“Introducing the Revisionary Superhero Narrative” by Geoff Klock

Is he? Isn’t he? What’s a Superhero Narrative, anyway?

In his essay, Klock proposes that comics published in the mid-80’s (primarily Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s Watchmen) were the introduction to what he calls, “the revisionary superhero narrative.” Klock defines the “revisionary superhero narrative” as “a superhero text that, in Harold Bloom’s words, is a ‘strong misreading’ of its poetic tradition, a comic book whose ‘meaning’ is found in its relationship with another comic book” (25).

Klock uses Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as a critical lens to examine the function of “the revisionary superhero narrative” and explain the significance of reimagining superhero characters and superheroic function in comic books. Klock argues that in texts such as Miller’s TDKR, we see an inventive transition, in comic book history  from comic books being exclusively fantasy to now involving a “reality principle” (such as a comic book’s historical time period or biographical information that has been previously introduced in the character’s prior publication history).

In his analysis of TDKR as a revisionary superhero narrative, Klock suggests that TKDR is one of the most important pieces of comic book history because it is a strong misreading of a comic book character. While Miller does remain faithful to the Batman mythology, Klock proposes that Miller performs his “misreading” when he integrates realistic elements into his plot. Miller accomplishes this by aging the character (which as we’ve already discussed in Alaniz’s chapter, “Unmasked At Last” is a controversial move for a comic book character) and by setting Gotham as an urban city in the ’80s, fully affected by the nation’s Cold War.

Klock’s argument regarding the “uncomfortable” but “satisfying” experience that readers encounter while reading TDKR resounds in the quote that Klock includes from Alan Moore’s introduction to TDKR. While reading TDKR“everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it’s totally different” (Klock 27).

Some of the other variables, that Klock argues, are involved in Miller’s extraordinary “misreading” of the Batman mythology are as follows:

  • Miller provides explanation for some of the details about the character  and ultimately tries to “make sense” of Batman’s mythology.
  • Miller creates a Batman comic which is more graphic than violent
  • Miller addresses the homoerotic/homosocial anxiety surrounding the relationship between Batman and Robin by changing Robin’s gender; by doing this, Miller not only refutes the notion that Batman and Robin are lovers, but he also highlights, instead, the homoerotic dependency that Joker feels towards Batman.
  • Miller addresses the political aspects of the Superhero realm (Superman as President Reagan’s “Super-soldier,” Oliver Queen’s incarceration and escape to Europe, Bruce’s identity as a fascist vigilante)                                                                                                        

Klock asserts that by doing this, Miller creates a comic that parallels the eponymous character’s reputation; it’s controversial, a little rebellious, and to quote Oliver Queen, it’s “mysterious, but it’s a loud kind of mysterious” (Miller).

Questions/Blog Topics:

  • What are your thoughts about Klock’s definition of “the revisionary superhero narrative” and the concept of the genre involving a “strong misreading?” Can you think of any other examples of superheroic revisionary narratives (other than the texts mentioned in Klock’s chapter), where a “strong misreading” is performed?
  • What are your thoughts about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as a revisionary superhero narrative? Does it feel like a Batman comic to you, or are there aspects of the comic that feel foreign with regard to the Batman mythos? Provide your own assessment of Miller’s faithfulness to the Batman biography that precedes TDKR‘s publication.
  • How did you feel about the “realistic” elements that are intertwined into the plot of The Dark Knight Returns? For this topic, feel free to blog about the brilliant, albeit controversial, decision to age Batman, the politics involved in superheroism, or the presence of the Cold War and the Reagan administration. (Also, if you’d like to blog about all three options or another “realistic” aspect to the comic, please feel free to do so)
  • What is your opinion of Klock’s hypothesis regarding the “re-gendering” of Robin and the homoerotic tensions between Batman and Joker? Do you think that Miller was intentionally trying to invert the romantic/sexual associations of the two relationships, or is this an interesting close-reading performed by Klock?

I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts!

    ….Oh Bats….

