© Copyright 2018 Cole Bisson, Ryerson University.
Frank Miller’s graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, is a tumultuous text dealing with political connection epitomized in Batman and his arch nemesis, Joker. The two characters connect with visual echoes throughout the text signifying their close connection. Each character’s political ideology situates them in a study of morality. A connection between the methods to obtain justice conflict with the justification of cruel force. Crime is rampant in the text, and Batman uses violence to implement order in Gotham City. Joker does the opposite using violence to disrupt. Both characters struggle to push each other’s ideologies. Joker is a tool to reflect Batman’s moral code while blurring the boundaries between justice and crime displaying that Batman uses criminal methods to obtain order.
A Bat in the Mud
Batman represents a moral concept which blurs the concept of justice. The first crime Batman stops he electrocutes one criminal causing him to scream (Miller 32) and he cripples the other for life (Miller 35). These actions are highly dangerous displaying a break from Batman’s attitude of non-lethal actions. No one dies, but he uses excessive force. The return of Batman “is less heroic in stereotypical super-heroic terms, [with Batman] enjoying the violent means he uses to stop crime” (Wandtke 74). Batman finds joy in pain. The character seeks to enact his control over the city through brute force. Superheroes stop villains with force, but they enact restraint whereas Batman refuses to hold back. The search for control devolves into a violent battle for control. Batman creates a gang war against the criminals as he uses might to gain territory. Each action Batman takes is violent and cruel creating an ambiguous superhero.
Batman forces himself to fight at the level of the criminals distancing himself from the superhero persona turning into a criminal. While fighting the mutant gang leader, Batman blinds him with mud, and proceeds to break his leg. He continues to beat the mutant as he lay silent narrating that “something tells me to stop with the leg. I don’t listen” (Miller 101). The scene colours Batman and the mutant the same brown shade. The colouring indicates Batman has entered into a criminal mentality to rear this gang into submission. Batman’s quest has him “lost in a crazed, martial persona and loses all connection to reality” (Dipaolo 54). The mud hole visualizes Batman’s losing morality. The use of violence is effective, but it situates the hero as an ambiguous character. A perspective of good against evil is inapplicable. The view that Batman is a hero becomes unclear. Batman is the same shade as the mutant gang and, therefore, occupies the same realm.
I. Sleeping Patterns
The text situates Batman and Joker in opposition to one another within a disrupted society. Batman is consistently presented “as an older and slightly mad right-wing moralist in a dystopian Gotham City gutted by corruption and vice” (Wright 267). Joker is a reflection of Batman always pushing to break his m oral limits. Non-lethal force separates him from the criminals. Joker subverts this code. The characters combined “are symptoms of the antagonism inherent in society, not deviations from the norm but an integral part of it” (Goodrum 233). Every refusal to kill Joker provides him access to continue creating disorder in Gotham City. These characters symbolize the conflict between order and chaos in Gotham’s society. Both characters enforce their vision of a better world onto Gotham city, and both use brute force to gain power. Joker is a reflection forcing his morality on Batman and Gotham City.
The earliest echo displays the two characters’ sleeping habits. Batman is experiencing a nightmare about falling into a cave surrounded by bats resulting in the decision to become a hero (Miller 18-19). Within these pages, all of Batman’s narration is situated in the gutters. The narration describes Batman’s inner struggle declaring his alter ego “[brings him] here when the night is long and [his] will is weak. He struggles relentlessly, hatefully, to be free…” (Miller 19). All the conflict inside Batman comes from his vigilante mindset.
Joker is also kept awake by his mind, but the reaction is from excitement at being released. The panel is a close up of Joker’s eye which is a reflection of the adjacent panel which is Batman’s eye (Miller 117). Joker narrates saying he “should sleep. Should be fresh tomorrow. Tomorrow I go free,” and still he “just can’t sleep” (Miller 117). The narrative captions are the same style as Batman’s captions except the box is green instead of grey. All that separates the characters’ narration is colour. The text style connects the similar vernacular.
