Frank Miller, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and
Grant Morrison, Batman: Arkham Asylum—A Serious House On Serious Earth
It seems difficult to believe such an iconic character was ever endangered these days, but during the 1970s, sales of Batman comics slumped so low, the character faced cancellation. But following the DC Comics’ still-controversial 1985 reboot of their narrative continuum, the publisher began experimenting with the character’s moral and psychological implications. Two long storylines paved popular attention to Batman before Tim Burton’s popular 1989 movie: 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns and 1989’s Arkham Asylum.
Immediately following DC’s reboot, writer-artist Frank Miller, already an over-ten-year comics veteran, decided to relaunch Batman retrospectively. He depicts Bruce Wayne, aged and retired, sharing liquor and reminiscing with Commissioner Gordon. But in Batman’s absence, Gotham’s crime has returned. Flippant muggers leave Wayne bleeding on a sidewalk, reawakening an old man’s deeply buried hunger. Batman returns to a world no longer prepared for him, a world torn between violent street gangs and an autocratic government.
Batman’s return precipitates greater consequences. Deep inside Arkham, Two-Face and the Joker have convalesced for a decade. Modern medicine restores Harvey Dent’s face, but he believes himself now completely scarred. No longer burdened with black-and-white morality, his newfound nihilism plunges Gotham into blood. But Dent has nothing on the Joker. Catatonic for ten years, he regains consciousness upon glimpsing Batman. (Miller precedes by two years Alan Moore’s hypothesis that Batman and Joker need one another.)
These events unfold against a background of extreme transnational violence. Miller presents a stark world, a reductio ad absurdum of 1980s moral absolutes. America has recruited some superheroes as government agents, and driven others underground. Superman takes orders from a President Reagan grown gnarled from power, but his thought bubbles reveal he despises collaborating with fascist warmongering. A maimed fugitive Green Arrow, meanwhile, proves Batman’s greatest ally and connection to the growing, organized anti-statist resistance.
Where Miller’s sweeping, epic-scale novel reflects his long publishing history, Grant Morrison hit audiences largely unawares. His story is largely intimate, circumscribed in both geography and time. To quell a prisoners’ riot in Gotham’s notorious Arkham Asylum, Batman acquiesces to an elaborate hide-and-seek game inside the building’s historic walls. His encounters with decrepit inmates provide insights into Batman’s own fractured, delusional psyche. He cannot know, however, that his circumstances mirror the Asylum’s own eerie history.
Miller’s massive political saga seems worlds removed from Morrison’s claustrophobic psychological thriller. Morrison traps Batman inside the world he’s created for his greatest enemies, letting them re-inflict the horrors he previously exacted upon them. As Batman travels deeper into the asylum (Bruce Wayne makes only salutary appearances in this story), the inmates force him to confront his own unresolved traumas. Morrison implies that Gotham only controls its native lunatics by employing an even greater lunatic.
|Dave McKean's nightmarish, profoundly influential depictions of Batman and the Joker|
Besides their divergent story structures, these novels have wildly different looks. Frank Miller does his own rough art, and his thick, deeply-carved lines make an austere background for colorist Lynn Varley’s surprisingly lush but controlled watercolors. The smeared color over inflexible outlines reflects Miller’s late Cold War milieu. Morrison wrote his script in collaboration with artist Dave McKean, whose watercolors, photocollages, and groundbreaking digital art presage 1990s graphic storytelling, while emphasizing Morrison’s dense psychological insights.
Despite their far-reaching influence on Batman mythology, and comics generally, one mustn’t mistake these stories for twinsies. Miller expands Batman’s impact by stressing his channeled criminal impulses, the reality of Batman as champion of order, but not necessarily law. Morrison, by contrast, says Batman saves others by failing to address himself. Miller’s political novel, and Morrison’s psychological horror, explore Batman from without and within. They provide a channel through which all subsequent comic storytelling flows.
These novels are inarguably products of their time. Written as America’s crime statistics hit their all-time peak, and society threatened its own nuclear armageddon, they reflect the nihilistic philosophy underlying Reagan’s Morning in America. Like The Terminator or Red Storm Rising, they wouldn’t be written today. But the world we inhabit today wouldn’t exist without their having been written. We’ve ascended from the bleak world these novels describe, but their cynical influence lingers, waiting. Patiently.