an (apparently) dyadic relationship, V for Vendetta comes closest to the concerns that are also expressed by Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, with radically divergent theoretical and political implications. Written around the same time as both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (all of which were serialized through the early to mid/late 80s), V for Vendetta shares a striking narrative similarity to Miller’s text, a similarity that only highlights the ways that their pronounced political differences play out in the ways through which the subject comes to be and to attain each author’s vision of the idealized self. The figure of the sidekick, whether explicit, in the case of Miller’s Robin, or ambiguous, in the case of Moore’s Evey, plays a central role in each author’s construction of superheroic (inter)subjectivity, as well as their differing commitments to a political futurity invested in the figure of the Child. The Child serves a necessary function in Miller’s constructions of both subjectivity and power, enabling the subject to come into power through the acquisition and affirmation of a concrete identity. For Moore, however, childhood is temporary, and the sought after universally accessible subject position relies on the child growing into a powerful and knowledgeable adult, whose identity, like that of her mentor, is resolutely ambiguous.
For both Miller and Moore, the child performs a critical role as the intersubjective partner who enables a hero to come to be. For Miller, this partnership is necessarily always unequal — the child is the minor term in a relationship that serves to consolidate the paternalistic, transformative efficacy of the hero, whose wholeness is in constant need of reaffirmation and repair. While Miller’s hyperbolic overstatement of Batman’s masculine identity sometimes works to undermine the power relationships espoused by the text as a whole, this subterranean countercurrent never fully mitigates the overarching political thrust of the text, and we are never presented with an alternative model of subject formation.1 Here, the child’s role within the intersubjective relationship is definitive, but she can never, herself, become a subject. Conversely, for Moore, the child’s ideal role is as an eventual equal, an adult who, rather than affirming the power and identity of her mentor, takes on the role of the hero within a continuous process of lateral filiation. Given both Moore’s and Miller’s reliance on intersubjective models to construct and affirm a transcendent subject position, Emile Benveniste’s work on linguistic inter-subjectivity, in Problems in General Linguistics, becomes a valuable intertext to help elucidate the ways in which an (ideally) interchangeable intersubjective relationship serves a definitive role in enabling any subject to exist. However, as Benveniste’s model (much like Moore’s idealized vision of V’s iconic role) is necessarily egalitarian, eventually complicating our reading of inter-subjectivity through reference to Jacques Lacan’s work on linguistic and psychoanalytic inter-subjectivity, in his Écrites, will help us to read the asymmetrical model of the subject embraced by Miller and to illuminate some of the ways that these divergent ideas of the interchangeability of subject positions function in concert with Moore’s explicitly anarchist and Miller’s implicitly feudal solutions to social problems. For Benveniste, the other is necessary for the subject to come into being through language: every I needs a you to say “I” to. Nevertheless, Benveniste’s system of inter-subjectivity is optimistically egalitarian and reversible, as every you has the power to say “I” back. This system has been widely problematized, particularly by feminist scholars, for failing to take into account discrepancies of power and the resultant differing abilities of groups to take on subjective transcendence within oppressive systems. In V for Vendetta, Moore, within the framework of his anarchist politics, attempts to propose a possibility for developing egalitarian inter-subjectivity out of a system of massive inequalities. In Moore’s text, not only does V represent an iconic embodiment of the possibility for human agency stripped of concrete markers of race, gender, and sexuality, but this form of subjectivity, framed as integrity, is transferable and attainable by anyone —V for Vendetta strives for Benveniste’s model whereby each you can reciprocally function as the transcendent I.
Evey enters the narrative as a possible sidekick for V, the you to his I, but, throughout the text, she is pushed through the painful process of becoming an I, a process which consists of being stripped of all but what V (citing his former fellow prisoner Valerie) claims as the last essential inch of our humanity, the one thing we truly own: our integrity. Evey is pushed out of a gendered childhood to attain an androgynous subjectivity achieved through trauma and/as education. While, for Moore, adult androgyny serves as the ultimate goal, the irresolute identity in which we can become subjects, for Miller childhood androgyny is the necessary second term that enables Batman to exercise his own subject position that, however dependent it is on androgynous childhood, remains resolutely differentiated from it. In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman represents Robin as necessary for his proper functioning as Batman, yet Robin can, by definition, never grow up into his or her own I. A given Robin may die or grow into an adult who is not Robin and who no longer participates in the “Batman system” but, while the role of Robin is eternal, each child who performs it can only ever be transitory. Rather, Miller constructs his Batman’s subjectivity around a much more Lacanian model, whereby Robin’s presence is necessary as an idealized, external fantasy of that which will suture his originary wound and stand in for the phallus. As Batman emphasizes as he is losing a battle just before the appearance of his new Robin, he needs his “Dick.”2 Each subsequent Robin multiplies the levels of prostheses in play for Batman. While Bruce Wayne’s early loss of his parents serves as a representative metonym for the wounds and divisions that his heroic identity strives to overcome, the loss of his original prosthetic phallus, Dick Grayson, who grows up and leaves him multiplies this injury, which is only exacerbated by the death of his next Robin, Jason Todd. By the time we arrive at Carrie, we reach a Robin who is only ever the most recent term in a series of replacements of replacements, whose removal from Batman’s “original” injury multiplies and reaffirms her own inability to ever function as an original herself. In Miller’s text, Batman serves as the epitome of classed and gendered subjectivity whose power nevertheless depends on a you. In this model, you is an androgynous child who must always either die or grow into a gendered adult who can never be I, but who no longer functions as the determinant you. Miller emphasizes the risk of any given child not eventually multiplying Batman’s abandonment (by growing into a gendered – but still minor-term – adult or dying) through the spectre of perverse adult androgyny in the figure of the Joker, who is presented as dangerous, criminal, and destructively antisocial.
