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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller with Klaus Jansson and Lynn Varley, DC, 1986, 198 pp.

In the discussion of graphic novels, two titles inevitably crop up: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. These two stories were created in the mid-80s and theyíve been popular ever since. In this column, on the topic of graphic novels, I thought that I would have to tackle the beast head on: what makes these two bleak comics so compelling and influential. Iím also going to look at Bone by Jeff Smith, a comic considerably different in the fact that it has a light tone, and Iíll close with a discussion of gender in comics by way of Trina Robbinsí The Great Women Superheroes.

These four titles all fall clearly within the realm of genre comics. That most often means superheroes, although the work of Jeff Smith is a welcome relief to the supremacy of the masked and the well muscled. There doesnít seem to be much cross-over between traditional science fiction (in its various forms such as hard sf, space opera, etc.) and graphic novels, although Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis comes to mind as a pure science fiction story -- it features a reporter in a futuristic milieu as a main character. An obvious point: in this column, Iím busy ignoring a wealth of great non-genre graphic work, everything from the groundbreaking Maus by Art Spiegelman to the excellent Louis Riel by Chester Brown. Graphic novels like these have become easier to find, as they are now stocked by most bookstores. Iím also ignoring the whole field of anime and anime-inspired work. These would be worthy of more than one separate column.

As for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, my feelings are easy to summarize: itís a dark, relentless story, which is fine on its own, but itís become such a default narrative strategy that the originator of the trend has lost a lot of its punch. Thatís to say, perhaps Millerís work here was too influential for its own good.

What do I mean? The Dark Knight Returns is unrelentingly dark. Something this dark and bleak is entirely in order if youíre attacking something worth tearing down. Indeed, this was an enormous change at the time for comics. Fast forward ten or twenty years, and if everyone around you is at the same level of pitch blackness, then it gets to be the new orthodoxy. One of those ďmeet the new boss, same as the old bossĒ situations.

The Dark Knight Returns is also a product of its time, slotted into a cultural matrix that can never be recreated. This is most obvious when you look at the follow-up. After The Dark Knight Returns, Miller went on to do a number of unrelated projects, but he recently decided (or was enticed) to do a sequel. The Dark Knight Strikes Again came out a few years ago, but I found it to be a decidedly lacklustre work. Fans of the first book have generally liked it, but it certainly wonít have the same cultural influence. The difference is a curious thing, and as far as I can tell, itís because Millerís version of Batman had its time and that time has now passed.

The story of The Dark Knight Returns is pretty basic. Batman has been out of the business for a significant amount of time, on the order of twenty years or so. Bruce Wayne has been getting old, but the things that always got under his skin (and caused him to become Batman in the first place) still bug him. The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of how he gets dragged back into the vigilante trade.

Miller structures the book into four distinct sections. In the first section, ďThe Dark Knight Returns,Ē we are introduced to the scenario, and Batman fights against Harvey Dent, also known as Two-Face. Harvey has been apparently rehabilitated by psychiatric care, but Bruce doesnít believe it. It takes him a while to track down Harvey, and we are treated to some amusing commentary as Batman comes out of retirement only to be called Dracula by some kids too young to remember his earlier crimefighting days. Batman also rescues a young girl named Clare from some attackers.

One of the best segments in this first part of the story is carried out on a couple pages of wordless panels. Miller and Varley recapitulate the famous night in young Bruceís life where his parents are killed. It feels fresh, with a psychological/visual payoff that has quite a jolt.

The second segment, ďThe Dark Knight Triumphant,Ē is a confrontation between Batman and the new crime leader in town, the leader of the Mutant gang. The recent crime wave in Gotham is largely due to this gang, and Batman has some bloody confrontations before he can track down where they are getting their heavy weaponry. We also meet the new Robin, the young girl named Clare who was rescued one section earlier. Clare returns the favour, giving Batman another chance to battle the mutant leader. After this, the gang transfers their allegiance to Batman himself.

This segment is the basis of whatís probably the most troubling aspect of the book. The story is steeped in enormous distrust of authority, and the necessary outcome of this attitude is a straightforward endorsement of vigilantism. Does the behaviour of the mutant gang change all that much once Batman is in charge? Itís hard to say. As for Batman, in his person he is omniscience incarnate, his judgment always is superior to that of others, and the violence that he deals out is always qualitatively different than the violent actions on the part of others. The situation might be a bit more complex if we are not straightforwardly cheering for Batman, but as Miller tells the story, Batman is the only person who has is head screwed on straight in this moral universe. The situation he is fighting against is dire, against which the simple answer is that situations are always dire. Iíll discuss this issue further when I take a look at Watchmen next.

