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Author Topic: Superman in "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller  (Read 21023 times)
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Aldous
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« on: December 19, 2006, 06:11:40 AM »

Over the last couple of days I re-read "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller. I haven't read it for years, but do you know, I am impressed again by how good it is. It's a great comic (or four comics, if you want to get technical), and contrary to the vibe I've received from you lot over the years, I really like Frank Miller's portrayal of Superman.

"The Dark Knight Returns" is old news, I suppose, but this time around I was sensitive to how Superman was presented, and I think Frank did a good job. I really don't know how else he could have done it. He was as complimentary and as respectful of Superman as could be expected, in keeping with the themes of his story anyway.

I don't think Frank did Superman a disservice at all, despite what I have read from real Superman fans on the "Superman Through The Ages" forum over the years. Bruce and Clark feel the problems of society (or many societies) in the same way, but of course their reactions to these perceived problems and their methods of dealing with their respective obsessions to interfere are quite different, as of course they must be. I guess the only loss in this is the traditional Batman-Superman team, but sometimes comrades-in-arms DO fall out, especially if the envrionment they operate in is turned upside-down.

I found it clever that Bruce was changing, but Clark wasn't, to any great degree. (Clark hadn't even visibly aged, but I'm talking about other changes as well.) This is just what I would expect of Superman. Everything around him is going to Hades in a handbasket, but the Man of Steel is still with us, still plugging away, albeit in secret, doing what he has always done, being mindful of authority and respecting the government of the day and still believing in his country, but with his own personal agenda uppermost: "No, I don't like it. But I get to save lives..."

How else can Superman operate? Because he is the most powerful being on Earth by a long way, he feels he needs to be granted the authority to do what he does, but how is that different from the Superman I grew up with? He was like that back then, because, as Frank touches on in his comic, that's how Pa and Ma Kent raised him. Superman can't, won't, and never will take it upon himself, only, to do the things he does. That's for HIS peace of mind and OUR safety. That's how I see it anyway.

What's the alternative? The Man of Steel imposing his will on humanity? People would really complain then, wouldn't they?

A great comic, Mr Miller.
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The Spider
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« Reply #1 on: December 19, 2006, 08:39:38 PM »

What's the alternative? The Man of Steel imposing his will on humanity?

That's kind of what ends up happening in DK2 at the end.
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #2 on: December 20, 2006, 12:37:00 AM »

Overall, I have to say I liked DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, for the grit and toughness of the book, how fierce and uncompromising and "real" it was. There's something admirable about violence...at least in fiction, anyway...if it is "real" and visceral: a guy getting his hand broken into a car window, and so on.

Of the three big books that came out in 1986 that were noticed and talked about all over the mainstream media, Art Spiegelman says that people lump together WATCHMEN and DKR, and set MAUS off to one side, when he would say that it is WATCHMEN and MAUS that are the most like each other, with DKR off to one side.

People don't appreciate enough the sense of humor that Miller had with this work: a guy saying "I hope he goes after the homos next," or that unpleasant office man getting his comeuppance by Batman himself....and so on.

Batman was never "bigger" or more charismatic than he was here, showing up on a horse, comparisons to FDR, and so on. "That's no thunder, it's only the sound of his voice."

I have three major problems with DKR that keep me from appreciating it fully, or at least loving it to the extent I feel about, say, Steve Englehart's "definitive" run on DETECTIVE COMICS:

1) Batman is never more non-intellectual than he is here. A mystery, a puzzle...hell, even making him only change to Batman when he's sure there are no cameras around, that would have been enough for me.

2) Batman as horror figure vs. Batman as adventure figure. Batman, I think, works better as a character of "weird adventure," not unlike Doc Savage or the Shadow, solving "weird mysteries" and so on. Englehart made it clear Batman LOVED being Batman, with adventure as his first love (even over Silver). In fact, I'd say there's even an element of thrillseeking to Batman. On the other hand, Miller had Batman be Batman for reasons that are much more complicated, but I'd say much less interesting because it has Batman be somewhat obsessed.

