BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!

A Case for a Truly DARK Dark Knight

Author: Grant LaFleche
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Editor’s Note: I am of the belief that one's age and the first Batman comics one reads, greatly influences a person's idea of Batman.

BOF contributor Grant LaFleche cut his teeth on the Batman stories of the 80s and 90s -- stories like A DEATH IN THE FAMILY and A LONLEY PLACE FOR DYING are among his favorites. But it was Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS that made exclaim “This IS Batman!”

Ok, I’ve tried.. I’ve tired to buy into the so-called “new” Batman in DCs ongoing Batman books. I’ve listened to the reaction of people who have a nearly pathological hate for Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin – along with the rest of this Bat-works – as the insane ramblings of a disordered mind that has “ruined” Batman.

Well, now I am mad as hell and I ain’t shuttin’ up no more!

Well I am not that mad, but disappointed both as a long time fan of Batman, fan of Miller’s works, and of the kind of comics stories I prefer to read.

I know, I know. There are people doing back flips over the Morrison/Dini books. That’s cool. But I think in the big silver age/1970s love fest that is currently going on, the depth and power of the previous version of Batman has been overlooked at best, or simply distorted by some at worst.

The place to start, I think, is to start with the guy who gets the blame for what some fans like to call “a-hole Batman.” Frank Miller. Year One. Dark Night Returns. DK2. For a whole generation of fans these works – along with the some of the best that followed in Miller’s footsteps like Batman: Prey or even Denny O’Neil’s Batman: Venom – defined what Batman was and how he should be.

Contrary to what is often spouted on message boards Frank Miller’s did not create a “crazy a-hole,” who was cold and unemotional and above all, un-heroic. He was not, to be sure, the Batman of the 1970s or the Silver Age. But he was, in many readers opinions, including mine, a far more interesting and complex character. He is certainly not, as some claim, written “Marv in a cape.” Batman is not a mentally ill, bar room drunk and killer. Indeed, the two characters have almost nothing in common other than they are both written by the same man.

Miller’s Batman in every incarnation from DKR to the current “All Star” book, is a distinctly complex character. Prior to Miller, Batman was almost always portrayed as a typical superhero. He had the brightly coloured suit – light blue cape and cowl and light grey tights. And his behavior was, for the most part, indistinguishable from Superman, Green Lantern or the Flash. Given any particular situation Batman would probably make the same choices as any other guy in tights.

He was “dark” in the best of these kinds of stories, but not especially so. For example, there is a story of kids sitting around a camp fire with Bruce Wayne, talking about what they think Batman is. After a while, Wayne slips into the shadows and then jumps out in full Bat-gear and pronounce that THIS is what Batman is! Tada!! The kids immediately recognize him as Wayne, tell him to sod off and go to sleep. Wayne is left to muse that the image of Batman is only scary to criminal and the innocent have nothing to fear from his Dracula like appearance.

I don’t want to vent about this, but that is where the so called “heroic” Batman fell of the rails. Batman’s appearance will scare the crap out of a stone cold killer, but grade school kids aren’t affected?? Seriously, Batman is either scary, or he is not. If anything, it would be harder to spook the stone cold killer than it would a bunch of kids. But that is how it went.

But most of all Batman was – and apparently is again – an unlicensed cop. He is a defender of the status quo. Gotham was just like any other city in the DCU, plagued by the occasional villain – who was more interested in leaving obvious clues for Batman than committing any real crimes - but it wasn’t a really dangerous place. The cops and Batman kept everything safe.

Enter Frank Miller. His Batman first off isn’t a cop in a costume. He’s an urban revolutionary. Miller creates a Gotham that NEEDS a Batman. You see it in every Bat story he’s done. Gotham is a hell hole. Its public officials and police are largely corrupt. Its business leaders are selfish to the point of madness, and then it has disfigured homicidal super villains to boot.

This Batman fights not just crime, but an entire system of injustice. In Year One, once he gets his Bat legs under him, he attacks a dinner party filled with Gotham movers and shakers and tells them “None of you are safe.” The Batman of the previous era would never have done such a thing. He fights corrupt lawyers, cops and politicians as much as he does criminals. In DKR and DK2 Batman takes his war national, fighting the US government and its super powered proxy, Superman.

Then we get in him “All Star” – which if you believed internet posters, a story everyone and their dog hates. Sales figures tell a different tale, with the book being a top 5 seller every time out. This despite insane delays! That should tell you something -- but I digress. Again here we see Batman fighting a system, not just crazy crooks.

Fair enough some say, but Miller’s Batman is not heroic. Look at what he did to poor Dick. He slapped him once. He called him names!

