1986 is sometimes touted as the annus mirabilis of comics, giving us:

  • Maus I: My Father Bleeds History
  • The Dark Knight Returns
  • Watchmen

Of course, other years saw impressive achievements (see, e.g., the introduction to Best American Comics Criticism for an argument that 2000 – the year of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and Daniel Clowes’ David Boring – is more important). Nevertheless, 1986 marks a watershed in the history of modern comics. So why the $#@& does the comic industry seem committed to messing it up?

Over the past year, a number of works have appeared, or been announced, that connect in some way to these three seminal works. It began well enough, with Art Speigelman’s MetaMaus – a collection of interviews, essays, et cetera for the Maus-o-phile. MetaMaus isn’t perfect. It is marred by the inclusion of interviews with Speigelman’s kids which, while sometimes cute, are clearly filler, and more seriously by the general tone, which makes the reader (or me, at least) wish that Speigelman were a bit less aware of his own importance. Nevertheless, there is nothing genuinely bad here.

MetaMaus was followed by other works revisiting, directly or indirectly, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.

 

First, we have Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. It is hard to overstate the offensiveness of this bigoted, extreme right-wing piece of trash. In addition, it is impossible not to read this comic as either:

  1. A Batman story in disguise
  2. A comment on earlier Batman stories.

The comic was originally announced as Holy Terror, Batman! and the connection to both Batman and DC comics was severed relatively late in the creative process. As a result, it is hard not to view the offensive, vindictive, racist actions of the Fixer as actions also taken (or that might be taken) by the Batman. In short, Holy Terror forces a reevaluation of The Dark Knight Returns (as well as Miller’s more recent Batman work).

Finally, we have DC’s announcement of Before Watchmen –seven miniseries telling the backstories of characters or teams from the original comic. We will have to wait and see if this is any good, but I’m willing to bet that it won’t be as good as Watchmen. Furthermore, it is hard not to see this as anything other than a simplistic money-grab on the part of DC (“We upset people with the complete reboot of our universe… we upset them again with the new logo… Hey, we’re getting pretty good at fixing things that aren’t broke – let’s go for a trifecta!)

The timing can be explained by the 25th anniversary, even if Holy Terror isn’t billed that way. The badness (or potential badness) of the last two cannot. With twenty-five years to plan, how is it that the industry’s best efforts to celebrate the great works of 1986 are (in two of the three cases) almost certain to badly tarnish them?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

5 responses »

  1. Tim Caron says:

    I think your characterization of Miller’s Holy Terror and of Spiegelman’s Meta-Maus are right on target. I’m curious, though, about the negative response that Before Watchmen is generating. I’m still thinking through all of this, but I think this sort of response, which is not uncommon and almost certainly accurate in its predictions, says as much about us as readers and consumers of comics as anything else. In a sense, even before it’s published, Before Watchmen is reading *us*–reading our nostalgia for our past selves when we first discovered Watchmen, for instance, or reading our antipathy toward the market forces and businessmen who have dominated the production of comics in America. After all, is any one of us surprised that DC is launching this series of prequels? It’s almost guaranteed to make the company a ton of money. I’m as disgusted as you, Roy, about these books, but I’m going to buy them out of some sort of perverse desire to savor just how dreadful they promise to be. [The one exception to the preceding sentence is the work that Darwyn Cooke is doing for the books. I love that guy, and I have high hopes for his contributions.]

  2. Roy,

    Great post! I had to laugh when I read the title…it’s a real attention getter!

    I haven’t seen much press about any of these three publications, with the exception of a comix-scholars list serve volley about Frank Miller’s racism.

    This semester in my Language and Comics class, my students and I have read The Dark Knight Returns. Only one student had read it previously, and several students didn’t know that there was in fact a comic book like it. They knew of the movies, of course, and I think they had a genuinely satisfying experience reading it.

    One aspect that came up over and over in our conversations was the relationship between Superman and Batman. Who’s the good guy here? Who’s the bad guy? Batman’s a vigilante. But Superman is an agent of big government and can’t be trusted to give “real” help to “real” people because he’s too busy maintaining status quo power relations. (There were many variations on this theme in the class discussions.)

    Tim’s comment resonates with me because of his use of the term nostalgia. When we read TDKR through the lens of Holy Terror, do we see much more potential for racism in the 1986 publication? Do we see much more anti-gay bias? Is it really so simple as finding some one (any one?) with the guts to “fix” what’s wrong with our society?

    Maybe Holy Terror will prove to be simply a blip on the radar, a badly conceived effort that will disappear. But for a while at least, it will be used as a measuring stick to assess (what we thought was) a profound moment in comics.