3) Last but not least, the treatment of Superman. First: since when is Superman such a wuss that he can't dropkick one missile from here to Alpha Centauri? ONE LOUSY ATOM BOMB turns him into a creepy skeleton?

And he gets superpowers by killing plants? I don't think Superman's powers work that way.

Second:

Quote from: Aldous
How else can Superman operate? Because he is the most powerful being on Earth by a long way, he feels he needs to be granted the authority to do what he does, but how is that different from the Superman I grew up with? He was like that back then, because, as Frank touches on in his comic, that's how Pa and Ma Kent raised him. Superman can't, won't, and never will take it upon himself, only, to do the things he does. That's for HIS peace of mind and OUR safety. That's how I see it anyway.

I don't entirely agree. Superman always did have respect for things like law and order and authority figures like presidents and policemen. However, Superman is powerful enough that he essentially doesn't have to answer to anybody except his conscience (and certainly not be used as a soldier for any one country in a war).

This is why Superman assenting to being a government tool is deeply out of character. Now, I'm not saying that Superman believes that might makes right. I'm sure he believes the opposite. I am however, saying that, as Batman pointed out with irony in this book, "nobody can tell Superman what to do." If Superman doesn't like the rules to a game, he'd knock the pieces down from the board and play things his way.

Most of the best Superman stories have been about Superman not accepting the limited parameters of a situation - he thinks his way to a third answer beyond what he's been given.

I've always been a fan of Bates's Superman, who often laughed at his enemies, and pointed a thumb to his chest and said "Do you know what this is? Do you know what this stands for? It means I can mop up the floor with sea scum like you...AND THERE'S NOT A THING YOU CAN DO TO STOP ME!"

Quote from: Aldous
What's the alternative? The Man of Steel imposing his will on humanity? People would really complain then, wouldn't they?

This might be interesting to see.

I am curious if someone out there might do for Superman what DKR did for Batman: namely. show that despite the intervening years of Superman getting deputized and wrapping himself in the flag, he is fundamentally, someone that brings his view of order and justice by using violence.

Quote from: Aldous
I don't think Frank did Superman a disservice at all, despite what I have read from real Superman fans on the "Superman Through The Ages" forum over the years. Bruce and Clark feel the problems of society (or many societies) in the same way, but of course their reactions to these perceived problems and their methods of dealing with their respective obsessions to interfere are quite different, as of course they must be. I guess the only loss in this is the traditional Batman-Superman team, but sometimes comrades-in-arms DO fall out, especially if the envrionment they operate in is turned upside-down.

I agree with you here. Batman and Superman are pals, but they're not joined at the hip. It's possible, especially in a changing world, for them to have irreconcilable differences.
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #3 on: December 20, 2006, 12:44:32 AM »

Superman is a respected individual that's the world's biggest celebrity.

At the same time, if that wasn't true, I can easily see Superman working and helping even if he isn't wanted. Superman always strikes me as someone that would do what's best for mankind whether mankind wants it or not. An example would be that Gerry Conway story where Superman destroys supertankers to prevent oil spills, for example, and takes active steps to eliminate pollution that certainly isn't asked for, and certainly will end up bristling a few hides.
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« Reply #4 on: December 20, 2006, 02:29:38 AM »

I think that it is one of the best Batman stories ever made. But, the reason why Superman is teh way he is in this tale is because it's the Man of Steel John Byrne version.

Behold:

In the previous Superman continuities, Superman and Batman were the best of friends.  In the new continuity, as in Frank Miller's Dark Knight series, the relationship between DC's two greatest superheros is now very different.  Byrne says that he establishes "right from the start that these are two men who would appreciate each other's abilities and who would respect each other. But here are two men who are so different at every point that there's no way they can be friends.  They're on the same side, but they're far too different in their approaches and even their personalities.  Batman is obsessive and Superman is not; Superman does not need to be."  Superman works within the law, whereas the Batman does not.  Byrne agrees with Miller that the Batman represents a darker vision of the world than Superman does.  Wolfman observes, "Superman's the sun and Batman's the moon."

