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“To the Stables, Robin!”: Regenerating the Frontier in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

By Theo Finigan

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art … T. S. Eliot. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth”

Myths deal in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances. Angela Carter. The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History

By the time we reach the final section of Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, “Russia has taken the lead in the arms race” (4:16): a near-miss strike by the new “Coldbringer” nuclear weapon plunges Gotham City into darkness.1 Planes start falling from the sky and hitting buildings, in an eerie foreshadowing of the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001. Fire breaks out, and the general populace starts looting and creating mayhem. The remaining members of the sociopathic mutant gang escape from jail and spill out onto the streets, convinced the night is theirs. Suddenly, though, they hear hoofbeats, “like in a Western” (4:23): Batman has returned once more in order to save Gotham City from itself, but this time he is on horseback, bereft of his technological accoutrements. With nothing more than his wits, an impromptu posse, and a lasso, the Dark Knight-cum-Western lawman restores a semblance of order to the riven city. Finally, after a climactic face-off with his erstwhile ally Superman, Bruce Wayne apparently forsakes his crime-fighting persona altogether, in order to live the “good life” in his “endless”2 cave-frontier (4:47).

The myth of the frontier hero, then, is clearly a key facet of Miller’s text, as indeed Alan Moore (who is, like Miller, a noted comics auteur) suggests in his unpaginated introduction to the collected edition of the four-part graphic novel: “The importance of myth and legend as a subtext to Dark Knight [sic] can’t really be overstated.” Moore contends that the “later scenes of The Batman on horseback” evoke “the arrival in town of Clint Eastwood,” and thus demonstrate the text’s essentially “mythical quality.” Taking its cue from Moore’s analysis, this essay considers some of the ways in which Dark Knight engages with this foundational American “monomyth,” which, as John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue, is frequently articulated at the level of the cultural unconscious, in popular culture forms like comic books (48).3 Specifically, I suggest that Miller’s noirish Gotham City is a refracted version of the characteristic frontier space, identified by Lawrence and Jewett as the “threatened Eden” (22). Of course, Gotham has never seemed all that edenic. Miller’s version, in particular, is characterized by an atmosphere of “foreboding,” “doom,” and “decay” (Vaz 185). Nonetheless, throughout Dark Knight there is a pervasive sense that something at least approximating a vanished ideal is under threat.4

Gotham’s paradise lost is menaced both from without by the forces of a savage, evil “Other,” and from within by the progressive enervation of its own juridical institutions. Drawing on theories of hard-boiled masculinity, I argue that Batman’s heroic return marks an attempt to manage anxieties about the state of gender relations in a city no one seems “man enough” to defend. First suggesting that the visual representation of the body in pain is central to this recrudescence of overt patriarchal control, I then draw connections between a series of images of Batman’s symbolic rebirth or baptism, and Richard Slotkin’s influential analysis of the frontier myth as a narrative of racial conflict and “regeneration through violence.” Although Batman’s enemies in Dark Knight are superficially white, I point to a racial subtext implicit in the representation of the vicious “mutants,” whose speech mimics stereotypical “black” urban slang, and whose status as genetically deviant savages recalls a long tradition in science fiction and fantasy literature, in which the image of the apocalyptic city taken over by alien hordes gives metaphorical expression to certain repressed racial anxieties.

According to Moore, the mythic aura Miller lends to Dark Knight represents a response to what he perceives as the “new sophistication” of an increasingly mature comics audience attuned to the “social implications” of the hero genre. But if one of Miller’s goal in rewriting the Batman is the rejuvenation of the tired cliché of the superhero – the “same old muscle-bound oafs spouting the same old muscle-bound platitudes” (Moore) – then this ostensibly modernizing project is, ironically, accomplished through an appeal to an age-old trope, described by Richard Slotkin as “the most important archetype underlying American cultural mythology” (Regeneration 10). Moreover, given its fundamental connection with arguably racist and misogynist ideologies, the mythic inheritance that Dark Knight clearly draws on in its depiction of superheroism is troubling to say the least. My essay concludes by considering whether or not Miller manages to resist the pull exerted by the dead hand of the mythic past through an examination of his satirical depiction of Ronald Reagan as a trigger-happy cowboy president. Finally, I argue that the relation between Dark Knight and the “latent ideological power” (Slotkin, Gunfighter 2) of the frontier myth is a vexed one. Although in many ways a trenchant critique of hackneyed archetypes, Miller’s text arguably ends up, in Slotkin’s terms, merely perpetuating “the myth [it] pretend[s] to analyze” (Regeneration 4).

The urban setting of the majority of Batman’s adventures is, of course, both temporally and spatially distant from any real historical or geographical frontier. Gotham is, after all, a thinly disguised version of New York, the capital city of modernity (Brooker 48). Indeed, as with the escapades of many comic-book superheroes, Batman’s crusade has always contained elements drawn from the conventions of science fiction. Miller accentuates this fantastic heritage by arming Batman with a plethora of hi-tech gadgets and weapons, and placing the now middle-aged hero in a vaguely futuristic, dystopian setting in which he must confront an army of genetically-modified mutant punks—an alien invasion, of sorts. Yet as Andrew Ross points out, the representation of Gotham as a crime-plagued urban wasteland stalked by an alienated anti-hero also draws heavily on the world of hard-boiled fiction and film noir (31), which is itself a refracted version of the frontier myth.

