Grim And Gritty Isn’t The Problem

April 20th, 2009 by | Tags: , ,

I was recently going over David’s post about DKSA, and his point about how it exorcised some of the grimness and misery that DKR introduced into superhero comics.  While I think that he makes a good point, and one echoed by Miller himself, when he described that in DKSA he was comparing superheroes to the pantheon of Greek gods – with their failings, their enthusiasms, and their various eccentricities.

However, I have to disagree with David.  Not because I don’t think he has correctly interpreted the way DKSA changes the tropes set up in DKR, but because my difficulties with Miller’s Batman aren’t really about his grimness.

David concludes his essay with this:

Where we’ve had paranoid and grim Batman for the past fifteen years, Miller gives us one who’s faking grim but skipping like a schoolboy on the inside. Where we’ve had an utterly miserable Batman who figures out ways to trap his friends, Miller delivers a Batman who believes in the strength of others and trusts his fellow warriors.

DKSA is an exorcism. It takes all of the grim and gritty from DKR and the ensuing years and turns it on its head. It’s a push toward day-glo superheroics and away from miserable heroes. The moral of DKSA is “Superheroes are cool!”

My problem with Miller’s legacy isn’t, primarily, the grimness and misery.  That may sound strange, considering I’ve written essay after essay about my love for the lighter side of comics, and my desire for more comics to embrace fun and imagination over dark storylines.  However, it’s not the misery itself I object to, but the balance between light and dark.  I enjoy some angsty melodrama and some brutal violence as much as the next gal, I just feel like modern comics is stuffing me full of pretzels and not offering me any water, if you know what I mean.  I few more light-hearted stories, comics, or comic lines would be refreshing.

However, it’s not Batman being a miserable and paranoid that bothers me when I’m reading DKR.  It’s Batman being, how shall I put this?  A double-barrelled bastard.  Yes.  I believe that’s the technical term.  

The trouble with DKSA is it doesn’t correct that.  In many ways it intensifies it.  DKR starts with Bruce making an off-hand remark about how he hasn’t spoken to Dick Grayson in years.  Later he tells Carrie Kelly, when she forgets one of his orders that he’ll fire her if she does it again.  DKSA shows the return of Dick Grayson, admittedly as a villain, and Batman’s contemptuous speech about how he fired Dick Grayson for incompetence.  Carrie Kelly, meanwhile, has taken on a few of her mentor’s habits, delivering a savage beating to a man who fails in his duties.

One point I differ with David on is Batman’s reputed trust of his colleagues.  I see very little evidence of this in any of Miller’s portrayals of Batman.  On the contrary, I see unending contempt for heroes around him, and a regular dismissiveness in his dealings with him.  That dismissiveness is broken, every now and again, with a word (or, more commonly, and internal monologue) about his unspoken respect.

The thing that I do see is other heroes respecting him, consulting him, and gradually coming to see his unchanging, unflinching, cynical view of the world as the correct one.

What emerges from this dynamic is a character who is vicious, close-minded, petty, and rude, and yet who becomes the infallible arbiter of morality for those around him.

And that’s a character that stuck.

I can see why, too.  This character dynamic, the guy with a thousand coarse habits and petty flaws who still holds authority over others because of his incredible skill and the deep wellspring of nobility within him, is very popular.  There are a thousand action movies about bad-boy cops/detectives/doctors/lawyers/etc who shock all those around them with their anti-social behavior and yet are the only ones with the integrity to stand up for what’s right and win through incredible odds because they are so.  damn.  good.  House, Castle, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and to some extent Dexter and The Sopranos show good examples of this character on TV.

There are plenty of reasons to put this character, the Asshole Savant, in stories.  Someone who has no fear of saying things that are hurtful or make people uncomfortable, who always comes out with shocking opinions or cynical catch-phrases, is entertaining to watch.  The person who is always poking at people, sometimes because of their illusions or attitudes, sometimes just for fun, is someone who creates conflict, and conflict drives a story. 

