BatmanThey’re all around us
No one will look you in the eye
You don’t know who to trust
I’m looking around me
And don’t like what I see
Corruption all around me cause these,
These are the signs of the times

               — “Sign of the Times,” Cro-Mags

Background for the Bat

Camp nearly killed the Bat. The success and notoriety of the 1960s Batman television show almost smothered the Dark Knight under a blanket of whacky hijinks and onomatopoeias. Sure, those who defend the show are correct in that William Dozier’s ABC series, which ran from 1966 until 1968, was true to the comics. Ever since the comic book industry’s public excoriation at the 1953 United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which was in large part fueled by a toxic mixture of misplaced guilt based on quack theories and a sincere desire to halt the rising tide of postwar crime, comic book companies and creators had turned the once streetwise and slightly radical medium into pure kids stuff. Thus one gets the Booms! and Pows!”

In an odd twist of fate, the Batman television show occupied air time just as American culture was souring. The wholesome image of the nuclear family was quickly dissolving, and in its stead came the glorification of draft dodgers on college campuses, recreational drug use and the mental slavery of free love, the commercialization of youthful rebellion, and race riots in major cities, which in the words of Pat Buchanan, make similar riots in Ferguson and Oakland look like “neighborhood cookouts.” While members of the radical left-wing raised the flag of North Vietnam outside the Democratic National Convention and did battle with the Chicago Police Department, average Americans, feeding off the culture of the time, fought back. Christened the “silent majority” by the new President Richard Nixon in 1969, this inchoate coalition included everything from housewives to military veterans fresh from Vietnam. Even Hells Angels gang members, whom Hunter S. Thompson once characterized as being of the same mindset as “the cops, the Pentagon, and the John Birch Society,” got in on the action by frequently beating up hippies and their allies at rallies and at concerts.

But of all the members of the not-so Silent Majority, none would play a greater role in the later development of popular culture than the so-called Hard Hat rioters of New York City. On May eighth of 1970, the New Left met the Old Left when construction workers and members of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations attacked approximately one thousand protesting students who were in Lower Manhattan screaming about the Kent State shootings and the recent United States incursion into Cambodia. The Hard Hats, led by their fiercely anti-communist, pro-Vietnam War President George Meany and the similarly minded Peter J. Brennan–who oversaw the building and construction unions throughout New York–staged their counter-protest around Federal Hall. Within no time, the Hard Hats, who came equipped with American flags and signs bearing the ultimatum of “America, Love it or Leave it!” broke through the police line and attacked the anti-war protestors en masse. According to eyewitnesses, the construction workers targeted those with the longest hair and frequently used their mostly blue hard hats as bludgeoning weapons.

While most see the Hard Hat Riots and indeed the whole of Richard Nixon’s presidency as part of a greater seismic shift towards political divisiveness in the United States, the truth is that the Hard Hat Riots and the rioting construction workers themselves are emblematic of a new breed of conservative—the often reviled neoconservative. Like the construction workers and their leadership, the founders of the neoconservative movement were all themselves former liberals and Democrats (some were even former Trotskyists). Their shift towards the Republican Party was caused in large measure by the takeover of the Democratic Party by college-trained Marxists, the anti-war young, and special interests groups such as the Black Panther Party, welfare-rights organizations, and the feminist movement.

Of course, there is more to neoconservative philosophy than just anti-Leftism. Indeed, one can argue that neoconservatives are in reality liberals of an older school, and despite all the focus on founders such as Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol, the real backbone of the neoconservative movement is its initial followers—blue-collar New Yorkers and other members of the urban working class who were less driven by ideology and more driven by anger. By the 1970s, there was a lot to be angry about, especially crime, which was reaching unprecedented levels in places such as Detroit, Chicago, and, most importantly, New York. The crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, besides giving birth to the “tough on crime” type of urban Republican and turning Irving Kristol’s well-known phrase “A conservative is a liberal who is mugged by reality” into a literal experience, also helped to give birth to three cultural products that helped to define this twenty-year period: the vigilante film, graphic novels, and New York-style hardcore punk. Batman, as DC Comic’s premiere avenger and an indisputable New Yorker, absorbed all three genres, and thus the Batman comics of the 1980s remain some of the best expressions of the neoconservative rage that was the byproduct of urban decay.

