Warts and All

How Frank Miller Removed Batman’s Pedestal

The comic book as a storytelling medium is a remarkable and unique creature. Comic book icons have a flexibility and a capacity for redirection. Characters with solid decades-long histories and worldwide popularity, paradoxically, do not achieve it through a rigid retelling of the same stories, but through their endless ability to adapt their meaning. Well-known heroes and villains are very different people from one decade to the next, or in the hands of different writers and artists. When the way comic books are written undergoes a sea change, it inevitably ripples into all the other storytelling mediums.


One of the most crucial of these revolutions happened in the late 1980s and early ’90s as comic books, once dismissed as being “for kids,” were suddenly hailed as real art and real literature. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller were major players in that arena; a weird trinity of authors who opened the flood gates for comic book culture to burst into the mainstream [ 1 ]. Although all three contributed to the reinvention in different ways, this exploration will focus on Frank Miller and what he, in particular, did to remake Batman. Frank Miller’s first-person limited presentation of a character’s internal thoughts, sensations, flaws and motivations, his use of age and the effects off time, and his inclusion of an expanded social-political environment, comprise his way of bringing Batman into a gritty deconstruction of what makes the man.

Miller is now famous for his ability to make ethically complicated characters, especially heroes. While he continues the tradition of writing superheroes as larger-than-life, almost mythic entities, Miller also portrays their ugliness as well. In an interview with Tasha Robinson, Miller states, “Occasionally, I’ll try a perfect hero, but it’s a real stretch for me. I like ’em warts and all obsessive and weird” [ 1 ].

One Order of Obsessive and Weird

The ubiquitous nature of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns has definitely added a specific and militaristic spin on various audience’s and artists interpretations of Batman.

For Batman, Miller asks us to look at the violent and unhinged tenancies that make up his “warts.” We see an unstable Bruce Wayne flirting with the urge to kill and his vow not to do so during mortal combat. Since the Comic Book Code, readers have been taught that heroes do not kill their villains. Although comics have since begun to break that rule, at the time it remained an unquestionable truth of the comic book reader’s experience [ 2 ]. Older comics are full of trope-laden ways around this: Wonder Woman’s non-lethal lasso, villains who just get harmlessly knocked out in fights, etc. The expectation that the antagonists will survive—or at least be killed by someone other than the hero—hovers in the back of the reader’s mind, as part of a subconscious framework for how a story of this medium ought to play out.

Therefore, it is peculiar that characters in past iterations react to or engage with the fact relatively little. In Miller’s deconstructed Batman, we see him engage with the “a hero shall not kill” trope and grapple with the burden of being nonlethal as a real person in the heat of a fight. He even catalogs the sensations of Batman’s physical reality (pain, adrenaline, drifting towards shock), all of which allows us to not only see through his eyes, but to inhabit his body and understand the desperation of Batman’s situation.

When he faces the leader of the sadomasochistic anarchist group the “Mutants Gang,” he is sorely tempted to kill him. By reading Batman’s thought process (the observations of a tired, broken old man), he becomes more genuine to the reader. We see him sweat and struggle. Batman thinks, “… I can’t think of a single reason to let him live … except … except he’s got exactly the kind of body I wish he didn’t have […] In his physical prime … and I honestly don’t know if I could beat him” [ 3 ]. For a moment, the reader is unsure if our hero will or will not chose to kill. It seems like Batman’s only reason for not doing so is that he doesn’t think he can.

This first-person viewpoint makes the reader reevaluate assumptions about what kind of man Batman really is; assumptions the reader has been saturated with before even picking up the comic. Miller has moved the limits of how far Batman is willing to go, and what boundaries he won’t cross, in the mind of the reader. The traditional foundations of Batman’s character are all still there, but the rooms of his moral house have been drastically remodeled. The reader is left stumbling around a once-familiar space, now rendered alien.

