Superhero Comic Books Are Good Literature! Part 9: The Dark Knight, A Complex Allegory

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Allegories such as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are commonly simple morality plays to one degree or another.  The Dark Knight Returns maintains that morality play formula while simultaneously giving its readers unforgettable characters.

Though the characters may be simple, they do change.  Bruce Wayne re-dons his costume, Commissioner Gordon’s replacement, a young female, Ellen Yindel, with a hard nose and a sterling record, begins to see the merit of having a Batman running around the city, and even some of the flat, almost background characters, change their ways and go from following a maniacal monster of a man to Batman himself.

On the surface we are given a tale of Batman in his old age coming out of retirement because his city has fallen apart without him.  His return and the actions he takes after returning incite a change in behavior amongst the citizens of Gotham City.  There are good and bad elements to his reappearance, but ultimately everything works out and before the close of the final curtain Batman gets to do what every comic book fanboy knows Batman can do—kick Superman’s ass.

I know.  That does sound like a really cool story.  

But having a good story (the journey element) is just one part of our definition of Good Literature, isn’t it?  Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is so much more.  Mostly it works on an allegorical level because of its premise.  Yes, there are several more than one, but for our purposes, we are going to focus on a great old warrior’s return leading to cataclysmic change.  Batman can represent any great person who has disappeared or maybe even died . . . .

Batman (or any well known heroic person who has been gone) returns, and with his return, there is great upheaval.  Some people see this return as a good thing, others as a bad.  Miller handles this throughout the comic with comedic ire in the form of talking head shots of television pundits (Lana and Morrie) debating the “Batman issue.” Not only do they debate, but they also use the time to personally attack each other, unintentionally belittling the whole situation:

Lana: But he’s hardly as dangerous as his enemies, is he?  Take Harvey Dent, just to pick a name . . .
Morrie: That’s cute, Lana, but hardly apropos and hardly fair to as troubled a soul as Harvey Dent’s.
Lana: He certainly is trouble for his victims.
Morrie: Was, Lana. If Harvey Dent is returning to crime—and please note that I said if—it goes without saying that he’s not in control of himself.
Lana: And Batman is?
Morrie: Certainly.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.  His kind of social fascist always does.
Lana: Then why do you call him psychotic?  Because you like to use that word for any motive that’s too big for your little mind?  Because he fights crime instead of perpetrating it?
Morrie: You don’t call excessive force a crime?  How about assault, fat lady?  Or breaking and entering, huh?  Try reckless en—

And later on they continue:

Morrie: Lana, you astonish me, fifteen policemen hospitalized—hundreds dead—and still you cling to this hero worship.  Though how anyone can think of as a defacto murderer as a hero . . .
Lana: Batman hasn’t killed anybody, Morrie.
Morrie: Check the statistics, Lana dear—heck, if you toss in the victims of his fan club, the Batman-related body count is up there with a minor war.
Lana: It is a war, Morrie—though he seems to be the only one with balls enough to fight it.
Morrie: Who gave this thug the right to declare martial law, hm?  Last I heard, that takes an act of congress.

Miller also shows how the average person reacts, not only to the situation with Batman, but to a much larger situation—the detonation of a nuclear warhead in the Caribbean that has disastrous effects on Gotham City.  Some people become the monsters that Batman tries to fight, some find out what it means to be humane.  

But how does this all add up to create a great representation of Good Literature?  Come back next week to find out.


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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