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Batman versus the man.

Batman has been imagined as a vigilante, an ingenious detective, a crusading knight, a psychopath, and now--a revolutionary! In The Dark Knight Strikes Again (DC Comics, 2001-2, three volumes), Frank Miller presents us with an aged Batman, coming out of retirement to lead a guerrilla army of teenage thugs and washed-up superheroes.

In the background, we catch glimpses of a society where the president is, literally, a digitized puppet, corporations are run by criminals bent on increasing their power, and civil rights are but vague memories. But does the series represent an infusion of radical politics into the world of Gotham? Or is it just another costume for the same macho, militaristic, conquest fantasy that dominates so much of popular culture?

One thing is certain: This is not the Batman you grew up with. It's not the comic strip crusader or the (Zap! Pow!) Adam West farce, not the Superfriends cartoon character or the haunted hero of Tim Burtons films. Whatever your idea of the Dark Knight, this three-part graphic novel will represent a departure.

The rules are different: The superheroes are old, the government corrupt, right and wrong don't stand out on the page in lurid color quite the way they once did. But the biggest difference is the heroes' attitude toward crime. When Batman laments, "We spent our whole careers looking in the wrong direction! I hunted muggers and burglars while the real monsters took power unopposed!"--it's clear that something has changed. The scope of "justice" is suddenly a whole lot wider; its defenders realize that the real crooks are in the halls of power.

A the same time, the comic depicts a brave new world of nanobots, "News in the Nude," genetic engineering, and public apathy. This mundane dystopia of The Dark Knight Strikes Again may echo our own entertainment-obsessed consumer culture, but Batman's revolution will seem unfamiliar--and uncomfortable--to most people involved in contemporary leftist politics. Batman's war on tyranny proceeds unaided by consensus-driven processes, protest rallies, passive resistance, or the other trappings of our current activist culture. Batman gives orders, and his troops take them. When conflict erupts, it is always somewhere on the shouting/fisticuffs/ laser-cannon continuum.

So is this just another conquest fantasy? The book does have its objectionable elements. For one, there's the scene where Wonder Woman asks a sulking Superman: "Where is the man who stole my Amazon heart? Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?" The story is also undoubtedly militaristic, and there is plenty of tough-guy dialogue and gratuitous violence.

Criticisms could also be leveled against Miller's depiction of revolution. It is vanguardist. It makes a fetish of violence. And it seems to cast ordinary people in a weak, supporting role. One might easily walk away from the series thinking that revolution is for muscle-bound men who can fly, see through walls, or shrink to subatomic size. This is not, in the real world, the way revolutions work. Likewise, George W. probably isn't just a computer animated blip. Ken Lay isn't exactly Lex Luthor material. And no one's going to accuse Tom Ridge of being Brainiac.

But that is all very much beside the point. We should remember that this is a comic book, not The Communist Manifesto, and it must, no matter what else, function as a comic book. Superhero stories, however politicized, are still superhero stories. In them, unusually gifted and virtuous people (superheroes) fly around in ridiculous outfits saving the world from unusually gifted and vicious people (supervillains). Any revolution to fit within these narrative bounds will necessarily differ from one in which, say, landless peasants and penniless proletarians unite and topple the fat and pampered bourgeoisie. If The Dark Knight Strikes Again succeeds politically, it is not because the book offers a practical blueprint for revolution, but because it struggles to free itself from the conservatism of its genre.

The virtue of The Dark Knight Strikes Again (along with the best of Miller's other work, such as Daredevil: Love and War) is that it presses against the limits of the genre. In so doing, it also draws attention to these limits, criticizes them, and--when fitting--ridicules them. Miller thus makes fun of the very details he employs, like the Batcave's robotic tyrannosaur and giant penny. Because he understands the rules of comic book writing, the trick works when he does it. Though the narrative sometimes feels fragmented and fails to follow through on its most intriguing subplots--the return of the Joker, the love affair between Superman and Wonder Woman, the exile of the Green Lantern--the comic nevertheless succeeds as a grownup's superhero story, simultaneously staying true to the Batman mythos while drawing into question many of the conventions that comprise such tales.

If that's all there were to it, The Dark Knight Strikes Again would be on a cultural par with some of the better-made action films, such as The Matrix--plenty entertaining, but hardly an artistic treasure. Luckily, the series brings more to the culture than a few good fight scenes, some snappy one-liners, an engaging plot, and self-conscious irony. It also supplies meaningful social commentary, offering an ethical perspective on the world and our place in it.

The central theme of Miller's ethics is heroism. He has never been shy about drawing from the classics, and The Dark Knight Strikes Again is a story about the summoning of heroes--reluctant heroes, like Achilles and Odysseus called to Troy. We are reminded that heroism isn't about heat vision or invisibility, but about courage, hope, determination, and a passion for justice.

Judging by heroic standards, the good guys and bad guys alike find the human race sadly lacking. A new Supergirl disdainfully remarks that "when they aren't killing their planet, they're killing each other," and we learn from the Green Lantern that the rest of the universe shuns our globally suicidal species. Superman, meanwhile, takes a Nietzschean turn: "I am not human. And I am no man's servant. I am no man's slave. I will not be ruled by the laws of men."

But there seems to be a humanistic challenge behind the misanthropic complaint. The protagonist, Batman, has no powers outside of his wits and his will--as his more gifted colleagues are quick to remind him. Yet he is the one who keeps fighting when the others give in. And while his first step is to rescue the imprisoned heroes, he does so with a small army of teenage punks. Later, with the battle cry "Give them hell!" he incites a crowd to riot, keeping the cops busy while the guys in tights attack the center of power. It's not showcased, but Batman's strategy relies as much on ordinary people as on his freakish buddies. The challenge to humanity, then, is this: We must become heroes, or be made slaves.

In the final analysis, Miller seems to cast himself as one of the characters he brings out of retirement--not Batman, but The Question. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, The Question is writing a manifesto and comprehends the limits of his undertaking: "It is not in my power to effect the change. I haven't the might. I am not the answer.

Once one starts looking, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is full of questions. The most important of these go unanswered. While somewhat disappointing, this fact indicates how seriously the author takes such matters--and how seriously we are meant to take them. At the beginning of the series, Jimmy Olsen wonders, "Where are our heroes?" And Superman, viewing the Earth from space, asks his daughter the last question of the book: "What exactly shall we do with our planet, Lara?"

We are left to ask these same questions ourselves.

Without the advantages of superhuman strength, amplified senses, a high-tech fortress, or a flashy disguise, Kristian Williams is currently at work on a history of American policing. Titled "Our Enemies in Blue," it is due from Soft Skull Press this year.
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Author:Williams, Kristian
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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