According to Jopi Nyman, the literary tradition of the hard-boiled detective “draws on the adventure stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centur[ies] and the western in particular” (16-17). Similarly, as Slotkin points out,

the hard-boiled detective story began as an abstraction of essential elements of the Frontier Myth. The detective’s adventure follows a formula of heroic action similar to that of [Zane] Grey’s steely-eyed avengers […] Like the West of the nineteenth century, the modern city is a living entity capable of generating events (crime waves, scandals, new rackets) that may require incorporation with, and modifications of, the formulas of literary fiction. (Gunfighter 217)

As Frederick Jackson Turner noted at the close of the nineteenth century in his famous and influential thesis, the frontier as such never existed as a static entity, but rather comprised a series of “successive frontiers” (42). The replication of the frontier myth in the world of the hard-boiled hero – and, indeed, in Dark Knight – can thus be seen in the context of repeated attempts to form one symbolic frontier after another, in what might be seen as a peculiarly American manifestation of the repetition compulsion, played out within the political, social, and cultural registers.

Like the frontier narrative, then, which “always begins with a threat arising against Eden’s calm” (Lawrence and Jewett 26), Dark Knight opens with Gotham in a state of siege. Our first glimpses of the city convey a sense of an urban wasteland rapidly going to hell. The “big town” (1:6) is in the grips of a deadly heat wave (“ninety-seven … with no relief in sight”), and we see a cityscape that almost seems to be on fire: smoke rises from the clutter of buildings, while an apocalyptic sun, prophetic of the nuclear near-miss later on, pulses malevolently beyond the ruined silhouette of the “magnificent” Twin Towers (1:3). The social temperature is also rising rapidly. A newscaster tells us that “This heat wave has sparked many acts of civil violence,” the most diabolical of them being the “brutal slaying” of three nuns (1:3), followed by the callous stapling of a dead cat “to the door of the First Church of Christ the Redeemer” (1:6).

It is clear, then, that there is no redemption in store for Gotham. Its champion, the “Dark Knight,” has been retired for a decade, and is now a ghostly presence – a “Flying Dutchman” – in a city that has “given up” (1:4). The text’s ubiquitous media chatter articulates the pervasive culture of fear that has paralyzed the community: “We live in the shadow of crime […] with the unspoken understanding that we are victims: of fear, of violence, of social impotence” (2:10). This anxiety about imminent social collapse creates a millennial atmosphere in the streets, through which shoeless grotesques shamble, carrying placards claiming “WE ARE DAMNED” (1:4).

The frontier myth characteristically melds the kind of quasi-religious narrative of damnation and redemption evident in the opening of Dark Knight to a critique of impotent political institutions, while, in turn, positing the actions of a strong, self-possessed (invariably male) individual as the solution to the community’s difficulties.5 As a secularized version of “Judeo-Christian dramas of community redemption,” the American “monomyth” depicts a “harmonious paradise” not only threatened by external evil, but compromised by the fact that its public institutions have “fail[ed] to contend with this threat.” *Citation missing The myth of the “zealous crusader” who redeems paradise by vanquishing “evil” is thus inseparable from the depiction of “impotent democratic institutions that can be rescued only by extralegal superheroes” (Lawrence and Jewett 6, 8).

In Dark Knight this “impotency” is, indeed, coded in explicitly gendered terms. Gotham’s city fathers have become limp and emasculated figures, with the flabby, ineffectual mayor himself being the embodiment of this watered-down masculinity. Rather than taking matters into his own hands like a man, he exhibits a stereotypically “feminine” passivity by delegating responsibility to others, and incessantly pooling opinions while his city crumbles around him. Significantly, during an attempt to negotiate with the bestial (and macho) mutant leader, he is symbolically castrated by having his throat ripped out (2:35). With the social order no longer structured according to an authoritative patriarchy, the city’s “children” – the mainly adolescent mutants – threaten to take over.

Watching from the sidelines, an ageing and nostalgic Commissioner Gordon laments that Gotham has been enervated by the progressive moral decline of its leaders. The tough, inspirational wartime presidency of Roosevelt, who “[took] fear and [turned] it into a fighting spirit,” has given way to a succession of feeble leaders, “each one smaller, weaker … the best of them like faint echoes” (2:40). It is significant that, here, Gordon is talking to his replacement-in-waiting as commissioner of police, Ellen Yindel, a woman. Although on one level, the promotion of a woman to this position functions as a cynical public-relations gambit by the mayor’s office (2:16), it is also clear that, since Gotham City itself has been emasculated by political ineptitude and misguided social liberalism, the only one “man enough” for the job of protecting the city during the mutant crisis is a female cop with a short haircut.

A rejuvenated Batman circumvents the inadequate mechanisms of conventional law enforcement, replacing them with what Lawrence and Jewett would call the “golden violence” of “city-cleansing” vigilantism, which they see as characteristic of subliminally “mythic” films like Death Wish and Dirty Harry (107-08). For instance, after one of Two Face’s henchmen is released from police custody on a technicality, Batman interrogates him on his own terms—here, the “rights” that freed the crook from jail are irrelevant, since he has “a piece of glass shoved into a major artery” and is “bleeding to death.” The next frame shows a TV panel picturing a member of the public professing his support for Batman’s extralegal methods: “Batman? Yeah, I think he’s a-okay. He’s kicking just the right butts—butts the cops ain’t kicking, that’s for sure” (1:37). Batman has no time for the “stupid laws and social cowardice” that have made Gotham helpless (2:9). Where the city’s mayor misguidedly attempts to deal with the mutant threat through appeasement and negotiation (2:32), the Dark Knight is a consummate action hero who uses brutal violence to intimidate and subdue his enemies. During his first night out of retirement, for instance, he electrocutes one of the mutants (1:24), and cripples another “punk,” employing his meticulous knowledge of hand-to-hand combat techniques (1:31).