The Child as Rescued
However, the Joker ultimately serves to reinforce the necessary threat that must always be levelled against the child in order for her to function as the Child who mobilizes efforts at political change and justifies and concretizes the identity of its protector. Our social discourses of childhood frame the child as always in danger, according to Paul Kelleher, in “How to Do Things with Perversion.” This child, Kelleher argues, is “not … a group or a class of children, or any one identifiable child, but rather the figure of no child in particular, a figure whose lack of particularity enables a great deal of thinking and speaking … about matters of so-called general, national, or universal concern” (151, Kelleher’s italics). As such, the child functions as a given, the catalyst that enables the interpretation of any event, “good” or “bad,” in terms of its implications for the future and for “all of us.” As Chute and DeKoven emphasize, “Graphic narrative, through its most basic composition in frames and gutters – in which it is able to gesture at the pacing and rhythm of reading and looking through the various structures of each individual page – calls a reader’s attention visually and spatiality to the act, process, and duration of interpretation” (767). While Chute and DeKoven’s commentary on the interpretive importance of the comics form is necessarily vague, it does imply a possible productive conjunction of the panel frame’s interpretive significance and the social function of child as the definitive figure who determines social interpretation, which may illuminate and/or justify the degree to which sidekicks tend to exemplify broader social and intellectual questions about the subject. In explaining how the simplified cartoon face performs a generalizing function that facilitates identificatory relationships, Scott McCloud associates the generality of the cartoon with, among other aspects, its “childlike features” (36). While McCloud initially ties this to our early childhood fascination with cartoons, he later claims that “storytellers in all media know that a sure indicator of audience involvement is the degree to which the audience identifies with a story’s characters” and that “viewer-identification is a specialty of cartooning” (42, emphasis in original). Although McCloud’s framing of the markers of success of a given text is excessively generalizing (many readers and audiences connect with many texts in ways that are not at all dependent on identification), the centralizing function that he attributes to childlike features is not without its significance. The Child, through its position as the centre of our social nexus of interpretation and identification, can, perhaps, either be called into question through the technical workings of a graphic narrative or it can serve to validate a particular strategy of interpretation — to ease our logical and ideological transition between frames.
While the figure of the Child at risk functions generally to ground calls to action and to serve as the representative of humanity, V and Batman specifically emerge into the public eye in V for Vendetta and <cite?the dark=”” knight=”” returns<=”” cite=””>– Batman after a long retirement, and V for the first time – through rescuing particular children. Both V’s initial encounter with Evey and Batman’s initial encounter with Carrie, his soon-to-be new Robin, are rescues, as Evey and Carrie both face sexual violence and murder. While Evey’s assailants are Fingermen – the police force of England’s Fascist government, agents of the state–Carrie’s assailants are members of the Mutants, a violent youth gang thriving in a vacuum of effective American leadership at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Evey, a more ambiguous figure to begin with, is sixteen and trying to supplement her meagre income from forced labour in a match factory3 with sex work; however, her first attempt is awkward, childish, and disastrous; wearing ridiculously garish make-up, she propositions a member of the police. Conversely, Carrie, thirteen, cuts through an arcade, a known hangout of the Mutants, so as to save her school notes from an extra hour of study hall from getting wet. While Batman saves a number of people in his first night back in costume, Carrie and her friend Michelle are the ones we see most extensively interviewed on television, and Carrie is the only one who perceives him as human, if exaggerated. While Michelle and one other witness represent Batman as a monster, Carrie interrupts with “reality check, Michelle. Talk about composure, total lack of. He’s a man – about–twelve feet tall” (Miller 34).
