Comic books on the big screen

  

BURIED in the closing credits of Zack Snyder’s new superhero blockbuster, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, there is a thank-you to Frank Miller. It’s better than nothing, but it’s still pretty paltry, given that the film’s most striking images and most amusing lines of dialogue were all dreamt up by Mr Miller for his four-part series of Batman comics, “The Dark Knight Returns”. By rights, Mr Miller’s name should have been on screen at the very start of “Batman v Superman”, along with that of Batman’s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. But then, it should be at the start of countless other films, too. “The Dark Knight Returns”, which he wrote and pencilled while he was still in his twenties, was first published exactly 30 years ago. Since then, it hasn’t just revolutionised superhero comics, but all of popular culture.

Inked by Klaus Janson and coloured by Lynn Varley, “The Dark Knight Returns” was clearly more ambitious, distinctive and mature than anything else in the superhero genre at the time. In 1986, a typical superhero comic was 22 pages long, with five or six panels per pages, whereas each issue of “The Dark Knight Returns” comprised 46 pages, many of them divided into a grid of 16 small rectangular panels. The pages seemed to buzz with information, not just about Batman, but about the Gotham citizens and media pundits who debated their mysterious hometown superhero. Reading the comics was like flicking between ten different television channels, each of them with their own perspective on the same breathless story of urban blight and impending Armageddon. It was a Twitter feed, years ahead of schedule.

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Format aside, Mr Miller’s masterstroke was to cut the narrative free of Batman’s official continuity. His grittily satirical saga was set not in the present day, as most superhero comics are, but in a possible near-future, which meant that rules could be broken and iconic characters could be killed. In the opening pages of the first issue, the fiftysomething Bruce Wayne is a racing driver who has been out of the crime-fighting business for a decade. But now that the increasingly chaotic Gotham is being terrorised by a vicious gang called the Mutants, he comes out of retirement. And when he does, he is no longer a smiling Caped Crusader. He is Dirty Harry with a mask and near-limitless resources. Even before “The Dark Knight Returns”, various writers had laboured to bring Batman back to his noirish roots and away from the camp image of Adam West in the 1960s television series. But Mr Miller took the character to outrageous new extremes. His Batman would cripple an opponent with a hip-cracking roundhouse kick, and then snarl, “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again.” He intimidated and tortured his foes, and he drove a Batmobile that was more heavily armed than a tank. (“I modified her during some riots 15 years ago,” he explains.) The last hope for a dystopian city, this brutal vigilante was conceived by Mr Miller, he has said, because he was a kid from Vermont who moved to New York and was promptly mugged. Twice. In venting his own vengeful fantasies, Mr Miller answered the question which has niggled Batman scholars since the character first appeared in 1939. Why would a multimillionaire industrialist want to dress up as a flying mammal and punch muggers every evening? Simple: it’s because he enjoys it. Mr Miller’s sadomasochistic Batman was scarcely more sane than Two-Face and the Joker. Naturally, adolescent comics fans were thrilled.

Other writers and artists in the mid-1980s were changing the way superheroes were perceived, too, most notably Alan Moore, whose “Watchmen” debuted later in 1986. And Mr Miller’s vast body of non-Batman material is almost as influential: the current “Daredevil” Netflix series is based largely on his run on the Marvel comic; Zack Snyder made a film of his “300” graphic novel; and Mr Miller himself has co-directed two films adapted from his “Sin City” comics. But it was “The Dark Knight Returns” which made the biggest waves, and they’ve been gathering size and strength ever since. Tim Burton’s “Batman” would never have come about if Mr Miller hadn’t demonstrated how to take the character seriously. And, of course, Christopher Nolan’s moody “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” were named in his honour. For better or worse, cinema and television’s current obsession with relatively edgy and grown-up superhero narratives can be traced back to his paradigm-shifting masterpiece. But it would be wrong to measure “The Dark Knight Returns” in terms of its impact on other media. It’s a comic, and its enduring brilliance is due to the fact that no one loves and understands comics better than Frank Miller.

From: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/03/comic-books-big-screen

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