Comic books on the big screen – The Economist (blog)
BURIED in the closing credits of Zack Snyderâ€™s new superhero blockbuster, â€œBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceâ€, there is a thank-you to Frank Miller. Itâ€™s better than nothing, but itâ€™s still pretty paltry, given that the filmâ€™s most striking images and most amusing lines of dialogue were all dreamt up by Mr Miller for his four-part series of Batman comics, â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€. By rights, Mr Millerâ€™s name should have been on screen at the very start of â€œBatman v Supermanâ€, along with that of Batmanâ€™s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. But then, it should be at the start of countless other films, too. â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€, which he wrote and pencilled while he was still in his twenties, was first published exactly 30 years ago. Since then, it hasnâ€™t just revolutionised superhero comics, but all of popular culture.
Inked by Klaus Janson and coloured by Lynn Varley, â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€ was clearly more ambitious, distinctive and mature than anything else in the superhero genre at the time. In 1986, a typical superhero comic was 22 pages long, with five or six panels per pages, whereas each issue of â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€ comprised 46 pages, many of them divided into a grid of 16 small rectangular panels. The pages seemed to buzz with information, not just about Batman, but about the Gotham citizens and media pundits who debated their mysterious hometown superhero. Reading the comics was like flicking between ten different television channels, each of them with their own perspective on the same breathless story of urban blight and impending Armageddon. It was a Twitter feed, years ahead of schedule.
Format aside, Mr Millerâ€™s masterstroke was to cut the narrative free of Batmanâ€™s official continuity. His grittily satirical saga was set not in the present day, as most superhero comics are, but in a possible near-future, which meant that rules could be broken and iconic characters could be killed. In the opening pages of the first issue, the fiftysomething Bruce Wayne is a racing driver who has been out of the crime-fighting business for a decade. But now that the increasingly chaotic Gotham is being terrorised by a vicious gang called the Mutants, he comes out of retirement. And when he does, he is no longer a smiling Caped Crusader. He is Dirty Harry with a mask and near-limitless resources. Even before â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€, various writers had laboured to bring Batman back to his noirish roots and away from the camp image of Adam West in the 1960s television series. But Mr Miller took the character to outrageous new extremes. His Batman would cripple an opponent with a hip-cracking roundhouse kick, and then snarl, â€œHeâ€™s young. Heâ€™ll probably walk again.â€ He intimidated and tortured his foes, and he drove a Batmobile that was more heavily armed than a tank. (â€œI modified her during some riots 15 years ago,â€ he explains.) The last hope for a dystopian city, this brutal vigilante was conceived by Mr Miller, he has said, because he was a kid from Vermont who moved to New York and was promptly mugged. Twice. In venting his own vengeful fantasies, Mr Miller answered the question which has niggled Batman scholars since the character first appeared in 1939. Why would a multimillionaire industrialist want to dress up as a flying mammal and punch muggers every evening? Simple: itâ€™s because he enjoys it. Mr Millerâ€™s sadomasochistic Batman was scarcely more sane than Two-Face and the Joker. Naturally, adolescent comics fans were thrilled.
Other writers and artists in the mid-1980s were showing how the way superheroes were perceived, too, most notably Alan Moore, whose â€œWatchmenâ€ debuted later in 1986. And Mr Millerâ€™s vast body of non-Batman material is almost as influential: the current â€œDaredevilâ€ Netflix series is based largely on his run on the Marvel comic; Zack Snyder made a film of his â€œ300â€ graphic novel; and Mr Miller himself has co-directed two films adapted from his â€œSin Cityâ€ comics. But it was â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€ which made the biggest waves, and theyâ€™ve been gathering size and strength ever since. Tim Burtonâ€™s â€œBatmanâ€ would never have come about if Mr Miller hadnâ€™t demonstrated how to take the character seriously. And, of course, Christopher Nolanâ€™s moody â€œThe Dark Knightâ€ and â€œThe Dark Knight Risesâ€ were named in his honour. For better or worse, cinema and televisionâ€™s current obsession with relatively edgy and grown-up superhero narratives can be traced back to his paradigm-shifting masterpiece. But it would be wrong to measure â€œThe Dark Knight Returnsâ€ in terms of its impact on other media. Itâ€™s a comic, and its enduring brilliance is due to the fact that no one loves and understands comics more deeply better than Frank Miller.
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