Although both Carrie and Evey are individual characters, they function as general representations of the Child within the framework of the superhero narrative. Sidekicks emerged, in part, to give the child readers of comic books something closer to themselves to identify with, so sidekicks (much like McCloud’s simplified cartoon face) require a certain generality within the superhero narrative that is not always shared by their mentors. While Umberto Eco, in “The Myth of Superman,” positions Superman as representative of all superheroes, including Batman, and as available for the reader to identify with by virtue of the awkwardness of lovelorn Clark Kent, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, as the inheritor of extensive family wealth, exercises his only superpowers – money and privilege – in his daily life. Any potential identification on the part of the implied reader with either Superman or Batman is necessarily commingled with certain distancing complexities. The ironic disparity between Superman’s two identities, and the ironic disparity implicit in Batman’s anguished divisions in spite of the overarching proximity of his two identities, produces dissonances that cannot be easily overcome. The child then, as McCloud suggests, functions as a less complicated vehicle for an implied reader’s identificatory fantasies. In The Dark Knight Returns, this child is Carrie, who quickly moves from the general (and virtuous) rescued Child to the explicit position of sidekick. And, while being Robin is inherently a very generalized role, since Robin could theoretically be any child, Miller also highlights the importance of the role of no-child-in-particular as a driving force for all those who seek to make a better world. In explaining why he is handling his retirement so well, Commissioner Gordon informs us that “Life will be easier now. I won’t feel like dad to an entire city of souls. I won’t bleed with every single one of my children” (Miller 103). Even the Mutants are framed in this way – as murderous, psychopathic children, but only for lack of good governmental/paternal influence. While part of the Child’s ability to mobilize an audience and/or political/social change relies on its ability to function as a blank slate, an identificatory ideal, this blankness can only exist in the context of threat. And this threat is frequently framed as the fear that such blankness seems almost to invite being sullied. In his analysis of Freud and Melanie Klein, Kelleher posits that psychoanalysis has set up a conjunction between the child, the pervert, and the criminal. He claims that within this discourse, “the murderous ‘pervert,’ again and again, is figured as both interior to and exterior to our conception of the child, phantasmatically surrounding and overtaking any psychoanalytic profile of ‘the child'” (Kelleher 167). In Miller’s text, the interior and exterior threats of perversion become localized in the figures of particular children or groups of children. Miller positions Carrie as the unsullied child to be protected from the perverts/criminals without, whose innocence becomes visible against a background of generalized filth – including her negligent, pot-smoking, hippie parents. Meanwhile, Miller positions the Mutants as the unruly children in need of protection from the perversion/criminality that has already gained entry. The Mutants are particularly impressionable and willing to model themselves after any perceived leader. Indeed, they seem to function perfectly as (potentially ironic) embodiments of both the benefits and the dangers of childhood blankness. When Batman bests their leader in a fight, a number of the Mutants switch their allegiance to their own idea of Batman, calling themselves the Sons of Batman and engaging in hyperbolically vicious vigilante justice against those that they perceive as criminal or cowardly. However, once Batman has need of them in order to restore a panicked city to order and explicitly exerts his influence as an authority figure, the former Mutants who follow him readily obey his incitement to “health,” “normalcy,” and “appropriate” use of power, epitomized in his assertion that “this [a gun] is the weapon of the enemy. We do not need it. We will not use it. Our weapons are quiet – precise. In time, I will teach them to you. Tonight, you will rely on your fists – and your brains. Tonight, we are the law. Tonight, I am the law” (Miller 173, Miller’s italics). Here, Batman easily steps into the position of the giver of laws. Lawgiving, within Miller’s text, is necessary in order to produce a better future through the protection and education of the Child – a child whose very ability to be taught, to be protected, necessarily implies that it is also at risk.
Moore, on the other hand, raises the general Child figure as a vehicle for identification and interpretation only so that it can be explicitly undermined. While the irony of Batman’s masculine efficacy relying on the very (dangerous) impressionability of the children he must save offers only tenuous and contingent avenues for undermining such an identity, Moore’s text is quite clear that the vision of childhood innocence that he initially offers to us can never serve as the basis of a sustained or productive political project. The initial ambiguity of Evey’s sexualized entrance is quickly (seemingly) resolved into a vision of common childhood, as she narrates her life story to V. Although her particular story of massive environmental and social upheaval and the loss of her family is unlikely to be shared by the reader, Evey’s gloss of the hardships faced by her family – the small scale nuclear war that precipitated large-scale natural disasters that were the conditions of emergence of England’s fascist regime – positions them as not unusual. As Evey herself proclaims, “there’s nothing to tell. I’m only sixteen. I haven’t done anything” (Moore 26, Moore’s italics), and later exclaims, “You’re a kind person. Listening to me telling you my sob story all about the war, and mum and dad. All about my stupid life” (Moore 31). V’s initial response seems to validate our desire to read Evey into the position of the generic Child, as he consoles, “Just trust me Evey, and we can wipe it all away. All the pain. All the cruelty, all the bereavement. We can start again” (Moore 29, Moore’s italics). While V’s statement is still somewhat ambiguous, the narration is not-“…Evey Hammond sobs like the child she is”–and Evey’s initial position in the Shadow Gallery, V’s home, is indeed that of a child (Moore 29). She is given a pretty, childish room, plenty of toys, and V reads her to sleep at night. However, as we will see, Moore radically undermines this initial position as, in the end, protecting this generalized Child is not what catalyzes necessary change.
For Moore, the innocent child in need of protection can never serve as a functional basis for social renewal. Rather, her comfort functions as a conservative influence and, at the same time, influences her to be conservative. If she is comfortable, she will not grow, she will not change, and everything will stagnate. While V and Batman both fight to build a better future out of an inadequate social framework (fascist England and Reagan’s America respectively), the differing notions of the subject that run alongside Moore and Miller’s diametrically opposite political frameworks play out in the differing ways that childhood is mobilized in relation to social change. For Batman, Robin occupies the position that Lee Edelman attributes to the Child in No Future, where he contends that all politics are the politics of the Symbolic, dependant on the image of the Child, the fantasy that is eternally replete, in touch with the Real, and for whom all political projects are directed. As Batman tells Alfred in defense of his questionable decision to take Carrie on as Robin, “She’s perfect. She’s young. She’s smart. She’s brave. With her, I might be able to end this Mutant nonsense once and for all” (Miller 93). In short, she figures the perfect embodiment of Edelman’s Child. And an eternal Child serves a necessary function in Miller’s construction of subjectivity and power. For Moore, however, despite the seeming inescapability of the Child within what Edelman calls the tyranny of reproductive futurity, the function of the child/Child within any political framework is neither permanent nor ideal.