Further, unlike earlier manifestations of the character that eschewed the use of firearms, this Reagan-era Batman is heavily armed, employing, variously, a machine gun (2:8), a tank-like Batmobile (2:18), and a military assault helicopter (3:18). Miller’s protagonist is less a knight than “Rambo in a cape” (Sharrett 38), a vigilante who shoots first and does not even bother asking questions (2:8-9). By the end of the narrative, Batman has become more like Robocop, as he dons a technologically enhanced, cyborg-like suit for his final face-off with Superman (4:36).6 A further cinematic intertext here is the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry films, a series invoked by Miller through his use of language, as in such tough-guy lines as “Do you know who I am, punk?” (2:11). As Nyman points out, such “masculinized language” is a salient feature of hard-boiled narratives, in which its deployment is inextricably tied to the exercise of power: “verbal acts are combined with acts of physical interrogation and violence on the body” (140). By contrast, “If characters are unable to control their language in all situations, including those connected to living through pain, they are not properly masculine in hard-boiled fiction” (Nyman 143). Batman’s clipped dialogue is used here, in concert with the threat of physical violence, to intimidate a captured mutant, whose wail of terror as his predicament is revealed – he is suspended upside-down, from the top of a skyscraper – marks him as the emasculated other, unable to control his language (2:12).

Miller’s bleak view of Gotham as enervated dystopia, and his representation of Batman as its alienated, hyper-macho vigilante, closely correspond to Nyman’s description of the “masculinized vision of individualism,” which he claims is characteristic of that modernized “frontier” myth, the hard-boiled narrative (3).7 Nyman argues that “Hard-boiled fiction can be regarded as a symbolic representation of anxieties over gender which stem from its cultural and historical context,” and that “the genre aims at a reaffirmation of a disrupted masculine social order in various ways which extend from the privileging of a masculine language to a vision of social order based on masculine authority” (3). Batman’s “return,” then, is above all the reassertion of an ideology of hyper-masculinity. His violent crusade against the forces that threaten Gotham is explicitly gendered. Thus, a member of the pro-Batman faction in the media debate surrounding his activities lauds the middle-aged vigilante as a “man [who] has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been, in our hands. We are under siege—he’s showing us that we can resist” (2:10, emphasis mine). If Gotham’s crime wave often resembles a war, then it seems as though Batman is “the only one with the balls enough to fight it” (3:40).

In Dark Knight, these “balls” are frequently signified visually, through an emphasis on what Nyman would call a “physicalized sense of masculinity” (90). Images of Batman’s “phallic” body (Lang 226) dominate the text. Miller repeatedly draws attention to his protagonist’s exaggerated physique, with its impossibly broad chest and shoulders, trunk-like arms and thighs, and massive hands. Batman’s head is portrayed as being relatively small, an effect achieved by shortening the ears of his cowl, and exaggerating the size and squareness of his jaw (2:22).8 Moreover, it is as if the comic-book frame itself cannot contain Batman’s body. In his use of “splash” pages – poster-like images that take up an entire page, and “dwarf the adjacent images” (Collins 175) – Miller concentrates almost entirely on the figure of Batman, which creates a sense of the character’s being a huge and dominating physical presence.

Figure 1: The Dark Knight Returns, Book 1, p. 26. © 1986 DC Comics Inc.

The body in pain is also a crucial site for the construction of masculinity in Dark Knight. Batman is continually aware of the stress that his exploits are placing on his aging frame. In the initial euphoria of his return he does not even notice the “agony” of his “aching muscle[s]” (1:26). Only later does the pain catch up to him, as when he receives a massage from the laconic and unsympathetic Alfred (1:35), or when, perched high on a building, tries to ignore the “pain that’s three days old,” as well as the “dust” in his joints (1:41). Together with such self-inflicted pain, Batman also suffers severe physical punishment from his opponents at various points throughout the text: he is nearly beaten to death by the mutant leader (2:26), is shot by Captain Yindel (3:30), and has his ribs broken by Superman, before “dying” from a self-inflicted heart attack (4:40, 43). His body is frequently shown bruised, bloodied and bandaged (2:31, 2:37, 4:44), which, according to Nyman’s thesis, points to the centrality of violent competition as a means of masculine self-fashioning (96).

As Nyman argues, the ability to endure physical pain is implicated in the construction of gender positions: the hard-boiled male must be capable of living through pain if he is to reaffirm his masculinity (108). Moreover, this capacity for endurance must be demonstrated in the public sphere, in the form of a physical dominance over others that confers prestige within the group (Nyman 114). In Dark Knight, Batman’s ability to endure pain and still prevail in mortal combat with the mutant leader is crucially important, since the only way to defeat the gang is to “humiliate” their leader publicly (2:41). In this scene, Batman repeatedly infantalizes his enemy, calling him “boy,” before demonstrating his physical superiority by breaking his limbs. In awe of Batman’s prowess, the mutant gang disbands, and turns its attention to acts of vigilantism as the “Sons of the Batman” (2:46).