I donít want to give away too much about the third segment, ďHunt the Dark Knight,Ē or the fourth, ďThe Dark Knight Falls.Ē Faced with the need to up the ante, Miller throws the biggest gun at Batman in the third section, the Joker, and tops this development by pitting Batman against Superman in the fourth. If Batman finally realizes how much blood he has on his hands because of all the times heís held back a fatal blow against the Joker, will he act on this epiphany? And how to defeat Superman, if that famous superhero is indeed the tool of authority and everything that is corrupt and rotten in this story?

Miller and Varley are working within a long tradition of Batman-related story and art, but they break off with the past too. This is definitively not the goofy 60s TV version of Batman. Varleyís art is cramped, dark, and intense. It tends to break out of the regular sequence of panels more often than Gibbons does in Watchmen (see my review next), but the majority of the pages require close reading.

Iím not sure if I would recommend this book to someone who isnít interested in superhero comics and doesnít know a fair bit about Batman and his history. The story is filled with easter eggs for people who know what is going on, but Miller doesnít do a lot to develop the psychological consequences of events that happen. Much of the mental turmoil is implied, often relying in some way on the long history of the character. Great stuff for fans, but a bit self-referential for new readers.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and David Gibbons, DC, 1987, 260 pp.

Watchmen is another title that pops up as an example of the sophisticated things that comics can do. Itís also a dark story, much darker in its own way than The Dark Knight Returns. When I look at the all the imitators of this bleak style, I want to make them examine what Moore has done since Watchmen. Mooreís career has been prolific, and some of the titles are dark in nature (From Hell comes to mind), but there have also been brighter spots. In other words, Moore suits the storytelling to the story at hand. When he has a dark tale, he throws everything he can at the readers to convince them of the desolation and peril of the fictional world at hand. This is what happens in Watchmen.

The title is perfect: this is about a group of people crumbling from the inside and losing track of whom theyíre supposed to be protecting. The title is taken from the famous saying: who watches the watchmen? Fittingly, thereís no discernible villain for the majority of Watchmen, and thereís certainly no supervillain all dressed up in tights -- in some ways, this is the exact opposite of The Dark Knight Returns. The twelve books of Watchmen are presented as a series of character studies, examining the people who, yes, dress in tights, but do so for the cause of protecting society. What makes them tick? Will their flaws be amplified by the temptations of power?

If The Dark Knight Returns took its narrative complexity from a long history of Batman and friends, Watchmen assumes the same familiarity with a brand new history that we have to pick up as we go along. This makes each chapter of the Watchmen comic itself extraordinarily dense and layered with information. This attribute makes Watchmen resemble The Dark Knight Returns structurally and visually. Both titles rely heavily on cramped, small panels, stuffed full with text. Both comics like to continue text from one scene to the next, commenting or reflecting on the goings-on in some way. Moore goes one step further with the use of text, including a document or memoir or news clipping at the end of each chapter.

Watchmen is a difficult story to summarize. The easiest place to start is where the book does in Chapter 1: the murder of the hero known as the Comedian. The Comedian was old, but still strong, and it looks like someone threw him out the window of his apartment without any resistance on his part. Who could have done it?

We are introduced to the Comedianís fellow heroes, at least whatís left of them. The original group sprung up in the WWII era, and this is the second generation. The only one still operating on a regular basis is Rorschach, an angry and highly disturbed individual. We get the first chapter mostly from Rorschachís point of view. We also meet Dan, the second generation Nite Owl, and a woman named Laurie who is the daughter of the original Silk Spectre and is now dating Dr. Manhattan (more on him in a minute). Events conspire to force Dr. Manhattan into exile -- Rorschach of course sees the same agency that led to the murder of the Comedian, although Dan doesnít believe him at this point. Someone seems to be sidelining the costumes, but how? And why?

