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Vigilantism and Violent Forms in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

By Matthew Holder

I think comics are at their best when they are provocative, and their outlaw nature is what I want to seek out in them.

—Frank Miller, in an interview with Will Eisner, Eisner/Miller, 178

I don’t think you understand the situation. You’re not in a position to negotiate. Let me show you.

—The Batman, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 67

On January 20, 2017, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, white supremacist Richard Spencer gave an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Washington D.C. During the filmed interview, in the words of reporter Paul P. Murphy, “a masked individual ran up, socked him [Spencer] in the face and fled” (CNN). The video went viral, the Internet produced its waves of reactions, and the phrase “punching Nazis” leapt to the forefront of our cultural lexicon. A day after the assault, the New York Times published an article titled “Attack on Alt-Right Leader Has Internet Asking: Is it Ok to Punch a Nazi?” According to the piece, many in the public sympathized with the masked assailant, praising his violence and equating it with cultural icons who also punched Nazis, namely Indiana Jones and Captain America, though there were detractors (Stack). Notably, former Captain America writer Nick Spencer (no relation to Richard) tweeted, “today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well” (qtd. in Stack). Eight months later, on September 17, 2017, a man was spotted in Seattle wearing a swastika armband and inciting harassment. Working together, “anti-fascist” Twitter users targeted the man. After a brief verbal confrontation, the Nazi sympathizer was “socked in the face by a much larger black man,” and the incident was again caught on video (Perez). An article reporting the incident in the NY Post notes that those users who participated in the hunt for the man have deleted their accounts, though one going by the handle @teethnclaws made the following statement to Buzzfeed: “‘I would say that we successfully identified, tracked and coordinated to neutralize a clear and present danger to Seattle. Whether we coordinated the actual punch or not . . . I, for one, applaud the anonymous hero'” (Perez). These instances, and many more like them, have staged an age-old conversation on the role of extralegal violence and the subsequent emergence of vigilante justice in our society, wherein the oppressive nature of a group or individual is seen by some as so heinous and contrary to the will of the people that it becomes justified. Further, the man who punched the Nazi sympathizer in Seattle was not simply a justified protestor, but, in the words of Twitter user @teethnclaws, he was a “hero.”

In its broadest scope, this essay seeks to better understand the role of vigilantism in our society and how our culture perceives such violence. Specifically, how representations of violent vigilantism manifest themselves in popular art. At the intersection of extrajudicial violence, social protest, and popular culture there is Frank Miller’s 1986 text, The Dark Knight Returns (DKR). Whereas the existing scholarship on Miller tends to focus on how the text fits within conventional literary and theoretical frameworks, this essay brings Miller’s form to the forefront, drawing attention to his use of line, space, and frame. Using DKR as a case study, I will argue that the comics form is particularly well-suited to conduct a literary form of social critique, specifically because its operating technology mirrors that of the vigilante. The comic form enables its audience to simultaneously participate in and critique the text’s narrative and meanings; through its use of negative space, gutter transitions, and the reader interactivity of page turns and panel transitions, one of the consequences of the comics form is a certain degree of reader responsibility in terms of animating the narrative. In this case, it asks the reader to evaluate the cost of violent vigilantism and the conditions through which it emerges. Indeed, the form itself performs a type of violence, in as much as its practitioners wield an ability to subvert the audiences’ agency by capitalizing on the reader’s objective distance from the work. Reading DKR through its form enables audiences to confront the ways in which Miller draws the reader into their own crises of subjectivity, moments in the text where the reader’s illusive control and will are subjugated to the Batman’s violence. Miller lulls the reader into a false sense of security, only to frame them as murderer or victim with the turn of the page, the scan of the eye, and the self-driving momentum of successive static images. If indeed our systems of justice have failed, Miller’s text implicates the reader as at least tacitly responsible, critiquing those passive observers who operate from a safe distance, unwilling to act when confronted with abhorrent abuses of power.  In this way, the comic form provides a novel and underexplored dimension to the relationship between politics, art, and ideology.

Influencing these arguments is Andrew Hoberek’s recent book, Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics, a work dedicated to the elements that make the comic medium unique, emphasizing “its own formal components, its own conditions of production, and its own history” (28). Hoberek’s work is illuminating because it considers Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s pivotal text on its own terms, pointing out that to compare it to literature—as many do—is an exercise that starts from a dubious premise. With its inclusion of words and images, comic books hold their own status, separate from but related to literature, and “we must remember that this difference is a difference not of achievement but of kind” (Hoberek 28). What’s more, Hoberek, echoing the work of Bart Beaty and Charles Hatfield, understands that “the study of comics must be truly multidisciplinary, in the sense that it brings different disciplines into dialogue and thus requires their practitioners to confront their most basic assumptions” (6). It is implicit, then, in the proceeding argument, that literary scholars must set aside one of the most fundamental “basic assumptions” of the field when considering the comic book: the privilege of the word. By emphasizing DKR‘s formal elements, I contribute to and push forward the emerging poetics of the comic form. Additionally, by highlighting a work of the superhero genre, I follow Hoberek’s argument that this historically maligned, conventionally derivative genre can not only be controversial but also generative of productive questions related to the intersection of form, genre, and politics.

This essay builds successively in three parts. First, I briefly outline some of the formal properties of sequential art, drawing on the work of Hillary Chute, Scott McCloud, and Nick Sousanis. Second, I introduce the historical, political, and ideological intersections of vigilantism, the frontier, and violence, noting how Miller’s text interacts with these elements. Third, I move into several sustained close readings of key moments in DKR that graphically render Miller’s subjugation of both the hero and the reader. Key to these readings are the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, thinkers who emphasize how a work of art’s materiality intersects with the role of the audience. Through these readings, I argue that Miller’s text works to implicate the reader in the Batman’s violence, introducing questions of real-world culpability and complicity into a genre originally envisioned and continually perceived as escapist. Ultimately, I argue that DKR composes an environment that demands and manifests violent vigilantism, introduces a hero whose motives are compromised and whose own agency in the narrative is questioned, and, most importantly, structures moments that sadistically exploit the comic form to implicate the reader in their own victimization. I close the essay with a brief return to Richard Spencer’s assault and the Twitter hero of Seattle, considering the episodes again in light of Miller’s text and the questions it raises on extralegal violence, vigilantism, and agency.