Making Each Other–Heroes and Sidekicks
In The Dark Knight Returns, Robin serves the function of the Child whose protection validates the future-oriented project of social change, but he or she also, for Batman, performs the function of standing in for the phallus, of enabling his symbolic (and Symbolic) power. As Lacan argues in “The Signification of the Phallus,” “man cannot aim at being whole … once the play of displacement and condensation to which he is destined in the exercise of his functions marks his relation, as a subject, to the signifier. The phallus is the privileged signifier of this mark in which the role … of Logos is wedded to the advent of desire” (581). Batman is necessarily divided from this power, the power that he needs to be Batman. In order to be able to function in his heroic role, he requires a prosthesis, an other who will seem to heal his foundational rifts. For Lacan, a woman would generally perform this role for a man. However, in Miller’s text, it is the Child who serves both the futurity affirming function ascribed to it by Edelman and as the Lacanian phallic prosthesis. Thus, towards the beginning of Miller’s text, as Bruce Wayne becomes more and more possessed by a desire to be Batman again, he starts to sleep walk. Bruce’s butler Alfred discovers him standing in front of Robin’s costume–a permanent memorial to Jason Todd, whose death precipitated Batman’s earlier retirement – encased in an illuminated, cylindrical glass display case and unable to remember how he came to shave off his post-Batman mustache. While the initial phallic framing of Robin’s costume is clearly associated with Jason, Batman’s need for Robin is a need for a general Child rather than a specific child. As he comes close to losing a battle with the leader of the Mutants, Batman thinks
…Dick…where are you…Dick…you were always…my little monkey wrench…Dick…got yourself in deep again, Dick…always…in over your head…remember Two-Face, Dick…? …Robin…the boy hostage…that’s what Two-Face called you…Heh…you hated that…Lucky…you’re lucky I’m always here…to bail you out… (Miller 82-3, ellipses in original)
Batman’s framing of his need for “Dick” presents Robin as both always in danger (“the boy hostage”) and as a pronounced phallic symbol (“in deep again…always in over your head”). The need for Robin/Batman’s Dick to be rescued performs a double function. It validates Batman’s project in the name of the eternal Child and, like the phallus, it serves to represent Batman’s power; Batman needs Robin so that he knows he is rescuing someone, that he has power that we can read as equivalent to, or symbolic of, the Symbolic order. He needs someone who is lucky to have him to bail him out. This scene marks the first meeting of Batman and Carrie as Robin, and the instance in which the word “Dick” stands alone – between “monkey wrench” and “got yourself in deep” – takes place in the middle of a row of panels otherwise uninterrupted by narration, as Robin, in the first two, approaches from a distance, only to leap on the head of Batman’s assailant after the penultimate panel in which we see Batman’s battered face and the word “Dick.” Similarly, the one time the word Dick is spoken aloud is in the first panel of a three panel row in which Batman says “Dick” out loud, we see his unconscious face, and then, in the final panel, Robin touches him for the first time. Here, “Dick” and Robin are clearly linked in a manner that extends beyond the specificity of Batman’s first sidekick’s given name.
As Batman’s Dick, then, and also as the Child, Robin is an androgynous figure, neither truly male nor truly female, but rather the essence of childhood, the generic that Batman’s masculine subjectivity must strive to protect. This androgyny is multiplied through the specificity of Robin’s name. While “Dick” clearly implies the phallic importance of Robin’s duties as a sidekick, “Robin” is a given name used for both girls and boys. The gendered specificity of “Dick,” then, disappears into the gender ambiguity of “Robin.” Nevertheless, this androgynous convergence of “Robin” and “Dick” also emblematizes the risk of perversion that Kelleher outlines in his discussion of psychoanalysis and childhood. Kelleher suggests that “Freud implicitly stages … a tense and indeterminate play among the figures of the pervert, the child, and the ‘normal’ adult. The triangle of pervert-child-normal adult operates as an ideological fantasy, a screen for desiring and deferring what might be called the impossible thing behind the fantasy of normal life” (157-8, Kelleher’s italics). Each Robin’s death or entry into gendered adulthood is necessary in order to forestall the perverse (and in adults, potentially criminal) specter of adult androgyny. The risky position of the child, who must at once exhibit and outgrow their ungendered state, both enables and necessitates Batman’s own position as the figure promoting “normal” adulthood, a position that is in need of defense due to his lack of a sustained heterosexual relationship. As Batman chastises Robin more than once throughout the text — indeed, its final iteration is his last line — “Robin! Sit up straight” (Miller 199, Miller’s italics). Although children should not yet be straight within this system, as that would imply overt sexuality that is inconsistent with the Child, if not the child, they must be encouraged, as necessary, to sit up or grow up straight by “normal” adults. The idea of sexuality embedded in the child must exist both as a threat to this ungendered and unsexed androgyny and as the very threat within it.
