Critics and comic book fans have long considered Frank Miller’s 1986 Batman miniseries The Dark Knight Returns as one of the titles that represented a turning point in both the way comics were written and received. The lighthearted campiness and brightly colored spandex worn by men and women who received their powers by creators with a terrible misunderstanding of nuclear physics were gone and replaced by bleak settings, psychotic superheroes, and an uncertainty about whom, if anybody, was still fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.
But what was it about the 80s that was bringing about this change in tone in comics? While it could be simply assumed that comic book publishers had begun to notice their readers had grown up and were still reading comics, the themes in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and other 80s comic series reflect the political climate of the era, and more notably, Reaganism. Comic books, like any other form of media, generally influenced by the era in which they are created, as “works are tied in a thousand ways to the contexts in which they emerged” (Bonnycastle, 176). In dealing specifically with comics, Robert Genter noted the connection between superheroes created by Marvel during the 60s and the Cold War culture that was present at the time. Genter argues that a fascination with the atom bomb led the public to believe that atomic energy was either going to make the world a much better place, or destroy it completely. Many heroes and villains created during the early 60s received their powers from radioactive spiders, gamma radiation, and any other kind of pseudoscientific experiment gone wrong. The struggle between the atomic powered superheroes and villains serve as a clear metaphor for the dual nature of atomic energy (Genter 955-957).
The political climate of the 1980s brought about its own level of uncertainty. Mike S. DuBose has already noted in his article, “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Bok Vigilantes, and Captain America,” that the United States was facing increasing inflation, an energy crisis, and kidnappings from Iran. Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 under the idea that America needed a renewed sense of faith in itself, and a hero was needed to restore America to its former glory (DuBose 915). That hero, Reagan argued, was Reagan himself of course, and the message appeared to resonate with the American public, as Reagan won the 1980 presidential election. However, despite Reagan’s public persona, certain actions of his administration, such as the Iran-Contra affair, in which the United States ignored an arms embargo against Iran by secretly selling them weapons, and then using the funds to counter-revolutionary Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras. Suddenly there were questions about the ethics of those the American people considered heroes (Dubose 916). But while the stated purpose of the Iran-Contra affair was to help free American hostages from Iran and to help the Nicaraguan people establish a democracy, selling weapons a country who is actively taking American hostages and giving money to a rebel group who indiscriminately kill non-combatant civilians, does not fit into what most people would consider the heroic sides of ethics.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns shows new depiction of an old hero that fits perfectly into the political climate of the 1980s. Batman had been continuously appearing in comic books since the character’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939. The character had been continuously updated to adapt with the times, as he went from a brooding vigilante in the 1940s to the more tongue-in-cheek, campy version that appeared in the 1960s television show. Miller’s 1980s depiction of Batman is much darker than previous incarnations of the character. With a futuristic setting, The Dark Knight Returns depicts an older Bruce Wayne who has retired his Batman persona, presumably due to political pressure. After expressing frustrations at the current state Gotham City, where crime rates have soared with unemployment rates (mirroring the real life recession during the early 1980s), and at an ineffectual police has neither the ability nor the desire to deal with the emerging threat of a new gang who calls themselves the Mutants, Bruce Wayne realizes that Gotham needs a hero, puts on some tights and a cape, and proceeds to savagely beat anyone he sees as being guilty of a crime, and in the process, chooses to ignore the law or the opinions of the media or everyday citizens. Batman does he does because he feels like it’s the best thing to do, and never stops to think if it really is the best thing to do.
Perhaps the most questionable actions of the Batman come from his interactions with the unnamed leader of the Mutant gang. Batman’s first confrontation with the Mutant leader ended poorly, as the aging hero was not able to keep up with the speed and strength of a younger man. Batman was only saved after a young girl dressed in a Robin costume distracts the Mutant leader, allowing Batman enough time to throw some sort of explosive from his utility belt into the leaders face, blinding him. Batman and this new, self-appointed Robin escape to an updated version of the Batmobile, this time remodeled as something more like a military-grade tank instead of the sleek, convertible designs seen previously. The panels depicting the escape are intercut with panels recreating television screens showing news reports on explosions being seen from the area where Batman was fighting, and it is implied that Batman was reduced to using various explosives and missiles from the Bat-Tank to disable the gang. Later news reports show the Mutant leader alive but beaten and in police custody. Batman’s next course of action is to break the Mutant leader out of jail and lead him to a large mud pit where the entire Mutant gang has been gathered. Batman uses the mud to his advantage, as it slows the Mutant leader down to a pace more comfortable to the elderly superhero, and fights in a less than respectable manner, as he cuts the leader right above the eyes, blinding him when a mixture of blood and mud pours down his face. Batman wins the rematch, and the rest of the Mutant gang splinters into factions that either continue criminal actions or become inspired by Batman and form their own vigilante groups with their own brutal methods toward crime fighting (a news report indicates that own faction chopped off the hands of a shoplifter).