Comics, Form, and the Reader

In a recent essay centered on the Batman, ideology, and film, Aidan Lockhart dwells on the tendency of scholars to focus on content analysis over any extended examinations of a work of art’s operating mechanics. Indeed, much of DKR scholarship focuses almost exclusively on content over form.1 For Lockhart, however, to more accurately decode any work’s ideologies its form must be considered equally alongside its content, the two elements informing and creating each other rather than the latter subjugating the former. “In order to understand how encoded justice ideology leaps from the screen into the audience,” Lockhart writes, “we must look beyond content … to consider semiotic form and structure—the very grammar through which we decode ideological messages” (218). When any text’s “semiotic form and structure” are centralized, its engagement with social justice and authority takes on a greater depth and complexity. In other words, my purpose here is not to explicate a content-centered discourse on DKR‘s themes and ideologies but to interrogate how the comic medium stages those conversations in its unique way—how the relationship between comics and politics is its own specific interaction with its own constituent rules, forms, and outcomes. When framed according to “the very grammar” of the comic medium, DKR shifts from surface-level considerations of vigilantism, heroics, and justice to encompass the more dynamic questions of agency and culpability within those same spheres.

In her essay “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative,” Hillary Chute highlights the visual and verbal duality of comics, noting that “a reader of comics not only fills in the gaps between panels but also works with the often disjunctive back-and-forth of reading and looking for meaning” (452). Channeling Scott McCloud’s own insights into the form’s use of panels to disrupt space and time, Chute states that “a comics page offers a rich temporal map configured as much by what isn’t drawn as by what is: it is highly conscious of the artificiality of its selective borders, which diagram the page into an arrangement of encapsulated moments” (455). Because of the gap-filling, suggestive nature of comics, the form asks for a high level of reader interactivity and, consequently, introduces a corresponding level of reader responsibility and culpability. McCloud argues that “the reader’s voluntary closure is comics’ primary means of simulating time and motion” (69). Thus, when McCloud presents two panels, one encapsulating the action of an imminent axe murder followed by an enclosed cityscape with a graphic scream tearing through the sky, it is the reader’s imagination that provides the necessary leap in logic between the two moments in space and time (see fig. 1). The reader becomes “an equal partner in crime,” for “all of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot” (McCloud 68). In comics, a reader must work to actively integrate the visual and the verbal; it is an interaction that hinges on the imagination of the reader, a task that might seem overwhelming if not for the form’s own limitations. 

Comic panel of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.
Figure 1. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 68.

Unlike film, a form to which comics are often compared, the technology of sequential art represents itself as static. In film, the viewer is wholly subject to the rhythms of the director and editor. On the other hand, the materiality and form of comics present words and images in a mode of fixed stasis: “the form of comics always hinges on the way temporality can be traced in complex, often nonlinear paths across the space of the page; largely this registers in both words and images, although it doesn’t always have to” (Chute 454). Any movement or energy in the narrative comes from the reader’s eye and the physical manipulation of the text. Many comic artists, Miller certainly among them, are keenly aware of the effect of the turn of a page and will often compose a striking, dramatic image that releases the tension created in the previous page. Comics offer the reader a chance to consider a series of text-images in their totality on the page, where the spatial relationships and graphic renderings blend together into one cohesive (or discordant) vision. The form grants its reader a degree of narrative manipulation that is unique to itself. Furthermore, because of its static nature, the reader controls the pace of intake and critique, which presents an opportunity for contemplation and reflection ideally suited for broaching difficult and controversial questions. Nick Sousanis, in his graphic exploration of how comics grant us access to a different way of thinking through its unique perspective, writes, “it’s a participatory dance, an act of the imagination, in which the reader animates and transforms the static into the kinetic . . . And brings it to life” (61). For Sousanis, there is an explicit epistemological link between the comics’ author and the reader, the two agents working with and through each other to manifest a collective, collaborative vision.

 In DKR, when the American flag begins a frame-by-frame transformation into Superman’s symbolic yellow-and-red “S,” the act is predicated on the reader’s own participation in this ideological link between the American Superhero and destructive, interventionist politics. Consequently, a level of culpability is leveled at the reader: how to respond or read a moment where the distorted American ideal is twisted into a symbol of hope, a devolution that is stitched together within the audience’s own imagination as they provide the energy and narrative action to the scene (see fig. 2)?2 

Figure 2.
Figure 2. Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns, p. 84. Script and pencils by Frank Miller, inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Lynn Varley.

To use Sousanis’s language: what, exactly, has the reader brought to life? And what level of uncomfortable culpability is rendered when the reader animates the most powerfully destructive force in the text in service of corrupted politicians? It is, of course, Miller’s work, but as a dedicated and immersed reader engages with the comics form, as their eyes scan the individual words, images, panels, and pages to provide the necessary energy and momentum, the text’s theme of questioning assumed wisdom may become internalized, or at least considered closely. Displaced temporality, the integration of word and text, a reader’s synthesis and participation, and its own materiality: these are the elements with which the comics form operates, and Miller exploits them to a particularly perverse and challenging effect; his form of activism and resistance is sequential, static, and visually striking, and he marshals these elements to model the chaotic landscape in which such actions arise, question the valorization of vigilante violence, and implicate his readers’ passivity through a form of sadistic manipulation. 