Adult androgyny, in The Dark Knight Returns, is positioned along a scale from suspect to criminal. Our first example of this suspicious lack of gendered affiliation is Commissioner Yindel, Gordon’s replacement. Yindel is only ambivalently androgynous — although she appears androgynous, her sex is emphasized constantly as part of a project of the major’s office to present itself as decisive and daring in selecting her as the new commissioner. However, Yindel’s insistence that Batman is a criminal and must be captured by the police represents a part of the danger she poses, as does her statement upon seeing Robin: “Boy Wonder — got to be. Call Ingersoll, Merkel. Tell him to add child endangerment to the [list of charges against Batman]” (Miller 138, Miller’s italics). This statement emblematizes Yindel’s failure to grasp the true import of protecting the Child and the particular way in which “normal” adults ought to tell children to sit up straight. Nevertheless, Batman interrupts Yindel’s order with a call informing her that the Governor is in danger and sending her to his aid. Yindel’s acceptance of Batman’s information paves the way to her accepting her position within a system in which only Batman can fill the role of the “normal” adult who can offer paternal tutelage. Ultimately, Yindel concedes to Gordon’s framing of Batman, implicitly associated with Carrie’s description of him as twelve feet tall; she cannot continue to pursue the arrest warrants against him, because “He’s…too…big” (Miller 176, Miller’s italics and ellipses). Here, we see one of the odd sites of slippage around concrete gender within Miller’s text. While adult androgyny is clearly associated with a dangerous questioning of Batman’s authority, this risk is overcome through the convergence of three points of view that should be quite dissimilar within the rigors of the Batman gender system. Carrie, the androgynous child, Gordon, the acceptably masculine retired commissioner, and Yindel, the problematically androgynous new commissioner, each accept their proper position within the “Batman system” by framing Batman as incomparably large. Perhaps, then, the crucial issue is not one of performed gender, but of comparative gender. Regardless of physical appearance, everyone must relate to Batman as the dominant term, or risk the perverse insanity of the Joker.
We can, then, contrast Yindel’s suspicious androgyny with the Joker, whose dangerous androgyny is not the result of a misapprehension, but rather a resolutely and persistently threatening perversity, which becomes increasingly ominous as the Joker seeks to unfix Batman’s position as the ultimate, and singular, subject. Geoff Klock, in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, offers a somewhat reductive reading of Batman’s potentially perverse relationship with his villains. He claims that “[t]he Joker’s role in The Dark Knight Returns brings homoeroticism out into the open for one of the first times in mainstream superhero comic books,” and continues, “[t]he dialogue between hero and villain unearthed [Frederic] Wertham’s general charges of homoeroticism in Batman, and the shift from Batman/Robin to Batman/Joker makes the claim significantly more interesting and complex” (Klock 35). While Klock asserts that this eroticism indicates a mirroring between hero and villain that excludes Robin, Miller’s comic suggests that actually what is so unnerving about the Joker is that he seeks to place Batman in the position of Robin – a position that Batman, who can only ever be “I,” the self, the transcendent subject, the incomparably large, must never fill. Just as Batman’s return requires the presence of his Dick, of Robin, for Batman to function effectively and powerfully as a subject, the Joker requires Batman, his “Darling” (Miller 41). Batman’s reemergence draws the Joker out of a long catatonic state, enabling him to once again assume his role as a perverse murderer. In placing Batman in the role of Darling or Dick,4 the Joker ascribes a dangerously fluid or androgynous position to Batman, whose concrete masculinity and fatherly sternness must be maintained in order to confirm his position as the powerful “I” who serves as the protector of Gordon’s city of bleeding children.
The Joker’s dangerous perversity manifests most strikingly in his preparations for and appearance on the David Endochrine Show.5 We first see the Joker requesting more eye make-up, then refusing the make-up artist’s lipstick in favour of his own (Miller 121).
The lipstick stands metonymically for the Joker’s conjunction of perversity and murderousness, as it proves to be poisoned; the Joker prefaces his lethal gassing of the show’s audience and his own escape from custody by giving a kiss of death to Dr. Volper,6 an opponent of sexual repression who claims that “…people zhould haf zex und zex und zex — all ze time, David…” (Miller 122, ellipses in original) and that Batman’s psychosis is sexual repression —”zexual repression — zis is a terrible zing” (Miller 126). Endochrine’s comment that the Joker is “a sensitive human being” as he kisses Dr. Volper is followed by a three panel series over which her face is contorted into the Joker’s death grin, under the words “zex und zex…und zex und zex…” (Miller 127, ellipses in original).
Miller emphasizes the danger of the Joker’s perversity and its potential transferability to children as former members of the Mutant gang, dressed as the Joker, attempt to poison the Gotham reservoir in imitation of the Joker’s own early work. Similarly, as Batman and Robin arrive at a carnival where the Joker has been distributing poisoned cotton candy to school children, Batman thinks, “…a tiny hand tightens its grip on my arm…a girl of thirteen breathes in sharply, her innocence lost…it ends tonight, Joker” (Miller 140, ellipses in original). Klock suggests that this is “the one moment that does suggest sexuality in Robin,” but evades discussing it by emphasizing the relationship between Batman and the Joker (34). While the Joker’s role is indeed paramount here, this role is as a third of the triangulated relationship that Kelleher describes between the child, the pervert, and the normal adult. Robin’s reaction of violated innocence – her contact with perversion – catalyses Batman’s decision that he must end the threat of perversion, which can only be approached through the mediating image of the threatened child. And yet, ironically, both Batman and the innocent child can only be approached through the mediating image of the threatening pervert, as each of the triangulated terms is necessarily in order to define and affirm the other two.
