Vigilante Justice in American Culture and Graphic Novels – Analysing Frank Miller’s "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns"

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

28 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The history and definition of Comics and Graphic Novels

3. Batman - who he is and how he came to be
3.1 Batman as the Dark Knight

4. Summary of The Dark Knight Returns
5. Vigilantism
5.1 What is vigilantism?
5.2 Vigilantism in the United States
5.3 Bruce Wayne's motivation to become the Caped Crusader
5.4 Is Batman a true vigilante?
5.5 Can Batman's vigilantism be morally justified?

6. Conclusion

7. Appendix
7.1 Batman Origin Story from Hush
7.2 Batman Origin Story from The Dark Knight Returns
7.3 Page 39 of The Dark Knight Returns

8. References
8.1 Books, Essays and Internet sources
8.2 Pictures

1. Introduction

The USA have a long history of vigilantism (see chap. Vigilantism). From lynch justice to the New York Guardian Angels, the American history is full of it. The topic also found its way into American literature and film. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and superheroes like Batman - The success of vigilantism in fiction shows the fascination of Americans with the matter.

It is the discrepancy between law and moral when it comes to judge vigilante justice that makes it such a fascinating topic. This paper will discuss this discrepancy on the example of one of the most famous fictional vigilantes in literature: Batman - also known as the Dark Knight.

The first part of this essay will introduce Comics and Graphic Novels. It will offer a definition and a short overview of the history of comic books and the sub-genre Graphic Novels. Afterwards Batman, his history and origins as well as the happenings in The Dark Knight Returns will be explained and summarised.

The third and last part of the essay will focus on vigilantism. It will explore the fascination of the US-American culture with vigilante justice and discuss the moral and legal permissibility of vigilantism.

With this knowledge the essay will take another look at Batman to judge his actions and to find out why he fascinated people for over 70 years - and still does.

2. The history and definition of Comics and Graphic Novels

As this paper is about vigilantism in graphic novels, it is necessary to first define the term Graphic Novel.

But to do that a definition of its hypernym Comics is mandatory.

As Scott McCloud states in his non-fiction comic book Understanding Comics, comic books are often seen as “bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights” (McCloud, 1993, p.2).

This is not only a too narrow definition - it is also wrong as it defines the content and not the medium. It is too narrow because comics are not just magazines and not just stories about superheroes. Comics are a medium that can be used to transmit any content. Additionally, the definition of the term comic gives no information about the way it is created and what materials are used. A comic can be written on stone, paper or any other material. No kind of drawing or writing tool is ruled out (See McCloud, 1993, p. 22). McCloud defines the medium comic with the help of Will Eisner's[1] definition of comics as “Sequential Art”. He develops it further to the complicated definition “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequences intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”(McCloud, 1993, p. 9). He does that to prove the point that comics are much older than most people would think. Bayeux Tapestry and even Egyptian paintings are, technically spoken, comics as they show a sequence of moments in pictures to convey information. (McCloud, 1993, pp.12-13)

What the western society calls comics came to be with the European invention of printing around 1400. As the father of the modern comic McCloud names Rodolphe Töpffer - a French speaking Swiss artist who lived from 1799 until 1846.

British caricature magazines kept Töpffer’s art form alive and developed it to what we know as comics (See McCloud, 1993, pp. 12-13).

Due to the negative connotations of the term comic - originating from its first steps as funny but undemanding comic strips in newspapers - according to Dietrich Grünewald comics are generally not considered art or literature by art and literature critics, because they started as a mass medium (Grünewald, 2000 p. 79). If a work that is technically a comic is considered art it stops being considered a comic as McCloud claims. He gives a number of examples on that phenomenon. One of those examples is Lynn Ward’s Woodcut Novels, which is widely considered art but not a comic (See McCloud, 1993, p. 18). The same can be said about a number of other works like Albrecht Dürer's Kleine Holzschnittpassion from 1509/11 or Bonaventura Genelli's Aus dem Leben einer Hexe from 1847/50 (see Grünewald, 2000, p. 79). All those examples are - by McClouds definition - comics. The negative connotation is so strong that a lot of comic artists do not call themselves that but “'illustrators', 'commercial artists' or, at best 'cartoonists' ”(McCloud, 1993, p. 18).

The bad reputation of comics is also the reason for the coining of the term Graphic Novel by Eisner. In 1978 he published a comic with 178 pages. The comic was called A Contract With God and - according to McCloud - it has permanently changed the way comics are being perceived (See McCloud, 2000, p. 32). Although it was a collection of four comic short stories, Eisner labelled it Graphic Novel. Until then comics had been called books - Comic Books - even though they were only magazines or booklets. With Eisner's work something really worthy of the label book[2] came into existence and the author decided to call it a novel. To understand this, one has to consider the (aforementioned) bad name comic books had to that time: Eisner was afraid that the term Comic Book would devalue his work. After A Contract with God the term Graphic Novel was remembered by the readers and the publishers and with it the idea behind it: A serious work, longer than the average comic book and geared more towards adults than at kids and teenagers. This had to do with the more complex, demanding and serious stories that were featured in A Contract with God ("See McCloud, 2000, p. 32).