Untitled2Got a feeling inside that you wanna let out
Gonna scream, gonna shout
Face is grimaced like a clenched fist
Got lots of aggression I can’t resist

— “Rage,” Murphy’s Law

Shoot First, Ask Questions Never

While the Hard Hat Riot explicitly showed the disconnect between those American students who had known only postwar prosperity and a large portion of the working class, the 1974 film Death Wish showed in gripping detail just how easily the average middle-class, New York liberal could turn into an angry vigilante. Death Wish is then the story of neoconservative conversion told in exploitative broad strokes. In short, Death Wish is the story of architect Paul Kersey (played by Charles Bronson), who takes up a nickel-plated .32 Colt after the police prove too slow in apprehending the men responsible for the rape of his daughter, Carol (played by Kathleen Tolan), and the death of his wife, Joanna (played by Hope Lange). From here, Mr. Kersey becomes the embodiment of the frustration felt by law-abiding citizens in Mayor John Lindsey and Mayor Abraham Beame’s New York. His vigilantism throughout the film is not too far off from the vigilantism of comic-book superheroes, and Paul Kersey’s heroic stature exists not only because of how his actions are portrayed, but also because of the differences between him and the effete hesitancy of his son-in-law Jack (played by Steven Keats).

Although the almost gleeful violence of Death Wish is the most-often remembered aspect of the film, Mr. Kersey’s transformation from a former conscientious objector in Korea with all the trappings of bourgeoise life to a hardened vigilante is more important than the film’s bloodletting. Specifically, when the grieving Paul Kersey takes an assignment out West, he not only lands in Arizona (the home of Barry Goldwater, the man who led the Republican Party away from the cushy liberalism of Nelson Rockefeller), but he begins working with a gun-nut client named Ames Jainchill (played by Stuart Margolin). Mr. Jainchill becomes Paul Kersey’s sensei of sorts, and through the gun the two bond over their shared desire for justice, law, and order.

Jainchill: You’re probably one of them knee-jerk liberals that thinks us gun boys would shoot our guns because it’s an extension of our penises.

Kersey: Never thought about it that way. It could be true.

Jainchill: Well, maybe it is. But this is gun country.

Upon returning to New York, Paul Kersey imports Arizona’s gun culture and brand of justice in his one-man war on crime. Prefiguring the later real-life exploits of Bernie Goetz, a meek-looking subway commuter who was so fed up with being mugged that he used a .38 Smith & Wesson to wound seriously four men whom he believed were about the rob him, Mr. Kersey and his actions become the divisive issue du jour in New York, with some labeling him a racist because most of his victims are black, and others lauding him as a hero.

Ultimately, Paul Kersey is allowed to leave New York by a sympathetic police lieutenant, and from there he would star in four more films that would keep the character relevant through the 1970s to the 1990s. Three years before Death Wish, another vigilante appeared in movie theaters, and he too would star in five total films that would stretch over multiple decades. Inspector Harry Callahan, better known as “Dirty Harry,” is the byword for both the stereotypical American vigilante and police brutality. Like Paul Kersey, Mr. Callahan is a solitary man of “the System” stuck inside one of America’s most liberal cities (in this case San Francisco), and he too finds the gun to be the perfect expression of his brand of justice.