However, the actions of Batman beg the question of whether or not his actions were ethical and if the outcome of his war on crimes has any positive effect on Gotham or not. The Mutant leader was already in police custody after their first confrontation, and was going to receive his constitutional right to a trial, where the judicial system would determine his fate legally. While Batman was trying to beat the leader in front of his gang members in order to prove a point and strike terror into their hearts, as is his method, revenge is a more likely motivation for getting a rematch. The dialogue strongly implies that Batman is getting satisfaction out of beating down this kid when he says “You don’t get it boy. This isn’t a mudhole, it’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon”(Miller 101). This is followed by the onomatopoeia “KRAKKKKK” and then internal dialogue from Batman that says “Something tells me to stop with the leg. I don’t listen to it” (Miller 101). Batman appears to be more of a psychopath with a deep enjoyment of his work instead of someone who tries to actively improve the lives of others. And even though the immediate threat of the Mutant leader is contained, the real problem of the rest of his gang remains. Batman may have earned the respect of many of the gang members, but the only initial effect appears to be that the gang members have learned new levels of brutality that they can use. Whether or not Batman’s reemergence has any positive effect on Gotham is not shown, as the end of the book shows Batman training some of the reformed members of the Mutant gang for his holy war on crime, but not every gang member is accounted for and it is uncertain as to how extreme their crime fighting methods will be.
In addition to ethical questions of both Reagan and Batman, there is also a connection between the two concerning capitalism. Reagan championed trickle-down theory of economics, when tax cuts and breaks are given to the wealthiest businesses and earners, which in theory would stimulate job growth as business would have more money to invest and less to pay to the government (Niskanen). The end result was an overreliance on the wealthiest Americans and a trust that corporations would do business with the best interest of the lower class in mind. Reagan was promoting a very pure form of capitalism, and his ideas are still promoted by conservatives today.
The version of Batman that is depicted in The Dark Knight Returns is capitalism personified. When Bruce Wayne’s parents died, he inherited both a fortune to be used for fighting crime, and his motivation for fighting crime. Batman has no superpowers, so he relies on expensive gadgets to give him the advantage over everything from street level muggers to super-powered super criminals. And just as Reagan wanted the American citizens to trust that businesses would do their best to help with stimulating the economy and protect people from unemployment, author Frank Miller wants readers to trust that if given a free reign, Batman would do always do his best to protect everyone from crime.
However, that trust seems to be broken as Batman’s actions often seem illogical and sometimes more detrimental to society. It could be argued that crimes committed by the Mutant gang is the result of the economic situations within Gotham, as Marx believed that “economic factors and the class divisions they reflect and reinforce play a primary role in determining social institutions and interactions” (Murfin and Supryia 281). Perhaps it was more out of outrage at the social inequality and poverty they had to face which encouraged involvement in gang activity for these people. In any event, as Bruce Wayne, Batman could be using his resources as the owner of Wayne Enterprises to combat poverty as the source of crime. He could be stimulating economic growth, giving jobs to those who everyone else has deemed unemployable with salaries and benefits that would make crime no longer look attractive, and actively working to rebuild Gotham as a better place. But doing so would be promoting economic equality and putting his own wealth and place in an established social hierarchy at risk, so he instead puts on tights and a cape and proceeds to savagely beat anyone who gets in his way. Even after he defeats the leader of the Mutant gang, he recruits all the young men who have learned to respect the Batman as pawns into his holy war on crime. Batman still doesn’t try to get them employed, but he makes them live in an underground cave and trains them to be the next generation of crime fighters, creating a sort of superhero sweatshop. They will never be able to escape their poverty or exclusion from the rest of society. Batman has ensured that these individuals will never have the ability to climb the socio-economic ladder, and that he and the other members of the bourgeoisie can continue to benefit from the work of the proletariat.
With a cowboy vigilante attitude and strong connections to capitalism, the Batman as depicted in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is best understood as a product of the Reagan era. As the world was changing under the Reagan administration, comic book heroes needed to change with it, and the end result was darker, morally ambiguous characters and an uncertainty if this new brand of heroism was helpful in any way.
Bonnycastle, Stephen. In Search of Authority: an Introductory Guide to Literary Theory. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2007.
Dubose, Mike S. “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America.” Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 915-935. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.
Genter, Robert. “‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’: Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics.” Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 953-978. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.
Miller, Frank. Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2002.
Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s P, 2009.
Niskanen, William A. “Reaganomics.” Library of Economics and Liberty. 2002. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/Reaganomics.html>.