Throughout this essay I will assume several reactions of the idealized reader imagined by the comics form and Miller himself, but, for all of the involvement of the reader in reading comics, I do not mean to suggest that the reader is wholly enthralled by the comic or that Miller is somehow exerting an indefatigable force of will. As with any media, reader response and interpretation are subject to innumerable forces; I do not hold that Miller controls his readers. However, I do argue that Miller builds a text in which the opportunity for his audience to feel implicated is present and encouraged. Miller believes that “it’s up to the reader to control the time” in comics, and he builds his text from this assumption: that the reader participates in the storytelling to such an extent that they can figuratively frame themselves within the text (Eisner and Miller 178). My assertion that Miller’s compositions suggest a type of sadism is less an indictment of his personality than it is an observation that DKR contains sadistic elements that move beyond the content itself and manifest themselves in the form. Whether a reader engages with the text in this way is, of course, impossible to discern, but Miller assembles the pieces and imagines the possibility that such a reader could be produced.

Vigilantism and the Frontier

In his survey of the roots of violence and vigilantism in the U.S, historian Richard Brown writes, “vigilantism arose in response to a typical American problem: the absence of effective law and order in a frontier region” (22). In many ways, vigilantism—instances of illegal popular sovereignty—fulfilled a necessary function in the west, removed as it was from the institutions of the urban east coast; however, as the country underwent rapid urbanization, vigilantism shifted from filling the void typically occupied by law and order to resisting those same institutions, now grown corrupt and oppressive. Importantly, whether in an urban or rural environment, it is “the absence of effective law and order” that stimulates “self-preservation, the right of revolution, and popular sovereignty,” which are the operating principles of vigilante movements (Brown 115). The frontier, then, is linked not to geography but to sites of injustice and unrest amongst the citizenry, and these extralegal actions by private citizens can yield both constructive and destructive outcomes (Brown 118-131). Yet, Brown writes, “perhaps in the long run the most important result of vigilantism has been the subtle way in which it has persistently undermined our respect for law by its repeated theme that the law may be arbitrarily disregarded—that there are times when we may choose to obey the law or not” (132-133). While Brown offers no complete moral judgment of vigilantism, his tone suggests a denunciation of the tradition, even as he acknowledges the benefits occasionally produced. 

William E. Culberson is more optimistic, arguing that “law is an intellectual process for social control,” and as such is subject to radical transformations; if law is an abstract, then its form and function are inherently tied to collective conscious decisions, not indomitable forces (5). Vigilantism in society is a method of egalitarian reclamation, enforced upon a society whose existing judicial order has strayed too far from the will of the collective. It is “a breaking of the existing law to serve the future for the law; it is a disintegration of a lawless, victimizing inegalitarian social set for its reintegration to include more or broader social values” (Culberson 8). In Culberson’s formulation, vigilantism is a natural process for society. Where Brown identifies the disruption of law and order to be the fundamental flaw of vigilantism, Culberson sees its natural strength and purpose. As for the violence that can accompany extralegal civilian behavior, Culberson relegates such right/wrong and good/bad determinations to history: “the line dividing violent acts from criminal acts is a matter of cohesive social values, aspirations, and the tests of time that define motives for political or private purposes” (9). 

These are the same questions that Miller’s characters must grapple with. As one observer reports in DKR, the Batman is “a ruthless, monstrous vigilante, striking at the foundations of our democracy—maliciously opposed to the principles that make ours the most noble nation in the world—and the kindest” (Miller 65). There is an uncanny echo in the character’s cry against the Batman and what Culbertson identifies as the role of the vigilante, one that he argues is socially positive and culturally healthy. Miller’s Batman “strik[es] at the foundations of our democracy,” while Culbertson’s conception of the vigilante operates through “a breaking of existing law.” In both instances, the vigilante pursues the destruction or interruption of the existing political system and in extreme cases, the abolition of the state itself. Vigilantism’s beneficiaries, then, are defined by their preexisting relationship to the judicial system. Whether it be Miller’s “striking” Batman or Culbertson’s “breaking” vigilante, when these extrajudicial individuals upset the institutions that protect the empowered, their methods are construed as contrary to democracy, “maliciously opposed to the principles that make ours the most noble nation in the world.” Brown would be quick to point out that it was violent revolution—vigilantism—that directly contributed to the formation of the U.S. during the American Revolution; in many ways our democracy was founded with and through violent upheaval, providing a positive-outcome model for the fetishization and romanticizing of the violent vigilante, from the Hollywood outlaw to the Batman (4). However, to ensure a reader’s sympathy for a fictional vigilante character, their actions must appear not only virtuous but inevitable; the world in which they interact needs their intervention.3 For their actions to be considered justified, they must operate in Brown’s historical “frontier region.”

The world of DKR reflects such a dystopic, frontier vision of 1980s America. The 1984 controversy over the “Subway Vigilante” Bernhard Goetz looms large in Miller’s tale of extrajudicial violence, and the escalating Cold War nuclear tensions and conservatism of the Reagan administration are critiqued to parodic extent. Gotham itself is an urban wasteland, a nightmare of rampant crime that echoes New York City’s own crime rate, the city where Miller lived and was himself repeatedly mugged (Blackmore 44). Miller’s parody of Reagan and his representation of a tense U.S-Soviet relationship lends his frontier construction an added global dimension that continues to capitalize on and evoke his era’s paranoia; his frontier is fantastic, but as with any speculative fiction its relevance is tied explicitly to the degree in which the fantasy is a refracted version of reality.4 The image of an enflamed, silhouetted Superman crashing through a Soviet jet is dynamic and chilling as a piece of graphic art, but its political implication is felt as a haunting echo of real-world President Reagan’s rhetorical question delivered in a speech dated March 23, 1983: “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” (Miller 120; Reagan). 

In DKR, Miller’s parody of Reagan—a bumbling, incompetent leader—assures the American people in the face of potential nuclear fallout: “don’t you fret . . . we’ve got God on our side . . . or the next best thing, anyway . . . heh . . .” (119). Referring to Superman, the text’s fanciful vision of the “Star Wars” satellite defense system is envisioned in Reagan’s 1983 speech (see fig. 3). Fictional Reagan’s inability to navigate the growing nuclear tensions between the U.S. and Soviet forces, relying instead on the brute, omniscient force of Superman, generates a destabilized justice and security system on a global scale, typifying the chaos-fueled environment in which vigilantism is required.