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22 thoughts on ““Introducing the Revisionary Superhero Narrative” by Geoff Klock

  1. What is your opinion of Klock’s hypothesis regarding the “re-gendering” of Robin and the homoerotic tensions between Batman and Joker? Do you think that Miller was intentionally trying to invert the romantic/sexual associations of the two relationships, or is this an interesting close-reading performed by Klock?

    Klock characterizes Carrie Kelly’s relationship to Batman as that of a “wife or lover,” claiming that she at times engages with him in what is “a parody of the lover’s embrace” or takes on the role of “damsel in distress,” and that such moments serve to suggest “the possibility of a sexual reading (33, 34). Klock suggests, in part, that this is done to answer questions about a possible homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin. However, I did not read any sort of sexual tension on the interactions between Batman and Carrie Kelly. She is androgynous, referred to as “Boy Wonder,” and a newscaster accuses Batman of child endangerment for “using a young boy as a shield.” Unlike the majority (all??) of female superheroes, Carrie has short hair (as opposed to long hair, which is often a symbol of femininity) and wears a high-necked shirt (no cleavage pouring out of a low-cut shirt!). Had Miller’s intention in regendering Robin been to “shift” the “general charges of homoeroticism in Batman […] from Batman/Robin to Batman/Joker,” I imagine he would craft a more stereotypically feminine character to make this shift more dramatic. That being said, I struggled with my own response to this depiction of Robin; while I applauded Miller’s inclusion of a female character who is not overtly sexualized, I also wondered if this is an implication that women can’t be both conventionally feminine and part of the superhero tradition, or if only females who are pre-adolescent are permitted to avoid the typical trappings of the oversexualized female characterization.

    • Dennis O’Neill, the writer who slanted Green Lantern/Green Arrow into progressive “relevance,” is also famous for returning Batman to his “Creature of the Night” roots around the same time period. Years later, in an interview where he was asked if Batman were a gay man, O’Neill responded, “I think he would be much healthier psychologically if he were…”

    • I agree. Also if you read Sin City you’ll see Miller appears highly misogynistic and there are no heroines in it..rather, female anti-heroes. So you are right that in Miller’s case, he can’t depict a heroine without overly sexualizing her. I’m thinking Elektra although she’s a villain/anti-hero(ine).

  2. Awesome work, Maria!

    I’ve always been interested in the idea of recasting Robin as a woman. In fact, the relationship between Batman and whoever Robin happens to be at the time has always been weird to me. This guy running around in his tights and cape with a young man, acting as surrogate father, best friend, and lieutenant is bizarre and irresponsible. It’s one thing to constantly put yourself in danger in a never ending crusade, it’s another to take someone else with you.

    That being said, I think it’s still problematic to have a Robin regardless of gender—maybe even the idea of a ‘sidekick’ is silly in a modern context. Friends and acquaintances and monomythic helpers is one thing, but a ‘sidekick’ is a specific delineation. It implies a hierarchy and a reduction of an individual.

    Even though any positive female representation in Miller’s testosterone heavy writing is great, Carrie stills acts as a female subordinate, which is problematic. Is there a female superhero with a younger male sidekick? I’m sure it happens, I just can’t think of one off the top of my head.

    I think a lot of the underlying decision to make Robin female is an act of removing implied homosexual content. But at the same time, it only heightens the ‘traditional’ Batman /Robin dynamic.

    I say, let’s just let them be lovers. Why not? A comic where Batman and Robin finally consummate their relationship would be a big seller. Someone write to DC.

  3. If ever there was a superhero for whom realism would be a positive, it would be Batman. Having no real superpowers, he is superheroic in every way except in his meta-humanity, or lack thereof. Miller’s decision to age the character despite the serialistic and monomythic nature of the genre invokes a precedent going back to Sophocles’ trilogy involving Oedipus. Aging Oedipus humanizes one of the most monstrously tragic characters in classical literature, and Miller’s decision to invent a middle aged Batman forced out of retirement creates a brilliant paradox: in rooting the character to a Reaganite Cold War background in which popular celebrities/talking heads are clearly suggested (David Letterman is obvious but Dr. Ruth and Ted Koppel are also caricatured); the urban decay of NYC of the 80s is grimly reflected through street gangs and a brooding pair of Twin Towers; and changing gender norms pairs him with an androgynous female computer nerd-Batman is reinvented mythically. To read TDKR is akin to reading Revelations or the Norse tale of Ragnarok. By giving an end to the saga, regardless of how remote it may be in the marketing and sales departments of DC, all other iterations and representations of Batman are recast in this new offering of the “shadow of the bat.”