In fact, Byrne talked to Miller about the Batman so that in The Man of Steel "I could suggest the kind of Batman he was going to do."  Similarly, Miller talked to Byrne so that the Superman in Dark Knight could be based on his version.

http://superman.nu/a/History/end.php
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« Reply #5 on: December 20, 2006, 04:35:17 AM »

Quote from: Aldous
What's the alternative? The Man of Steel imposing his will on humanity? People would really complain then, wouldn't they?

This might be interesting to see.

I think that contemporary non-comics writers have a pretty cynical view of Superman and his place in the culture that we could characterize as Frank Miller-ish.  Deborah Eisenberg's Twilight of the Super-heroes is a good example.

My own opinion, beyond the nostalgic feelings I have for it, is that Dark Knight is about as far as you can go towards making a political, adult statement about the Batman character (although I haven't read that Howard Chaykin Bruce Wayne miniseries set in the 30s) that is also intended to be taken somewhat seriously as genre fiction.  The broad strokes used in the book make the story very appealing to casual fans (as I was as a 16-year old when I read it) and the art is enough of a departure from most people's impression of the character to make the work something of a intellectual curiosity, if a not a seminal literary masterpiece a la Maus or Jaime Hernandez' Death of Speedy or Dan Clowes' Ghost World, to name some other E.S. graphic novels from the period.

After all is said and done, I prefer the pre-70s Batman comics that were made for kids.

As for Superman's characterization in DK, I think that it follows from what readers had come to abstract-ly expect from the comics, especially, as Super-Monkey notes, post Byrne.  As well, it helps to remember that when writing a cartoon parody of superhero comics in the Reagan years, you are kind of limited to only 2 or 3 archetypes, with a few variations, to make your art recognizable to a wide audience.  Meaning that, between Batman and Superman, Superman represents the more authoritarian, superpowered, state-like side of the costumed vigilante coin, and always has, I think.  Some aspects of both hero's characterizations rang true in DK, others made them read as just silly straw men.


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JulianPerez
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« Reply #6 on: December 20, 2006, 11:25:43 PM »

Quote from: SuperMonkey
I think that it is one of the best Batman stories ever made. But, the reason why Superman is teh way he is in this tale is because it's the Man of Steel John Byrne version.

I think you've got that reversed: the Batman/Superman relationship post-Byrne is more influenced by Frank Miller.

WARNING: this is from an outsider's perspective here.

From what I understand (mostly thanks to his introduction to ASTRO CITY tpbs) Frank Miller is deeply suspicious of what the Comics Code Authority did to Batman and Superman, making them deputized agents of the law, and the mistake (in Frank's mind) is that the characters are essentially vigilantes and anti-authority...which is why Superman shaking hands with JFK is jarring and unpleasant.

This is true of both Batman and Superman, but most especially Batman, who in Miller's own words, "wears a cape like Dracula."

So, yeah, absolutely Miller would see a difference between Superman and Batman that is irreconcilable. And since Miller was (by all accounts) hovering so closely over the Superman reboot, his view is essentially what we got.

DKR with a rebel Batman conflicts with one of Batman's more important attributes: he works closely with the law and always obtains proper evidence before going after a criminal. Batman is friends with police officers (at least honest ones); they're on the same side. This is why stories where Batman is hunted, such as that Len Wein story where Ra's al-Ghul frames him for murder, or the Tobacconist's Club vs. Batman during Englehart's DETECTIVE, or hell, even THIS story, stand out: they're not the typical way Batman operates.

This is my problem, in a nutshell, with DKR's continued influence on Batman and Superman:

Batman is a little more law-abiding and less rebellious than DKR makes him look;

and,

Superman is driven by a lot more things than just being law-abiding.
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« Reply #7 on: December 20, 2006, 11:34:34 PM »

Quote from: SuperMonkey
I think that it is one of the best Batman stories ever made. But, the reason why Superman is the way he is in this tale is because it's the Man of Steel John Byrne version.

I think you've got that reversed: the Batman/Superman relationship post-Byrne is more influenced by Frank Miller.

No. I got it from here: http://superman.nu/a/History/end.php

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