Figure 3.
Figure 3. Frank Miller, DKR, p. 119. Script and pencils by Frank Miller, inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Lynn Varley.

However, Miller’s text complicates the vigilante’s role amidst a frontier region by offering up disparate models, including Superman’s, whose methods and motives differ wildly, challenging any black-and-white definition. Indeed, Miller’s caricature of Bernhard Goetz, considered a real-life vigilante, is pompous and cruel, and his actions are directly punished by the Batman. Amidst a city-wide blackout and rampant looting, Miller’s stand-in shoots and kills a man, offering an explanation whose underlying premise and justification sound eerily similar to that of Goetz: “One of them made a move for the gun. He was black—I’m no racist, but I thought he might have a knife. I did what anybody would’ve” (181). This response is juxtaposed against another civilian’s response, much more penitent in tone, and when the Batman arrives to bring peace to the anarchy, the Goetz-like character is seized and thrown through the air. “Broke three ribs,” he laments later, “and this brace isn’t for laughs. Whenever they catch that lunatic, he’ll hear from my attorney. Who gave him the right?” (Miller 183). The character’s assertion of human rights rings hollow against his murder of a black man only a page earlier, and Miller’s early readers would sense a clear condemnation of Goetz’s behavior and justification.5  These caricatures of Reagan and Goetz not only situate DKR firmly within the political and cultural sphere of the mid-eighties, but also reveal Miller’s conscious attempt to evoke the chaotic, lawless, and confusing nature of a frontier. 

The world of DKR is hermetic and hyperbolic, but its insistence on blurring the line between reality and fiction engenders an awareness within the reader that what they’re reading, what they’re co-creating, is more than pulpy superhero fare. Miller’s fantasy frontier calls into being the Batman in the same way that Brown’s historical frontier called into being real vigilantes. Both ideologically and historically, then, the frontier sits between the fantasy of heroic masculinity and the reality of a lawless citizenry. The vigilante-hero attempts to bridge these poles, taking advantage of their mythic position to gain popular support to achieve judicial reform; in the genre construction of the vigilante superhero, the hero is needed to save the people. But how do we read a hero like Miller’s Batman whose existence is a product of such extremism, both violent and political? Is it appropriate or ethical to valorize a hero whose hyper-violent and authoritarian method could be read as simply mirroring those he reacts against? Vigilantism involves the usurpation of established (elected or otherwise) authority; it is the replacement of the rule of law for an individual will—often representative of marginalized, oppressed voices. But where is the line between hero and oppressor? And what if the vigilantism is laced with violence? To pose these questions for the reader, Miller stages a disintegrative society and generates the requisite frontier iconography. Then, by capitalizing on the uniqueness of the comics form, he introduces elements of personal loss and audience culpability as consequences to violence and vigilantism.6

In other words, Miller’s frontier makes possible a compromised heroics, and as readers participate in and form this frontier, energizing its corrupted vigilante-hero, they enter a dystopic vision of urban America not as willing agents but as passive observers. Miller exploits this detachment of the reader with a sadism refracted from his Gotham and his Batman. To put it another way, Miller’s frontier simultaneously manifests and corrupts the Batman and the reader, the hero and the citizen, by compromising their ability to control their own narratives. It is this loss of agency—both created by and operating through violent oppression, tyrannical forces, and primal instinct—that Miller’s form seeks to capture. 

Compromising the Hero

Violence necessarily subjugates the will of its victims. Whether it is state-sanctioned or extra-legal, exerting violent force upon another body inherently diminishes or destroys that person’s capacity to control their lives. The framing, color, and line of DKR work to inscribe this crisis for both the Batman and the reader. To begin with the titular character, Miller’s Batman revels in this violence, fully aware of the power it grants him over his enemies. But he himself is a victim of violence, his will also subject to the force of another: the death of his parents and his psychologically violent encounter with a bat while alone in a cave. That Bruce Wayne was both scarred and inspired to fight crime by the death of his parents is nothing new, but Miller transforms the iconic encounter with the bat into something novel. Miller’s bat encounter adds a layer of malevolence to the Batman’s ethos, introducing elements of demonic imagery and overwhelming darkness into one of the hero’s formative moments. 

Conceived as a nightmare recollection, a young Bruce Wayne falls down a well, illustrated in a thin, vertical panel of mostly black ink. There is no floor in the panel, as the young Wayne descends into the graphically represented sounds of numerous bats; Miller here illustrates a sinking consciousness into literalized, horrific iconography. The young Wayne is swarmed by bats until a singular force emerges. “Then . . . something shuffles out of sight,” Wayne thinks, his face divided in four panels as time seems to stand still, “something sucks the stale air . . . and hisses” (Miller 18). This page of Book One ends with a black frame, detailed only with a small pair of glowing eyes and fangs. The border of the panel bleeds off the page, an effect that conventionally works to create a moment of lasting, symbolic impression. Working with colorist Lynn Varley and inker Klaus Janson, Miller introduces the moment where a young Wayne’s consciousness is subjugated to this primal power in suggestion, asking the reader to move the bat through the frame and onto the next page. Through a series of four-paneled rows, we encounter the young Wayne cornered in the background, while the bat’s wing and claw systematically emerge and envelop the foreground. As the frame tightens on Wayne, the bat’s form draws closer and darkens the panel, and the black ink on the page literally washes out the wide-eyed, terrified Wayne. Miller opens the second sequence with a tight close-up of the bat, its face and yawning mouth barely contained in the frame, as if threatening to escape. Proceeding panels find the young Wayne completely engulfed in the shadow of the bat. The penultimate panel to the two-tiered, four-panel sequence articulates clearly this symbolic subjugation, as Wayne reflects on the bat “claiming me as his own” (Miller 19). Wayne, reflecting on the nightmare whilst naked and vulnerable in the retired Batcave, can still feel the pull and lure of the creature: “and he laughs at me, curses me. Calls me a fool. He fills my sleep, he tricks me. Brings me here when the night is long and my will is weak. He struggles relentlessly, hatefully, to be free” (Miller 19). At this moment in the narrative, Wayne is resistant to the bat’s influence. Of course, the Batman must return, but Miller has cleverly reframed Wayne’s resumption of the mantle as one of oppression and victimization, an irony given the hero’s modus operandi. In Miller’s world of DKR, violence is not only pervasive, excessive, and necessary, but also a domineering, subjugating influence.