Both films, which point out the limitations of the American legal system, were loathed by critics. Roger Ebert declared that Dirty Harry promoted a “fascist moral position,” while Pauline Kael claimed that the film was a “single-minded attack against liberal values.” Vincent Canby hated Death Wish so much that he wrote two long articles denouncing the film, and in one instance decried that the film was “a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” Although Mrs. Kael had loved the violent epic Bonnie and Clyde, and although Mr. Ebert and Mr. Canby were often quick to laud supposedly “realistic” portrayals of sympathetic criminals and their motivations, they and many like them all condemned the vigilante film craze of the 1970s with almost religious passion. Even to this day, vigilante films are widely criticized, even though as Anthony Paletta pointed out in a 2012 article for The National Review, they are widely loved by audiences. Conversely, the vigilante films of the 1970s directly inspired the groundbreaking Batman graphic novels of the 1980s, which in turn forever altered the character and comic books generally.


Fellow Knights

Batman almost did not live to see the 1980s. The damage from the ABC television show proved long-lasting, and during the early 1970s, Gotham’s favorite caped citizen was nearly cancelled due to poor sales and general uninterest. Comic book fans in the 1970s, hardened by years of news reports from Vietnam and the urban slums of their own country, no longer seemed interested in a vigilante crime fighter who had been neutered through Pop Art. By 1970, Batman titles were collectively selling south of 300,000 a month, which was a far cry from the 1966 peak of 898,000 copies per month.

Besides the lingering dislike of the childish ABC television show, Batman creators also faced a far more competitive field, with a resurgent horror comics industry riding a wave that had started in the early 1960s, fueled by what Crime Factory contributor John Harrison has termed the “Monster Kids” of the postwar era, who had grown up with reruns of the Universal monster films on late-night television and magazines such as Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland. Under the team of writer Dennis O’Neil and artists Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and Gene Colan, Batman took a turn towards the gothic in the 1970s, which, though it made for great reading and certainly gave Batman some of his earlier grittiness back, also helped to weaken further the character’s traditional stance as an independent dispenser of justice. Killing supernatural vampires is one thing; killing real-life social leeches is quite another.

Besides the monster books, Marvel, DC’s main competitor, was taking some of their titles into formerly unchartered territory. In 1979, a nine-story arc in The Invincible Iron Man entitled Demon in a Bottle dealt with the very adult topic of alcoholism. In the David Micheline-scripted series, Tony Stark, the millionaire behind the Iron Man suit, struggles to overcome his dependence on drink in ways that are made all the more visceral through the brilliant artwork of John Romita, Jr., Bob Layton, and Carmine Infantino. Although DC had attempted something equally as adult-oriented with a short-lived run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow in 1970 (which was yet another collaboration between Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams), DC did not sustain the style in the way that Marvel did throughout the 1970s.

No Marvel characters would prove more influential on the later development of Batman than Daredevil and the Punisher. Although he debuted as a villain in 1974’s The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle, alias the Punisher, quickly became an anti-hero whose popularity revealed a collective neoconservative turn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After his family was murdered in New York’s Central Park, the Punisher, a gun-toting Vietnam veteran and a synthesis of all the then-popular vigilante film tropes, is a ruthless killer who wages a one-man war on crime that frequently rankles more traditional superheroes like Spiderman and Batman, who do not kill their adversaries. Initially written as a minor character, the Punisher became a recurring figure in many Marvel titles throughout the decade because the fans demanded it. Eventually, the character received his own series and continues in print today.

