Better Than List Pt. 2 Batman: Year 100 > Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

When Batman: The Dark Knight Returns came out, it was an instant success. It changed the way people look at the Batman character and comics in general. It solidified Batman as a dark character closer to his 1930s incarnation, and helped usher in the era of "dark and gritty" super heroes. Other than it’s importance to the history of comics though, Dark Knight just really isn't that good. The story telling is blunt and Miller focuses too much on needless narration. Batman: Year 100 has many of the same themes but complicates them further.

In many ways Year 100 is almost a direct response to Dark Knight. Year 100’s title is a reference to Batman: Year One, another Batman work by Miller. The cover of the trade paperbacks are also strikingly similar. There are visual cues mimicking Dark Knight like panels of lightning strikes and Batman hanging from wires and ropes. Pope probably meant these to be an homage to Miller but the book's themes and style are closer to a critique than a homage.

The critique begins with how the two books deal with Batman and Bruce Wayne. Dark Knight has Bruce Wayne as a man who is deeply disturbed to the point of insanity. It’s an easy route to take with the character. Of course, someone who suffered such trauma as a child and dresses up like a bat must be insane. Realistically, Miller is probably right, but he plays it for a gimmick and handles it poorly. He shows Wayne constantly having bat-related flashbacks and has him talk about exactly what he is feeling through internal narration.

Miller tears down the myth of Batman by making Bruce Wayne's psychology the central focus of the story and by pinning his psychological problems all onto the pains of the past. Wayne's response to a flood of emotional pain is to become Batman again, and as Batman, Wayne goes looking for physical pain to dull the emotional. Miller ignores Batman’s roots as a detective and has him only focused on the next fight or stewing about his personal demons. Pope uses Batman the detective as an integral part of the story and celebrates his intelligence.

Instead of focusing on the psychological aspect of Batman, Pope looks at the meaning of the Batman mythos in our culture. Pope takes Bruce Wayne mostly out of the equation. In every panel where Batman isn’t wearing his mask, Pope obscures his face. He makes it obvious that it's an intentional choice by going almost to Austin Powers-like lengths to do so. He makes Batman look thirty-something and perform outrageous physical feats but at the same time, he implies that he’s over a hundred years old. It doesn't matter who is behind the mask. What matters is Batman the icon. He's someone that can never get old and remains entirely a mystery in a future world where everyone's life history is stored in a database.
Pope doesn’t focus on it, but the psychology of the character shines through. He makes it clear that Batman doesn’t feel comfortable without his costume on and takes a joy out of putting in fake teeth and looking grotesque. The big difference between their psychologies is that Miller’s Bruce Wayne is focused on himself while Pope’s is focused outwardly. When Pope’s Batman makes demands of Robin and his support team, it’s always on what he needs to get the job done and not because of the trauma of his past. Batman even meditates in a scene in Year 100 and when he does, it's not to calm his spirit but to recall events of the crime scene that he's witnessed.

Miller seems concerned with taking-on and destroying all aspects of the Batman continuity. He shows us all the minor Bat characters and how they’ve become old, cynical, or dead. Even Superman makes an appearance as a poster boy for the United States government. Each comic deals with the character of Superman in a different way. In many ways, the treatment of Superman symbolizes the thematic core of each book even better than Batman. Dark Knight takes the stance that one might argue in middle or high school: "Superman is lame because he can never be hurt and Batman is cool because he’s a real guy like you and me!". It takes a kind of smug, fanboy glee in seeing Superman defeated and outmatched at the hands of Batman.

Although he doesn’t have a large role, Year 100 shows Superman as an icon of hope. A child hands Batman a toy of Superman seemingly passing that hope along as Batman is left speechless by the gesture. Having Superman appear as a child’s toy still subtly hints that maybe the character is a little childish and that Batman makes a more interesting character, but this is a secondary point to Pope's point that Superman is a symbol of hope unlike Miller whose interest is cynically tearing-down Superman.

The books are opposites when it comes to layout and design. Dark Knight tends to read more like a book than a comic and is a mess of words and panels floating in space. It’s layout and verbosity makes it difficult to read, something non-comics readers tend to confuse with depth. It uses language to pretend to be intellectual and confuses a dark tone with complexity. Its pretensions to intellectualism are a big reason why it’s popular with critics and fans that were desperate for more complicated super hero comics. Pope knows how to use the page layout to his advantage and doesn’t use excessive text to slow down his stories. The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken until page seven. He uses a cinematic style that shows the reader just as much as pages of dialogue could. Miller's layout calls attention to itself being needlessly dense and heavy handed much like his writing. Pope makes his layout focused on the art and simply shows you the images and lets you decide where to stand.