 Wayne is taken when his “will is weak,” bombarded with violent news stories and guilt-ridden flashbacks of his parents’ murder. His inevitable return to the cape-and-cowl is accompanied by thick, black lines and deep shadows as a familiar, primordial bat crashes through a window in a panel that bleeds out of frame, which is immediately followed by ominous storm clouds and the low rumble of thunder that scrawls its way across the page. The transformation into subjugation is complete: the Batman rendered an unstoppable, malevolent force of nature. And, like nature, the Batman is not particularly concerned with human rights. After chasing a criminal through a window, the man’s arm pierced with glass and bleeding, the Batman coolly dismisses his victim’s appeal to legal rights (see fig. 4). 

Figure 4.
Figure 4. Frank Miller, DKR, p. 45. Script and pencils by Frank Miller, inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Lynn Varley.

Through words juxtaposed underneath the man’s slumped, bloody body, the Batman responds, “You’ve got rights. Lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy” (Miller 45). It is a disturbing moment that introduces a level of realism to the American superhero comic, an instance that challenges the basic assumption that the Batman’s actions are justified. As the reader’s eye tracks across the panels from the bleeding figure to the text below—a formal choice by Miller that turns the balloons themselves into a kind of dragging weight—a moment of seemingly righteous, no-nonsense justice is turned on its head as the real-world effects of lawlessness and violent subjugation settle in. The last panel of this scene is a telling smirk from the Batman, and the reader now finds themselves culpable in the transformation of a depression-era hero into a sadistic oppressor. Indeed, the Batman’s language strikes at not only the man’s civil rights but also the foundational principles of liberal democracy, positioning himself as less a champion of the people and more an autocratic despot.

Tim Blackmore links the text’s political ideologies with those predicted by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Blackmore argues, “both authors trace the same path: from the decay of democracy and the birth of the authoritarian state to the loss of individual rights, the rise of the charismatic leader, the mass which follows him, and the future of the ‘state'” (37). His essay oscillates between Tocqueville’s predictions and the how DKR brings them to life. Both Tocqueville and Miller understood the inherent tension between individuals that necessarily surrender their own right to exact justice and the system that promises to see it done through judiciary and executive powers; the Batman in Miller’s text, and according to Blackmore, exists within that tension. The power the Batman wields is entirely his own, which naturally diverts power from the state, a siphoning of authority that can lead to despotism and fascism. However, “Miller deliberately calls the Batman a ‘social fascist’ in order to deflate the term,” because, at the end of the day, the Batman-as-hero narrative could not sustain an association with tyrannical leaders (Blackmore 53). For all of his fame and influence during the mid-eighties, Miller’s experiment with the character needed to maintain commercial viability; linking the Batman explicitly with fascism during the anxiety of the Cold War would ultimately undercut not only the heroics of the genre but the bottom line and public image of DC comics. However, Miller certainly pushed the boundaries of the character and stretched the generic constraints. Echoing Miller’s own stated beliefs, for Blackmore the Batman in DKR functions as a symbol warning society of its own precarious nature when it comes to the potential collapse of democracy, and, perhaps ironically, the Batman also serves as a representation of the importance of the individual will; it is, again, a tension between society and the responsible citizen, the only tenable solution being one of balance. Blackmore does not answer whether that balance is struck at the end of Miller’s novel, but his analysis usefully outlines the theoretical and political antecedents of DKR, a necessary contribution to a text whose realm is firmly situated in the political.

This tension between social stability and anarchy, not to mention the Batman’s extralegal, violent methods, prompts the denizens of Gotham to endlessly debate his upending of social order. Dr. Wolper, a psychologist in Miller’s world who purports to have rehabilitated Harvey Dent—the alter-ego of the villain Two-Face—is the Batman’s staunchest critic. Earlier, in Book One, Wolper points out that “Batman’s psychotic sublimative/psycho-erotic behavior pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics, like Harvey, are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns. You might say Batman commits the crimes … using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies” (47). Wolper’s arguments are often countered by Lana Lang, a supporter of the Batman, and many readers familiar with the superhero genre are inherently allied with the hero, generally not called on to question the ramifications of the hero’s actions. However, Miller complicates the heroes’ operational safe space.

After capturing Harvey Dent—whose horrific facial scars on one side of his face have been mended through plastic surgery—Miller composes a sequence of panels that seem to confirm Wolper’s initial diagnosis (see fig. 5). Through a conversation between the two men, the third panel in the first of two four-panel rows features the grotesquely scarred face of Dent. It is a representation that is not physically accurate but symbolically attuned to Dent’s psyche, reinforced by the Batman’s internal monologue that places his recognition of Dent “as he is” against the image of the disfigured face (Miller 55). The second row of panels feature the Batman, and once again the third panel is a nightmarish illustration, this time a frightening image of a bat. By stacking the panels vertically, each with a mental representation of the men’s internal drive, Miller creates a causal link between the Batman and his victims. His repeated use of the bat image seen earlier on page nineteen draws a map for the reader to reconsider the Batman’s motivations. Here at the end of Book One, Miller frames a double sublimation of a conscious subject to the primal, nightmarish power of an unstoppable will. The Batman—conceived as a symbol for justice—becomes a perversion of an oppressed body forced into extrajudicial barbarism, all in an earnest attempt to rectify the inability and failure of both cultural and justice systems; he is caught in a cycle that started when he was six years old, alone in a cave, experiencing the horror of an approaching bat with “eyes gleaming, untouched by love or joy or sorrow . . . breath hot with the taste of fallen foes . . . the stench of dead things, damned things” (Miller 19). When the Batman sees the depravity of Dent’s mind, he recognizes it within himself, realizing that he’s witnessing “a reflection,” pressed back into the service of violence and retribution (Miller 55). It is not a recognition powerful enough to deter the Batman’s war on crime, but for the reader, Miller’s strategic use of panels and their spatial relationship to one another forces them to confront ideas about vigilante motivations, their own idealizations of justice, and conceptions of individual agency in the wake of domineering social forces. 