Just as the Punisher was blossoming into Marvel’s greatest anti-hero, Matt Murdock, alias Daredevil, was undergoing a makeover. Previously a second-tier title with little popular interest, the so-called Man Without Fear got a much-needed boost when in 1981 a young artist and writer from Vermont named Frank Miller was tapped to be the series’s full-time writer. Joined by artists Klaus Janson (who would later work with Mr. Miller on the groundbreaking Batman: The Dark Knight Returns arc) and David Mazzucchelli (who would also work with Miller on a Batman series, this one being Batman:Year One), Mr. Miller turned the fledging, blind lawyer Daredevil into a noir superhero full of emotional complexities. In such standout arcs as Daredevil: Born Again, which touches upon the issues of drug addiction, organized crime, militarism, and Matt Murdock’s relationship with his Irish-Catholic faith and his Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and  in issues #183-184, which see Daredevil squaring off against the Punisher in a battle of left-wing vs right-wing ideologies years before the much more well-known struggle between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller introduced not only his trademark hardboiled style of writing, but also his Ayn Rand-influence worldview. In The Romantic Manifesto, a text that played a crucial role in Mr. Miller’s development as a storyteller, Ayn Rand poses a crucial question: “Why is the soul of a murderer worth studying, but not the soul of a hero?” Rand asked the question in order to show the philosophical problems associated with Naturalism, but she incidentally gave Frank Miller a driving rationale—an inspiration to study at length his heroes while at the same time completely removing any potential sympathy with their antagonists. If nothing else, Mr. Miller’s world is black and white, despite flashes of noir-inspired grays.

Untitled4Don’t take no resistance
If they don’t like it go to hell
And cut their public assistance

— “Public Assistance,” Agnostic Front

The Dark Knight Arrives

Without question, Frank Miller forever altered Batman and how we view him in our popular culture. Mr. Miller made Batman punk rock by, in his own words, “giving Batman his [manhood] back.” The high inflation rates of President Ronald Reagan’s second term, coupled with New York’s deeper and deeper regression into criminal anarchy helped to make Frank Miller’s tales all the more relevant, and so too did Hollywood’s continued interest in vigilante tales. In the same year as the release of Mr. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another vigilante film, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, packed the theaters with a rough justice tale that was less about plot and more about flying lead and muscle cars.[1] The 1980s, in film and comic books, proved to be even more bloodthirsty than the 1970s.

Frank Miller’s contributions to the Batman character are rightfully lauded by fans and critics alike. But Mr. Miller was not the only artist working to remake Batman into a vigilante more in-tune with the 1980s. Writer Jim Starlin has for years been criminally under-appreciated, and alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Mr. Starlin composed the character’s two other classic arcs from the era—Batman: The Cult and Batman: A Death in the Family. While The Dark Knight Returns is a dystopian epic which places an older Bruce Wayne in the role of a fascistic dictator in the wake of nuclear fallout, and while Year One focuses on Commissioner Jim Gordon’s struggles to maintain honesty and integrity within the thoroughly corrupt Gotham City Police Department, Jim Starlin’s two arcs are even more grisly in their portrayals of criminal wickedness and political turmoil. The Cult in particular is a graphic story that ranks among the most sanguine and disturbing of Batman’s entire career.

A four-part series originally published in 1988, The Cult deals with the charismatic and Manson-like figure of Deacon Blackfire. A dark send-up of the televangelists who populated television screens in the 1980s, Deacon Blackfire is a religious tyrant who manipulates Gotham’s homeless population into joining his ranks of the saved. Torture is part of the initiation, and from underneath Gotham’s sewers, Deacon Blackfire breeds a vigilante army that, by the third chapter, has overrun Gotham and taken on the National Guard.

Although The Cult contains particularly gruesome scenes that involve torture, drug use, and certain acts that are taken directly from John Carpenter’s 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13, the most disturbing thing about Jim Starlin’s story is how it turns Batman from a tireless hero into a defeated, almost cowardly weakling. After being abducted, tortured, and brainwashed by Deacon Blackfire and his followers, Batman for a time becomes an unwilling participant in their righteous acts of vengeance against other criminals. Even worse, after Batman is released from captivity, he struggles to return to his usual form.

Robin: Batman! How about lending a hand?

Robin: Batman! Don’t give up! Fight!

Robin: Batman! I need your help! Please!

Robin: Do something! Anything!