The Limitations of Age Cut Both Ways

One of Miller’s greatest tools in humanizing his protagonists is the use of age and time. In the span of Batman’s life, we see a spectrum of developments. He begins as a fumbling novice in Year One and morphs into the crazy old man tottering on the edge of insanity and looking for a “fine death” in the Dark Knight segment. It’s nothing novel to tell a hero’s origin story, but Miller expertly narrates it from the first-person subjective. The reader experiences growth with the hero, in all its mundane and less than flattering details. Miller also makes good use of those provocative internal monologues (discussed above in an analysis of a more veteran Batman).

In Bruce Wayne’s process of becoming Batman, Miller shows his early strategy and fight tactics; his personal thoughts and memories; and the aches in his body as he fails in his early fights. The budding hero thinks to himself when cornered and battered, with an injured leg, “I’ve made a mess of things. Let it all get out of hand.” and later “Groggy— losing too much blood—had to put a bullet in my good leg—” [ 4 ].

In his origin, we see a potential hero with deep doubts, who makes many mistakes, who continually gets kicked around and can’t find his footing (literally and figuratively). Although he isn’t yet the obsessed man he becomes as the older Dark Knight, we can see the seeds of obsession in his stubborn dedication. Miller reveals the ugly parts of the origin; the mistakes and injuries that are rarely shown to the reader. It is not glorious or mythical. We see it step by step, day to day, the experiential perspective of a young Bruce Wayne. He’s a man who knows he has the training but is missing something. By becoming Batman and gaining acceptance of the identity, he finds the crucial tool he’s looking for: fear. 

I am the Terror that Flaps in the Night

The aforementioned permeation of Miller’s take has caused significant revisions in various modern versions of ‘The Batsuit’, from internal electronics and servos to built in gas deployment. We see this from the Injustice game franchise to nods in Batman Beyond.

Miller’s Batman uses fear in a practical way. He observes that when enemies are afraid, they hesitate and become easier targets. Batman thinks to himself, “The costume works—better than I’d hoped […] they freeze and stare and give me all the time in the world” [ 5 ]. The way he instills fear also makes him a myth in his city and in the minds of its citizens. In his disguise he is barely perceived as a human, which gives him terrifying freedom to be odd, insane, or dangerous since he is not held to the standards of human morality. In the minds of most, he is a god, monster, or both.

In a police briefing, a dirty cop who got a beating from him says, “then I heard giant wings flap. It flew down from the sky— … — its wings were about thirty feet across. It bellowed like … well, I’ve never heard anything like it …” [ 5 ]. Only the most rational (Jim Gordon, for instance) can see beyond the perception smokescreen. In the early stories, those who encounter him swear that he’s unnaturally tall, can fly, and makes terrifying animal screeches. All of this works to his advantage because he realizes the one thing humans fear more than anything: the dark corners of the unknown.

What kind of place could drive a man to become that sort of hidden terror? Miller focuses especially on the type of environment that could create this god/monster/insane man. The deep-rooted corruption of Batman’s world is poignant because it’s the same brand of corruption which afflicts the real one. He constructs a city and a broader political and societal world so absurd and horrifying that a man running around in a bat costume makes sense. Miller remarks on the puzzling absence of environmental factors in older comics, 

“… seeing how all these heroes had been castrated since the 1950s, and just how pointless they seemed to be … In this perfect world of comic books, which was what it was back then, why would people dress up in tights to fight crime?” [ 1 ]

Even from the origin story, Year One, we see a very pensive, worn out, Gordon arriving in a serpent pit of police corruption and being told to play nice [ 6 ]. This flies in the face of the Comics Code Authority, which states that “Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority” [ 2 ]. But why else would Gotham be a cesspool of evil? Why else would a vigilante be necessary, unless law enforcement was no longer effective? 

Not only is law enforcement useless, so is the rest of the population, which makes a vigilante even more important. They are glued to the TV version of events, highlighting the distance between the masses and the reality of the crisis. Unlike the citizen-bystanders of 1950s comics who seek to do their duty, Miller makes it painfully clear that there is absolutely nothing the populace can do but watch as the powerful decide their pawn-like fate.