  4. Great job, Maria!
    I enjoyed the realistic, however dark they may be, elements featured in The Dark Knight Returns. Aging Batman I thought was a brilliant idea; Batman is one of the few superheroes who lacks any superpowers, he is as regular -minus the billions- as your or me, to age him makes sense. In the world which Batman is retired, things have to be pretty bad to bring him back. The violence, or graphic-ness, of TDKR is the only way to tell this story. What I also thought was interesting that Klock points out is that Miller incorporated references to past Batman adventures from earlier publications, to maintain Batman’s history and to better understand his mythology. Doing this, possibly, was to connect with readers from earlier publications of Batman: “Look! Batman is older now, like you! Remember that one time he did that? Just look at him now!” My biggest problem with this realistic Batman was how young Carrie Kelly was. I know Batman has typically had a younger sidekick, but was it always a preteen? (Not a hypothetical, I really am asking.) Having already lost a sidekick as Alfred points out, I find it incredibly difficult to understand why Batman would let a young child play such a dangerous role alongside him.

    Looking forward to your presentation later!

    • Thank you MacKenzie! I think you’re onto something about how young Carrie is, and how willingly Bruce accepts her as a sidekick. In the mainstream comic’s plot, Jason’s death emotionally cripples Bruce. In the ’90s when Tim Drake seeks to fulfill the role, Bruce is incredibly hesitant; he doesn’t want another young person’s death on his hands. To see him quickly approve Kellly’s request seemed almost uncharacteristic.

  5. My understanding on Klocks definition of “the revisionary superhero narrative and the concept of the genre involving a strong mis-reading” is that I don’t think it’s a strong misreading it’s just moves away from the norm that is comics books which are overpowered superheroes fighting for justice where you hardly see any conflict. The conflict is somewhat there but it’s not as evident as when you read the comics on Batman or Watchmen. characters such as the Dark Knight or the Watchmen started with these narrative stories. The stories that make up who they are, and what they fight for. As a result, it is that these kinds of superheroes aren’t almost perfect as Superman is or any other superpowered individual whose sense of justice isn’t driven as Batman’s way of doing things or the Watchmen for that matter. According to Klock “The Dark Knight Returns and the Watchmen are judgment and the superheroes narrative first sense of memory, its transition in the reality principle” pg 2. The narrative stories help the reader understand the heroes purpose and reason for doing what they do. It also creates a moral story in which the superhero struggles with when times get tough. The morals also bring back the reason as to why they are fighting in the first place. Another revisionary narrative I can think of is Spiderman. His way of justice isn’t dark at all, but he constantly learns a lesson based on what has happened to him and on what mistakes he has done. Spiderman is a character that constantly grows and learns new things then applies them in to his own thinking or when he is trying to save people or when he questions his sense of Justice when things go wrong. It is in these concepts that brings about reality vs. fantasy when it comes to Narrative Comics vs. a comic that saves everyone with no moral struggle or a lesson that the superhero learns from.

  6. Great post, Maria.

    About this variable — “Miller creates a Batman comic which is more graphic than violent” — I agree with Mackenzie that the only way to tell his story in TDKR was to match the violence or graphic nature of the time. It matched what Batman was up against at the time and it also added to his allure in my opinion. Without a superpower, Batman has remained a bad ass, not-to-be-messed-with superhero, who is capable of getting violent if need be and adjusting to handle any situation — for better or worse.

    About Robin, I always viewed his relationship to Batman as not only a sidekick, but an understudy. I think Robin being boyish in nature took away from the legitimacy of him possibly — or ever for that matter — surpassing Batman as an eminent superhero. I have never really viewed Robin as a superhero and relegating him to a sidekick lent itself to that feeling. He, too, doesn’t possess a superpower. But here’s a question … if Robin did have a superpower, would Batman — and you — take him more seriously?