Batman eventually comes to his senses and helps not only Robin, but also all the citizens of Gotham. After unleashing a non-lethal monster truck on Deacon Blackfire’s bum army, Batman challenges Deacon Blackfire to a hand-to-hand duel, then refuses to kill him, thus precluding his attempt at martyrdom. The Cult ends with Deacon Blackfire’s former followers tearing him to pieces. A depleted Gotham tries to return to normalcy, while Batman busies himself with destroying the Deacon’s few remaining totems. Thus ends one of the most obsidian stories in the entire canon of the Dark Knight.

Right after the conclusion of The Cult, Jim Starlin, penciler Jim Aparo, and inker Mike DeCarlo started work on A Death in the Family, arguably the most controversial Batman arc of all time. Published between 1988 and 1989, A Death in the Family tells a close, familial tale set against the backdrop of world politics. When the second Robin, Jason Todd, discovers that the woman who raised him was not his birth mother, he narrows the candidates down to three women: Sharmin Rosen, an agent with the Israeli Secret Service; Shiva Woosan, a mercenary; and Dr. Sheila Haywood, a medical aid worker in Ethiopia. Robin’s quest takes him to war-torn Lebanon and famine-ravaged Ethiopia. Batman shadows Robin, not only because of his growing worry over Jason Todd’s increasing anger and frustration, but also because the recently-escaped Joker is transporting a nuclear missile to the Middle East in the hopes of turning a profit among Shi’ite militants. The Joker is at first defeated by Batman and Robin, but in the disorganized chaos following their battle in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, the Joker once again escapes, while Robin finally learns that his real mother is working with starving refugees in Ethiopia.

Once in Africa, it is revealed that Dr. Haywood has a dark secret that she wants kept away from the eyes of the world. The Joker knows the secret and blackmails her, so she willingly sells out her son to the Joker in order to run away from her past. The Joker and his henchmen corner Dr. Haywood and Mr. Todd in a warehouse, beat Robin terribly, then place a time-controlled bomb inside the locked room. A “KA-THOOOOM” rings out. Batman is too late. “Oh, my God…Oh, my God” is all he can say.

DC comics left the results in the hands of their readers. In an advertisement, DC provided two telephone numbers. Calling one number meant that Robin would live; a call to the other meant that he would die. Comic fans now got the chance to play a Roman audience in the Coliseum, and the sentence they chose was death. In the next issue, Batman carries the bloody body of Robin across the African sand, while the Joker falls in with the Iranian government and is even made the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations by none other than the Ayatollah Khomeini.

A Death in the Family is about three major things. On the one hand, the arc is about terrorism. A Death in the Family is riddled with references to not only Middle Eastern struggles (the Lebanese Civil War, Iranian dalliances in Lebanon and East Africa), but also to other conflicts (Bruce Wayne travels throughout Lebanon on a fake North Irish passport, thus leading those around him to believe that he is an arms smuggler for the Irish Republican Army). On the other hand, it is also about the search for family. While Jason Todd struggles to locate his birth mother, Bruce Wayne tries to understand his relationship with the two young men who have worn the Robin costume—the mature and responsible Dick Grayson and the rash and eager Jason Todd.

Of course, A Death in the Family is also about how 5,343 votes beat out 5,271 votes. DC asked the readers to decide Jason Todd’s fate, and they, by a slim margin, voted for death. In the wake of such cynical, yet popular titles as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, a British series written by an anarchist and self-professed wizard who wanted to strip away the mystique of superheroes in order to expose the types of mental compulsions that would drive someone to don a mask and become a vigilante, it should not be surprising that readers sought Robin’s blood. Still, according Dennis O’Neil, who was an editor at DC at the time, the general public was initially outraged at the decision, and even tough construction workers in New York would recognize him as “the guy who killed Robin.” Clearly, by 1989 a new era of comic books was well underway.

