On Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen

On a mailing list I subscribe to, discussion turned recently to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. The series were published in 1985 and 1986. Watchmen is credited with beginning the era of “realistic” superheroes, Dark Knight is credited with turning Batman “serious.” It was noted that the two series seems to have echoes of the other. And someone wrote:

What the heck happened in 1986 that suddenly saw the exposure of the costumed superhero as (at best) a lawless vigilante and (at worst) an immoral fascist?

I thought about this. And I’m going to freely adapt from the lengthy reply I made. Though I don’t promise any coherence to the reply. 😉

There are some striking similarities between the two stories.

Superman and Dr. Manhattan are both agents for the government, and they both maintain American hegemony with their actions against the Soviet bloc. (Superman sinks Soviet aircraft carriers, Dr. Manhattan is the United States’ nuclear deterent.)

Each has characters who oppose them, and in so opposing, they create situations that allow them to defuse, even defeat, the superpowered characters in question. In Dark Knight, Batman creates a gauntlet for Superman to run through, depowered Superman through the use of Kryptonite, and then with a power suit beats the shit out of Superman. In Watchmen, Ozymandias finds ways to disrupt Dr. Manhattan’s abilities, so that Dr. Manhattan can’t “see” what Ozymandias is up to in his Antarctic fortress. In both cases it’s done so that the non-powered character can create or uphold a new order in a chaotic situation; Batman wants to rid Gotham of crime once and for all, Ozymandias wants to end the conflict between the American and Soviet blocs and unify humanity. And in both cases, the god-like character allows the non-powered character to continue with their plans, though we never see how those plans ultimately turn out. (I am not counting Dark Knight Strikes Again as a sequel to Dark Knight Returns. There’s a reason for that, but it would take way too long to explain.)

The difference between the two situations is that Batman is held up as a hero, while Ozymandias is held up as a villain. (It should be noted, however, that no one sees Ozymandias as the villain of Watchmen until the final chapters.) Yet both characters operate with the viewpoint that “the ends justify the means.”

What happened in 1986? What made these stories be what they are? Dark Knight seems to be a reaction to the Reagan-era and its excesses. I seem to recall that it was inspired by some vigilanteeism in New York City. (The Subway Shooter, does that sound right? It sounds right to.) Cities were crumbling, flight to the suburbs increased, and Dark Knight Returns can be seen as an extrapolation of Reagan-era social and fiscal policies — if the government couldn’t fix the problems of the cities because its attentions were elsewhere (say, on confronting the Soviet Union) or because tax policies left governments without resources, then citizens had to take the law into their own hands to create order. Watchmen can be seen as a continuation of the themes of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, which was a response to the Thatcher government and its policies. But where V was firmly British (which was one of Moore’s major complaints with the film adaptation — that his criticism of Thatcher’s policies had morphed into a criticism of Bush and his policies), Watchmen was set in America, albeit an alternate history America, and it reflected generally American concerns. In particular, it reflected the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, the idea that the use of nuclear weapons meant the destruction not only of one’s enemy, but also of one’s self, as the enemy retaliated before their were extinguished in the nuclear genocide. The same fear of crumbling cities and the rise of chaos permeates Watchmen, but the fatalism that MAD introduced into the early ’80s mindset is prevalent as well.

I guess the Reagan era was that scary. I was a kid at the time — I’d have been thirteen when Dark Knight Returns was published — and I remember feeling at times that the world could end any day. It probably didn’t help that my father reviewed books for a military publisher, and sometimes he would leave books around, and I’d be curious and I’d read them. I really did expect nuclear war when I was ten or twelve, and a book like Watchmen (which, to be fair, I didn’t read until my twenties, a good decade after its publication) tapped into that social fear.

Yet, the mindset affects Dark Knight Returns as well. What I find interesting, looking back on the two stories, is that the President in Dark Knight is clearly Reagan, and he’s clearly insane and itching for a confrontation with the Soviets. The perspective of the time was that Reagan couldn’t be trusted with his finger on the button. This isn’t jus the perspective of the world in general — the Republican Party itself, Reagan’s own political backers, was frightened of Reagan and his sabre-rattling. It’s why they wanted Gerald Ford as his Vice President, to reign him in. Reagan was an unstable element.

Contrast that to Watchmen. That President, in the story’s alternate 1985, is clearly Richard Nixon (Presidential term limits having been repealed), and even though he has the greatest weapon of all in his arsenal — Dr. Manhattan — he’s unwilling to use it to achieve a lasting hegemony. Dark Knight‘s Reagan wants confrontation with the Soviets. The book suggests that Reagan is egging them on in the confrontation over Corto Maltese. Watchmen‘s Nixon, conversely, doesn’t want war, and its possibility when Dr. Manhattan goes off the reservation is genuinely frightening.