Richard said...

I like the idea here--a series of posts attempting to show why x comic is better than y "recognized classic comic" or whatever, but... I haven't read Year 100. It may very well be better than Dark Knight Returns, but saying the latter "just isn't really that good" comes off as pointless contrarianism. Your criticisms of it are fairly facile--they are easy in the same way you are suggesting his story is sophomoric. Sometimes people think something's great because it is great. (On the other hand, I'd love it if someone could explain to me what the big deal is about Watchmen.)

Jesse Reese said...

If my criticisms are that easy to see I really wish people would pay attention to them. I agree with you about Watchmen , but I have to say it's got the same kind of shit going on that Dark Knight Returns does. They both are interested in deconstructing super heroes in the simplest way possible by taking them into the sewers of society. Maybe that was necessary for the genre at the time, but all that came out of it was years of needlessly dark and disturbed characters and plots.

Richard said...

"all that came out of it was years of needlessly dark and disturbed characters and plots"

I think this comment is basically true. I didn't have a problem with "dark" or whatever, but dark isn't the same thing as deep or complex. (The Dark Knight movie suffers from this confusion.)

Anyway, by "easy" I mean to say that, I think there's a little more going on behind the things you observe in Dark Knight Returns. (Not that Miller is typically all that subtle.)

Minor personal note, which may or may not color the effect of my comments. I was 19 when I first read Dark Knight Returns (I've read it several times, but not in about ten years), but like 35 when I finally got round to Watchmen.

Jesse Reese said...

You're spot on with your comment about "dark" not being complex. A lot of comics have fallen into that trap, and I agree even the The Dark Knight movie.

I think the stuff going on behind my criticisms are equally shallow though. A big thing going on behind Superman's character is the fascist-like control of the government and Superman's fear of it. The government is evil and corrupt and Superman is weak for not confronting them. There's lots of stuff going on but for me most of it has a Good/Bad mentality.

I think your personal note makes a lot of sense because a similar thing happened to me. I first read Dark Knight and Watchmen early in my comics days and were excited about them. As I started to think about them more and read different stuff they began to annoy me. I would say look at DKR again and check out Year 100 . Every since I read it scenes from it have stuck in my brain and I keep coming back and enjoying it. So, for me that's a good comic.

samuel rules said...

jesse and richard-

I love going back and reading things I read as a child, not for nostalgia reasons but because more often than not these days I notice that comics that shaped how i feel about super heroes now just plain aren't good anymore. Constantly I feel weird and almost embarrassed when I realize I used to like Age Of Apocalypse X-books and thought they were the epitome of super hero comics. Going back and reading a comic is what REALLY puts it in it's place as the best thing ever or the worst.

brandon said...

In like 40 minutes, David will have a Watchmen post up, so check it out!

I think Jesse does a pretty good job of explaining the flaws of 'Dark Knight' and I think calling it "not that" is legit because it isn't. It's an attention-grabbing intro sentence that's then backed-up by a lot of examples. Hardly facile.

Miller's story is rooted in really obvious cynicism about Superman, heroism, etc. and psychologically based in like a high school level understanding the psyche. I'd say that makes it not that good...

The contrast is with Pope's comic which maintains the mythos of Batman while also giving a drastic re-vamping of the hero. Pope is subtle, Miller is not, Pope is psychologically astute, Miller is blunt and silly; Pope prefers wonder and mystery over cynicism and categorization.

david e. ford, jr said...

you know, something i think that has been missed in the conversation here is that on a very basic level, year 100 is a well told story, whereas the dark knight returns is not. paul pope is an example of an extraordinary rare thing: a great comics writer AND illustrator. i think that the art in both the dark knight returns and the dark knight strikes again represents some of the best comics illustration of the last few decades. it is too bad that miller just isn't a writer in the same way that he is an illustrator. i think both of his big dark knight books are very difficult to read (i have yet to finish either of them), though not in the way say watchmen is difficult to read. it seems to me that miller has a lot of ideas that are not really fully fleshed out and he brings them to the page the way they appear in his mind. perhaps some people are attracted to this messy style of narrative because it seems that it is precisely not facile, but the fact is that it just disorganized and bad. pope, on the other hand, is one of the most exciting illustrators working in comics right now as well as an amazingly skilled writer. in terms of contemporary artists, maybe only michael allred does both as well as pope (admittedly, i am not really considering artists working outside of the mainstream in this calculation). the bottom line, for me anyway, is that i think year 100 is the best batman book i have ever read and i think it might be some time before i read another that is as good.