  7. How did you feel about the “realistic” elements that are intertwined into the plot of The Dark Knight Returns? For this topic, feel free to blog about the brilliant, albeit controversial, decision to age Batman, the politics involved in superheroism, or the presence of the Cold War and the Reagan administration. (Also, if you’d like to blog about all three options or another “realistic” aspect to the comic, please feel free to do so)
    To me, one of the predominant aspects that makes TDKR unique is the physical transition of Bruce Wayne. The fact is that the timeless zone in which these characters are created leaves behind a chunk of character development (I am thinking of Eco’s article). By giving a realistic aging process, Miller is giving us the opportunity to analyze Batman in a different light, specifically his actions and motivations. The way I see it is that the things we did and believe in our 20’s usually at our 30’s and 40’s we tend to have a different and mature approach; and given the chance we would change some of this aforementioned things. The same happens to Batman, we love the dark side of this superhero, but we haven’t had the opportunity to explore his motivations as a mature person. The most important question that Miller’s comic leaves is, does Bruce Wayne’s actions progresses as he ages or does it becomes more erratic and unstable thus affecting his superhero persona/identity?

  8. Awesome work, Maria.

    I thought it was a good choice to add more realistic elements to Batman’s story in TDKR. I think Batman’s rescaled age was meant to align with Miller’s own age. I think shortly before writing this story, Miller had reached the typical Batman, being typically around 29 years old. So for older fans, it was meant to be a sobering retrospective of Batman’s past adventures. Having long term mental consequences for the death of a Robin really humanizes Batman and makes him more relatable to fans. At this stage, because of Batman’s crossover with cosmic entities (Like the Justice League), his fans needed to experience a more grounded Batman story. While Batman has incredible foresight abilities, he’s supposed to be more limited/human than other DC superheroes. He needs to have had a mental and physical toll. It adds a lot of needed and somewhat believable tension to the story. If there’s none of that–then the sense of stakes are out of the window because Bruce is then just as alien as Superman.

    • You’re right Jose. I think you and MacKenzie point out the significance and importance of aging Batman. He is, justifiably, the most prone of the Justice League members to age, so therefore, aging him just kind of makes sense.

  9. In 1986, Miller was addressing different issues within the comic book. For instance, gender rights and equality can be seen through the characters of the new Robin (Carrie Kelley) and the new Police Commissioner of Gotham City, Ellen Yindel. At that period, women were still struggling to be seen as equals to their male counterparts. Even though Robin is only thirteen, she proves herself to be worthy of standing next to Batman and fighting along with him. In one scene, Batman warns Robin not to touch the controls in the helicopter and states, “It’s voice activated computers. You wouldn’t understand” (pg.122). He is rebelling for these invisible identities and making them worth more than they seem. The commissioner is successful in her job and has taken the place of a man in society. Miller clearly illustrates women in the comic book who are breaking their traditional roles by either capturing the superhero or working side by side with him.

  10. Thanks for asking that question Maria…Question # 1 to be exact.

    I must admit I am not a 100% on the definition of a “misreading”. Is Bloom/Klock saying it means to read it in and of itself detaching any relevance to its analogy yet retaining its original canonical components? if so, then I agree with him that Miller did perform a misreading of Batman, apparently the first ever done in comic books and in 1986.

    Why highlight that year?

    Watchmen was published.

    Crisis on Infinite Earths, the maxi series by DC was published in continuation from 1985 and redefined the DC universe ending in “86.

    John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” was published. This was a redefinition of Superman who had gone stale in the sales department. But as Alan Moore pointed out about DKR, the components were the same but it was different. Let me explain..

    Man of Steel was a 6 issue mini series which would redefine Superman’s contemporary universe, in other words, he was ret-conned. His origins were kept the same. He was from Krypton. He was adopted in Kansas by the Kents. He was told of his true origin in his teens. He went to Metropolis to work for the Daily Planet and became infatuated by Lois. What was different?