(This raises one of Watchmen‘s logic flaws. Why does the Soviet Union have a nuclear arsenal, if they know that Dr. Manhattan’s existence makes it useless? Why waste the resources on useless weapons? No, the Soviets in Watchmen would be better off waging war of terrorism against the West. They would have some hope of actually doing some damage in that instance. Or, channel their resources into something else, something that has nothing to do with war. Perhaps it’s the social inertia that predates Dr. Manhattan’s existence. In this area, Moore doesn’t go far enough in thinking through the possibilities of his alternate history.)

In recent years, Moore has decried Watchmen for being too “grim & gritty” (not Moore’s exact words, but he regrets how Watchmen became an influence toward darker, more violent superhero fare), while Dark Knight Returns looks positively restrained in comparison to Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin. Both stories are of their era, yet both will be read for years to come, unlike other work that the creators have produced. (I can’t see any reason why someone, five years from now, would bother reading Dark Knight Strikes Again. For that matter, I can’t see any reason why, five years ago, anyone bothered reading it.) Both are more than escapist fare, or the male-power fantasies usually ascribed to comic books. I don’t think either qualifies as literature (sorry, Alan Moore, but Watchmen is twice as long as it really needed to be), but they’ll continue to be read.

Conservatives think of Reagan’s era as America’s modern golden age. It wasn’t. For all of his talk about “It’s morning in America,” for all of his “Are you better today than you were four years ago,” Reagan’s era was a time when income inequalities grew more pronounced, when America became more militaristic, when the world seemingly teetered on the brink of global war. There’s nothing to romanticize about those times. Watchmen and Dark Knight grew out of the fears of those times, and they do document a moment in American history and the feelings of helplessness against a possibly dismal future that pervaded society in the mid-1980s.

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3 thoughts on “On Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen

  1. Great post. Wanted to comment on a couple of things:

    1. I respectfully disagree that Watchmen was too long. In fact, it’s an issue too short. :O I love the series, but what has always bothered me was, for all the great depth and pacing Moore establishes through the series, he spends WAY too many pages on showing the horror of New York, and showing the “alien.” And then the rest of the issue is essentially rushed. I would have liked an additional issue to better flesh out the finale and maybe see a little more of how the surviving characters deal with their false Utopia.

    2. It’s funny you mentioned All-Star Batman and Robin. I just picked this up last weekend and am half-way through it. I’m a fan of Miller’s Batman work, but had read the “outrage” from fans denouncing ASB&R as crap, with Batman being a harsh bastard, etc. So, in reading the first 4 issues, I kept thinking to myself: why were fans so pissed off about this? Sure, Batman is real gritty, but it’s more like he doesn’t like what he’s doing but feels he has to be that way to mold Robin. And Robin isn’t a mere victim, either: he gives Batman some zingers back, which was interesting (as was Alfred’s rebuking of Batman when confronted as to why he gave Robin food). The artwork is gorgeous, and Miller’s story is slow yet intriguing. I mean, really, 4 issues in and not a whole lot has happened.

    While I won’t pick up the individual issues, I’ll be buying the trades. That hardcover just looks great.

  2. Fair enough. 🙂

    I think that, today, the final issue of Watchmen would have been double-sized, probably for the very reasons you cite. Though I think that the story would have ended precisely where it did, even at the longer length.

    However, I do agree that some sort of fallout from Watchmen is almost necessary. What did happen in Ozymandias’ brave new world?

    See, here’s the thing. Ozymandias’ plan reminds me of psychohistory, from Asimov’s Foundation. The charts in his office that Rohrshach and Nite Owl find indicate the directions human history is taking. But Ozymandias’ actions divert humanity from its psychohistorical path. He believes that humanity is about to be ushered into a new Golden Age — but what if his calculations were wrong? Or worse, what if his calculations were right, but there’s now an unstable element (like Asimov’s Mule) that Ozymandias couldn’t predict?

    I think Watchmen is set-up for a sequel. Not really a direct continuation, but more of a “Next Generation” sort of thing. Twenty, twenty-five years later, and what does Ozymandias’ new world look like?

    I’m a bit surprised that DC hasn’t gone ahead and done a Watchmen sequel. They’d never get Alan Moore’s approval, but depending on how they approached Dave Gibbons, he might be accepting of the idea. It’ll happen, someday.

    And as for All-Star, I’m a bit behind. I should probably just pick up the hardcover and get caught up.

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