The Past Is Another Country, Batman Edition
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was originally written in 1986. This, as you know, was a long time ago. While there are a lot of things that can be pointed out that can set the stage for those of us who are of a certain age (Top Gun! Crocodile Dundee!), the stage that I want to most set involves crime statistics.
The population of the US was 240 million. It had never been higher. Total crimes for the country was 13.2 million. It had been exceeded only twice before, in 1980 and 1981. In 1986, that number was on an upward path that would only hit its peak in 1991 and would never be as low again until 1997. Violent crime, however, hit 1.489 million. It had never been that high before. Property crime hit 11.7 million. It had never been that high before. The numbers for forcible rape, aggravated assault, larceny-theft, and vehicle theft were also the highest numbers that had ever been recorded. If you don’t think that the absolute numbers tell an interesting enough story, it’s true that the rate per 100,000 inhabitants numbers are somewhat less stark but stand out nonetheless… the numbers are either higher than they’ve ever been, as high as they’ve been in years (1980 and 1981 are very, very bad years indeed) and all of the numbers are going up as part of an unmistakable trend and the numbers for New York tell the exact same story: things are bad and they are getting worse. And the only solutions that people had for these problems involved doubling down on things that hadn’t really demonstrated that they worked.
So it’s with that in mind that we look at the opening pages with a Bruce Wayne who, while driving a prototype racecar, we find musing about how, perhaps, dying in pursuit of winning a race would be a good death.
As the story goes on (and, indeed, this is a story you, yes you, should read), we see what happens when we find out that Batman is retired, that gangs have pretty much taken over the city of Gotham (the movie “Colors” didn’t come out until 1988), that Jason Todd is dead (Batman: A Death in the Family didn’t conclude until 1989), that Ronald Reagan is still president, and that Superman is the president’s lackey.
Batman comes out of retirement and, at that point, the story is as much about what Batman *MEANS* as what Batman *DOES*. Some of the talking heads in the book life arguments directly from the mid-80’s. This person argues that criminality is a response to society and, thus, society’s responsibility to clean up proactively rather than reactively. That person argues that society has proven incapable of even reacting to that which crime has evolved into. And it’s in the middle of this debate that we see a middle-aged Batman recriminate himself constantly as he beats the ever-living crap out of criminals.
And it’s in the middle of *THIS* debate that we see the USSR and the USA’s nuclear staredown involve a… well, not a blink… One side spitting into the face of the other while maintaining eye contact.
And, of course, we see how the President, and by extension Superman, responds when Batman decides that his way of dealing with the crime problem is more important than the debate of how society, specifically the police, should respond to the crime problem.
All in all, 1986 saw The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Maus (which surely deserves a category all its own rather than be saddled with these superhero stories), Daredevil’s Born Again storyline, Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, and John Byrne’s Man of Steel. I was talking to my dealer yesterday about 1986 in comics and he said that, after 1938, 1986 may be the most important year in comics.
I’d say that The Dark Knight Returns does more than its share of hard work for putting it there.
Now, of course, if you don’t have the time/inclination to read a graphic novel but are still intrigued by the story, there was a recent translation of this story to video form with only minor changes available. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 and Part 2. It’s an important story but, probably, hasn’t aged well since 1986.
But, lemme tell ya, in 1986? It was a corker.