The image of Batman’s wounded body is repeatedly linked with scenes of symbolic rebirth. Early on a tormented Bruce Wayne revisits the alley where his parents were murdered (and, of course, where Batman was “born”). His reverie is, however, interrupted by a pair of mutants, who represent a “purer breed” of criminal, and before whom Wayne is temporarily helpless: “This world is theirs,” he admits (1:5-6). Later he is once more confronted by a sense of his powerlessness, this time in the face of hysterical media reports of urban violence, which seem to flood the channels (1:16). Disgusted, Wayne rejects the effete trappings of his millionaire playboy persona, weakened by “wine” and the “weight of age,” and gives himself over entirely to the domineering inner voice of his vigilante alter ego, which berates him for not being man enough: “You are puny, you are small […] you are nothing—a hollow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me […] smoldering, I burn you—burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful […] you cannot stop me but still you try—still you run” (1:17). Here, the over-civilized millionaire socialite capitulates to his bestial, savage side, which is the internalization of the demonic bat he once encountered as a child, and as such embodies the masculine ideal of being “the fiercest survivor—the purest warrior” (1:11).9

Thus, Batman is born again in the baptismal water of his shower, as, outside, a near-biblical deluge begins to break over Gotham like the “wrath of God” (1:19). The first actual image of Batman we see in the text – a splash page that shows him in dynamic motion, leaping through Gotham’s night sky – makes this motif explicit through our hero’s interior monologue: “This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle—broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would … but I’m a man of thirty—of twenty again. The rain on my chest is a baptism—I’m born again” (1:26).

Later, after suffering a near-fatal beating in his first encounter with the mutant leader, Batman returns to the womb-like Batcave, where, naked and bleeding, he once more encounters the monstrous bat that has shadowed him since childhood. Here, he receives the vampiric beast’s “grace” in return for his blood, which splatters on the cave floor (2:32). Batman is reborn once again: “I’m dying … but I can’t die … I’m not finished yet … and you’re not finished with me” (2:31, emphasis original). The rejuvenated vigilante subsequently puts paid to the mutant threat, and then faces off against his inverted doppelganger (Sharrett 36), the Joker. Entering yet another figurative womb – this time, the Tunnel of Love at the county fair – Batman is shot and stabbed, and seems on the verge of joining his arch-nemesis in death, as “the world … [grows] dark” (3:47). However, after literally passing through fire – he sets off plastic explosives in order to distract police (4:6) – Batman lives to fight another day, returning this time as the horse-riding lawman discussed in the introduction.

Figure 2: The Dark Knight Returns, Book 4, p. 20. © 1986 DC Comics Inc.

The recurrent motif of an often bloody rebirth indicates the status of Dark Knight as a narrative of “regeneration through violence,” a mythic plot that has been described as “distinctly American,” and which was inaugurated by the Puritan colonists’ narratives of “Indian wars and captivities” (Lawrence and Jewett 112). As Slotkin argues, Euro-American history begins, at least in its mythic retelling, with a separation from the Old World (and later, colonial) metropolis, followed by transplantation to an unfamiliar and “primitive” wilderness. The frontier myth thus articulates a “historical narrative in which repeated cycles of separation and regression were necessary preludes to an improvement in life and fortune.” *Citation needed, is emphasis in original? Moreover, this cyclical pattern of socio-cultural development is inextricably tied to conflict, since “To establish a colony or settlement, the Europeans had to struggle against an unfamiliar natural environment and against the non-European, non-White natives for whom the wilderness was home” (Gunfighter 11). Hence, the myth of “the redemption of American spirit or fortune” comes to be inseparable from a myth of regenerative violence (Gunfighter 12).

Since coexistence with the “savage,” non-White other is perceived as impossible, the only solution is seen to be extermination. At the same time, the myth functions through “psychological projection” to blame the subjugated peoples themselves for instigating the war of extermination, thus justifying “the morally troubling side of American expansion” through displacement and sublimation (Gunfighter 12-13). Premised on the basic “opposition of Whites and Indians,” the narrative of regeneration through violence becomes over time a “symbolic surrogate” for other instances of conflict between White America and a racialized other, such as slavery, lynching, and race riots, to name but a few (Slotkin, Gunfighter 15, 13). According to Slotkin, then, “tales of strife between native Americans and interlopers, between dark races and light, became the basis of [American] mythology,” meaning that “the Indian fighter and hunter emerged as the first of our national heroes” (Regeneration 18).10

As is usually the case with the mythic communities of the frontier, Gotham City is threatened by the perceived intrusion of an “evil Other” (Lawrence and Jewett 26). However, rather than conventional markers of race, the moral depravity of Batman’s enemies is ostensibly signaled by physical deformity and mental illness. In Dark Knight, Batman faces off against traditional foes such as Two Face and the Joker, who threaten Gotham with terrorism and mass murder, and whose evil otherness is explicitly inscribed on the body: a hideous, acid-scarred face on the one hand, and deathly, chalk-white skin, with a deformed, maniacal smile on the other. However, Miller’s original contribution in Dark Knight to Gotham’s “army of grotesques” (Vaz 155) is the gang of vicious juvenile delinquents known as the mutants. The mutants’ otherness manifests itself in their “distinctive costume” (1:16), shaved heads, and often-incomprehensible argot. They are, of course, also noted for their extreme savagery: they kill nuns without compunction (1:3), slaughter whole families for loose change (1:6), kidnap children (1:16, 2:6), and laugh while they murder a working-class single mother with a grenade (2:13). Able to acquire an illicit arsenal from a corrupt army general, they pose a very real danger: from a bunch of “noisy kids,” they mutate into a barbarian horde with the “strength,” “will,” and “guns” to launch an all-out assault on the city (2:17). Indeed, the hairless mutants have themselves, like grotesque babies, been reborn in a sense, though they are baptized in blood rather than rainwater like Batman (2:5). Where once they merely lurked around video arcades (1:22) and watched too much TV (4:17), the mutants now leave behind the trappings of disaffected urban youth culture in favor of the liminal margins of civilization-in this case, the city’s sprawling dump. From there they plan an apocalyptic purge of Gotham, after which they will remold the city in their own ghastly image.11