My favourite of the Watchmen segments has always been Dr. Manhattan and his origin story, in Chapter IV, ďWatchmaker.Ē Dr. Manhattan is the only superpowered hero in the bunch -- the others all dress up in tights but for their own personal reasons. Dr. Manhattan is a being made out of energy and pure will and he can alter his appearance at a wish. He also has the ability to see outside of the current moment in time. In comparison to his friends, heís unstuck in time. He would be lonely, if loneliness had any meaning for such a being. Poignant, deeply reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegutís Slaughter-house Five, and one of the better character portraits in the book.

As much as the story of Dr. Manhattan is a science-fiction tale reworked, the story of Rorschach is pure psychological horror. By the middle of Watchmen, Rorschach is in jail, and Chapter VI, ďThe Abyss Gazes Also,Ē is told from the point of view of the psychiatrist whose job it is to fix Rorschach. Good luck! Dr. Malcolm Long wants to know what made Rorschach the way he is, and ends up getting sucked into Rorschachís worldview. Dark stuff indeed, but just wait, it gets darkerÖ

Layered through most of the Watchmen is the comic book Tales of the Black Freighter (introduced in Chapter 3, right before Dr. Manhattanís origin story). A number of characters walk past a local newsstand, talking to the vendor. These scenes include a kid sitting in the corner of the panel, reading this comic within a comic. Itís the story of a man picked up by a ghost ship, the Black Freighter; the man escapes and becomes desperate to warn his family and village people of the imminent arrival of this deadly vessel. In his haste to get home, his actions become less and less scrupulous. On my earlier readings of the Watchmen, I either ignored the Tales or didnít think too much about it. This time around, the parallels with the villain of the piece struck me with enormous force. Is it really that easy to become what you most despise? I mentioned earlier that I see Watchmen as the opposite of The Dark Knight Returns, and the Black Freighter clinches it for me. Millerís Batman only becomes more certain of himself as the story progresses, while Mooreís watchmen move in the diametrically opposed direction. The only figure with any moral certainty at the end, however misplaced, is the villain; all else is madness and death.

No wonder people have complained about the ending of Watchmen. With some perspective, Batman might be seen as a repugnant character at the end of The Dark Knight Returns, but Millerís implication of the reader in this transformation into vigilantism is an all-too-familiar one. It happens all the time in the Hollywood action movie in particular, and itís an unexamined thing thatís all the more troubling for its easy acceptance. Watchmen grinds us against the grain of our narrative expectations. Along with high camp and tight tights, superhero stories are about comeuppance and the restoration of the moral universe. This is the stereotypical view but it probably informed my understanding of Watchmen the first time I read it. Mooreís story feels very different if youíre paying attention!

Iím making somewhat of a false case out of the distinction between The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. However, I do think that Watchmen has retained much more freshness and vigour because of the way it takes on a more difficult narrative task. And if youíre prepared to trust Mooreís storytelling along the way, then the ending isnít a mistake but a mark of bravery. Lack of a conclusive ending can become its own cliché, but Moore works hard enough to make the finale distinctive.

Thankfully, Moore has left Watchmen as its own unitary work -- no sequels or prequels, just this one impressive item. There have been rumours of a movie version recently but Iím ambivalent about such a project. If recent comic book adaptations have been second tier properties, then itís good that someone is taking a stab at something topnotch like Watchmen but Iím not one to think that a work of artís life cycle is only complete once itís been Hollywoodized.

Bone, One Volume Edition, Jeff Smith, Cartoon Books, 2004, 1332 pp.

So far Iíve been talking about the writer mostly as if they were the comic creator. In the case of Moore and Miller, they are both writers who give cover credit to their artists and inkers (which is apparently a big deal). In the case of Bone, thereís just one name on the cover, for a simple reason: Jeff Smith did it all. The fact that this is black and white, and thus easier to produce, made that possible; all the same, the Bone story still took up 12 years of Smithís life.

Itís a rambly tale, perhaps too meandering for its own good. On the other hand, you can hardly expect a 1300 page epic to have a ďsprint for the finish lineĒ feeling to it. In that sense, Bone is just how Smith wanted it, and itís pointless to accuse the massive volume of circumlocutory excess. I would still call it rambly because of the conflicting impulses within the story: this is an addictive tale, and it is extremely long! Itís an easy one to pick up and read through at a hurried pace, which makes it hard to slow down enough to enjoy the beautiful artwork.