These echoes display a relationship between the two polarized psyches. Batman’s violent actions “repress and deny his true nature, such as his inability to kill. He is consumed with vengeance in all things. His singular creative act is revenge for the death of his parents” (Litsey 187). The narration bound in the gutters display Batman’s struggles in refusing to kill. In opposition to Batman, Joker feels joy in the next challenge as “[he] does not feel remorse because remorse requires a reference to a higher authority that guides one’s actions. Joker is a creator of his own authority, through his actions” (Litsey 189). Joker ignores his past to continue his killing spree. Batman cannot sleep because he is haunted by his deeds, and Joker cannot sleep because he is excited to kill again.
II. War on Crime
This relationship is further cemented with representations of fascist images. Batman is in a tank annihilating the Mutant gang with rubber bullets and explosions as the gang climbs over the tank attempting to fight back (see fig.1). The splash depicts a war-like setting with bodies thrown aside explosions. Batman is a soldier battling against the enemy. In contrast, Joker sits on a robot flying above a gassed crowd all in a death smile (Miller 129). The crowd is strewn before him like individuals before Hitler. Both images echo depictions of World War II where Batman is the soldier and Joker the dictator.
Joker interacts with the mentality of Batman through reflections. Joker is a tool used against Batman to “parody or pervert his intentions and methods of operation” (Dipaolo 59). Gotham City believes Joker is reformed from the tenacity of Batman. To Gotham, Batman is a criminal. Batman battles in the dirt to force criminals to accept his control whereas Joker gases anyone he chooses. The characters are opposing forces highlighting different elements in war. A soldier battles in the dirt against the forces of evil. The dictator destroys mercilessly with no regard. Society views the hero as the dictator because he leads the world into a new era. The soldier performs the violent act adopting a killing persona. Both characters represent aspects of war where Joker ignores destruction. Batman lives in the violence.
Joker thrives on subverting psychological assumptions held by society. Before murdering the audience, the talk show seeks to proclaim Joker’s innocence declaring his actions were a result of Batman. The Joker is displayed in a regal suit with a crowd awaiting his entrance (Miller 125). Subversion occurs from the deaths of the hosts and audience members because Joker remains a psychopath imbedded in death. Joker refuses to succumb to the audience’s expectations because he does the expected. He kills everyone.
Gotham City’s assumptions regarding Joker’s reformation provide a perfect situation for Joker to disrupt. Every action Joker takes “is testing the strength of ideological belief in existing elites and the values they enshrine- attempting, in short, to atomize society” (Goodrum 233). Joker targets individuals believing they are above the societal system. The talk show hosts believed they found Batman as the root of insanity, but discovered they were wrong. Batman believes he can control the city, but faces the irrational murders of Joker. As an ideal, Joker dissolves the social order surrounding him. No one can contain him. Joker displays that society is unable to control chaos by destroying the institutions while Batman seeks to create his own order.
III. Panels, Gutters, and Mirrors
The reflective relationship is further implemented through a fight inside between the two characters in a “House of Mirrors.” Batman and Joker crash through mirrors that break open the panel while each one punches or shoots at reflections (Miller 145-46). The visual cracks in the mirrors and panels display distorted images of each character surrounding the other. In these visual cues, Joker is confined to the panels whereas Batman appears to burst through the panels and gutters. This contradicts the two characters’ ideals as “Batman could be seen to represent the forces that hold society together, [and] the Joker those that constantly threaten its fragmentation” (Goodrum 230). The artist appears to be displaying that these ideals are flipped where Batman is the force dissolving society. Batman’s violence indicates he is a criminal fighting to control the forces of Gotham city. The hero’s morality is obscured by visual components.
Batman’s violence culminates exemplified by the fact that he barely restrains himself from killing Joker. The climax of the story occurs as Batman snaps Joker’s neck, paralyzing the criminal. Joker says he is “really…very disappointed with you my sweet…the moment was…perfect…and you…didn’t have the nerve…” (Miller 150). Joker proceeds to break his neck fully, and kill himself while laughing maniacally. His laugh and the cracking of his neck flows parallel across the panels and ignores the gutters (see fig. 2). In the end, Joker claims victory as the police will suspect Batman murdered him.
