Superhero Comic Books Are Good Literature! Part 8: The Dark Knight Returns, an Allegory

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Predominately, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a symbolic tale of an age and what it can do to a man.  It is something like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, except where Arthur Miller’s protagonist is a weakling on the verge of a suicidal meltdown due, in part, to his age, while Frank Miller’s protagonist is a man of power on the verge of a re-emergence into his former life due, in part, to his age.

Told in four parts (Book One: “The Dark Knight Returns,” Book Two: “The Dark Knight Triumphant,” Book Three: “Hunt the Dark Knight,” and Book Four: “The Dark Knight Falls”), each part’s title lays out simply what will take place within the confines of that chapter.  In the first part, readers are shown what goes on inside the mind of the now retired Batman as he wanders through the streets of Gotham, ending up in Crime Alley where his parents were murdered forty years earlier:

. . . while in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need . . . .  I leave my car in the lot.  I can’t stand to be inside anything right now.  I walk the streets of this city I’m learning to hate, the city that’s given up, like the whole world seems to have.  I’m a zombie, a Flying Dutchman, a dead man, ten years dead . . . .  I’ll feel better in the morning.  At least I’ll feel it less . . .  It’s the night when the city’s smells call out to Him, though I lie between silk sheets in a million dollar mansion miles away . . . when a police siren wakes me, and for a moment I forget that it’s all over . . . but Batman was a young man.  If it was revenge he was after he’s taken it.  It’s been forty years since He was born . . . born here.

As the city disintegrates around him, as men he knows in his heart to be madmen beyond redemption are released from prison, Bruce Wayne begins to feel Batman clawing his way out of the darkest depths of his soul.  Dreams begin to take hold of his psyche.  He sees the night of his parents’ murder.  He sees the afternoon when he was six years old and he fell into an underground cave only to be greeted by a glaring, angry bat.  He sees the night, as a young man, when he first went out to fight crime and failed miserably, the night that bat visited him again and he realized he needed an image that criminals would fear.  Allegorically speaking, Bruce Wayne, at this juncture, symbolizes the elder hero longing to “get back in the game.”

Because this is a highly stylized fantasy world the elder hero does in fact, “get back in the game.”  The Dark Knight returns in time to stop a crime/murder spree by the recently released and “cured” Two-Face.  In allegorical terms, Two-Face represents everything that Batman, or any hero, super or otherwise, could have become had he let his darker half have more control.  Knowing this, when they finally meet face to face again, Batman sees the only thing he can see in Two-Face:

Two-Face: And you . . . you took your joke about as far as it could go . . . got the whole world to smile at me . . . got them all to keep their lunches down when they saw my . . . my face . . . saying I was cured . . . saying I was fixed . . . .  Take a look . . . have your laugh, Batman—take a look!  Take a look . . . .
Batman: I see a reflection, Harvey.  A reflection.

Since the story is allegorical in nature, the characters are symbols rather than complex individuals.  But this does not lessen the story at all. In fact, when telling an allegory, simple characters are the way to go because, as mentioned above, the allegorical nature of the piece allows for simple characters to embody basic “types” or in some instances, actual people such as the farm animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, who represent actual historical figures involved in the Russian Revolution.  

Next week, we will examine how these allegorical characters may seem simple upon first glance; yet, a deeper study of their motivations reveals some of the most complex characters in comic books.


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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