    Byrne brought back Jonathan and Martha Kent from the dead which is sort of a big change but not big enough to deter from the Superman canon. Lex Luthor his arch nemesis was made to be a businessman rather than a galaxy traveling villain, but a villain nonetheless…most akin to his portrayal in the original Chris Reeve films. Superman’s powers were given some form of limitation and more explanations of how he could do everyday things like cut his beard since he had invulnerable skin. How could he hide his identity as Clark Kent by simply donning spectacles? Byrne addressed these questions and much more. It was a loose template for the eponymously titled film from some years back just as Miller’s DKR and Year One was one for the Chris Nolan Bat films.

    The big question for me is then is that also a “misreading” because Man of Steel was kept in continuum whereas DKR was a one shot “Otherworlds” story which comic fans instinctively sensed? Batman was never 55 years old afterwards in comics and Robin was never a woman. Is reimagining a character within continuum still considered a misreading?

    My final thought here is that even though DKR is not analogous to Batman comics, that rendition of Batman by Miller is sadly the same one that creators thereafter have been emulating for the last 32 years.

  11. Maria—
    Your blog was extremely entertaining!
    I want to focus on the realistic portrayal of Batman. This Batman is old, worn down, RETIRED ( as in he doesn’t die heroically ), and hiding in the beginning of TDKR. Probably that alone is revolutionary, HOWEVER, your mention of the Cold War is what srikes my attention. Think of how muddled that time period was — governments were letting people down, bombs were going to supposedly let fly at any moment — America felt weak. Confused. I want to focus on the colors used in the panels. Greys, blacks, shades. The comic book is extremely dark. Flipping through it, on a glance, what color stands out? Yellows and reds. Explosions. Look at Book 4: Th Dark Night Falls. I am also extremely caught up on the first person narrative going on here. I think this is a first? I’m finding it a little ironic, or fitting,that the one superhero who seems caught up with their own narrative, their own self, is the one who ends up falling and fading like a normal human being. It seems a superhero should never be self-involved or self-focused and that is perhaps the most revolutionary thing. This is a superhero telling the story of their “heroic” moment (or their least heroic).

  12. How did you feel about the “realistic” elements that are intertwined into the plot of The Dark Knight Returns? For this topic, feel free to blog about the brilliant, albeit controversial, decision to age Batman, the politics involved in superheroism, or the presence of the Cold War and the Reagan administration. (Also, if you’d like to blog about all three options or another “realistic” aspect to the comic, please feel free to do so)

    I think that Miller did a FANTASTIC job showing what urban life was like in the 1980’s. Much like the Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman, New York was a scary place in the 80’s. Anybody who had any kind of money fled the city in the 70’s, moving out to the burbs. Growing up in this time period, there was a feeling of paranoia about the “city” and it’s denizens. New York was a SCARY place. Crime was rampant, even places like Times Square and Fifth Avenue were scary places to be after the sun went down. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Newark were even worse. I can’t tell you how many times my family went to visit other family in the city only to find the car broken into, getting mugged or both. Watch the opening scenes of Nighthawks (a film with Billy Dee Williams, Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer), it was shot in the Bronx in the early 80’s, the backers of the film almost pulled out (despite the star power of Williams and Stallone) because they almost couldn’t get insured to shoot there (it was that bad). Miller was very faithful to the conditions of the cities in the 80’s.

    Also, the Cold War was ALWAYS present in my mind growing up. Now we live in fear of terrorist attack, but in the 80’s it was the fear of nuclear war and the annihilation of the planet. Juxtaposed with this paranoia was the excess of the period, people literally lived like it was the end of the world. There were SO many things that happened in the 80’s it’s hard to distill it into a blog, so I will try to summarize: there were economic crises, international disasters (like Nicaragua, and Iran to name a few), triumphs (the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 1980 Olympics at Lake Place) tragedies (the Challenger explosion, the Lockerbie bombing) and nostalgia for the “good old days” (aka the 50’s when women and minorities “knew their place”) it was a strange time.

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