In order to celebrate my return to Fangirling Daily, I wanted to show that yes, you can actually write about comic books, fandom, and Batman in a scholarly setting. Comic books aren't just for recreation but academia, too!
To prove it, I wanted to share a selection of a paper I wrote back when I was a graduate student studying English. The course I was taking was called "Gender Trouble" so of course, being a feminist, I enjoyed researching and writing this paper. Being a Batman fan, I loved it even more.
I don't want to post all of it because a) it's entirely too long b) that would be self-indulgent of me and c) as someone who hopes to be a professor someday, I am always nervous about and against plagiarism. Nonetheless, I felt it was too good to hoard to myself, so enjoy my self-important and critical look at Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
The Gender Trouble and “Homophobic Nightmare” of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Working in Hollywood recently I’ve come to realize how many prohibitions there really are against even touching one group or another, to a point where the villain can’t be female, can’t be gay, can’t be black. …Anyway, yeah, the homophobic nightmare is very much part of the Batman/Joker mythos. It’s always been there, I just spelled it out a little more plainly.
Frank Miller, 1987 (Sharrett 37)
The 1980s saw a resurgence of comic book popularity both among dedicated fans and the general public. Quite suddenly, comic books were being promoted as “graphic novels” in an attempt to dissociate these longer, more adult titles from traditional comic books and also increase mainstream readership and acclaim (Sabin 165). The forerunner of this movement was Frank Miller and his opus, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which sold out quickly as single issue comics. DC Comics, sensing the mass appeal of this revamping of the company’s most popular hero, promptly issued it as a graphic novel and “in this format it became the first original superhero work to be reviewed seriously, and often favorably, in the mainstream press” (Wright 267). The Dark Knight Returns has gone on to be considered one of the best Batman comics, if not one of the best comics ever published (Grossman). Since its publication, The Dark Knight Returns has been praised, analyzed and ultimately lauded by critics from various backgrounds. One crucial aspect of this novel that has not fully been explored is the use of gender in the text. More so than in other mainstream comics, The Dark Knight Returns explores, subverts and upholds traditional understandings of gender. In this tale, we have multiple uses of gender trouble, all of which reflect the socio-political atmosphere of the time of its publication. Furthermore, the gender trouble is often openly displayed in an effort to disturb the reader and provide stark contrasts and binaries between characters. Miller’s rampant application and exploitation of gender trouble will be explored in an effort to shed more light on this often neglected but critical element of The Dark Knight Returns.
When asked why he decided to portray the Joker as “gay”, Miller simply replied in the classic simplistic cop-out of “it seemed like a good idea at the time” (Sharrett 37). Try as he might, it is impossible to cast aside Miller’s characterization of the Joker as an off-hand stylistic choice. There are extreme political and social implications in this work and the queered Joker is a reflection of these. In fact, Miller goes on to contradict himself in the same interview, claiming that he perceived the Joker as queered even though “I know we live in very rough times in terms of persecution of gays and gay stereotyping, but I wasn’t trying to address this as much as portray this villain in a way I felt to be sensible and interesting” (37). This is a very troubling and complex statement by the author. For one thing, he seems comfortable in arguing that it is sensible, almost normal and expected, for a villain to possess gay stereotypes. Furthermore, he is implying that he characterized the Joker in this manner without any political or cultural influence, which, when looking not only at the previous quote but at the actual text of The Dark Knight Returns, is preposterous.
What can be made of [Robin] then? She appears to flow between various understandings of masculinity and femininity, but is nonetheless kept on the peripheral. According to Halberstam, it should be of no surprise that the core embodiment of female masculinity in this text would be the mere sidekick: “female masculinities are framed as the rejected scraps of dominant masculinity in order that male masculinity may appear to be the real thing” (935). In other words, Carrie seems to exists merely as a contrast against the correct masculinity of Batman. Masculinity can best be illustrated, however, through the use of female bodies and it has become more commonplace to recognize that it can be constructed by female-born people as well (936, 943). It is clear that the female-born Carrie does perform this function, emphasizing not only her constructed masculinity, but also that of Batman’s such as when she eagerly refers to him as “sir” and thinks of him as a general in a war (Miller 198), a distinctly masculine but socially constructed title. What has not been established, however, is just why Miller elected to engage with this gender trouble in his text. The Joker has a much more straightforward reasoning behind him, but Carrie is a bit more ambiguous. One explanation delves far beyond the universe of The Dark Knight Returns and argues that the inclusion of a female Robin was done in an effort to quell any hints of a homosocial or homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin. The Batman and Robin relationship has long been plagued with rumors of an unsavory bond between the two, stretching back to 1954’s famous social psychological text, Seduction of the Innocent, in which Fredric Wertham warns against the dangers of comic books: “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventure of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin’” (qtd. in Medhurst 149). Jokes about the characters’ occasional descent into camp and homoeroticism have continued throughout Batman’s history (150) and therefore, Miller was well aware of this perception of the Dark Knight. Did he cast Robin as Carrie to completely avoid this perception? N.G. Tipton, in his article on the gender trouble in Miller’s work, certainly thinks so: “While I do not meant to imply that Miller is in any way homophobic or homosexually panicked, his ‘troubling’ of Robin's gender suggests that he, along with many comics business-people and aficionados alike, was troubled by Barman and Robin's continuing homoerotic legacy” (324). For Tipton and other critics, Carrie performs the function of a much-needed female presence, elevating her from a sidekick to a sexual figure. Even though she is designed as an androgynous tomboy, Carrie allegedly disrupts any fear of homosocial bonds by expressing female heteroerotic desires, which Tipton argues, was Miller’s direct intention (329). These desires can be seen when Carrie follows members of the Mutant gang to the dump purely to see Batman, sounding very much like a girl with a crush: “I loathe the dump. But it’s the Mutants – and it sounds major. So he might be there…” (Miller 71). Miller himself renounced this theory, arguing for the very same mentoring relationship that the original Batman and Robin were supposed to have had:
Come on. It’s a father/child relationship. It’s clearly defined as such. This is where this stuff gets preposterous. …Batman isn’t gay. His sexual urges are so drastically sublimated into crime-fighting that there’s no room for any other emotional activity. Notice how insipid are the stories where Batman has a girlfriend or some sort of romance. It’s not because he’s gay, but because he’s borderline pathological, he’s obsessive. He’d be much healthier if he were gay. (Sharrett 38)