These classes were a bit of a mess, to be honest, as I might have expected since they revolved around a glorious mess of a book. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns generated more lecture notes than any other title this semester as I tried to wrestle it into some sort of coherent plan.
That is a match no one can win.
Our discussions ranged all over the place, from Frank Miller's expert variations and manipulations of his 16-panel grid, to the media images that dominate and structure the narrative, to the book's embarrassed, retrograde depictions of sexuality. That alone would have been enough for a rewarding week, and we had plenty of help from our critical readings, which ranged from Jim Collins's celebration of Miller's formal mastery to Andy Medhurst's condemnation of his gay-panic Joker.
But no discussion of Dark Knight Returns can be complete--can even be said to begin--without some consideration of its politics, both in terms of the superhero genre and the decade that produced it. Miller's subsequent political (and artistic, and personal) meltdown is well known, but all the elements are in place in this book, arguably his masterpiece. The Batman knockoff who hates Muslims isn't so different from the Batman-as-Dirty-Harry-knockoff who hates criminals' "rights," hates due process, generally seems to hate the people he's sworn to protect, particularly when he gallops in to take power and restore order at the head of his fanatical mob. (Why have him fight al-Qaeda, Frank? You already had him lead it.)
At the same time, Miller clearly doesn't trust Reagan or Cold War militarism and is just as critical of conservative foreign policy as he is of liberal social policy. Lots of people wrap themselves in the flag in this book, but they're all flawed--which is not where Miller would end up. In 1985 his politics are still inchoate and conflicted.
Miller even recognizes there's a point to all the Gothamites' critiques of Batman--his many violations of the law, his denial of due process, and so on--he just doesn't have answers for them. His only response is to render every political viewpoint equally hypocritical, incoherent, and unappealing. He places Batman beyond politics, beyond our judgment (a point both Gordon and Lana Lang make, the closest thing this book has to a credo) and therefore beyond our capacity to question or criticize. The book raises questions it cannot answer, even though it knows the answer.
It wasn't easy getting all this out in the classroom, though, not only because of the self-contradictions of Miller's philosophy but because some of the students still weren't quite ready to abandon the black-and-white view of the genre that Dark Knight Returns and its peers set out to demolish: it has Batman in it and Batman is one of the good guys, so anything he does must be good, right? Which led to one student defending not just Batman but any hypothetical vigilante, on the grounds that their lack of police training explains and excuses any excesses in their use of force.
Which is a weird and uncomfortable conversation to be having in the time of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
That's the sort of conversational trump card that you cannot play (particularly at an historically black university) without killing the discussion; but some cards must be played, trump or no. As awkward as that was for all concerned, it was an important reminder that the issues Miller raises (and the assumptions the superhero genre normally hides) are not mere genre abstractions and they don't lend themselves to easy assignments of heroes and villains.
That halting and contentious discussion also replicated the traumatic impact Dark Knight Returns had on the comics industry of 1985 and '86--or today, for that matter, since the genre is still reeling from this book almost thirty years later. For the first time since my own adolescence, I think I can appreciate what it was like for a reader raised on a steady diet of X-Men or Teen Titans to pick up Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen and see all the moral certainties of the genre pulled out from under them. I could watch it play out on my students' faces as it must have once played across my own.
I doubt we'll read anything else that has made that kind of impact. I doubt the genre has produced anything else. And this is why I still enjoyed teaching Dark Knight Returns, not in spite of the mess but because of it.