Miller uses newscasts throughout his work to convey both information and the absurd nature of how we absorb worldwide threats in modern life. Even in the midst of nuclear terror, the newscasters intersperse foreboding reports with misguided attempts at entertaining distractions, such as the Joker appearing on a talk show, falsely reassuring speeches from a bumbling ultra-patriotic president, and so-called-experts rattling off pop psychology assessments on all of it. Then the reporters go right back to the grim issues, with no change in their chatty tone or delivery. It’s incredibly effective because the news and its bland presentation are familiar to us, but Miller is forcing us to see the absurdity of it both in Batman’s universe and in our own lives. It shows the reader as a numb observer in need of saving, soothed by the meaningless, distant gloss the media gives to horrible threats [ 3 ].

Real world readers of the ’80 were living in a world where they were being saturated with TV news about the global situation, while feeling impotent to change it. So were the characters of Year One and the Dark Knight run. Both experienced the absurdity of overwhelming violence and nuclear threat for which they could do nothing.

Paradoxically, just as the populace (in reality and fiction) longs for heroes of the past, they simultaneously criticize them, distrusting the authority they represent and the power they may abuse. This Batman has much more to prove than the Batman of the ’50s to Gotham’s citizens and Miller’s readers. This Batman is not above questions and contempt. He is not a godlike representative of the established authorities but a fugitive from them. The author is keenly aware that he must build a hero that makes sense to an adult in a complicated world, not just an awe-struck kid.

Miller paints the nightly crusader as a man who struggles with the burdens of both youthful inexperience and powerless old age, powerful thoughts and emotions, temptations, guiltily angst, excruciating bodily injuries, and a mind that hurls towards insanity. Miller’s Batman is a complex man dealing with a world of terror which doesn’t make sense, and problems that are far bigger than one hero—and yet he sacrifices everything to try anyway. This is how Miller took Batman off the pedestal of 1950s heroes and made him real to a modern audience, without losing any of his larger-than-life importance. 

Images

  1. “The ubiquitous nature of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns has definitely added a specific and militaristic spin on various audience’s and artists interpretations of Batman.” Source: https://stock.adobe.com/images/kuala-lumpur-malaysia-october-6-2018-fiction-character-of-batman-from-dc-movies-and-comic-batman-action-figure-toys-in-various-size-display-for-the-public/303606940?prev_url=detail&asset_id=303606940 (Adobe Stock. “KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA -OCTOBER 6, 2018: Fiction character of Batman from DC movies and comic. Batman action figure toys in various size display for the public”. By Aisyaqilumar.)
  2. “The aforementioned permeation of Miller’s take has caused significant revisions in various modern versions of ‘The Batsuit’, from internal electronics and servos to built in gas deployment. We see this from the Injustice game franchise to nods in Batman Beyond.” Source: https://stock.adobe.com/images/batman-3d-render-3d-illustration-5-fev-2022-sao-paulo-brazil/485158196?prev_url=detail (Adobe Stock. “Batman 3D render, 3D illustration, 5 Fev, 2022, Sao Paulo, Brazil.” By miglagoa.)

A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.

Resources

  1. Robinson, Tasha. “Interview: Frank Miller.” The A.V. Club, Onion, Inc., 5 Dec 2001. avclub.com/frank-miller-1798208243.
  2. Comics Code Authority. “Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, Inc.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. cbldf.org/the-comics-code-of-1954. Accessed 19 Sep 2021.
  3. Miller Frank, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 10th anniversary ed. DC Comics, 1997.
  4. Miller and Mazzucchelli. Batman: Year One, Part 3. DC Comics, 1987.
  5. Miller and Mazzucchelli. Batman: Year One, Part 2. DC Comics, 1987.
  6. Miller, Frank and Bob Mazzucchelli. Batman: Year One, Part 1. DC Comics, 1987.