The pre-Miller Batman was a pretty nice guy. He was a NORMAL guy despite the fact that is life was anything but normal from the time he was a kid. This was all part of keeping Batman a straight laced, never really does anything wrong, Dudley Do-Right kind of hero. What Miller did was look at what Batman was, lifted him out of his safe 1970s Gotham, and asks, “What would this guy really be like?” Given the extremes Bruce Wayne would have had to go to in order to become Batman, it is unlikely he is a normal guy. He would be harsh, hard, and arrogant. And to follow through with becoming Batman, Bruce would have to remain forever obsessed with the event that motivates him – his parent’s murder.

Batman is also, contrary to what many Miller haters say, far more emotional in Miller’s hands than he was previously, or since. Miller sees Batman through operatic lenses, and so the character is big and broad. He doesn’t get “mad”; he seethes with a white hot rage. He doesn’t get sad or depressed, he broods. The part of him that wants revenge for his parents death takes a gleeful enjoyment out of battering criminals. He retired and gave up on his mission, we learn in DKR, because Jason Todd was killed. Miller’s Batman is a character of extremes.

So when a brash 20-something Batman, not more than a year or so away from the events of Year One, arrogantly takes Dick Grayson under his wing, is he going to suddenly be this great and wise father figure? Is he going to know always what the right thing to do is, like the Batman of an early age? No. He is going to make awful mistakes. He is going to be plagued by massive self doubts. Indeed, this extreme man has nothing in his life to prepare him for dealing with a 12-year-old, never mind a traumatized one.

No, Miller’s Batman is not unfeeling or cold. He might act like an a-hole from time to time, but he is, and this is the most important point, no less heroic because he is not entirely likeable. Sherlock Holmes is not a particularly likeable guy, yet he is a hero and a popular one. TVs House is similarly a jerk a lot of the time, but also a hero. He is dedicated to fighting a system of injustice; he just doesn’t do it with a wink and a smile. He’s a badass mother, and Miller over the top style plays well to his take on the character. It is really not a mystery why so many like and continue to like Miller’s take on Batman.

Following DKR, some writers trying to capture a nimbus of the Miller magic. Some did it well. Stories like Prey and Gotham by Glasslight captured the notion of Miller’s Batman well. Loeb’s The Long Halloween told in Miller’s style and the fantastic Batman Begins is a blending of Miller’s dark and cynical Batverse mixed with some of Denny O’Neil’s stuff.

But others did not so well, and ended up writing a character who was dark, sure, but did not have the operatic feel of Miller’s Batman. Some of these stories worked well. Some did not. The worst of them started to play like a broken record.

Then came Infinite Crisis, which was to, in part, “fix” Batman. Johns writes a brilliant moment where Batman finally cracks. He has a vicious panic attack and collapses on the floor of the Batcave saying “I can’t do this anymore.” Brilliant stuff, considering the harsh world Batman has lived in since DKR and Y1. The set up was there for someone to write a new take on Batman, one that could set a tone for a decade or more, just as Miller had done and O’Neil before him.

But we didn’t get that. What we got was, at best, O’Neil lite. The current Batman inhabits a safe Gotham we are told in Morrison’s run. Suddenly its 1975 again and Batman is back to his old mojo -- but he isn’t. The Batman of Denny O’Neil might not have been as harsh as Miller’s, but he was still interesting. He was dark and romantic, in the classical sense of that word. He was an adventurer instead of a revolutionary as Miller writes him.

But the “new” Batman, which isn’t new but a retread of the past, is neither dark nor romantic. He is not harsh. He is neither too nice, too much of a jerk -- he is not too much of anything really. He is what the worst Batman stories always make Batman out to be – the most boring character in the book.

I can only surmise that someone, somewhere in DC figured that Batman had to be nice again, and the way to do that was to dial the clock back before Frank Miller. But this was done without, I would argue, a real understanding of the power and compelling nature of Miller’s Batman and an equally poor understand of what O’Neil and company did that made their work so popular.

So we are left with an empty cowl. A Batman that is only “heroic” because he fights “villains”. But the challenges he faces are not all that dangerous at all. Victory is a forgone conclusion and we know that Batman will always do the right thing – which is of course very easy to do in the once again very safe place of Gotham City.

I do not suggest Miller’s take is the only one that can work. But what he understood, and what made his version to compelling, why it spawned so many pretenders and imitators, why it inspired so many writers and fans, was that he understood that Batman to be Batman needs to be dark. He’s a hero dressed in black, not pale blue. His darkness is deep and profound and terrible. But his heroism is equally huge.

It is this depth of character that has been lost in the attempt to make a nicer more “heroic” Batman. And one wonders how long it will take before someone has the imagination and courage to restore the essential darkness back into Batman.

Or so it seems to me.

BOF'er Grant LaFleche is a reporter for the "ST. CATHERINE STANDARD

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