I’m always going to be approaching The Dark Knight Returns from the wrong perspective. And not just in the sense that I’m from a generation whose comics either react to or move past the four issue series. Not even in the sense that my first exposure to the world of the comic was from reading the trade paperback of its maligned sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Rather, this is a comic that only works in its time.
This is not in the typical sense of the phrase “Of its times,” used when someone talks about the 80’s. Most of the time, it’s because the work is extremely unironically campy (Hair Metal) or turns out to universal to a community that isn’t the mainstream (Shock Treatment). But the of its times nature of The Dark Knight Returns is within the politics of the comic. Not that the politics of the comic are not possible to exist outside of the 80’s (I literally couldn’t write this entry for an entire week because those politics were marching down the streets of Charlottesville carrying Tiki Torches while chanting “The Jews Will Not Replace Us” and other charming sentiments). Rather it’s how the comic could be seen as subversive within those times.
The comic is blatant in how much it supports the position of its title character: be it how those who criticize him are portrayed as either deluded jerks just denouncing him for the publicity or women who need to learn their place within the hierarchy; how the arguments for Batman win out no matter how weak they are (this is especially in regards to the claim that “he hasn’t technically killed anyone,” which ignores Grace, the woman he kills in the opening of issue 2, and the fact that he would have let people like Harvey die if the weren’t useful to him); and the fact that, were he not around to force the world to make sense, Gotham would be like the rest of the world after the nuke hits America: a mob tearing itself apart without a care for who lives and who dies (contrary to popular belief, people tend to be good to one another after a crisis has occurred).
There are a few reasons why this comic was read in a more revolutionary sense rather than the reactionary sense it’s read in after Holy Terror was released. The comic is extremely critical of then President of the United States, Ronald Regan; it uses Superman, the superhero you use to critique the genre of the superhero as a whole, to represent how American Idealism is naïve at best and useless at actually; and it was released within the context of Watchmen, so people just assumed it was in the same conversation.
Going backwards from these assumptions, it wasn’t released in the context of Watchmen, Watchmen was released in the context of The Dark Knight Returns. You see, the first issue of Watchmen was released on August 31st, 1986. The final issue of The Dark Knight Returns was released on June 1st, 1986, two whole months before Watchmen even begins. This in turn explains how people so catastrophically missed the point of Watchmen that they created the 90’s comic book scene in its name (one could argue that Marvelman prefigures The Dark Knight Returns [in fact, a chubby Miracleman cosplayer can be seen in the streets of Issue 4], but for all its violence, said violence is always done in the name of problematizing the concept of the fascist superhero messiah as opposed to embracing the monstrosity of it).
Next, we have American Idealism is bunk. This of course fits within an unfortunately popular genre of fiction known as Grimdark: a rather unhealthy genre where we accept our cruelties and solve all our problems by hurting everyone around us, especially ourselves. Because growing up means throwing away any belief in the goodness of mankind in favor of watching characters suffer for our amusement; that the pains and cruelties of the world will never be solved, so why bother at all (there are, of course, genres with dark and bitter themes that don’t fall into Grimdark due to embracing the campiness of the genre that the po faced stories that dominate Grimdark like to act as if it’s not there). By having Superman become a tool of the government (in more ways than one), The Dark Knight Returns full heartedly embraces this genre as a good thing.
And finally, there’s the condemnation of Ronald Regan. It’s worth noting the way in which the comic condemns Regan. His first appearance in Issue 2 is a rambling, though on point, monologue about how running the government is like owning a ranch, he acts like a fuddy duddy at the best of times, and is easily provoked into action by being called a degrading name. In short, when contrasted with the more proactive and ruthless Batman, the critique of Regan seems to amount to “he’s to weak and passive to be left in charge.”
And keep in mind; this is Ronald Regan we’re talking about. The man who, when faced with nonviolent protestors who wanted a park not to be replaced with a parking lot, responded with “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” What Batman offers then is a Regan who never had Alzheimer’s, whose brain was still in the place where he would do more than look pretty and do as little as possible.
This of course brings us back to the theme of the Philosopher King that I was yammering on about in the Black Suit entry: that of the right kind of fascist being what people need, specifically, the desire to be led by the smart scientists as opposed to the dumb military. Batman then can be read as the perfect fascist leader in that he embodies both of these philosophical tenants, though the comic primarily focuses on the militaristic aspect of the character (nonetheless, as one of my childhood cartoons put it “Batman’s a scientist”).
Indeed, the text perfectly fits within many of the tenants of fascism outlined in Umberto Eco’s Ur Fascism. The main ones focused on in the comic include “Action for action’s sake” (“…and I honestly don’t know if I could beat him.”), “Hostility to analytical criticism” (every debate segment in this comic), “A permanent state of war” (“It begins here-- an army-- to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers…”), “Contempt for the weak” (Ronald Regan), “A cult of heroism espousing a noble sacrifice” (“It would be a good death…”), and “A focus on machismo” (“…except he’s got exactly the kind of body I wish he didn’t have…powerful without enough bulk to slow him down…every muscle a steel spring-- ready to lash out--and he’s young… in his physical prime…”). (That’s not getting into how his fascism overwhelms the comic. Throughout the entire comic, the 16-panel grid is adhered to, to the point where [combined with the narration that just never stops [which hurts the comic as some of the pages work better silent then they do with the never ending narration], making the panels even smaller] the comic gets so tight and constrained that it triggers my claustrophobia and literally hurts me to read the fucking comic. This is odd, considering I can read another 16-panel comic, Pax Americana, rather easily). In essence, the Batman of The Dark Knight Returns is the physical embodiment of the enemy of this blog.