However, if Miller’s gallery of villainy is explicitly figured as white, race nonetheless remains a problematic (if occluded) subtext in many depictions of the Dark Knight. For instance, Ross reads Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, whose dark, apocalyptic tone is heavily influenced by Miller’s aesthetic,12 as an allegorical coding of the deteriorating state of race relations in late-1980’s America. The film opens with a “‘decent’ white Rockwellian family” facing a predicament that characterizes “everyday” black life: being unable to hail a cab (30). Similarly, Ross sees Jack Nicholson’s Joker as an inverted racial stereotype:

[he] plays his role in whiteface, and sports an involuntary rictus grin that caricatures, along with his new, pathologically delirious personality, the old minstrel blackface routine of putting on a happy face. […] [The Joker] also speaks in rappish rhymes, and moves his body in a shapeless jive to the rhythms of Prince’s soundtrack. (31)

Conversely, Batman himself becomes the embodiment of white, upper class “fear and moral righteousness,” a costumed vigilante “in the grand old tradition of the Klan” (32).

Turning his attention to Dark Knight itself, Ross contends that the text implicitly valorizes a “racially-specific” vigilante ethos, in its depiction of the “rogue” white male heroism. Conversely, “the uneasy liberal logic of [Miller’s text] demands that the space that would be stereotypically allocated to blacks-as-criminals, and, more important, the alternative space that could be allocated, in a social realist text, to the complex subculture of black ‘criminals,’ must somehow be filled by black invisibility” (34-35 *emphasis original?). Here, the “invisibility” of actual blacks in the narrative is read as a kind of hypocritical feint. Miller can have his right-wing cake with liberal icing: he gets to avoid accusations of out and out racism since his “deviants, mutants, delinquents and psychopaths are exclusively white,” while at the same time still “[drawing] freely upon stereotypes about criminal and deviant behaviour that are usually applied to black and other minority subcultures” (Ross 33-34).

For example, the mutants’ language is certainly suggestive of racial otherness, and appears to draw on some of the characteristics of stereotypical “black” urban slang. Thus, when a black man – all we ever see is his gun-toting hand – is busy assaulting a prostitute in a taxi, and hears Batman land on the cab’s roof, he reacts belligerently: “if is someone messin wif me” (1:21, emphasis mine). Meanwhile, across town, another assault waits for Batman’s intervention. Some mutants attack two teenage girls (one of whom will later become Batman’s new sidekick), and one announces his intention to “[s]tart wif the little one” (1:23, emphasis mine). Here, the linguistic markers of literal blackness in one scene are obviously echoed in the mutants’ speech patterns. Miller’s appeal to a kind of verisimilitude in explaining his use of slang – in other words, that the mutant dialect was derived, in almost anthropological fashion, from the dialect of suburban white youths (Sharrett 38) – does little to invalidate the basic point that certain minority stereotypes, however displaced they may be, function in Dark Knight as convenient signifiers of deviance.

Moreover, even the extreme savagery of the mutants might be read as an implicit marker of race. Indeed, in Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis suggests that racial anxiety – specifically, the white fear of dark races – is at the heart of the literary and cinematic trope of the apocalyptic city. Davis locates the origins of this anxiety in late-Victorian narratives of urban dystopia, which explore the potential for “racial cataclysm” as the dark side of social Darwinism (285-86). Extending his discussion to twentieth-century representations of the destruction of Los Angeles, Davis contends that the hordes of racialized others that repeatedly threaten the life of the city in science and survivalist fiction are figured as, variously, mutants, cannibals, apes, and insects (291, 293, 299).

Such characteristics are clearly present in the depiction of the mutants, who resemble razor-toothed apes – note the mutant leader’s “animal growl” (2:35) – and who congregate like vermin at the city dump, “a breeding ground for insects and rodents” (2:17). Moreover, mutant depravity also extends to cannibalism. For instance, appropriating the media-savvy tactics of contemporary “evil others” such as Osama bin Laden, their leader delivers a brutal video-taped warning, directed at the city fathers: “We will kill the old man Gordon. […] We will chop him. We will grind him. We will bathe in his blood. […] I myself will kill the fool Batman. I will rip the meat from his bones and suck them dry. I will eat his heart and drag his body through the street. […] Soon the world will be ours” (2:5). Although he is unable to devour Gordon, the mutant leader manages to “[rip] the mayor’s throat out with his teeth” (2:35). From this point of view, Dark Knight participates in the “malign syndrome” Davis diagnoses in contemporary American representations of urban Armageddon: the “ritual sacrifice” of the Satanic metropolis, in which non-white races function as scapegoats (355).13

Figure 3: The Dark Knight Returns, Book 2, p. 17. © 1986 DC Comics Inc.

But the non-white other is not the only figure sacrificed by the vigilante’s quest to redeem society through bloodshed. The myth of apocalyptic redemption is also rooted in the assumption that “female destruction” is the “cost of creation,” and thus betrays its allegiance to a reactionary politics of antifeminism (Lawrence and Jewett 323, 327). In Dark Knight, violent, active masculinity is contrasted with passive, subordinate femininity: gender relations are posited as a matter of a fixed and hierarchical binary. On the level of the image, the text presents masculinity in dynamic wide-angle; by contrast, the few female characters are usually contained within the tiny frame of the TV panel, since the majority of Gotham’s newscasters are women. If the media might seem to offer at least the potential for female agency, its discourse also serves to construct women as the passive object of an eroticized male gaze: thus, one exaggeratedly buxom woman reads the news while wearing a T-shirt that teases the male viewer with the slogan “all this and brains too” (2:32).