Untitled5Burning, looting
Riots destroy the masses
Nightfall, brings death
And city reduced to ashes
Don’t call me your brother
‘Cause I ain’t your … brother

   — “Race War,” Carnivore

Batman: Angry Neoconservative, Fascist Leader, an Old Liberal Gone Bitter

Given the great work of Jim Starlin and others at DC during the 1980s, none can compare to Frank Miller’s four-issue run in 1986. The Dark Knight Returns has not only influenced an entire generation of comic book creators, but it is arguably the very comic that has had the most profound influence on Batman cinema. Ever since 1989, when Tim Burton’s Batman was released, The Dark Knight Returns, a pitch-black tale about urban lawlessness, nuclear war, and civilizing through strength and violence, has been a sometimes visible and oft invisible guiding hand in Hollywood. Christopher Nolan’s Batman is particularly Milleresque, and 2008’s The Dark Knight not only borrows a portion of Miller’s title, but its moral struggle between the crypto-authoritarianism of Batman’s intelligence gathering techniques and the nihilistic terrorism of the Joker is in keeping with the spirit of The Dark Knight Returns.

While The Dark Knight Returns has had a profound influence on Batman in the movies, Mr. Miller’s story itself was directly inspired by a film series. After seeing Sudden Impact, the fourth installment in the Dirty Harry franchise which places an aging Harry Callaghan in a three-way contest involving a private vigilante, the thugs she is after, and a small-town police department, Mr. Miller was inspired to write a Batman tale that starts off with an older Bruce Wayne who has retired from the vigilante life at age fifty-five.[2]

From that seed, Mr. Miller managed to create a whole world of quack psychologists, President Reagan lookalikes, and most importantly, Mutants. Every fan of vigilante films knows that the more vicious the criminals, the greater the satisfaction when the hero guns them down. In The Dark Knight Returns, the street gang the Mutants, who have unnaturally pale skin and razor-sharp teeth, embody the essence of violent crime, from their hideous stupidity (after Batman beats up their leader, a majority of the Mutants blindly begin to follow Batman as savage vigilantes known as the Sons of Batman) to their slavish devotion to brutality (“Slice and dice” is their motto).

Whereas the Mutants represent collectivist violence, the Joker, Batman’s chief rival, represents an amoral Übermensch of completely diabolical proportions. The Joker in The Dark Knight Returns is a charming sociopath who cons the gullible and egocentric Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, who is more or less a caricature of white-collar liberalism, into thinking that he is a victim of society. Dr. Wolper aids the Joker’s release from Arkham Asylum, and from there takes him on the talk-show circuit. The Joker repays this kindness by killing off the talk-show audience, including the David Letterman and Dr. Ruth Westheimer figures.

In order to combat both the Mutants and Joker, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman again, and like all the tough-guy vigilantes that he inspired, he wages a one-man war on crime. Despite his older body, the Batman shown in The Dark Knight Returns is a bruising hulk of a man who has become even more violent and even more restless since his retirement. He is without question like Inspector Harry Callaghan in Sudden Impact, the white-haired crime fighter who, in the words of the mobster Threlkis (played by Michael V. Gazzo), refuses to “mellow, grow more worldly.”

Because it is set in the future but grounded in the culture of the 1980s, The Dark Knight Returns is swimming in media. After every confrontation Batman has with either a Mutant, a low-level criminal, or the Joker, the fictional media of Gotham wades in like hungry vultures. In particular, The Dark Knight Returns features many debates between egg-headed and soft-hearted liberals and Lana Lang, Batman’s staunchest supporter and a talking head who fends off Batman’s critics by classifying Gotham as a war-plagued city being besieged by criminals. As much as Batman represents Harry Callaghan in tights, Lana Lang is Inspector Callaghan behind a television screen—the id of such publications as the New York Daily News, the Daily Mail, and other organs of right-wing populism.