Moore’s Evey, on the other hand, begins as an exaggeratedly feminized child, having made herself up into what she believes to be adult female sexiness. Evey’s initial positions in V for Vendetta, as both the woman-simulacrum and the threatened child, imply that she has already accepted her role as the other, minor term in a process of intersubjective identity formation through which she can never become the subject. Unlike Batman’s interlocutors, who must be reminded of their roles in relation to his unitary subject position, Evey needs to be pushed out of the comfort of having accepted her place a secondary term. While her initial position in the Shadow Gallery suggests that her simulation of adult sexiness is what she must be saved from, that giving her a “real” childhood is the ultimate goal, her return to childhood serves only as a precursor to her violent induction into the transcendence of subjectivity. Evey’s comfort at having V read her bedtime stories and perform magic tricks for her, in Moore’s text, represents a dangerous complacency. Indeed, the magic trick that V performs involves causing a rabbit to disappear from its cage, followed by the reappearance of the rabbit, but the disappearance of its cage. This trick quite explicitly represents the implications for subjectivity of Evey’s initial stay in the Shadow Gallery. Her disappearance from the world evacuates the potential for her to develop as a self. The conversation following the rabbit’s disappearance elaborates on the cost that must be paid in order for Evey to develop the ability to say “I”:
Evey: Bring her back!
V: Bring her back? But what if she is content where she is? Do we have the right to disturb her? Ahh…but I see you have already made up your mind. Very well. We replace the cloth…like so…and when next we whisk it away…Presto! The rabbit has returned! But now her home has gone. (Moore 95, ellipses in original)
Evey’s home that must disappear in order for her to acquire all the power of saying “I” is the home of childhood, the home of safety. But it is also the home of her assumptions about categories of identity. As V and Evey dance following V’s magic trick, Evey raises the fact that V has never tried to seduce her, and her theories as to why are mired in accepted social narratives of sexual disinterest as well as idealized structures of authority and protection. Evey hypothesizes “Perhaps there was somebody else. I’d understand if there was. Or…uh…perhaps you don’t sort of fancy women. But, like, there’s nothing wrong with that. Or perhaps…” to which V replies, “…or perhaps I’m your father?” (Moore 96, ellipses in original). While Evey expresses confusion about how V knows what she has failed to say, her assumption that V may well be her father fits with her position in a household where he is the protecting, adult presence. V, however, refuses to answer and, blindfolding Evey, promises her a surprise, then leads her out of the Shadow Gallery into the street where he abandons her with an empty figure of himself, a propped up cloak and mask, playing a recording of their early conversations.
Gibbons’ drawing literalizes the empty figure of the father and his law, and the tape concludes with a new statement: “I’m not your father, Evey. Your father is dead” (99-100). This line functions not merely as a statement of fact, but as an assertion that Evey, unlike the unruly Mutants, cannot be allowed to make herself subject to anyone’s law, even the law of her masked, vigilante “father.” And, to enable Evey’s divestment from her own fantasies of protection, she is abandoned to fend for herself in the cold, alone with an empty image of adult authority.
Evey only returns to V’s world after coming into more active contact with the overarching human effects of England’s repressive regime and only after living with a lover/protector who is killed by a rival for control of the trade in black market liquor. Evey, on the verge of shooting her lover’s killer, is grabbed from behind and taken away to what she (and we, having access only to her perspective) believes to be a state prison. There, shadowy figures shave her head and torture her in an attempt to make her sign a confession professing her complicity with V and positioning her as the victim of his sexual depredations. However, throughout her stay, Evey reads and rereads the autobiography, written on toilet paper, of Valerie, the prisoner in the next cell who has passed her the note through a hole in the wall. Valerie, who has been imprisoned because of her homosexuality, writes that, in coming out to her parents, “it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…but within that inch we are free” (Moore 156). While this “last inch,” described in a letter that is passed through a hole, seems to resonate with the phallic implications of Miller’s text, Moore’s text undermines such a reading by positioning this inch as a thing communicable between women, albeit facilitated by a man who is resolutely not the Father. Indeed, V goes to great lengths to replicate, but not invent, the precise circumstances of Valerie’s initial communication for Evey. And, of course, this last inch cannot be conveyed without the intermingling of gendered codes. As Valerie writes at the beginning of her autobiography, “I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me” (Moore 154). While there are certainly heterosexual implications in Valerie’s method of concealment, “A little one they didn’t find” suggests a morphological ambiguity that subverts any straightforward reading of the pencil, the note, or the inch as necessarily phallic. Valerie claims that every inch of her will die in prison, except this last inch, her integrity –her most precious possession, but also a transcendent principle that will survive even in death. In response, Evey comes to believe that “I know every inch of this cell. This cell knows every inch of me. Except one,” and so, when she is told that if she does not sign the confession she will be shot, she tells her captors that she would rather die (Moore 160). In this moment, Evey is released from her physical prison, from the prison of home, and from the prison of identity. As she wanders through the now open doors, she discovers that her captors are simply props and tape recordings, finally emerging back into the Shadow Gallery, where she expresses her rage at V for having been her captor. Here, V emphasizes the transcendent power of the entry into subjectivity, but, unlike Benveniste’s implication, this entry is neither painless nor easy.