Still, the confines of the screen might well be the safest place for the women of Gotham. Beyond its bounds, one alternative is virtual invisibility: Commissioner Gordon’s wife, Sarah, is alternately depicted as just a nagging speech bubble, or as a featureless silhouette, kept safe from a conflagration by her husband’s brawny arms (4:32). Otherwise, in Dark Knight, women are almost exclusively victims of male (usually sexual) violence. The first three crimes Batman intervenes in following his return are directed against females, and are obviously sexual in nature (1:19-23). The alternative to rape seems to be utter annihilation, as in the disturbing murder of the working-class single mother by grenade-wielding mutants (2:13). Moreover, a similar fate is implied for the figure of the superheroine, a fact that well and truly problematizes any possibility of female agency within the traditionally puerile world of the comic book.

Miller conflates two prominent female characters from the DC Comics stables in his depiction of Selina Kyle, a retired Catwoman. Demoted to the marginalized position of brothel-owner from her already questionable role as Batman’s eroticized female double, she is discovered dressed in a disheveled Wonder Woman costume (tied up with her own lasso), after having been beaten and possibly raped by the Joker (3:32). The fact that Carrie Kelly and Captain Yindel, the two female characters who are actually allowed to do anything in Dark Knight, are decidedly masculine – the one is mistaken for a boy (3:35), while the other has short hair and a butch attitude (3:20) – suggests that female-ness as such is an untenable category in the aggressive, manly milieu of Gotham City. In Dark Knight, women exist almost exclusively as placeholders. Either way, they are passive objects of masculine action: soft bodies to be hunted down and mutilated by sexual predators, or screaming “damsels in distress” awaiting their rescue by an equally predatory male avenger-hero.14

For Moore, Miller’s emphasis on mythic details is absolutely crucial, in that it allows Batman finally to become “what he should always have been”: no longer merely a comic book character, he now attains truly mythic or legendary stature. However, in the light of the foregoing discussion of Dark Knight, this statement might appear somewhat troubling. Myths can be dangerous. Slotkin, for instance, argues that a people “unaware of its myths is likely to continue living by them, though the world around that people may change and demand changes in their psychology” (Regeneration 4-5). For Slotkin, myth metamorphoses into a vengeful revenant, whose dead hand “reach[es] out of the past to cripple, incapacitate, or strike down the living.” Speaking in terms of American cultural history in particular, Slotkin contends that “[i]t is by now a commonplace that our adherence to the ‘myth of the frontier’ […] has blinded us to the consequences of the industrial and urban revolutions and to the need for social reform and a new concept of individual and communal welfare.” In other words, since myth tends to encourage a reaction that is “essentially nonrational and religious,”15 it substitutes “total identification” for the analysis and critique of the actual material conditions that structure a society (Slotkin, Regeneration 7-8).

Similarly, Lawrence and Jewett argue that “In denying the ambivalences and complexity of real life, where the moral landscape offers choices in various shades of gray rather than in black and white,” myth “pictures a world in which no humans really live,” “a fantasy land without ambiguities […] where the evil empire of enemies is readily discernible” (48). In the wake of September 11, 2001, of course, this simplistic rhetoric of good and evil is as evident now as it ever was; witness the images that circulated widely in the media in the wake of the attacks, that framed bin Laden as a Western outlaw: wanted, “dead or alive” (Lawrence and Jewett 15). Thus, the US government’s so-called War on Terror “has carried an American mythic stamp from the very first moments,” meaning that terrorism is represented as simply evil, and, as such, bears no relation whatsoever to the material effects of US foreign policy (Lawrence and Jewett 15).

Lawrence and Jewett seem to advocate at least trying to do away with myth entirely. They argue that “It is time to break free from the violent mythology [of the superhero] and to create and sustain appropriately democratic institutions of justice to cope with the evils that will always continue to arise, even the catastrophes that we ourselves sometimes cause” (337). Of course, it could be argued that this rhetoric of new beginnings that “break free” from the constraints of the past is itself a myth, and belies its own ideological blind spots in the attempt to create an Althusserian subjectless discourse. Myths are, after all, “a primary attribute of the human mind” (Slotkin, Regeneration 4). What is required, then, according to Slotkin, is a “critical,” or “double,” awareness of myth (Regeneration 13), since, in the long run,

our choice is not between myth and a world without myth, but between productive revisions of myth – which open the system and permit it to adjust its beliefs (and the fictions that carry them) to changing realities – and the rigid defense of existing systems, the refusal of change, which binds us to dead or destructive patterns of action and belief that are out of phase with social and environmental reality. We require a myth that can help us make sense of the history we have lived and the place we are living in. (Gunfighter 654-55)

To what extent, then, does Dark Knight offer a critique – or, in Slotkin’s terms, function as a “productive revision” – of the potent mythology it otherwise so clearly draws on?

Of course, on one level, the text’s depiction of heroic violence is so exaggerated that it could at times be construed as parody.16 Visually, the depiction of masculine superheroism is often pushed to comic extremes, as when, for instance, Batman is goaded into a test of strength with the mutant leader. Here, he leaves the safety of the Batmobile to fight hand-to-hand, after homoerotically surveying his enemy’s “powerful” body through his telescopic sight, and admitting that he “[doesn’t] know if [he] could beat him” (2:21). Indeed, pricked by his macho pride, the Batman who emerges from his armored vehicle seems, pace Moore, to embody “the essential silliness of the comic book hero.” Replete with an over-inflated physiognomy, ridiculously square jaw, and slightly goofy grin, he seems less a serious reincarnation of the superhero than an anticipation, perhaps, of more recent parodies of the figure such as The Tick or The Incredibles (2:22). At moments such as this, it becomes difficult to read Dark Knight without a tongue firmly planted in one’s cheek.