The heart of the debate in The Dark Knight Returns is the one concerning civil rights versus the rights of victims. Batman’s blunt-force brand of justice gets him labeled a “social fascist” by more than one of Mr. Miller’s televised liberals, while Batman’s defenders are always quick to point out that by attacking Batman, one is showing sympathy for his victims—victims who are themselves frequent victimizers of innocent people. Again, the origins of this argument in The Dark Knight Returns can be traced back to the Dirty Harry franchise. In Dirty Harry, Inspector Callaghan resorts to shooting, then torturing the Scorpio Killer (played by Andy Robinson) in order to find out the location of a girl whom Scorpio has kidnapped, raped, then buried alive. Because Inspector Callaghan refused Scorpio’s request for a lawyer and because he obtained information from Scorpio’s residence without a search warrant, Scorpio is released and walks free even though everyone knows he is a killer.

As an homage to Jean Lartéguy’s “ticking time bomb” scenario from his 1960 novel The Centurions (itself a work often derided as radically right-wing by its critics), Dirty Harry, and by extension The Dark Knight Returns, proposes that sometimes excessive force and strictly unlawful behavior is needed in order to stop worse things from happening. In Dirty Harry, we are meant to fume with anger when Scorpio meekly cries “I have rights,” and in The Dark Knight Returns, we are meant to seethe with rage at those who criticize Batman or who unwittingly help his enemies.

The implications of such philosophy are well-known. The recent release of the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, better known as the CIA Torture Report, shows the lengths to which the US government went in order prevent terroristic acts. Although the report is in some ways one last Democratic dig at the neoconservative Bush White House, it does raise some questions concerning the limits of anti-terrorism tactics: How far should we as a society go in order to guarantee safety—the very thing which can never be fully guaranteed? Obviously, it is clear which side Mr. Miller’s Batman is on, and it is similarly clear that many Americans are on his side as well.

Ultimately, the most disturbing question posed by The Dark Knight Returns occurs at the end. After Batman’s rival Superman, the very embodiment of all-American values, helps United States forces defeat the Soviets on the Latin American island of Corto Maltese, he must deal with one last parting shot from the Russians—a nuclear warhead. Superman stops the warhead, but in his weakened state, he cannot stop the fallout. As radioactive snow coats Gotham, the loss of power turns the city into an anarchic jungle of lawlessness. This is no longer a metaphor, and Batman knows it. And unlike Superman’s war, Batman’s war against crime is a permanent conflict that can only ebb and flow but never cease. So, after Batman goes underground after his defeat at the hands of Superman (which can only be read as a larger philosophical battle between the status quo and Dirty Harry-style vigilantism), he forms a new army composed of Mutants in order to “bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers.” The Dark Knight Returns ends with the suggestion that Batman is planning a coup.

Does vigilantism always end in fascism? While Harry Callaghan complains about the law being too slow and too lenient on criminals, he is nonetheless opposed to remaking San Francisco in the image of a South American dictatorship. In Magnum Force, the second film in the series, Inspector Callaghan stops a gang of motorcycle cops and a lieutenant from turning the San Francisco Police Department into a death squad. When asked why he has decided to stick with the system, Inspector Callaghan barks:

I hate the … system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.

Mr. Miller’s Batman not only decides to not “stick with the system,” but The Dark Knight Returns ends with an image of him preparing for the violent making of a new one. While other Batman creators in the 1980s were merely trying to toughen up Batman with more adult-oriented books that were in-tune with the climate of the times, Mr. Miller recast Batman in an entirely new light. His Batman is an extreme extension of right-wing, specifically neoconservative, anger of the type seen at the Hard Hat Riots in 1970. He is the hero who has lived long enough to see himself become the villain. To paraphrase a critical description of 1987’s Robocop, Mr. Miller’s Batman and on-screen vigilantes of his ilk represent fascism for the liberals, or the distilled incarnation of two decades worth of white, urban, working-class rage.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] Side note: The knife-brass knuckle combination weapon wielded by the Mutant gang members in The Dark Knight Returns looks awfully similar to the one sported by Brian Thompson’s character in Cobra.

[2] Another aside: Frank Miller’s Sin City story That Yellow Bastard was largely inspired by Miller’s severe dislike of 1988’s The Dead Pool, the final and least loved of all the Dirty Harry films.

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