On that note, if youíve just read The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Bone is a visual relief. The world opens out! The black and white somehow feels less cramped, and the panels are also larger. Smith has a delicate line to his work when working in the typical black-on-white, and he also has a deft touch with reverse illustration (white on black). And Smithís illustrative style supports his story, which is always a welcome thing.

What is that story? Bone is hard to describe. It starts off as a light fantasy, and then gets darker in fits and starts, although never approaching the darkness of the previous two graphic novels in this column. You could describe Bone as Calvin and Hobbes crossed with The Lord of the Rings, even though such a comparison is reductionist and demeaning. Crudely put, but it gets to an interesting split in the story: the three main characters, the Bones, are drawn in a much more cartoony way than the other characters. The story around them is epic and realistic. Itís a nice contrast, and one that slips by quite easily (almost in the way the use of animals in Maus is deceptively normalized). More about this split later.

There are three Bones in the story, all cousins. Phoney Bone (short for Phoncible) is the schemer of the bunch, tireless in his pursuit and scams and wealth. Smiley Bone is as dense as a doorpost, but he enjoys life. Heís also got a soft heart, as we discover as the story progresses. The main character is Fone Bone -- he gets the front and centre spot on the cover of the One Volume Edition -- who is more of the straight guy in the bunch. We trust his reactions more than the other two Bones.

The story starts with the Bones in exile from Boneville. They get caught in the Valley. At first they just want to survive the winter. Slowly they get wrapped up in what is happening. The Hooded One is trying to gain power for an ultimate evil being that is trapped away from the world: kind of a standard epic fantasy bad dude, but Smith excels at the implementation of the story.

For me, the book works mainly because of the cast of characters. For example, Fone meets a young girl named Thorn who becomes crucial to the outcome of the confrontation, and their relationship is an emotional centre for the story. The bad guys have an army of rat creatures, none of them too bright despite their size, and there are two in particular who have serial run-ins with the Bones. Also, Smiley makes friends with a baby rat creature, later named Bartleby and crucial to the story. Other characters include Roque Ja, a massive mountain lion who is inevitably annoyed when other creatures mispronounce his name as Rock Jaw; Ted the bug, who has powers beyond his size; a few dragons; Thornís grandma and some other people from Thornís town; Kingdok, the giant leader of the rat creatures; and many other forest creatures.

Iíve mentioned that Bone is a funny book. One of the repeating gags in the story might go a long way to illustrate my point. If youíve read Bone, you can picture the panels for the following bit of dialogue perfectly in your head: ďStupid stupid rat creatures!Ē Early in the story, Phoney and Smiley are trying to escape from the aforementioned denser-than-average pair of rat creatures. The two Bones leap across a waterfall and save themselves from falling to their doom only by grabbing onto a flimsy branch. Of course, the rat creatures jump onto the branch with them. Phoney, in a fit of pique as is often the case, is less concerned about his own peril than about letting the rat creatures know what he thinks of them, and shouts the famous phrase. Itís a gorgeous visual gag, and all it needs is one frame. But Smith doesnít let the joke go; the subsequent variations on the theme are just as amusingÖ they get better, sharper, and vastly more absurd.

Thereís another running gag thatís indicative of split in the tone of the piece. Foneís favourite book is Moby Dick and he has it in his knapsack with him for the entire epic. Whenever he starts to read it out loud, the characters around him fall into deep slumberÖ and as can be imagined the comic possibilities are many. But what is a book, like Moby Dick, that is clearly from our culture doing in a fantasy world? And in the hands of a clearly fantastical creature? Writing an epic fantasy is hard work -- thereís a reason why very few satisfying epics are written -- and language is a big part of it. But Smith takes on the job of a large-scale story with non-heroic language and non-heroic characters. It suits his project, as a comic work. The two sides of the equation, comedy and epic fantasy, are not always present in equal or pleasing proportions throughout the whole book, but Smith gets it right the majority of the time.

Bone probably doesnít fit the stereotype of the graphic novel as a serious work, usually bleak and action-packed à la Miller or Moore or historically insightful and bleak like the aforementioned Maus or Ho Che Andersonís King. But Iíve always had trouble with categories like this. I simply donít see them, or see the value in ruling out something like Bone if it mixes things up with abandon (or rather the opposite, as Smith has constructed the effect with the greatest of care). I laughed at something on almost every page in Bone, which is about the purest measure of comedyís success. The epic fantasy storyline rivals anything in the written word, and it has enough inventiveness to populate this world with creatures who are unique personalities.