Plus, when that person eventually chokes out a few compliments, or shows some tender emotions, oh that is good stuff.  When a regular character shows deep sadness because he or she has had a fight with a friend, that’s ordinary.  When Gregory House does, that really means something.  When an average father shows concern over his children or deep love for his wife, that’s pleasant.  When Tony Soprano does it (at least in the first season), that’s touching.  A consistently mean or childish character can wring buckets of drama from a scene just by acting like a decent human being.

What’s more, as an audience identification subject, the Asshole Savant is second-to-none.  Who doesn’t want to be able to say whatever is on their mind, without fear of reprisal?  Who doesn’t want to be so good at his or her job, or role, or place in the world, that no matter how badly they act, they won’t be shaken out of it?  And if all of this bad behavior leaves the consumer questioning their own morality, all it takes is a scene in which the character’s iconoclastic nature leads them to act more nobly than the other characters, and the day is saved.  All of that callousness is not really a deficiency!  It’s just the result of a deeper, more honest, and more steadfast nature than the average person.  This is truly a character that allows us to have our cake and eat it, too.

And that’s fine, for the most part.  We don’t read comics for moral edification, or for austere appreciation.  We read to indulge ourselves: our imaginations, our emotions, our instincts, and sometimes our egos.   In this sense, a popular character who allows us to have our cake and eat it, too, is perfect.

It’s just that I’m getting tired of cake.  And some of the other results of attempts to keep up this particular characterization are unpalatable.  There is the somewhat tired recurring theme of Batman dressing down other costumed vigilantes and deciding whether or not they can keep up their activities.  It seems like half the DCU is trying to get Batman to like them.  There are the convoluted storylines where Batman does something that leads to disaster, but it becomes clear to the reader that so many extenuating circumstances come into play that it is in no way his fault that the disaster happened – because if he makes a mistake, then he’s no longer the arbiter of right and wrong, he’s just that hypocritical jerk in the bat ears.  There’s the fact that he can’t lose in a fight, because once you’ve fought Superman, what else is there?  (Oh yeah, Darkseid.  Heh.) 

Finally, there is the constant need to one-up that character, to make someone more dark, more abrasive, more haunted by tragedy, more delighted by mayhem and with a more rigidly moral code.

Of course, none of this is Miller’s fault.  He did nothing more than create a wildly popular Batman, someone who was not just a walking legend to those reading him, but to the other members of his own world, as well.  The trouble is, maintaining a legend can only go so far before there is a cost, to the character’s personality, to the story, to credibility, and to the other characters who inhabit that world.  I would like to see the omnipotent legend deflate and return to a fallible and human man with an extraordinary mission.

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8 comments to “Grim And Gritty Isn’t The Problem”

  1. Even DKR has that page of Bruce hugging an ecstatic Robin.

  2. I see where you’re coming from here, especially after talking about Daniel Craig as James Bond. Miller Bats and Daniel Bond share a lot in common– singleminded, driven, focused, dependable in their willingness to go to extremes to get the job done, cathartic in their cruelty, and even more wrapped up in light (or extreme in Bond’s case) sociopathy.

    I think that Batman is a good character for the reasons you state. The extra punch when they finally go sentimental especially– Nightwing hugging Batman and going “forget the rules for just a minute” at the end of Obsidian Age and Batman later joking “You’re not gonna hug me again, are you?” when Nightwing leaves the JLA is a very good bit. Morrison had a couple of good bits with Batman & emotions, too.

    I think we agree more than we disagree. I love the late Miller Batman, but I don’t think that it’s sustainable at all. Maybe at the very end of DKSA, where he’s started to give up all of his trappings and is more grumpy than gruff, but that’s pure speculation. He has to have that falling down moment. When Batman was revealed to have plotted out ways to kill basically all of the JLA during Waid’s run (Tower of Babel), that should’ve been it. Tossed from the JLA, some kind of serious repercussions, I dunno. You don’t get to go “I quit,” and cripes, you definitely don’t need a story a few years later with your stupid idiot death satellite also being taken over and used against those you love.

