Fascist Funny Books: ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ & ‘Watchmen’ as Social Texts

Andrew takes a look at two major pillars of the graphic novel genre and how they provide an understanding of our frightening political landscape...

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In the mid-1980s, DC Comics published two graphic novels that began a renaissance of the comics art genre and eventuated the current graphic novel publishing extravaganza we are witnessing today in the book industry. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson along with Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were twin poles astride a gateway that gave comic artists allowance to create gritty, adult story lines, far more mature than the prior kiddies fare. Any major scholarship on graphic novels (or even just a consumer-grade history of the phenomenon) includes mention of these hallowed staples of the genre.

Yet despite all this, hidden like a dirty secret from all polite conversation, is the ever-present and blatant issue. If there is a single theme that both these volumes share (and there are many), it is that of outright fascist politics and how the superhero doesn’t just lend itself but in fact is a personification of fascistic ideologies.

In the past three years, America has been having an altogether ahistorical, juvenile conversation about fascism that beggars the imagination. Social democrats and liberals honk like a gaggle of geese about that which they lack the understanding.

Trump tosses chum to the white nationalist sharks that prowl the high seas of the American society with impunity, urging his suburban volk voter base to a frenzy that at times seems ready to erupt into a pogrom. Yet the Democratic Party escapes all critique for their role in building the social tides that have brought us to this place in the past 45 years. Don’t forget, the most recent, abhorrent episode of Trump cheer-leading his minions to “SEND THEM BACK!” was catalyzed by Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi’s dismissive, condescending, and altogether racist public castigation of “The Squad,” a very literal remake of Bill Clinton’s infamous and disgusting Sista Souldja episode.

These two books form a unique and useful synthesis that can help define fascism in our current political landscape for several reasons, including the fact that, taken as individual works, they have concluding morals to their stories that are the direct opposites of one another. Indeed, whereas Alan Moore has always been a serious lefty, Frank Miller has always been a law-and-order reactionary, advocating for a police state that steamrolls over civil liberties owing to his rather fatalistic vision of humanity’s moral and ideological bankruptcy.

Moore once said in an interview “Well, Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past twenty years. I thought the Sin City stuff was unreconstructed misogyny, 300 appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller’s work for quite a long time.”

The Dark Knight Returns is a dystopian future noir detective story-cum-psychological thriller set in an urban nightmare. Following the murder of Robin, Batman retired some decades ago. Gotham City is now held hostage by a gang of vigilante psychos known as the Mutants. An aged Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement and proceeds to assist the police in retaking the streets.

Watchmen is a much more complex work. On the most superficial level, it is a murder mystery, narrated by one crime fighter of questionable sanity, as he interacts with several other ex-vigilante crime fighters in trying to solve the murder of one of their own. (This of course fails to give any justice to the layers upon layers of meaning that Moore and Gibbons embed into the text, making their work a postmodern masterpiece on par with Pynchon or DeLillo.) The 2009 film adaptation, directed by Ayn Rand fanboy Zack Snyder, presents a serviceable summary.

What becomes evident in Watchmen is that Moore and Gibbons develop several notions they explore throughout:

Ditko describes his Ayn Rand worship, which underwrites the original iterations of the characters in Watchmen.
  • The connection between power, the elites that control our late capitalist system, and the state would generate a gravitational pull that at best would see superheros become tools of empire and, in all honesty, probably turn these costumed “heroes” into sociopathic monstrosities who act as hit-men for the most dangerous sectors of our political class. This is pointed out early on in the novel when we learn Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term as president after our costumed patriots helped him conquer Vietnam (one of these patriots also knocked off Woodward and Bernstein to cover up the Watergate burglaries);
  • The sexuality of the superhero (and therefore superhero fans) is extraordinarily disturbed, containing a barely-veiled sadomasochist impulse generated by a confused, violent set of notions about gender, sex, sexuality, and how society transmits those values to children and adults in such a way that they become monsters;

In 1957, Erich Fromm said in ‘The Authoritarian Personality’ “We usually see a clear difference between the individual who wants to rule, control, or restrain others and the individual who tends to submit, obey, or to be humiliated.”

“These two types, or as we can also say, these two forms of authoritarian personality are actually tightly bound together. What they have in common, what defines the essence of the authoritarian personality is an inability…rely on one’s self, to be independent, to put it in other words: to endure freedom,” said the Frankfurt School luminary.

Now here’s the key point to consider. While the film version of Miller’s book was extremely loyal to its source, the film adaptation (and now forthcoming HBO television series) of Watchmen instead communicates the exact opposite moral conclusions of the book. Through a number of interventions that many would deem purist quibbles, the film essentially articulates the points made by Moore and Gibbons before saying “Yeah, those fascist tendencies are all cool, we’re all good with that kind of politics.”

In this sense, fascism has been culturally embedded for a long time in America. It bears mentioning here that the publishing industry and Hollywood are both elements of the liberal superstructure, DC Comics and Warner Brothers Pictures are not GOP outlets. This liberal notion of “law and order” politics is a variation that is less openly racist than the Dixiecrat flavor found in the Republican Party. But it still exists and presents its own reasons to be opposed.

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