Benveniste claims that “It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject” (224, Benveniste’s italics). He defines subjectivity:
[N]ot by the feeling which everyone experiences of being himself … but as the psychic unity that transcends the totality of the actual experiences it assembles and that makes the permanence of the consciousness. Now we hold that “subjectivity,” … is only the emergence into being of a fundamental property of language. “Ego” is he who says “ego.” That is where we see the foundation of “subjectivity,” which is determined by the linguistic status of the person. (Benveniste 224)
For Benveniste, in the act of saying “I,” we take on all the transcendent power of selfhood, of subjectivity. I always transcends you, but since the two linguistic positions are reversible, I is available to everyone (Benveniste 225). Moore’s challenge to, but also acceptance of, this model of transcendent inter-subjectivity in V for Vendetta highlights the degree to which you might be restrained from becoming I. Nevertheless, Moore never neglects to emphasize the potential comfort associated with being “you” and the degree to which this comfort serves a politically deadening function. Why, after all, should the rabbit reappear if she is comfortable where she is? Moore’s text associates the failure to come to be as a subject with a wide scale and pervasive complacency. But, ultimately for Moore as for Benveniste, subjectivity is a state that has much more to offer than comfort. As Evey initially works through the trauma of her torture and the discovery that V was her tormentor, V encourages her to acknowledge the moment of the formation and recognition of this I, or inch, or integrity:
V: You were in a cell, Evey. They offered you a choice between the death of your principles and the death of your body.
Evey: Oh. Oh, I can feel it…oh what is it…oh, I’m going to die, I’m going to burst…
V: You said you’d rather die, you faced the fear of your own death, and you were calm and still. Try to feel now what you felt then…
Evey: I…uhhh…oh God…I felt…huhhh…I…felt…like…an angel… (Moore, 171, ellipses and emphasis in original)
For Evey, as for V before her (whose transcendent subjectivity/integrity was catalyzed through contact with the real Valerie), this moment of entry into subjectivity is universally accessible (everyone has this inch), but universally difficult. Becoming a subject involves the painful sloughing off of all but that which transcends – the feeling of being an angel. Just as Robin’s reaction to the Joker’s murderous rampage implies the threat of a perverse adulthood, Moore frames Evey’s loss of innocence and entry into adulthood in erotic terms – “I can feel it…what is it…I’m going to die, I’m going to burst”–but the approaching explosion is not of danger, but of the freedom, the infinite range of that final, and only, inch. V tells Evey soon afterwards, as they stand on the roof in the pouring rain, “this night is yours. Seize it. Encircle it with your arms. Bury it in your heart to the hilt…Become transfixed…Become transfigured…Forever” (Moore 172, ellipses in original). This onset of transcendent subjectivity, which in Moore’s anarchist framework enables power, agency, and ultimately order, is permanent and perverse, both everyone’s and solely one’s own.
The Dark (K)night I/nside
While Robin figures the iconic Child, V figures subjectivity itself. Both positions are transferable, but the thing that is transferred has vastly different implications. Robin must always be the Child who serves as the interpretive catalyst that repairs the rifts within a subject position it can never attain. V, by definition, could be anyone who has prioritized her final inch. While V is certainly a special case within Moore’s text, he represents a potential for subjectivity that everyone has–a potential hindered only by minimal comfort and pervasive complacency. This fundamental disagreement as to who should or can be a subject is played out at the level of form through the ways in which Miller and Moore associate and negotiate subjectivity in the gutter spaces between panels. As Bruce Wayne senses the return of his Batman persona, the approaching bat appears across pages of strictly regimented panels that mirror the panes of Wayne Manor’s window and create panel divisions in the form of shadows across Bruce Wayne’s face (Miller 26).
In the final, longer, panel on this page, the bat breaks the division between panels, but this breakage does not yet effect a permanent change nor does it heal fissures that threaten Batman’s unitary whole. In order to truly be Batman, Batman must be one. He must be able to overcome the divisions that are visually reflected as panel divisions in order to be a subject. However, as we see when Batman vanquishes Two-Face, despite its window breaking entry, the bat is still envisioned as external to Batman (Miller 55).
In framing his own division as a “reflection” of Two-Face’s, Batman emphasizes the links that Miller draws between having a non-unitary subjectivity, or lacking a singular identity, and perversion, criminality, and insanity (55). Batman coalesces as the subject he needs to be (and needs to be through Robin) over the course of the comic’s splash pages. These are pages with no panels and therefore, ideally, no divisions. But before Batman meets his “Dick,” these pages retain a sense of ambiguity.7 The splash page on page 34 is interrupted by images of television screens. On page 52, Batman’s bullet-proof vest, exposed after he has been shot in the chest, consists of a repeating grid pattern that echoes the window panes and panel divisions we see earlier in the text. Finally, at the beginning of the battle during which Batman will meet Robin as Robin, we see an oddly hunched image of Batman springing into a battle (a battle in which he will be trounced) in front of the gridded pattern his tank’s armour (Miller 78). Miller ultimately emphasizes the unification of Batman’s subjectivity, enabled by Robin/Dick, through his development of these splash pages as the narrative progresses. Most notably, the first splash page in which we see Batman and Robin together is one in which Batman’s broken arm is literally bound by a piece of Robin’s cape (Miller 92).