The fact that much of the text is rendered in a sketchy, almost cartoon-like style – Miller calls it an aesthetic of “brevity” (Daniels 149) – also directs attention to a parodic or satirical emphasis. Indeed, at points Miller enters the realm of outright caricature, as in his depiction of a lunatic, trigger-happy President of the United States (like a good political cartoonist, Miller makes sure that we do not need to be given his subject’s name to know that it is Ronald Reagan—here, an obscenely preserved geriatric, his reign extended indefinitely into the apocalyptic future). Reagan first appears as a disembodied voice-over, giving Superman the order to bring the Batman crisis under control. Under a fluttering Star Spangled Banner, the doddering president, who confuses medals with mints and loves them both, speaks about the current vigilante crisis in metaphors that recall his real-life background as a star of B-movie Westerns: “Son, I like to think I learned everything I know about running this country on my ranch” (2:28). In broad strokes, Miller satirizes this cowboy president, emphasizing his cynical manipulation of the media during the “Corto Maltese” conflict, for instance, through telling slips of the tongue: “American tr—excuse me … heroic American troops are now engaged in direct combat with Soviet forces […] we sure as shootin’ aren’t running away […] we’ve got to secure our—ahem—stand up for the cause of freedom” (3:15, emphasis original). As with the “real” Reagan, Miller’s version speaks in heroic movie clichés – “We won’t make the first move […] but we’re ready to make the last” (3:27) – entirely suited to a media-saturated world where the exercise of political power has been divorced from any social or historical referent: thus, Reagan earns “five credibility points” – a problematic notion in itself – for the successful handling, not of a particular crisis as such, but of its “public perception” (2:27).

Taking our cue from its depiction of Reagan, then, we might read Dark Knight as a forceful, if not especially subtle, critique of its own cultural moment: the conservative 1980s, which witnessed the recrudescence of the myth of “national heroism” in proportion to increasing “racial retrenchment,” signified by the erosion of civil rights, the economic and social “‘genocide’ of the black underclass,” increased police brutality, and the reemergence of white supremacist organizations (Ross 33, 27). Indeed, the representation of Reagan as little more than a talking head, a Big Brother-like specter on the ever-present TV screen, suggests that Miller is, to a certain extent, aware of the potential dangers of a mythologized false consciousness. As Slotkin notes, the historical Reagan’s

claim to heroic character was based entirely on references to imaginary deeds performed in a purely mythic space […]. At the height of his powers he was able to cover his actions with the gloss of patriotic symbolism and to convince his audience that – in life as in movies – merely symbolic action is a legitimate equivalent of the “real thing.” (Gunfighter 644)

In Dark Knight, though, the “purely mythic” collides with the traumatic “real” of nuclear apocalypse. 17 Reagan’s vapid bluster is never more ridiculously hollow – or sinister – than during his final curtain call, when, dressed in a radiation suit, he delivers the “bad news” to the American people that a hard rain is about to fall (4:11). In other words, Reagan’s superimposition of a simplistic myth of frontier heroics to the complex scenario of Cold War geopolitics is shown to culminate, inevitably, in apocalypse: there can be no hope of regeneration through the kind of violence that can “split the very fabric of reality” (4:25) — at least, not without the presence of Superman as deus ex machina.

It is, of course, Superman, not Batman, who is the one depicted saying yes “to anyone with a badge—or a flag” (4:38), and who is thus the figure most closely associated with Reaganite politics. In other words, what makes Dark Knight so problematic is the fact that its central protagonist – its titular hero – is ultimately exempt from the text’s ostensible critique of mythic heroism. Miller does gesture toward an examination of the morality of Batman’s vigilantism to a certain extent, as in his inclusion of the media reaction to the Dark Knight’s return. In a series of recurring TV debates, the anti-bat faction argues that Batman is “psychotic,” “morally bankrupt,” “fascist,” and that through his extreme actions he creates the very problems he purports to solve, committing crimes “using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies” (1:33, 34, 39). Conversely, from the perspective of his supporters, Batman is “only taking back what’s [theirs]” (2:9). Ultimately, though, Miller leaves this debate unresolved, at once ridiculing the right-wing radicalism that wants Batman to “[g]o after the homos next,” and the hypocrisy of a bleeding heart liberalism that preaches tolerance from the safety of the suburbs (1:37). Commissioner Gordon’s memory of his perplexed reaction to the moral quandary concerning Roosevelt’s supposed foreknowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is exactly the position that Miller’s representation of Batman places the reader in: “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big” (2:40). 18

As Moore asserts in his introduction, in Dark Knight “Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it’s all totally different.” Batman’s final rebirth occurs after he fakes his own death by deliberately stopping his own heart during his battle with Superman. In a sense, Batman really does die in this scene, since, as he admits in thoughts to which Superman is listening in, “this … is the end … for both of us” (4:42). It is, after all, an unmasked Bruce Wayne who literally rises from the grave by being dug up by Robin/Carrie, and who promises the establishment that he will “stay quiet” in his underground lair. Nonetheless, the concluding lines of Dark Knight suggest the hero’s inevitable return, albeit in altered form. While admitting that Batman is “a crimefighter who’s [sic] time has passed,” Bruce Wayne looks forward to a future in which the Batman’s sons – members of the now co-opted mutant splinter group that wears the mark of the bat are numbered amongst his subterranean colonists – will “bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers” (4:47). Frederick Jackson Turner saw the expansion of the frontier as representative of the “perennial rebirth” of American society (38). Just so, Miller’s graphic novel ends by beginning again, with a “return” to Batman’s lost roots in a long, violent tradition of frontier survivalists.

