Wednesday, July 16, 2008


By Chris Wilson

I set out last weekend to read the preeminent Batman book of all time, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (DKR), by comic great Frank Miller. I thought two things about DKR: (1) I really need to read this book myself if I am to claim that I love comics, and (2) this would be an excellent review to coincide with the release of the new Batman movie.

I buried myself in my plush, diamond-tuck easy chair to read about the psychologically damaged super hero and his inclusion into the classroom. Chapter one told me a lot of what I needed to know. Between the smoking, broken bones, drug references, pornography references, and the profound use of goddamn, Jesus Christ, bitch, hell and damn, I came to the notion that DKR is not meant for most classrooms in K-12 education. The story is dark, brooding, gritty and worthy of exploration of the dark side of goodness and the psychological trauma that drives humanity toward certain pathways.

None but the bravest of teachers in high school would dare use it. Although I am thinking that there are classes out there, maybe ones with kids who are so disillusioned with education, that DKR could be a piece of comic greatness that could reach those students and bring them to a place where education, discussion, and literature are considered good things. DKR could well be a book that could be read in alternative schools, where traditional rules and regs are tossed out.

It is there, my friends: the politics, the psychology, death and rebirth, living as one’s true self, the grey lines of good and evil, religion, war, politics, media, and many great literature themes. But with that is also a fair amount of dialogue that makes the DKR problematic for the high school classroom.

Batman comes out of retirement to take on the Joker and the mutants. This time, Batman finds himself in a quandary. To stop the death toll of the Joker, Batman must cross his own line and take a life. His decisions also land him at odds with the police. Is justice served when one takes the law into his own hands? Outside the struggle with the Joker and the mutants, the Russians also pose a significant nuclear threat to the US and the world.

There is so much meat in DKR, the lessons could go on and on. A feminist perspective adds a new level of inquiry. Robin is a girl, an agile and brave 13-year-old who adds a lot to the success of Batman, and Commissioner Gordon is replaced by a female, much to the chagrin of some of the in-power males.

The art is scratchy, sketchy and strangely brightly colored for such a dark tale. The characters reflect the style of the 1980’s – the hair, clothes and dialogue of the teens. The art is not overly appealing to me, but the story makes up for the illustrations.

There is hope for the typical classroom, for the teachers who wish to cash in on the success of the new Batman movie by securing some Batman titles for the classroom. Elementary teachers will likely want to pick up the trade paperbacks of THE BATMAN STRIKES. There are three volumes currently in print: CRIME TIME (vol. 1), IN DARKEST KNIGHT (vol. 2), and DUTY CALLS (vol. 3). As for middle school or high school, there are so many Batman trade paperbacks in print it boggles the mind. Any class on feminist literature could make use of the Batgirl titles.

My hope was that DKR would be one that I could easily suggest for any classroom. Not so much, as it turns out, at least for the typical high school classroom. DKR could be used, or portions of it anyway, but one must take great care in choosing this title for the classroom. The language, topics, and the violence, while appropriate to the story, are very harsh.

As for movies, Batman: Gotham Knight (animated DVD) is now available and is rated PG-13, but it is dark as well. The much anticipated Batman: The Dark Knight hits theaters this Friday. Early buzz indicates this movie will be top notch.

Enjoy the Batman, relish in the darkness and turmoil that haunts our Dark Knight. Find a way to include Batman, in one of his various incarnations, into your classroom.


Anonymous said...

I think you raise a good quandary for teachers as they try to tap into a cultural movement for learning. On one hand, I wish Batman was written in a way that we could use it more in the classroom. On the other hand, that sort of sterile writing would probably ruin what makes the story appealing in the first place.
Thanks for showing some different recommendations here. It provides us with some possibilities.

admin said...

It is very hard. Couple that with the fact that comics in the classroom is new (and still controversial for some) and that they depict what traditional books just describe, and the decision is even harder.

Thanks, buddy.

Anonymous said...

I just ordered TDKR for my teen sections. I aggressively plowed over my reservations by rationalizing TDKR against some of the other titles in the YA section that appear on High School recommended reading. Some of the GN's I just bought were, well, of the mind that "if you're going to be a graphic novel reader, you -should- read these."

The good thing about being a librarian is that I don't have to face-off with the parents, and I won't get too much hassle if I order books that aren't PC. Public Service Sans Censorship and all that.

Teachers not only have to risk introducing too adult themes into potentially not-mature-enough minds, but the parents have a lot of political swagger in the public school curricula.