Figure 5.
Figure 5. Frank Miller, DKR, p. 55. Script and pencils by Frank Miller, inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Lynn Varley.

Framing the Reader

If the characters and narrative of DKR speculate and debate on the nature of vigilante justice, lawful power dynamics, and victimization, then the form itself seeks to impose those same elements onto the reader. At times, the readers, ostensibly in control of the pace and movement, finds themselves in the position of the Batman’s victim, a fate they paradoxically have wrought upon themselves through their very participation in the comic book, through the scan of the eye and the turn of a page. To reiterate Chute, “a reader of comics not only fills in the gaps between panels but also works with the often disjunctive back-and-forth of reading and looking form meaning” (452). Miller’s text, then, is ambiguous not because his incarnation of the Batman is a violent sadist—though he is—but because he only exists through the reader, a reader who, despite being positioned as the victim in certain scenes, continues to animate their hero, their Batman, their attacker. In this way, the structure of the text itself creates an opportunity to read sadism as a form.

To understand the sadism on display in Miller’s text, it is useful here to consider the work of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Both thinkers are especially helpful in discussions of comics form and theory, as each of them discuss interactions between art and its audience’s ability to separate themselves from the experience, to objectively consider whatever the artist displays and control the level of rational intake. Miller believes that comics are “essentially a cold medium,” which does not refer to its inability to elicit excitement or emotion but the control surrendered by the artist to the reader; the energy in comics is not one of swept-away, visceral friction but one of cool, built-up potential, to be stored and released at the reader’s expense (Eisner and Miller 178). Whether Miller’s own reading of how his form operates is an accurate calculation of reader experience is up for debate. It is entirely possible that one of Miller’s readers never finds themselves sadistically manipulated by the text. Regardless, Miller assumes this “cold medium” quality of comics and works to exploit it. 

Brecht notices a similar effect in his analysis of the Chinese theater. He argues that the Chinese actor appears “cold” to western audiences because “the actor presents events of considerable passionateness, but his delivery remains unimpassioned” (Brecht 131). This “unimpassioned” delivery results for the audience in what Brecht terms the “alienation effect” or the “effect of estrangement” (130). In Chinese theater, the stage and its actors display a level of meta-awareness that creates an emotional distance between the emotions of the characters and the audience. However, “this is not to say that the spectator experiences no empathy whatsoever” (Brecht 131).  Rather, Brecht continues, the spectator “feels his way into the actor as into an observer. In this manner an observing, watching attitude is cultivated” (131). In Chinese theater, a play’s action is presented in a cold, sterile way so that the audience can access and analyze the play’s material and meaning as they might a documentary or an historical event, which is where Brecht identifies its utility: “among other effects, a new theatre will find the alienation effect necessary for the criticism of society and for historical reporting on changes already accomplished” (136). New revelations in form, then, lead to corresponding revelations in one’s perception of reality.

In his formative essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin describes the ways in which technology has also redefined the role of the audience. Because in film the actor’s performance is filtered (literally) through the camera’s lens and not personally witnessed on the stage, “the audience [can] take the position of a critic, without experiencing personal contact with the actor” (228). “Consequently,” Benjamin writes, “the audience takes the position of the camera,” anticipating Brecht’s “alienation effect” in the Chinese audience: the viewer as an objective, cold, distant observer (228). What’s more, Benjamin argues that the mechanical process inherent in film “lends itself more readily to analysis” (236). Film, with its hyper-scrutiny of any given situation, either captured at twenty-four frames-per-second, slowed down, or through “the enlargement of a snapshot . . . reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (Benjamin 236). Indeed, “a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye” (Benjamin 236). While comics are neither film nor the theater, its form engenders a similar response in the audience insofar as its materiality allows for a closer, more objective analysis of its reality.

There are, however, some differences. Benjamin cautions that film can easily lend itself to distraction and thus to fascistic propaganda digested through an unwitting and intellectually staid audience. Such an outcome results from film’s editing mechanics. In comparing film to a painting, Benjamin argues that the latter “invites the spectator to contemplation”; however, “before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested” (238). Comics and the mechanics of sequential art interrupt this disassociation between film and viewer by slowing down the narrative to a series of static paintings, as it were. While Miller laments his medium’s lack of the “visceral, technical power of film,” it is precisely this lack that allow comics to hew closer to Benjamin’s contemplation rather than distraction (Eisner and Miller 178). 

What, then, is sadistic about Miller’s text? Ultimately, Miller’s framing of his idealized reader as victim results from the exploitation of his own form’s mechanical properties, a structure that traditionally works to position the reader in the cold, distant, and safe position of Brecht’s theater observer and Benjamin’s ideal film viewer. At any time on the page this idealized reader is aware of where they are in relation to the narrative; they are looking at the action through Miller’s camera and they control the pace. Miller, however, manipulates this objective distance between art and audience by lulling the reader into a false sense of security, generated through any reader’s comfortable familiarity with the form, and then, through the turn of a page or scan of the eye, he frames the reader as the Batman’s victim, offering no method of recourse. Miller does not “make it possible for the audience to understand the motives behind it,” because the viewer unknowingly animates a point-of-view that is no longer distant and objective (Brecht 136). Reader agency is subjugated to Miller’s whims, a sadistic move on par with his own incarnation of DKR‘s titular hero.

I identify two key moments in which DKR encourages the reader to read themselves into the position of the Batman’s victim. That they are subtle, slow-reveal revelations suggests Miller’s careful craft behind these moments and his desire to ease his audience into a sense of complacency and relative safety. En route to stop the Joker’s murderous rampage through a carnival, the Batman reflects: “From the beginning, I knew . . . that there’s nothing wrong with you . . . that I can’t fix . . . with my hands . . .” (Miller 142). Miller lays this text over a splash page of a falling Batman, a heavily muscled hulk descending toward the camera, the impish Carrie Kelly falling beside him (see fig. 6). 