The One Volume Edition of Bone is the third incarnation of the comic, of what are now four different versions. Smith published the Bone story originally as single comics, usually about six or seven to the larger unit of the story. These books were published in nine volumes, reproduced as they were printed originally. The One Volume Edition collects the whole story, in slightly smaller dimensions than originally printed. Since the story was completed, Smith struck a deal with Scholastic to release the nine volumes as colourized. Iím glad I have the black and white version, but the colour version actually looks pretty good. Scholastic has already put out the first two volumes, targeted at ages 6-12. That might be a little young for some of the material, but his drawing in particular is enormously engaging, and if kids can get through most of the words that Smith uses, then itís probably fine for that age group.

The Great Women Superheroes, Trina Robbins, Kitchen Sink Press, 1996, 207 pp.

Iíll finish off this column with a much-needed look at gender balance. Of the three things Iíve covered so far, theyíve all been written by men and (mostly) illustrated by men. The examples I pointed to of non-genre graphic novels were also written and illustrated by men. I could say, where are all the women? Except that I know that this is a painful question for all the women in the field toiling away without the same acclaim as their male peers. Iím just one person; I canít solve something that has bedevilled the field for all its existence. All I can say is that Iíll do a sequel to this column to address this issue.

Trina Robbins started her career bringing to light lost comic art and artists. In 1993, she wrote a book called A Century of Women Cartoonists, a more general look at the creators of comic art who happen to be women. She followed Century up with The Great Women Superheroes. After this book, she has been busy with other research projects, as well as putting her own creative talents to work, most recently in a series called Go Girl!

With this book, Robbins ventures into a specific area: female characters in comic art who are superheroes. Itís obvious right from the start that this is a bit of a losing battle: superhero comics have been dominated by male heroes, and even the female protagonists have most often been created and drawn by men. Two of Robbinsí biggest examples, Wonder Woman and Elektra, were created by men, and most often drawn by men. Iím not a person who thinks this imbalance is a good thing, quibbles about the nature of superhero wish fulfillment aside. All the same, a project like this one that is intended to be a survey of the field has a distinctly episodic feeling because of this long-time imbalance. Robbins is complete in her study of the field, but the book definitely feels stretched.

The Great Women Superheroes starts with a much-needed overview of the outburst of comic creativity that started in the late 1930s and continued in the 1940s. Robbins rightly gives the first chapter to Wonder Woman, created in 1941 by a man named William Moulton Marston (inventor of the lie detector of all things). Robbins puts Wonder Woman in a cultural context, gives us some sample art, and celebrates this long-standing hero.

The next few chapters discuss other (more short-lived) female superheroes of the time: Miss Fury and Black Cat, who were created before Wonder Woman; the Spirit of Old Glory, Miss Victory, and Yankee Girl, figures more patriotic in nature due to war-time feelings; a short chapter on sidekicks of the time such as Doll Girl, Bullet Girl, and Batgirl, all distinguished by the -girl suffix rather than -woman; and some information about villainous women and what happened immediately post-war to comics. Catwoman is mentioned as a villain in Batman comics starting in 1940; as Robbins points out, Catwoman didnít get her own series until 50 years later.

When Robbins moves ahead to the 1950s, itís a grim scene for female superheroes. The comics industry in general was suffering for various reasons, including censorship. Into the 1960s, Robbins discusses the Marvel habit of creating a squad of four superheroes with an inevitably weaker woman as one of the quartet. She reserves especial ire for Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four: ďshe had a habit of fainting, becoming hysterical, or bursting into tearsĒ (110). The 1970s has a chapter on its somewhat flakey set of heroes, including She-Hulk and the Dazzler.

In her section on the 1980s, Robbins discusses how Elektra evolved as a character from the Daredevil comics and got several of her own titles. Robbins covers the 1990s in two streams: bad girl comics, full of women with heaving chests and scanty clothing, alongside indie comics with more realistic proportions and storylines. Because the book was published in 1996, there is now about a decadeís worth of material that it doesnít cover. And unfortunately, The Great Women Superheroes is out of print.

As Iíve said at several points in this column, the selections I have made for a study of graphic novels have only been scratching the surface of what is a wealth of material. And Iím hoping that soon the field wonít have such an obvious gender imbalance.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ontario, Canada.

Last modified: May 24, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #20

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