  3. roytcook says:

    A couple quick comments/responses:

    Tim: I too find our reaction to Before Watchmen fascinating, for exactly the reasons you state. To put it bluntly: we tend to be react very negatively when these companies ‘mess’ with properties that we love, teach, admire, etc., blaming the company’s actions (in many cases correctly) on corporate, rather than aesthetic, concerns. But DC wasn’t any less corporate when it released the original Watchmen – on the contrary, Watchmen was created via the talent of Moore and Gibbons in spite of the corporate nature of, and pressures from, the company publishing the comic. So there is definitely something fishy going on here, in spite of the fact that I continue to feel justified in my low assessment of the probably quality of the Before Watchmen series.

    On a related note – in addition to the Darwyn Cooke installments, I am also interested in how Adam Hughes contribution turns out. On the one hand, AH! can draw, and hasn’t been drawing actual comics in a while (doing mostly covers). On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how his overly sexualized, ‘good girl’ art style works (or, equally likey, I think, doesn’t) within the Watchmen universe. I suspect that, sadly, it will be as bad as the rest, but it might be a good bit more theoretically interesting than some of the other installments.

    (The comments below are meant to be a response to Frank and to a number of others who posted comments on Facebook. I don’t understand why someone would come here, read the post, and then comment on Facebook instead of here. Oh well.)

    Determining exactly how these later works will affect, and more importantly, should affect, our readings of the early classics is a difficult question. A number of Facebook responses suggested that, at least in the case of Holy Terror, it shouldn’t affect our reading of The Dark Knight Returns as all. While I agree that this is a difficult case, I don’t think it is quite this easy.

    While Before Watchmen clearly tells stories that occur within the same ‘fictional world’ as the original Watchmen stories (however we ultimately understand fictional worlds and fictional truth), and thus we cannot help but re-interpret the earlier comic in light of whatever happens in the new stories (for example, in terms of light they might shed on previously incompletely understood events and motivations). Holy Terror is different, since it does not ‘officially’ depict actions or attitudes of the Batman.

    Nevertheless, given that it was originally intended as a Batman comic (and visually is all but a Batman comic), this comic clearly provides us with some insight into Miller’s understanding of Batman. The the question becomes: Does, or should, this better understanding of Miller’s socio-political take on Batman cause us to re-evaluate The Dark Knight Returns? The answer here depends on a number of factors, including (but certainly not limited to):

    (1) Whether author intentions/beliefs/etc. should affect our reading of a work of art.

    (2) Whether the moral position endorsed by a work of art affects the aesthetic value of that artwork.
    The first of these is famously controversial, while the second has been written about a good deal in recent philosophical literature on art. My own position would be to give tentative affirmative answers to both of these questions.

    As a result, I think an argument can be made that Holy Terror does and should change one’s reading of The Dark Knight Returns. Applying thesis (1), what was once interpreted as a work describing a Batman with rather disturbing socio-political views and practices transforms into a work endorsing those views. Applying thesis (2), we conclude that The Dark Knight Returns is a lesser work of art than we originally thought (assuming that we disagree with the views that we now see to be endorsed by The Dark Knight Returns).

  4. Tim Caron says:

    Off to class in a few minutes, but I just wanted to quickly weigh in on the very interesting discussion of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Rather than his more recent work in Holy Terror causing me to re-read DKR in a new light, the newer books simply confirm my earlier estimation of Miller–that he is a technically and formally innovative master of the comics form but that he has got some really disturbing political views. When teaching DKR returns, my students and I spend a lot time discussing the seductive nature of Miller’s brand of fascist politics.

    • roytcook says:

      Tim,

      You raise a really interesting point. In this case much comes down to how charitable our reading of DKR was prior to Holy Terror. I had, until Holy Terror, been clinging to the “Miller is describing an anti-hero with fascist politics without necessarily endorsing those views” camp with regard to The Dark Knight Returns (although this has, as the years have gone on, become an increasingly difficult perspective to defend). In my case I suspect that taking this line is at least partially a result of my not wanting to reconcile Miller’s substantial artistic gifts with his increasingly evident offensive politics. As a result, Holy Terror was, for me, the straw that finally broke the camel – it became no longer feasible to attribute any such describing-but-not-endorsing interpretation to any of this work. If one already had a bit more ‘realistic’ interpretation of DKR, then Holy Terror does not present (as in your case) quite so tragic a single moment (the tragedy is, rather, dispersed amongst Miller’s body of work more generally).

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