August 23, 2011


Sons and Fathers (Joe Carducci, 19th Jul 2011, Los Angeles Review of Books)

Throughout Dark Knight, Miller cannily extracts drama (and comedy) out of the mismatch between the dark, hard core of Batman and the incorrigible silliness and softness of the American culture in which he is embedded. First and foremost on Miller's list of satirical targets is the media. In Kane's original, newspapermen are merely bumbling fools, blaming Batman for crimes he is on the brink of solving. What concerns Miller is the corruption of truth that the electronic news media yields and wields. The omnipresent faces on screens seem a willful chorus of some sealed-off collective id: reporters barely see the streets, and by the time we get to The Dark Knight Strikes Again we have "News in the Nude" and a holographic president.

While the mediascape grows ever more ludicrous, the streets get darker and tougher. In The Dark Knight Returns, Miller placed Batman in the decaying seventies New York that had inspired films like Death Wish, The Warriors, and Escape from New York: a reminder of his roots in gangland squalor. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller updates the city from the late Lindsay era to the end of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's tenure. One-party Democratic New York had turned to their own dark knight, a Republican, seen as a last hope crime-fighter, and, amazingly, he delivered (to the point that it's now safe for even the suits to claim they miss the old Times Square). As reward, Giuliani was set to exit a lame-duck laughingstock, dragging himself towards divorce and the sideline of punditry. And then super-villains attacked from their secret lair on September 11th.

In the introduction to Absolute Dark Knight, Miller writes:

Much of what I was after was to use the crime-ridden world around me to portray a world that needed an obsessive, Herculean, half-maniac genius to bring order. But that was only half the job. I saved my nastiest venom ... for the vapid, pandering talking heads who so poorly chronicled the gigantic conflicts of the time. What would these little people do if giants walked the Earth? How would they regard a powerful, demanding, unrepentant hero? Or a villain whose soul is as black as death? Fifteen years passed. I found out. I was halfway thru The Dark Knight Strikes Again when the Twin Towers collapsed and thousands of my neighbors were slaughtered.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again couldn't thereafter be the "affectionate romp" he'd originally intended. While the color shifts after 9/11 into an unhinged computer-chromaticized scheme -- not quite air-brush minimal, not quite psychedelic -- the story skids out into end-times for this hero, as Batman, or Bruce Wayne, begins to break down due to age and the increasingly hopelessness of his attempt to bring about a revolution against the corporatized government ruling America.

Even before 9/11, Miller was frankly a man of the right: his vision of the superhero is a fundamentally conservative one, and this is what separates him from his closest peers. In 1980s London, Alan Moore and David Lloyd tried to rationalize terror in V for Vendetta by turning Guy Fawkes (a militant Catholic to the right of Franco) into a Nechaev of style and taste who delivers freedom, via propaganda, by the deed, and succeeds in destroying the structures of bourgeois democracy, something of an idée fixe of both national socialism and international socialism until the cataclysm of the 1940s. Moore and Lloyd surrender to countercultural subterfuge: they subvert the superhero by making him a revolutionary. They make Miller look like a genius for accepting that comics can bear no redeeming. Miller believes that human nature is "immutable," and with this simple declaration he throws off much of the worst political pretense of the twentieth century. The swinging 60s version of Batman was dumbed-down New Left cant, proffered by poli-sci washouts and pseudo-artists who moved in the wake of the old left, the civil rights movement, rock and roll, and R. Crumb. But the only New Man possible in the world of 80s comic book crime-fighters is the next hideous, black-hearted mutant announcing himself with some insane outrage.

Still, the Dark Knight books aren't quite the millennial allegories they strive to be. To his credit, Miller understands that the story of the superhero is a profane version of the story of Christ, and not so far removed from that of those mortals who intervened in the history of their nations -- Fujimori, Pinochet, Franco -- and were rightfully called fascists for their trouble. But those conflicts are specific, and superheroes should be universal; the world of comics should be a single city: the city as planet.

As Mr. Carducci perhaps accidentally points out, Fujimori, Pinochet and Franco, whose societies faced such existential threats that their responses, however troubling, must ultimately be seen as heroic.

The surpassing hatred of such men on the Anglospheric Left and the unfortunate romanticizing of their ilk on the Anglospheric Right are wrong, then, for the same reason: that both fail, or refuse, to appreciate that their action were only justified by the specific peculiarities of their domestic situations.

This leads us to the interesting discussions in James Lothian's book, The Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community, 1910-1950, of the flirtations with actual leaders like Franco and Mussolini, on the one hand, and the wannabe, Oswald Mosley, on the other. I would, personally, be more forgiving about the former than Friend Lothian, in no small part because they eventually rejected the latter as inappropriate to the situation in England. However worried they were about the state of modern Britain, they were ultimately too decent to imagine that it required a dark knight.

Posted by at August 23, 2011 6:49 AM

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