Here, there is no reflection of the gridded comic page. Rather, Robin literally binds and bridges Batman’s wounds, and the figure of Bruce Wayne/Batman, although naked and therefore lacking the explicit labeling of his uniform, is forceful, upright, protective, and most definitively, undividedly Batman. And, again, Miller reinforces this rejection of compartmentalizing and divided images through his negative portrayal of the television, which confirms the ideal indivisibility of Batman’s, but not Robin’s, subjectivity. The television screen often functions as a panel frame within the text and, while Batman is discussed by commentators, he never appears on screen, although both Robin and the Joker do.
Moore, by contrast, much more explicitly embraces the gaps and pluralities that the spaces inherent to the comics page represent for interpretation and identity. Rather than stemming from a single, paternal figure of normal adulthood, representative of the law, who must follow the project of protecting the Child, subjectivity in V for Vendetta proliferates horizontally, without a singular source or embodiment. While Evey chooses her integrity over her life after reading her message from Valerie, V too has enacted his own entry into subjectivity through receiving the same note, from the real Valerie, thus undermining any sense of V’s unitary position as Evey’s educator. As V tells Evey after she thanks him for staging her escape from the prison of non-selfhood, “You did it all yourself. I simply provided the backdrop. The drama was all your own” (Moore 174). Yet, this entry into subjectivity involves a painful, inter-subjective reach into the gutter space between panels, reflected in the very concept of the walls between the cells across which Valerie’s toilet paper autobiography is able to travel. There are no splash pages in V for Vendetta and, as we make interpretive moves across the prison walls between images, we are given some direction, but what happens in the space in-between is all our own. We ourselves must read Valerie’s narrative along with Evey, but between the cells, as the image of the toilet paper disappears into the gutter space (Moore 154).
We must, at times, read Valerie’s story off of the image of the toilet paper itself. And, ultimately, our reading of it, of the nature of integrity, is ours, but also larger than anything. As Evey determines after V’s death, she cannot remove his mask, because no matter whose face she sees, it could not be equal to the transcendent I that he represents. The subject must literally be no one in order to be accessible to anyone.
Throughout Moore’s text, V’s racial and sexual identity is left resolutely ambiguous. While we know that he is male, Evey’s move into the position of V (and movement towards androgyny, which is ultimately more integral to V’s aesthetic than any strict gendering) indicates that sex, like other markers of identity, is what V must do without. Indeed, even V’s position as the originary model of this non-identitarian subjectivity is made ambiguous through his own position as the student of Valerie (another “V”). Yet, at the same time, Evey, who after her own transformation has become a visually androgynous figure, imagines herself finding her own, made up childish face under V’s mask, and so knows herself to be the next V. Nevertheless, the face of the feminized child Evey under the mask is still scared, wide-eyed, and unsmiling (Moore 250).
Her childhood self is a hint, but it is not, in itself, V. Only when Evey moves to the mirror do we see her become the iconic embodiment of generally accessible subjectivity. We see V’s “maddening smile,” but it is no longer a mask (Moore 250). Rather, this smile, the transcendent product of the traumatic process that a subject, that integrity, requires, is the expression on Evey’s face (Moore 251).
Ultimately, in Moore’s text, the transcendent, racially, sexually, and ambiguously gendered subject resides in potential in even scared childhood clumsily simulating adult femininity. However, this potential can only be realized through the sloughing off of tropes of adult protection, though a painful progress towards adulthood and the indefinite identity of the subject defined by a kind of integrity that does not suggest singularity or non-contradiction. Here, the Child does not serve to erase the ambiguity of gutter spaces but, through its very dissolution, reinforces once again the enormity and contingency of the interpretive acts that take place within them.
Miller, then, generally makes use of the space of the page to emphasize Batman’s ideal transcendent position. For Miller, the Child, containable within panels, eases the transitions between them and enables the splash panels positioning Batman, in full possession of Bruce Wayne’s hereditary, financial privilege and his own unassailable masculinity, as the only truly transcendent subject, empowered to protect the Child whose threatenedness enables political action. The sidekick’s role within such a narrative serves to validate the centrality of a subject position that it can never occupy. Robin must symbolize all that is at risk of and to be protected from perversity. He or she must project an idealized image of that-which-must-be preserved and represent the future for which Batman must fight, but that each given Robin, in dying or growing up, can never occupy. This complete, idealized image binds together the wounds in Batman’s identity and seeks to mitigate the questions that arise about Batman himself between the squares on the page. While the hyperbolic intensity of Miller’s text raises its own questions about the unassailability of Batman’s identity, these questions never quite overturn the degree to which the child’s interpretative and indentificatory availability acts to affirm such an identity. Robin enables Batman’s interpretive totality. Moore, however, holds on to the utopian, if traumatic and difficult, possibility that a resolutely ambiguous, and yet transcendent, subjectivity is available to anyone who would accept it, who would grow past the child into a perversely adult subject. Through envisioning childhood innocence and safety as a trap, a prison that prevents painful, but necessary transcendence, Moore posits our only possible escape as acknowledging and inhabiting the uncertain spaces between frames. And this, for Moore, is an inherently un-childish act.
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