I’m not sure how long this is going to be, so I’m going to make it easy for those of y’all reading and tell you my point right up front. Ready? Here it goes:
Heroes shouldn’t be built on fear, or on all the niggling insecurities that can make us poor, workaday humans sometimes behave like pricks to our fellow humans. Heroes, one hopes, are made of the best parts of ourselves, our higher urges, our dreams, and that which is left once we strip away all of the things which make us too afraid to step in when injustice occurs.
Can we agree with that? Can you roll with me for a little while?
I hope so, because this is where I’m going to lose a whole bunch of you:
Frank Miller doesn’t write about heroes. Frank Miller kind of misses the point entirely.
You’re protesting already, I know. I can hear you heading to your bookshelves and longboxes, and you’ve got a bone to pick with me. Luckily, none of you can get into my apartment, so I’m just going to keep talking.
There’s something which always gets to me when I see someone talking about all the good Miller has done for the comics industry, about how much his vision has helped shape the world of comics and how grateful we should all be that he ever deigned to turn that unique vision of his toward superheroes: It doesn’t work.
It doesn’t, for lack of a better term, fit.
Now, I think we can all agree that Bruce Wayne has just a few issues. Part of the charm, the mystique of Batman is that he’s not like the other kids. His parents die, and, instead of seeking therapy for his rage and pain, he dresses up like a giant Bat and heads out to fight crime, so that no one else will ever have to feel the way he does each and every day.
However, I’d like to point out that there are two parts there. Not one. He isn’t just out there to fight crime, he’s out there to expiate his suffering by protecting other people from it. For all that he’s made himself out to be as terrifying as he possibly can, Bruce recognizes that that’s only part of the job.
I could say something about this being where Robin comes in, and I could point to various works by people ranging from Darwyn Cooke to Alan Grant to Chuck Dixon while I’m doing it, but this is only tangentially my point.
My point is that, when you start out with fear and the propagation of fear, the best you can say is that you’re only approaching part of the problem.
Let’s drift astray for a moment. After all, Miller had his influences, too, and if John D. MacDonald wasn’t one of them, I’d be a little shocked. What you need to know is that MacDonald wrote a lot of books known for their rollicking action and gritty — that is to say, possessing of grit — protagonists and excitingly sleazy locales.
Perhaps his most famous protagonist was one Travis McGee, the sort of man who never started a fight, but by damn he would finish it. He didn’t go looking for trouble, but it always seemed to find him. Often, a beautiful woman was wrapped up in that trouble, and if one thing were to lead to another, well, that was how the world worked.
And if that beautiful woman got herself raped and/or murdered during the course of that trouble, well, that was how the world worked, too. The important thing is that McGee cleaned up that mess, and went back to his solitary existence while he waited for the world to turn a certain way again.
Of course, Batman doesn’t wait for trouble to find him –
Er, except for how that’s the way DKR kicks off. And Carrie was much younger than the women in — er. We can certainly all agree that rape and murder was only threatened!
Now, see, I rather liked DKR the first couple of times I read it. There are quite a lot of things I find interesting and even enjoyable about the genre of noir, and clearly Miller felt the same. There’s even a sort of logic to it: If Batman is the world’s greatest detective, then shouldn’t there be more detective stories about him?
Certainly, there’s room for that sort of thing, but, you know what? Not all that much.
Noir is built, in part, on dozens of detective types who wait for trouble to walk in the door — hopefully on a pair of long, long legs — who have a love-hate relationship with the grim and dangerous cities in which they live, who are, in the end, just doing their best to get along. There are any number of things which scare these heroes, and often they will do their best to avoid those things — until, of course, something affects their personal lives deeply enough that they must face those fears.
There’s some Batman in there — let’s remember the milieu in which Batman was born — but that’s just the problem:
It’s only some of him.
Batman is also Bruce Wayne, the president and CEO of Wayne Enterprises and a philanthropist. We could throw ‘playboy’ in there, but that’s only part of the act. What isn’t part of the act is the fact that Bruce Wayne’s response to that which frightens him — whether it’s a living being or the crushing weight of a problematic city — is most assuredly not to hole himself up and attempt to live a quiet life away from the scary thing.
What also isn’t a part of the act — and hasn’t been since 1940 — is the rather important part of Bruce who can’t stand to let anyone suffer, and who identifies rather strongly with hopeful, cheerful, loving young people… and then turns them into vigilantes.
This still isn’t about Robin, but, you know, I’m just going to say this and have done: You can have a Batman without a Robin, but, if you do, you really only have part of the story. Deal with it.
