Keb takes a look at the actions of Gotham City in Frank Miller's Bat-masterpiece.
Just finished reading Batman: the Dark Knight Returns (again) and there isn’t anything I enjoy more than a fifty-five year old Marv in a Batman costume beating the crap out of everyone. However, when we take the focus away from Batman, we’re left with a number of elements that we can read deeply into that will help us understand that despite being a little crazy, Frank Miller really knows how to make a good story.
Batman is anti-social. We all know that. Even though many writers have denied it and Adam West did a great job of making it seem untrue, there is a strong anti-social element to a man who dresses up like a bat and runs around town beating up criminals. Vigilantism has strong anti-social and psychopathic roots. It’s something Miller understands in his story and exploits to a point where it’s hard to actually determine whose socially unacceptable behavior is the most detrimental to Gotham.
(This is what “anti-social” really is for those who think it means you don’t want to talk to people on Facebook.)
Gotham City in the Dark Knight Returns is a city that seems to be built on an active volcano. When the book starts, there is a strong heat wave in the city and that just marks the beginning. We see through the news camera panels that Gotham is a breeding ground for crime and general anti-social behavior. However, it seems mild at the beginning. When Bruce Wayne puts the Batman costume on and hits the city, it begins to escalate. We start seeing more occurrences appear in the news panels. It becomes worse as the story progresses.
The worst offender of anti-social behavior, in my opinion, is Commissioner Gordon. His negligence to Batman’s activities appears to be doing the most damage to society. However, we might sympathize with Gordon and think of him as someone who understands what Gotham really is and that the only solution to maintain the strange order of Gotham is to let the Batman do his own thing. However, we rarely see Gordon himself doing any police work. He only really talks to Batman/Bruce and defends himself against Mutant gang members.
The obvious foil to Jim Gordon is the new commissioner Ellen Yindel. Her first order of business is to hunt down Batman and arrest him for his vigilantism. What I love about this foil is that like Gordon, she too displays highly anti-social behavior. Her decision to go after Batman not only hinders his mission to combat the Joker, but it also causes a lot of muck for the GCPD. No doubt she suffers the repercussions worse than Gordon. At least it would seem so.
Eventually, the whole city explodes on itself. However, the driving force for order and preservation is obviously Batman. We also see the same kind of behavior during the riot/fire when Gordon brandishes his weapon. People react to fear and violence, what we perceive as anti-social behavior. I love how Miller understands that Batman’s anti-social behavior is almost Bizarro-like (or Batzarro if you will) in that what Batman does can be considered anti-social, but in a society where anti-social behavior is the norm, Batman becomes the voice of reason.
Miller has such a keen understanding of how Gotham functions as a character that it’s (in my opinion) the highlight of the book. Gotham always feels alive throughout the entire story and the way the people of Gotham react to the Cold War mirroring of reality is absolutely terrifying. At the same time, the most terrifying element of the city, Batman himself, becomes a soothing presence. It’s a wonderful role-reversal that Miller uses that is overlooked in the final chapter. The city and society in The Dark Knight Returns provides for us a glimpse of the beautiful brutality that encompasses Batman’s world and highlights how the story becomes the quintessential story of the Batman universe.