Figure 4: The Dark Knight Returns, Book 4, p. 47. © 1986 DC Comics Inc.


[1] Dark Knight was originally published in four issues, from February to June, 1986. This essay refers to the “graphic novel” version (the single-volume, collected edition). Since the graphic novel edition maintains separate pagination for each of its four parts, my in-text citations include the part number followed by the page number; thus, “(4:16)” refers to part 4, page 16, and so on.
[2] Note that Turner’s frontier thesis places emphasis on the idea of ostensibly limitless, “uninhibited space” (62).
[3] See Slotkin, who argues that myth, at least in an American context, emerges primarily, and unselfconsciously, in so-called “sub-literary” forms (Regeneration 4).
[4] A nostalgic tone is evident in Commissioner Gordon’s memories of wartime America, with its strong leadership and community spirit (2:40). Of course, Bruce Wayne’s privileged and apparently bucolic childhood – revealed in a dream in which he chases a rabbit under the watchful eyes of his parents (1:9) – is shattered by two shots from a mugger’s gun. Yet, even this originary trauma is mitigated by nostalgia. The mugger who killed his parents is now an object of pity: “He was sick and guilty over what he did.” Wayne castigates himself for his naivety in casting the thug as “the lowest sort of man,” realizing that “all he wanted was money,” unlike the “purer,” depraved thugs of today, who kill for kicks (1:5-6). Appropriately enough, Bruce Wayne’s dreamlike reliving of the murder of his parents is rendered in muted grays that appropriate a sepia tone (1:14-16). Along with the arrangement of the frames, this coloring approximates the chiaroscuro effect of black and white cinema. Aptly, the scene takes place after the Wayne family has been to see Tyrone Power in the 1940 film The Mark of Zorro.
[5] Lawrence and Jewett note that although “a few women” have attained “heroic stature” in certain “nonviolent” mythic narratives, the hero of the American monomyth is “typically a male” (22).
[6] Miller’s interest in heroes augmented by prosthetic technology is also suggested by the fact that he is credited with writing the screenplay for the film Robocop 2 (1990).
[7] As Turner argues, one of the key “intellectual traits” resulting from the “conditions of frontier life” is a “dominant individualism” (61).
[8] This contrasts with other recent representations of Batman. See, for instance, Arkham Asylum, in which the Caped Crusader’s tall and wiry physique is topped by a cowl with exaggeratedly elongated ears—which is perhaps appropriate in a graphic novel which concentrates not on physical action, but on the inner workings of Batman’s psyche.
[9] See Leverenz, whose argument relates to Tim Burton’s film Batman (1989): “To save hapless bourgeois cosmopolitans from their high-tech powerlessness, Bruce Wayne becomes half beast and descends into the underclass, a downward mobility that also gives steel and grit to his aristocratic boyishness” (22).
[10] Moreover, this rhetoric of binaristic racial conflict found expression on the “New Frontier.” As Slotkin notes elsewhere, “Seven years after Kennedy’s nomination [and his New Frontier acceptance speech], American troops would be describing Vietnam as ‘Indian country’ and search-and-destroy missions as a game of ‘Cowboys and Indians'” (Gunfighter 3).
[11] Indeed, the key hero-figure in the myth of “regeneration through violence” is an individual who exists in the liminal space between civilization and savagery: he (or she) knows the “Indians” – or in this case, the mutants – but at the same time remains distinct from them, and thus acts as a mediator “who can teach civilized men how to defeat savagery on its native grounds” (Slotkin, Gunfighter 14). Miller’s Batman is a similarly ambiguous figure in relation to his “savage” enemies: he is a “reflection” of Two Face (1:47), assumes control of the mutants after defeating their leader (2:46), and inspires the identity of the mutant splinter group, the Sons of the Batman. Similarly, a fundamental link with his arch-nemesis The Joker is suggested by the fact that the latter’s emergence from a decade-long catatonia coincides with the end of Batman’s ten-year retirement (1:33). Miller himself admits that both Two Face and Batman are subject to the same “savage urges” (Sharrett 36).
[12] Meehan further notes that Warner Communications, the corporation that both owns DC Comics and released the Batman film, deliberately used the publication of Dark Knight to test market a “dark reinterpretation” of the character (53).
[13] In terms of the representation of race and gender in American cultural mythology, Lawrence and Jewett pose a related, and pertinent, question: “why do women and people of color, who have made significant strides in civil rights, continue to remain wholly subordinate in a mythscape where communities must almost always be rescued by physically powerful white men?” (8).
[14] Of course, the readership of comics has tended to be dominated by males (Parsons 78). Ross also argues that this audience is racially specific; in particular, he calls contemporary “adult comic books” – meaning graphic novels – “the whitest, historically, of all cultural products” (32).
[15] Note Moore’s description of Miller’s interpretation of the “familiar Batman origin sequence” as “religious and apocalyptic” (emphasis mine).
[16] Miller himself seems to authorize such a reading, claiming in an interview that in writing Dark Knight he “was having great fun with parody” (Sharrett 38).
[17] Lawrence and Jewett argue that one of the basic effects of the “mythic image of the West” is “to disguise empirical reality” (24).
[18] Gordon’s prophecy here, that Captain Yindel will come to understand the significance of his allegory, eventually comes true. As Batman restores law and order to Gotham after the apocalypse, Yindel (now promoted to Commissioner) orders her men to stand back, realizing that “He’s … too big” (4:24).


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—. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, CN.: Wesleyan UP, 1973. Print.

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