by Carter Glace
Where we left off last week, The Dark Knight Returns was helping reshape the entire comic book history and pop cultural image of super heroes. No image became more iconic or symbolic of super heroes becoming grim and adult than a mechanized, white haired Batman with his throat around Superman, a character whose very existence represents hope.
But what were the long term implications of such an overhaul? Well, it initially resulted in a monumental rise in sales. With now adult fans widely recognized, as well as the rise of comic collectors, companies realized they could cater to them with merchandise and new grim vision for all of their characters.
But by the next decade, the entire game imploded. As more and more comics began to churned out with the same general tone and attention getting titles, there was suddenly a landslide of comics with relatively no quality control. The bleak tone and growingly bad writing wore-down long time readers and the constant shake-ups for the sake of collectability made a continuity already unwelcoming completely impenetrable to outsiders. The final blow was in 1996, when Marvel was forced to declare bankruptcy, as sales never recovered. (Incidentally, this forced them to sell the movie rights to many of their characters. So if you want something to blame for Fan4stic…).
Another massive impact was that of Frank Miller. Spring-boarding off his immensely popular Daredevil run which helped resurrect the character, DKR made him a legend, a sort of folk hero for comic fan. But by 2000, things started going wrong. The quality of his work radically diminished, with DKR’s sequel making the original weaker by association. And as the overall quality diminished, his more troubling views and politics became clear. The sexual-objectification, child-abuse, homophobia and general aggressively far right views make his lesser works unpalatable.
But perhaps the biggest, and most hurtful impact is the one it still has on the tone and aesthetic of modern day DC. Despite contrary evidence, the company still values the dark and bleak above all else. Superman breaks necks in movies and is nearly powerless in comics. Wonder Woman has had her quirks and kinks symbolizing woman’s liberation sanded down to make into a generic warrior princess. And the less said about the comically horrible sexism in the New 52 Catwoman and Starfire the better. But Batman has perhaps gotten the worst treatment, becoming more violent, more deranged and angsty as time passes. And as he is established as richer and richer, he goes from being the common man fighting crime to a sociopath feeding delusions of grandeur.
Above all, it disappoints me because it reminds me of how insecure a large swath of comic fans are. The debate of comics as art has largely abandoned this grim era, and clinging to this era pings of insecurity, that liking the campy colorful past somehow makes comics lesser. And if you are that paranoid about the thing you like, do you really like it that much? Fortunately, modern comic fans have embraced a more light, joyful world of super heroes, and I fear the outcome if Master Race proves to be as impactful as its origin.
Carter Glace is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org