Which brings us, over a thousand words in, to why we are talking about this book. In many ways, it ties into a running gag I have in regards to the work of JM DeMatteis: How much does this comic hate Batman? That isn’t to say hates Batman (which is to say I asked and he doesn’t) but that there’s a pattern within his superhero comics that has interesting implications. This can range from the bemused humor of JLI to being the most unsympathetic character in Batman: Absolution, to being Literal, Actual Satan in the mythological system set up in Supergirl: Wings. In the case of Kraven’s Last Hunt, this comes in the form of the titular character.
Consider: both are older men lamenting the fallen world they find themselves living in. Both are lamenting the loss of their parents at a young age, and cope with that by going onto the crime riddled streets and beating the crap out of people (including the neuroatypical). Also, both are aristocratic fascists who are supported by the law (until they get caught committing murder, which forces the law to turn on them). This isn’t me reaching for a connection between the two: DeMatteis has said in an interview with Comics Interview that Kraven, once he resolves the narrative collapse by donning the costume of Spider-Man, “becomes… something akin to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight character.”
Which makes Kraven’s death all the more interesting. It’s a suicide, a common death for a fascist (right up there with guillotines and time travelers). But why does he kill himself? There is no sign that the army is at his door, about to burn down his perfect empire. In fact, he claims throughout the penultimate issue that he’s won the war against the Spider. So then why do it?
Simple: because he empathizes with Spider-Man. Empathy is the understanding between us and them. To see the world from the perspective of other people as they see it rather than how you think they see it. To embrace the stranger as if he’s a fellow in this mad world we live in. To say that fascism needs an other to react against would be an understatement. They need the Jews, the queers, the blacks, the Mexicans, the barbarians plotting to tear down the walls of the Empire. They need that threat of the unknown and a populace that fears it. If punching Nazis is a “Hail Mary” surgery used at the last possible minute (as it has been used lately), then empathy is treating the infection that fascism leaves behind so things don’t get as bad or worse than they currently are.
And so, when injected with empathy towards his enemy, Kraven can’t live anymore. Because the character of Kraven is defined by his fascism, and outside of that he is a rather simplistic character (even DeMatteis didn’t find interesting until he found out Kraven was Russian, and could write him as a Dostoyevsky character [I don’t think I’m going to read a Dostoyevsky book for this, but there are other posts that I didn’t think I was going to write about that I am, so who knows]). When the hunt is over, Kraven is nothing; just a guy in a leopard leotard howling about Spiders.
Is this how we solve fascism then: by making it empathize with the other? By creating a society of people who care about how their actions and opinions hurt others and try their best to make things better? For our society to just fight less, talk more; say sorry sometimes? Is it really that simple? No. It’s not simple at all.
I’ve been on twitter lately, mainly to procrastinate from writing this post. There was this tweet that’s been going around about how Tina Fey made a joke about how we should just stay inside and do nothing and how she is speaking from a perspective of privilege in that she can just ignore the outside world. In response to that, someone pointed out a more egregious joke Fey made in regards to a desire for neo-Nazis to fight drag queens since they’re “a 6’4” black man”.
Now to say that’s a minefield that should be treaded on carefully would be an understatement. But what I’m more interested in is a defense of it made by another comedian (much smaller than Fey, so he’ll be left unnamed). The defense effectively amounts to a bemoaning the circular firing squad the left tends to use constantly. More precisely, it’s that we shouldn’t critique the particulars of a joke in the face of literal, actual Nazis.
In essence, it’s the long-standing stance of the neoliberal that when catastrophe comes, we must put aside our petty differences to fight the common enemy (typically, said petty differences amount to “the powers that be are right and the marginalized are wrong”). By rejecting the opinions of the marginalized, we allow fascism to burrow itself into the fabric of our society, which it can as our society is one that is founded upon a status of white supremacy, which goes hand in hand with fascism. Be its face the Klan, the Nazis, the Gators, the Puppies, the Neoreactionaries, so long as we keep society as it is fascism will adapt and become more powerful until we all suffocate and die in the face of it’s oppressive structure.
Sadly, we don’t seem to want to change the world. We’d rather die of climate change than see the end of things as we know them. As someone once put it, “We can imagine the end of the world before we can imagine the end of capitalism.” We’d rather bend the knee to a fascist than embrace painful, wonderful change. And if we can’t accept change, what hope do we have?
“Hope? (Keep those bells ringing, Chris.) You want to talk about hope? We’ve got a militarized police state in front of us! A race of carnivorous monsters behind us! A city that’s given everything because it doesn’t have the guts to fight! Let me tell you a thing about hope! Hope has three daughters: Anger at the state things have fallen into. Courage to fight to make things right. And the third daughter is Truth… And she won’t hide her true face any longer.”
-Kaare Andrews, Spider-Man: Reign
(Next Time: The Other Thing I Have To Talk About.)
[Photos: Dumbing of Age: “Your princess is in another castle” by David M. Willis]