Superhero Comic Books Are Good Literature! Part 7: The Dark Knight Returns

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At around the same time Alan Moore was weaving this dystopian yarn about superheroes, another man, Frank Miller, was doing the same thing and creating another piece of Good Literature.  Only where Moore created brand new characters (admittedly based on amalgamations of several classic comic book superheroes), Frank Miller was doing the same thing with one of the most iconic American literary characters—Batman.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was originally solicited as a four-issue prestige format (glossy covers, more pages) comic book series and was immediately popular amongst comic book fans and critics alike at the time of its publication in 1986. Furthermore, it has gone on to become the fodder for storylines and character development in both of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight films.  The story was born in 1984 when Miller realized there was one thing, and one thing only, that bothered him about this iconic character. In The Legend of the Dark Knight 10th Anniversary Edition, he said:

But that was just it.  That was exactly what came to bother me about Batman.  He wasn’t old, damn him.  Despite nearly fifty years of continuous publication, there he was, unwrinkled, handsome, perpetually twenty-nine.  Never a kink in that tree-trunk neck.  Never a moment fretting the possibility that his athletic prowess would ever fade.  Perpetually young, younger than Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan.  Impervious to time itself.

Thus, an allegorical tale, that just happens to be Good Literature, involving heroes in their old age was born.  Before we continue, University of South Carolina—Pembroke’s All American Glossary of Literary Terms online (yes I do carry a laptop in the inside pocket of my tweed professor’s jacket) defines allegory far better than I ever could, so let’s look at it:

allegory (AL-eh-GOR-ee): a narrative that serves as an extended metaphor. Allegories are written in the form of fables, parables, poems, stories, and almost any other style or genre. The main purpose of an allegory is to tell a story that has characters, a setting, as well as other types of symbols, that have both literal and figurative meanings. The difference between an allegory and a symbol is that an allegory is a complete narrative that conveys abstract ideas to get a point across, while a symbol is a representation of an idea or concept that can have a different meaning throughout a literary work.

When speaking of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, we must be constantly aware of the fact that it is indeed, an allegory.  This brings us to the moment I know you’ve all been waiting for, a subtle break from our definition.  In an allegory the characters are not, at least on the surface, what one could call “real.”  Rather, they are symbols.  But while reading this book one can be moved, one can be sucked in, and one can be shown ideas in a new light, thusly making it Good Literature.  But we’ll come back to that a little later.

Picture this: it’s been ten years since Batman (Bruce Wayne) was last seen roaming the streets of Gotham City.  Bruce Wayne is a mustachioed fifty-five year old, Commissioner James Gordon is days away from retirement, a gang calling themselves “the Mutants” is terrorizing the city streets, Batman hasn’t spoken to Robin I (Dick Grayson) in ten years, Two-Face (Harvey Dent) is getting out of Arkham Asylum with a completely refurbished face, and the Joker is on his tenth year of being catatonic.  There are no more heroes anywhere.  Some have been jailed, some have gone back to wherever they came from, some have disappeared, and some have signed up with the government.

That’s right again!  There are some similarities between this and Watchmen, particularly the fact that this is a dystopian novel where superheroes have been vilified.  It might just be every comic book fan’s nightmare-fantasy.

Come back next week and we will explore some more similarities and differences that make Batman: The Dark Knight Returns just one more example of Good Literature!


AE Stueve is a former regular contributor to Broken Frontier.  His first novel, The ABCs of DInkology is due out this fall from WSC Press and The Wave, a line of comic books he is editing, is also due out this fall.

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