I don’t talk about Frank Miller very often any more. It’s been many years since he’s done anything artistically interesting and his political commentary makes me feel sad for him. How did this once-great artist turn into an angry old man who once in a while turns out lazy garbage like Holy Terror? He’s lapsed so far into self-parody that you can sometimes forget how good the guy once was.
This is probably the number one reason why it’s becoming hip to dump on The Dark Knight Returns. It’s hard to read it now and not see the beginnings of ideas he’s become fanatical about. Also, I understand people are turned off by its depictions of Batman and, even more so, Superman. They don’t really fit in with my ideal versions of the characters either.
There’s one thing, though, that people misunderstand about TDKR, and it’s something that changes the entire meaning of the book. And what is that one thing?
The Dark Knight Returns does not take place in the future.
That’s right, it’s set in the early- to mid-eighties. That’s why Reagan is still the President. We’re not seeing the end of the modern-era Batman. This is the Batman of the fifties and sixties, now old and discouraged. The same for Superman. Once you realize this, the meaning of the book changes.
TDKR is Miller’s rejection of the Eisenhower era of superheroes, which is when DC ruled the roost. Batman is rebelling against the assumptions heroes made in those times and Superman is following them to their logical conclusion. As much as I hate a Superman that plays along with the authorities, no matter where it takes him, it’s the logical trajectory for who he was in the Silver Age.
It would be the logical progression for the Silver Age Batman as well, but Miller has set the character up as the wiser counterpoint to the accepted ideology of the past age. The trust we put in authority was misplaced, and Batman spends the entire book setting an example on how to fight the moral rot that’s set in.
So if we’re going to argue about the merits of TDKR, let’s make sure we’re starting from the right place.