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Friday, April 22, 2016 

Macleans on how Miller's Dark Knight changed Batman

A short time before the Batman vs. Superman movie was released, Macleans had an article published about the Masked Manhunter's portrayal over the years in the realm of darkness, although it comes close to making it sound like it never began that way. In their view, Frank Miller's 1986 miniseries is what influenced everything:
The idea of portraying Batman as a dark, brooding character had been tried on and off since his creation in the 1930s by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. But nothing had quite the impact of Miller’s tale, set in a bad future where Batman comes out of retirement, and where Superman is portrayed as a quasi-fascist tool of the establishment. Matt MacNabb, author of Batman’s Arsenal: An Encyclopedic Chronicle, says Miller’s take “changed the way that Batman is perceived. The presentation of a grumpy, miserable and hulking aged Batman resonated with fans to such a degree that it made the entirety of the franchise quite a few shades darker.”

Along with Miller’s follow-up Batman: Year One (a gritty retelling of Batman’s origin story), The Dark Knight Returns almost single-handedly turned Batman from a children’s character—which is what most superheroes were intended to be—to a figure aimed at grown-ups.
While I don't think it helped to change the marketing so drastically, I'm not sure that's a good idea to say Batman was entirely aimed at children. After all, there was murder and mayhem galore that took place in the first tales, which isn't exactly a children's subject, IMHO. But unlike a lot of the modern output from DC, when Kane/Finger were writing their stories during the Golden Age, the difference is that, while there certainly was violence, it was far from gory and graphic, and you didn't usually see bloody dismemberments, assaults and decapitations in plain view like in much of the products since the mid 90s. Even profanity was rare in the 1940s, because that was a time when people had better taste and understanding for what makes good art, and knew it didn't have to so loaded with excess in order to be enjoyable. Does that mean it was only for children? Not necessarily. "Young adults" would probably describe it better, and the Golden Age material I've is decidedly great for both young and old alike.
Richard Warshak, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who also writes and lectures about Batman, says that if it hadn’t been for Miller’s take, “Batman may have remained restricted to an audience of children, his exploits below the radar screen of adults.” Brian Cronin, editor of the blog Comics Should Be Good, agrees Miller “made telling ‘out there’ or ‘adult’ Batman comic book stories possible.” This immediately led to other popular comics for grown-ups, such as Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, in which the Joker shoots Batgirl in the spine and tortures Commissioner Gordon.

Some have mixed feelings about what Miller did to Batman. Warshak thinks Miller’s hero “is far more compelling than the ’60s TV show do-gooding doofus,” but others find it limiting. Author Max Collins (Road to Perdition), who wrote the regular Batman comic shortly after Miller’s series came out, once complained to Amazing Heroes magazine that people would no longer accept a light take on Batman, and blamed Miller, whose work was “the ultimate expression of ‘we write comics, but we’re serious, thoughtful people.’”
This overlooks the steps taken in 1969, when DC editorial decided the time had come after at least a decade to return to the darker angle, apparently feeling that the late 60s TV show all but spoiled everybody's perception, and Denny O'Neil led the way back starting with a story called "The Secret of the Waiting Graves". Even before that, when Julius Schwartz became the main editor for Batbooks in 1964 for nearly a decade, he dropped a few of the more cartoony concepts like Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound from the cast of characters. So under Gardner Fox, who wrote most of the stories in the mid-60s, it could still have a lighter angle, but wasn't as absurd as it'd been a few years before. I'm sure Miller's miniseries had a big impact at the time, but it's ridiculous to overlook O'Neil's own influence during the Bronze Age, which was well regarded. I think what matters is that by the time Miller's book came about, any sense of humor Batbooks once had was largely obliterated by editors who thought it would only be an inherent impediment.

And I guess that's another big problem today: they're so concerned with Batman's definitions they won't allow a sense of humor. No less problematic is how Bruce Wayne's human side was all but wiped out too, and it led to increasingly worse renditions in the 1990s, as he became characterized as a selfish control freak, surely a by-product of the notion he should be portrayed as constantly brooding.

I'm sure there's audiences who won't accept lighter takes on Batman today, but the main problem is the editors, who not only mandated how Batman should be portrayed, they let this mentality pour over like a flood into many other DC books, ruining their own senses of humor and other qualities that once made them work. That doesn't concern the Macleans staff who focus on topics like superheroes?
There have been some attempts to bring Batman back to his family-friendly roots, like the cartoon The Brave and the Bold, a tribute to silly Batman adventures of the 1950s which ran from 2008 to 2011. Most viewers and readers, however, seem to prefer The Dark Knight. Miller is currently in the middle of co-writing and co-drawing a new limited series set in the same universe, The Master Race. It’s selling so well that another sequel has already been announced, along with spinoffs and tie-ins.
Is that so? Not if sales charts say it sells below 100,000 copies, which is undoubtably the case even here. Indeed, this is why it's uncertain you could say Miller's original 1986 miniseries has much impact anymore, when sales are low across the board. As for family-friendly, I suppose you could say that in the Golden Age, there was family-friendly material, yet at the same time, I'm not sure you could say it was only for family. They just weren't clogged with the kind of jarringly vile elements that plague today's superhero comics, and not just Batman.

But if they have to bring Batman back to what was once family friendly, it should be in the mainstream titles too, not just a TV cartoon. And it's more than just Batman that should be toned down from all the misery that's been clogging superhero books today. Even Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and plenty of 3rd-tier heroes need some mending, and can't be subject to company wide crossovers either. Making the cartoons family friendly is just another cheap way of signaling they're willing to market a separate product based on the same to an audience that'll take it, so long as they can keep hold of what wasn't theirs to force repellent directions on. In other words, the editors/writers are only saying they want to hog the whole sandbox. That's not the kind of mindset we need.

And how come Miller gets all the credit for what he brought to the table, but O'Neil doesn't get any?

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Each version of Batman-grim Dark Knight, straight superhero and detective, schlock sci-fi, New Look, camp comedy, then back to grim Dark Knight again-was a product of its time. In the late 1930's, the comic was probably influenced by pulp magazines like The Shadow and The Phantom Detective, and by horror movies and gangster movies. In the 1950's, science fiction monster movies were popular, and comics followed the trend. And, in 1966, the fad was for action-adventure mixed with a lot of campy comedy. The Batman TV show is the obvious example, but you can also see it in the spy-fi movies and TV shows at the time, like Our Man Flint, Matt Helm, and The Man From UNCLE. (BTW, the Batman comics did reflect the camp fad, but the comics didn't get quite as self-consciously silly as the Batman TV series.)

In the early 1940's, DC realized that most comic book fans were kids, which is why the company adopted its own self-imposed restrictions, and the violence was toned down considerably.

I don't know why so many people (some of whom should know better) parrot the party line that Frank Miller ended the camp portrayal and restored the grim 'n' gritty image. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams revived the Dark Knight image in the late 1960's, soon after the camp fad passed and the TV series was cancelled. Maybe it's just that comics were under the radar in the 1960's, and the O'Neil & Adams and Englehart & Rogers runs did not receive the hype that the 1980's comics did.

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"And how come Miller gets all the credit for what he brought to the table, but O'Neil doesn't get any?"

Do you want O'Neil to be linked to Ultra-Grim and Gritty? He has his version and Miller has his warped version.

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