Figure 6.
Figure 6. Frank Miller, DKR, p. 142. Script and pencils by Frank Miller, inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Lynn Varley.

The Batman’s coiled fist is pointed at the audience, and his eyes hold the reader’s gaze. Taken in context with the Batman’s hardboiled, violent inner monologue, the hero’s eye-contact with the reader becomes unsettling, as if the protagonist in a film turned toward the camera and threatened the viewer. Miller cements the reader-victim alignment with the next frame, a shot of the Joker firing into the sky, assumedly at the Batman. The move from the bottom of page 142 to the top of page 143 reveals the perspective of the splash page (that first-person position the reader only just held) belonged to the Joker. The effect is quickly dissolved, but for a moment Miller subtly frames the reader’s perspective with that of the Batman’s chief villain, a decision that the text encouraged them to produce; the sequence operates under a delayed reveal, the true perspective of the splash page only ascertained after the fact, by which time it is too late, and the reader has already been set up to “read” themselves into embodying the Batman’s victim. 

Earlier in DKR, after the Batman learns that the mutant gang has acquired military-grade firepower, he tracks down a member and questions him. However, this information is only delivered subsequently, and the actual interrogation begins with no prior explanation over black panels with colored word balloons; the Batman’s balloon is positioned above the mutant gang member’s, a well-ordered, confident bubble leering over the sloppy, broken shape of the victim’s. The Batman intimidates the man with fear and physical violence: “I’m the worst nightmare you ever had, kind that made you wake up screaming for your mother . . . You’ve got a lot of teeth left. And I haven’t even touched your tongue . . .” (Miller 67). These threats are compounded by the man’s inability to see – “c . . . can’t see, man . . . What’s . . . on my face . . .” – a parallel position to the reader, who is only privy to the graphic dialogue (Miller 67). A link is created here between the victim’s own experience and the reader’s: an inability to determine the exact situation. This equal positioning between reader and the Batman’s victim is strengthened in panels ten through twelve of the exchange, as a sliver of what appears to be a widening cityscape begins to take form behind narrowing black lines; panel twelve features three distinct black shapes, which one can assume to be fingers. The mutant member is silent through these three panels, and the relationship between the reader and the Batman’s victim is solidified at the nexus of simultaneous, intersecting revelations: the victim’s dawning horror at being suspended hundreds of feet above the city and the reader’s understanding that Miller’s frames reveal a first-person perspective, that their position is that of the victim.

  The effect is only complete with the turn of the page, and the reader brings to life one of the more iconic moments of the text, an image of the Batman hanging upside down from a stone gargoyle, hand pulled away from the screaming man, himself hung and tied upside down. The effect is one of disorientation between the reader and the work of art, as Miller exploits the “coldness” of the medium to mask the sequence’s (and the reader’s position within it) inevitable and frightful conclusion (see fig. 7).

Figure 7.
Figure 7. Frank Miller, DKR, p. 68. Script and pencils by Frank Miller, inks by Klaus Janson, colors by Lynn Varley.

Miller holds that the comics’ reader operates from the safe position of an objective observer, each frame acting akin to a camera lens from which they can voyeuristically animate the narrative. However, with the interrogation scene Miller removes the reader’s capacity to understand the action, therefore compromising their ability to truly exert their control, their will, over the form. Instead, Miller’s form seeks to exerts its own control, and the reader potentially finds themselves in the position of the Batman’s victim. It is the reader that animates the pulling away of the Batman’s fingers, the reader that turns the page to reveal the terror, but it is the form that seeks to subjugates their control, even while requiring their seemingly active, willful energy. Here Miller implicates the reader for both the mutant member’s victimization and their own, and the safe position of passive observer is denigrated, because only through its participation has the reader felt noncommittal, without culpability. Miller’s use of form takes away the reader’s ability to know the narrative’s outcome and ,in doing so, cleverly aligns their role with that of the scared, confused mutant gang member. To reiterate Dr. Wolper’s argument, the reader becomes “drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns” of the Batman’s violent, subjugating actions, suffering the same crisis of agency that the Batman suffers at the hands of the demonic bat creature (Miller 47). Unable to foresee the outcome, the reader is forced to rush headlong into their own victimization, “bent to the matrix of Batman’s pathological self-delusion” (Miller 66).

* * *

Wolper’s argument against the Batman—”you might say Batman commits the crimes . . . using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies”—lingers ominously over the entirety of the text, and it is a point prescient in our own political moment (Miller 47). How much upending of law and order can be justifiably introduced into society, even an unjust one, before its effects challenge the fundamental human rights whose initial subjugation prompted the extrajudicial response? Miller’s text is unable to answer this question, and it settles for an ending that somewhat undercuts the dehumanizing nature of violence that the text establishes. Having faked his death at the hands of Superman, Bruce Wayne has effectively killed the Batman, and he proceeds to dedicate his life to training an army of vigilantes, gathered from the remnants of Gotham’s formally criminal youth. Wayne thinks, “here, in the endless cave, far past the burnt remains of a crimefighter whose time has passed . . . it begins here—an army—to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers” (Miller 199). The last frame of the comic is Wayne’s face, rendered with an unusual amount of depth that suggests a brighter future. In the end, though the vigilance will continue, the primal rage of the Batman is no longer needed, and Wayne’s humanity has won out. It is an overly sentimental ending that contrasts sharply with the tone of the rest of the text, though it maintains a commercially viable image of the Batman as ultimately a force for good and self-control. 

There was, however, an alternate ending that Miller originally conceived during the production of DKR. Its existence is preserved as an “extra” feature in the 2002 edition of the text.7 Miller’s first ending is decidedly less optimistic, but it maintains the text’s representation of the destabilizing force of violence:

The remains of Wayne Manor seem tiny on the floor of the Batcave. The ashes that were once Batman’s arsenal coat a patch of the cave floor. But the cave itself is enormous beyond belief. It stretches back, and down into the earth, for miles. Far down, far from what was once Batman’s headquarters, a hundred torches burn.