    Batman becoming the go-to guy for your “I need a jerk” story was a huge mistake. Maintaining an antagonistic/adversarial relationship with the other members of the big three is dumb. It’s part of why I didn’t like Greg Rucka’s The Hiketia with Wonder Woman– Batman, of all people, isn’t going to trust Diana’s judgment? Diana, former goddess of truth, Batman’s BFF and sparring partner for years? Ridiculous. Batman, of all people, is going to stockpile kryptonite just in case Superman goes bad? Ridiculous.

    I could totally see Batman being open with them. “If you go bad, you could crack the planet. We need a contingency.” Superman giving Batman a kryptonite ring is a very good touch and a show of trust. Batman having a closet full of rainbow kryptonite is a slap in the face.

    I don’t know that I could read years of Batman being a jerk. That’s a lie–I know that I can’t. Miller/Lee is 18(ish) issues and out, which I’m okay with, even though it’s taken five years or whatever to come out. DKSA is one story, as is DKR. These are all stories with specific end points in mind. DKR was about Batman coming back, DKSA was about Batman growing up, and ASBAR is about Batman getting over himself thanks to the Boy Wonder.

    This isn’t like ’90s/’00s-era Batman, whose sole purpose seemed to fall into a widening spiral of jerkiness. Oh, there’s an earthquake? Well I’m leaving Gotham and never coming back. Eat it, jerks. There’s a gang war? Oh well check it out I’m just gonna destabilize the police and also it was my plan all along. A woman was murdered in my house? I AM THE BAT ARGGHGHHG! Oh check it out another dead sidekick and also my sidekick’s mother, father, best friend, and girlfriend were all murdered in a year. Time to brood on a rooftop.

    It’s so, so stupid. You’re 100% right in that you need balance.

  3. “’90s/’00s-era Batman, whose sole purpose seemed to fall into a widening spiral of jerkiness. Oh, there’s an earthquake? Well I’m leaving Gotham and never coming back. Eat it, jerks. There’s a gang war? Oh well check it out I’m just gonna destabilize the police and also it was my plan all along. A woman was murdered in my house? I AM THE BAT ARGGHGHHG! Oh check it out another dead sidekick and also my sidekick’s mother, father, best friend, and girlfriend were all murdered in a year. Time to brood on a rooftop.

    It’s so, so stupid.”

    evidence file # 10039 as to why batman sucks lé balls.

  4. The only bad character is Hal Jordan. Batman’s a great character who’s suffered from subpar writing over the past couple decades.

  5. I think Batman having a chunk of kryptonite before he met Clark is perfectly reasonable.

  6. @david brothers: You know? For me it actually seems plausible that Batman would have samples of every kind of kryptonite. That’s just a rock in a cave. But the other stuff, having a plan to explode Wonder Woman’s heart and set J’onn on fire? No.

    The thing that really bothers me about it was they justified it. “He needs a plan!” This was made a little better by the fact that other JLAers kicked his ass out. What really bothers me is that he acts like a jerk without the text actually admitting that he’s a jerk. Brother Eye isn’t really his fault, the gang wars aren’t really his fault. He pulls the most aggravating shit in the world, but the text bobs and weaves because even though he’s a jerk, that jerkiness can’t be shown as a real moral flaw.

  7. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: I’m kinda with you. Batman would have ways to take down Superman because Superman is both his friend and the most powerful being on the planet. If Clark falls under a malign influence, I don’t think there’s anyone else that Bruce would trust to do the job “right”. J’onn might hold his own for a bit, but his vulnerabilities are too exploitable, Diana might be able to outfight Superman, but there’s no guarantee (in Bruce’s mind) she wouldn’t rely on lethal force if it came down to it.

    On the other hand, if J’onn or Diana went rogue/got Mind Controlled/got possessed, then Bruce and Clark could conceivably work together to bring them down: the world’s most powerful being and the world’s greatest strategist.

  8. […] Inglis-Arkell’s post counters the idea that the problems with Miller’s Batman involve the grimness: One point I differ with David on is Batman’s reputed trust of his colleagues. I see very little […]