Of course, Miller gave us a Robin, too, which was great. She even stayed Robin until Miller decided that she was old enough for Batman to be screwing her. I’m going to leave that alone, save to mention how interesting it is that so many of Miller’s grim, gritty, half-broken, loner, male protagonists wind up with teenaged girls as lovers.
We all have our tropes.
In any event, let’s take a closer look at that Bruce Wayne of Miller’s. It’s rather nice that Carrie helps Bruce take an interest, once more, in the wider world, but — really. Should she have had to?
If Batman is supposed to be a hero — and I really do hope we’re all on the same page about that — then shouldn’t he have been out there, anyway? Of course, part of what makes Batman fascinating is that he’s ‘just’ a brilliant, dedicated human being, and all human beings are subject to moments of pain and fear, but, well, heroes are supposed to stand a little taller than that. This is not to say that I don’t think Bruce should’ve been allowed time and space to grieve after the loss of his Robin, or the space to consider the question of his own mortality.
It’s just that the Mission — such as it’s been defined — does not change. Heroism means getting up again, no matter how much it hurts, and no matter how terrifying the prospect must be.
There’s a certain selfish cowardice — something far, far beyond ‘enlightened self-interest’ — which is all but hardwired into the incautiously written noir protagonist. A certain flaw built of fear and pain — they won’t let the world hurt them (anymore). They know ‘better.’ And, of course, they get hurt just the same — usually by that gam-tastic trouble — but they move on, alone and perhaps a little bit ‘wiser’ — for values of ‘wisdom’ which involve a decidedly non-global variety of thought.
Noir protagonists, as a rule, tend to have something against sticking their necks out. Just because we don’t normally see the dozens upon dozens of moments of injustice they pass by every day on their way to the next bottle and/or adultery case doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.
Are you seeing those heartless streets of Gotham?
Should you be? Think about it.
Gotham may have a lot in common with certain sections of L.A., Miami, and all of those other noir backdrops, but it isn’t the only city in the world. Or the universe, for that matter.
The DC universe. You know the one I’m talking about — the one with all of those brightly-colored other heroes, and a Justice League, and all of the various ways in which, if Bruce Wayne is — play that tiny violin, maestro! — all alone, it’s only because he had to work at it. Philip Marlowe didn’t have a League of Superdetectives to fall back on, and work with, and advise. Rick Blaine was part of no one’s World’s Finest.
That’s okay — they didn’t have to be. Those aren’t the sorts of stories they were created for.
Batman… well, all right. I know as well as you do that Batman, as created, probably had a lot more to do with Marlowe than not. That didn’t last for very long, however; and ultimately, since we’re talking about a larger universe which evolved into something quite different from what Kane was originally thinking about, that’s a good thing.
Anti-heroes and other noir protagonists aren’t supposed to care about reducing the overall level of suffering in the world. It’s too complicated, and, in their worlds, no good deed does go unpunished. I could quibble — and I really, really do — about the role of women in those worlds, but, in the end, I’m only talking about them here in the hopes that people reading this will realize that there’s a big difference between there and here.
The DCU. Where Heroes Live. Remember that one?
I do, and I hold it pretty damned close to my heart, thank you very much. And this is where Miller lost me. In DKR/DKSA, the very idea of a larger, more global heroism is rather roundly discounted — or am I the only one who remembers that rather deeply mocking and not just a little homophobic treatment of Superman?
At best, the idea there is that Superman doesn’t live in the ‘real world,’ and never mind the fact that Batman isn’t supposed to, either.
And also never mind the fact that what Miller calls the ‘real world’ is just as much of a long-standing fictional ideal as anything else. There’s a value judgment there, and a rock-solid belief that one brand of deeply romantic fiction — oh, won’t anyone save Mr. McGee from another heartbreak? The last ten raped and murdered female characters really got to him! — is, somehow, superior to another.
This is where I start getting a little testy. I mentioned the selfishness inherent to this sort of protagonist, but it’s really the romance that twists my undergarments into interesting shapes.
As with Marlowe, Blaine, McGee, and all of the others, we, as readers, are supposed to — without qualm — surrender our sympathies and our vaguer, more numinous, and more difficult-to-define identifications to this Batman who is capable of just letting the world fall apart around him, just because he has been hurt in the past.
We’re supposed to both be with him and be him as he finally gets off his lard ass and tries to do something worthwhile, and to do it his way — with neither sympathy nor pause. We’re supposed to agree with him that the best response to the world’s pain is a punch to the face — or a murder.