Lit by the torches, on a throne made of living oak, sits the Batman. Robin stands at his side. Behind them, in military formation, holding the torches, stand the Sons of the Batman.

Bruce Wayne is dead. The Dark Knight lives.

And he has learned that there is more wrong with the world than crime. (Miller DKR 2002 edition)

Ending on an image of the Batman sitting atop a throne and flanked by a torch-bearing army of at-risk youth fundamentally undercuts his heroism, and its transformation into the much more positive, published ending speaks to the work’s generic limitations. But the unpublished ending accomplishes the slow, dehumanization process of vigilante violence that Miller builds throughout the text and perpetuates a frontier where individuality is subsumed in service to a myth-making narrative, where discernible faces and choices devolve into a faceless mob and hard-truth aphorisms from a singular, unstoppable archetypal figure. Whatever the case, and with Miller’s sadistic flair, DKR formally resists and complicates our admiration for any form of vigilante violence that undercuts human rights. 

But the question remains: is it okay to punch a Nazi? Certainly Batman thinks it is appropriate (and does so), but the text challenges us to ask more productive questions when we consider that his violence is justified solely in the context of a hermetic, chaotic frontier space of failed institutions and innocent bloodshed, “plagued by worse than thieves and murderers” (Miller 199). The question, then, like the text, is necessary but ultimately incomplete. DKR is unable to provide viable solutions to authoritarian societies or individuals, beckoning instead for us to move beyond its representation of rampant, violent heroism in the name of social justice. Nevertheless, Miller’s text helps us frame the terms of the debate. Punching Nazis may well be justified, but within what type of environment does such justification occur? What are the circumstances that led to the “hero” in Seattle?  What does agency look like in our own political moment? And with the Batman and Miller’s reader in mind, to what extent, if any, is there a link between victim and vigilante, between resisting oppression and becoming oppressive? DKR may be anchored in mid-eighties culture and paranoia, but its presentation of unchecked corruption and inequity that gives rise to vigilante heroics encourages us to interrogate the degree to which our own society may or may not mirror the same injustice and whether our current discourse of vigilantism, heroics, and violence exists on a historical continuum that finds some precedent in 1980s Cold War panic. 

Today, heroics again resembles punching Nazis, an iconographic association that extends back to Jack Kirby’s famous 1941 cover of the premiere issue of Captain America, the all-American hero laying out Adolf Hitler with a powerful right hook. In 1986, Miller gave us his version of heroes punching Nazis, only this time the hero was a type of corrupted sadist who reveled in vigilante violence, himself a victim to an indomitable, primal force. Unlike Kirby and Joe Simon’s Captain America, the embodied spirit of a wholesome, do-gooder, Miller throws a wrench in our conception of heroics by complicating their motivations. His Batman is simultaneously a hero, a vigilante, a victim, and a violent oppressor. As a confluence of these seemingly incongruous characteristics, Miller’s Batman obscures the intersections between violence and justice, vigilantes and victims, ultimately representing such dichotomies as fluid, transmissible, and contingent. The impact of DKR rests in its ability to manifest formally these complexities, and its portrait of an imperfect hero navigating a dystopic America continues to challenge, to inspire, and to frighten.

End Notes

[1] A survey of the critical conversation regarding DKR demonstrates the text’s flexibility of interpretation and approach, but it also draws attention to the tendency of scholars to privilege any consideration of the work that emphasizes literary models of analysis over sustained exploration of a comic book’s unique formal properties. From the first serious study of the text in 1991, DKR has been examined through the lens of such theoretical heavyweights as Alexis de Tocqueville (Blackmore), Lacan (Wandtke), Nietzsche (Dace), Sedgwick (Tipton) and Slotkin (Finigan). Labels of modernism and postmodernism have been applied to the text seemingly interchangeably, and, more recently, Miller’s own political statements and his later work have been used as opportunities to reexamine DKR (Kowalik and Croci). Both Moore and Cates have considered Miller’s engagement with genre, Moore’s 1986 essay being perhaps the first critical appraisal of the text. My departure from DKR scholarship, then, is primarily one of method.

[2] References to page numbers in DKR correspond to those provided in the 2002 edition.

[3] In attempting to mythologize the Batman, to elevate him from a man in a costume to an idea, Finigan notes that Miller is not entirely successful at escaping Richard Slotkin’s warning that a revitalization of a myth without an attuned “‘double’ awareness” can result in reaffirmations of dated ideologies and discriminations (para. 34).

[4] For an extended examination on vigilantism and superheroes during the Reagan administration (including Miller’s DKR), see DuBose, pp. 915-924. For Miller’s critique of Reagan, see also Finigan para. 37.

[5] In condemning Goetz and seemingly valorizing the Batman, Miller here appears inconsistent, or at least ambiguous, in articulating his own personal politics regarding vigilante violence and the persecution of human rights. If there is a line, it appears to be whether human life has been taken, something the Batman refuses to do. We must also be careful to identify the Batman as a “hero” in the traditional sense, as his own motivations and agency appear suspect.  

[6] It should be noted that while Miller draws on cultural and historical frontier ideologies, his frontier is also, quite literally, drawn. His is an illustrated frontier, envisioned in a variety of ways that take advantage of the comic medium: bloated caricatures, black-out gutters that symbolize nuclear fallout (167-184), one-page vignettes of ordinary citizens terrorized by cruelty and injustice (58; 69; 89; 90), the evocatively posed figure of the Batman astride a black horse (172; 182), the small, seemingly inconsequential frame of a plane’s shadow against the side of a building (170), or the twisted, skeletal image of Superman pierced by a burst of lightning (178).

[7] Its reproduction is accompanied by the following note from the editor: “The plot for the last chapter … is particularly interesting for the way it builds to a subtly different and dark ending. The changes that became the published version gave us truer and more emotionally satisfying versions of both Batman and Superman the climax in general” (no pag.)

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