The relationship between the two characters proceeds to display the subversive Joker as he goads Batman to cross his moral line. Batman retains his morality, but the action struggles to maintain his non-lethal approach. Joker’s behaviour throughout the graphic novel maintains “the supervillain norm of property destruction and the deaths of civilians while also seeking to undermine ongoing projects of ideological investment. Joker’s greatest achievement is that he reveals the forces of instability at work…” in Gotham city (Goodrum 234). Batman’s actions are declared corrupt and criminal by the very city he seeks to save. The police issue a manhunt after him because he crosses the line. Joker was only paralyzed, but Batman issued him his death sentence. Batman caused Joker to kill himself with his actions. Joker’s death rests on Batman as he lowers himself to the criminal’s level. Batman becomes a killer. The moral line is crossed as Batman allows Joker to kill himself.
The obvious signs of moral upheaval remain present within Batman’s quest for control, but the character continually seeks to uphold superhero values. Batman remains chivalrous in his journey by saving the city from mutant gangs, crazed supervillains, the government, and Superman himself. These actions seek to uphold the traditional American values of justice and freedom. An analysis needs to be “critical of the Batman universe and aware of the limitations of Batman’s philosophy. It is Batman’s nobility- his desire to protect and improve his home city- that he has a renewed appeal for modern audiences” (Dipaolo 69). Batman’s fights for the ideals grounded in traditional superhero morality. Batman remains a hero because he retains a non-lethal mentality. He needs to lower himself to the criminals’ level to build up his morality within Gotham. The means, though violent and cruel, justify a hero struggling to maintain his moral code.
Batman’s methods are justified because he is situated within the realistic context as a radical reversing the criminals’ actions against themselves. As Miller frees Batman from established authority, he creates a character “grounded in real-world assumptions and concerns” (Wright 184). The reality of Gotham City is harsh, violent and cruel. Batman reverses this by taking the brutality to the criminals. A reversal of bloodshed institutes Batman’s search for control. Batman is able to save Gotham City by lowering himself to the criminals’ level. He struggles with his morality because justice is difficult to maintain when surrounded by injustice. Batman straddles his moral code because it is necessary to manage crime with its own violent language.
Batman fluctuates along his moral code because violence is a necessary action to control criminals. Joker is a tool by Miller to display the thin line that Batman crosses. The violent actions and assaults create a fluid moral code, but the pacifism surrounding murder maintains Batman’s non-lethal mentality. He fights for freedom. Batman and Joker’s relationship continues to show that order and chaos are interconnected by a minimal boundary. These characters provide a portrayal of conflicting powers struggling to control society. Order remains to manage justice among the chaos surrounding it. The characters are linked outside of the isolated confines of the graphic novel. These ideals expand to the outside world where justice seeks to prevail over chaos. Cruel means of obtaining justice must be analyzed and evaluated to understand if a society retains their morality. Like Batman, we must strive for a better world. As Joker, we dissolve the foils around society.
DiPaolo, Marc. “Batman as Terrorist, Technocrat, and Feudal Lord.” War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propoganda in Comics and Film, McFarland and CO., 2011, pp. 49-69.
Goodrum, Michael. “‘You Complete Me:’ The Joker as Symptom.” Peaslee and Weiner, Joker, Mississipi UP, 2015, pp. 229-42.
Litsey, Ryan. “The Joker, Clown Prince of Nobility: The ‘Master’ Criminal, Nietzsche and the Rise of the Superman.” Peaslee and Weiner, Joker, Mississipi UP, 2015, pp. 179-93.
Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Inker Klaus Janson and colourist Lynn Varley. DC Comics, 1986.
Peaslee, Robert Moses and Robert G. Weiner, editors. Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime. Mississipi UP, 2015.
Wandtke, Terrence R. “The Dark Knight Returns to the Mainstream: Frank Miller.” The Dark Knight Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Crime Comics, Rochester Institute of Technology Press, 2015, pp. 65-78.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. The John Hopkins UP, 2001.