Miller makes it easy. He tells us and shows us, time and again, that this broken shell of a walking flaw is, in fact, Better than everyone else. He’s stronger and he’s smarter. He’s harder and he’s colder — but Miller has shown us that he has to be that way. The world he lives in — increasing in difference from the actual DCU exponentially — demands it, and so Batman will be it.
If it’s a world built on fear and pain, then, well, Batman will be scarier than everything else and will damned well inflict more pain. If you think about it a little bit, you can see the cheat in there.
Let me try to say it another way: If you want to make your character seem smart, then you could, if you weren’t very much of a writer, make everyone else very, very dumb. If you want to make your character seem strong, then you could, if you weren’t very much of a writer, surround that character with people who fall apart at the slightest stress. If you want to make your character look like a hero…
In Miller’s world, no one’s suffering is eased without the clenched fist. (One wonders, from time to time, why that fist wasn’t ever drawn with a fasces, but subtlety pops up in the strangest places, sometimes.) Anyone with a different point of view is shown to be — at best — ineffectual. Anyone who tries to live a different way is either mocked or pilloried.
Intellectualism — you know, that thing without which the principles of detection can’t exist — is shown only in its most worthless, poisonous, and damaging form, as is compassion and anything — anything at all — which could be labeled liberalism.
In this world, the most stunted emotional troglodyte walks very tall, indeed.
And oh, it’s romantic, isn’t it? If you set aside the physical strength and the various toys only vast amounts of money can buy, practically anyone could be Miller’s Batman. All you need is rage, and fear, and pain. Everything else is frippery — if it isn’t something which will get you in trouble in that world. That world, when you get right down to it, is a very simple place to live. If anything, the villains are even easier to spot than they are in the actual DCU — many of them, quite helpfully, are no longer entirely human. There’s none of that complicated business which tends to happen in any place where actual humans congregate, either –
Or did any of you actually think Carrie, as Miller wrote her, would ever question the man’s gender politics? What do you think would happen to her if she ever decided to be a woman, rather than a ‘girl?’ Anyone?
There’s something almost freeing about it all, isn’t there? After all, characters like Superman are much friendlier, much nicer than practically anyone else in the whole world. That’s damned near impossible to live up to — and why should you try?
In the end, Miller’s world is just another male fantasy, and one not especially alien to the mind which gave us things like Gor. Instead of trolls, there are mutants. Instead of sensually grateful slave girls, there’s a Catgirl. Instead of ineffectual and corrupt kings and grand viziers, there are politicians and police officers. Everything’s been updated and coated with a nicely modern layer of sleaze, but nothing is very different.
The protagonist, in the end, stands alone, but that’s okay — he doesn’t need anyone else. He’s strong. He’s secure in his rather limited definition of masculinity. Somewhere — a little beneath, a little behind — there may be a female who is fully on-board with her role, which is, of course, to shore up the protagonist through her essential weakness and inability to effect any large degree of change. If you want to make a man seem masterful, then why not surround him with slaves? All of that complicated and annoyingly think-y stuff is happening in another country –
And, besides, Robin is dead.
I’m not here to say that there isn’t room for that sort of story — everyone needs a fantasy to cling to, and there are far worse things which can be done with loneliness and fear than just writing a comic — but I hope, at this point, that I’ve made it clear that this isn’t the sort of thing which leads to a good story about heroes.
Heroes don’t have the luxury of cutting everyone else off at the knees to make themselves look taller, and, yes, sometimes heroes have to think of ways to get things done which don’t involve either murder or ‘just’ the worst sorts of brutality. Heroes are bigger than that. Heroes are smarter than that.
Heroes can and do make mistakes, and have horrible things happen to them either because of those mistakes, or just because they’re heroes — but they don’t lay down the fight. Heroes understand that the worlds they live in are not perfect — not just as a reason for them to go out there and fight, but as a reason for them to think about what they’re doing and why.
Heroes are the light in the darkness, and the hope we have for a better tomorrow.
Heroes understand that, in the end, bringing themselves down to the level of the bad guys in order to win a fight is just another way that the light can be dimmed.
Heroes understand that there are just as many ways to increase the light in the world as there are to dim it, and that, often, it’s far better to reach with an open hand than to strike with a closed fist.
Heroes know full well that they aren’t the only heroes in the world, and that working together for that better tomorrow is always, always the better option.
Now, it seems to me that these last few paragraphs have taken us rather far away from the Millerverse. But the DCU… is close enough to touch.