It has to be mentioned that there is no official definition of the term Graphic Novel and therefore every publisher can call every comic book Graphic Novel. This is often done to advertise paperback versions of old comic books that are reintroduced to the market as bundled collection. (See McCloud, 2000, p. 32).

While reading different books about comics one will come across two categorisations: Some books categorise comics as literature (e.g. Riha, 1970, Grünewald, 2000) and others as art (McCloud, 1993). In my opinion they are a hybrid of both. They combine the written word with the aesthetics of art to communicate a certain message. Ideally word and art complement each other and as a result create something that neither art nor literature could have created on their own. This, however, changes when the comic is not using words at all to tell the story. In this case the comic could only be considered art.

3. Batman - who he is and how he came to be

To tell the Origin Story3 of Batman is an inexact science, due to the many revisions of the story over the years. The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) by Frank Miller tells parts of the Origin Story and as this work is about DKR this will be the story this chapter relates to.[3] [4]

Batman was invented by Bob Kane. Kane was born in 1916 as Robert Kane. His Father was an engraver for the New York Daily News who brought the comic section of the Daily News home everyday. He encouraged his son's artistic ambitions. Bob Kane created Batman taking a fictional costumed killer called the Bat that was created by Mary Roberts Rinehart, the ornithopter by Leonardo da Vinci and the movie The Mark of Zorro from 1920 as sources of inspiration. Together with his colleague Bill Finger he revised his creation and finally called it the Batman (See Daniels, 1999, p. 17-25). Batman had his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939.[5] His origin was first revealed in Detective Comics #33 in October of the same year. Since then the story has been modified countless times, but the framework stays the same:

Batman's real name is Bruce Wayne. He is the child of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Thomas Wayne works as a medical doctor and owns Wayne Enterprises. The Wayne Family is a well established and wealthy family until Thomas and Martha Wayne get shot and killed during a robbery after a visit to the Cinema where they watched the movie Zorro together with their son Bruce. (The Dark Knight Returns p. 22, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia p. 26). After that incident Bruce decides to fight crime and devote his life to “both physical and mental perfection to wage that battle” (Greenberger, 2008, p. 26).

There are different explanations as to why he chooses to disguise himself as a bat. DKR establishes the explanation which is later slightly changed and reused in the movie Batman Begins: Young Bruce Wayne accidentally falls into a hole in the ground in the garden of Wayne Manor (The home of the Wayne Family) while chasing a rabbit. The hole belongs to a giant cave underneath the manor. Due to the fall he injures his knee and lies in the dark, frightened by a large amount of bats living in that cave who got startled by Bruce breaking into their territory. (DKR. p. 18). Later he decides to use his own greatest fear (the fear of bats) to frighten criminals.

His costume - the Batsuit - has been altered numerous times and he used countless special suits over the years, designed to fit special needs. The range goes from an all white suit for arctic terrain over a camouflage suit for the jungle to even more exotic versions of the Batsuit.

The basic Batsuit however consists of a cape, a cowl[6] and a utility belt. He usually wears a bat symbol on his chest (of which exist different designs in different colours). The yellow oval bat symbol known from many comics and films is often stated to act as a target for the villains to aim at to distract them from his more vulnerable head. (for example Greenberger, 2008, p. 29, DKR p. 51 “Why do you think I wear a target on my chest - - can't armor my head”).

Next to his suit he has his headquarters called the Batcave, which lies underneath Wayne Manor. In it are not only the countless suits but also a lot of high-tech gadgetry and different Batvehicles (see Greenberger, 2008. pp. 21-23). Size and look of the cave and the vehicles also differ from one publication to another.

One of the most interesting things about Batman is that he lacks any kind of superpower that defines most other superheroes. He is described as very intelligent and in near perfect physical condition but neither his intellect nor his physical capabilities exceed human boundaries. He is often called the “'World's Greatest Detective' and 'World's Greatest Escape Artist'” (Greenberger, 2008. p.31) and a master of many weapons and different martial arts. However he has sworn never to use a firearm, as his parents were killed by one.

What he lacks in superpowers he makes up for with his state-of-the-art equipment, often designed with the help of Wayne Enterprises (see Greenberger, 2008. p. 31).

Batman's relationship with the law changes over time. One constant has always been police commissioner James Gordon. When Batman first appears in Gotham City he is hunted by the police - including Gordon. After a while Gordon learns that Batman can be trusted and they slowly establish a friendship. Gordon, however, never gets to know the identity of Batman (see Greenberger, 2008 pp. 150-152). In DKR it is hinted that he knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman. But DKR has belatedly been marked as a part of Elseworlds7, basically meaning that it is not in line with the official Batman storyline.

3.1 Batman as the Dark Knight

In the 70 years of Batman's existence he changed a lot. From his first tentative steps as a crime fighter in which political correctness did not play that much of a role and where he killed his adversaries at least once in a while (See Kane, p.18) over the campy TV-Series from the 1960ies, starring Adam West, to the Dark Knight of the 1980ies until today. One can not measure all versions of Batman by the same yardstick and so this paper focusses on the version of Batman that is also known as the Dark Knight.

There is no official definition of the Dark Knight so I will define it for myself and this paper.

The Dark Knight is the more sinister, serious and angry interpretation of what Batman could be like.

In many ways it is also the more realistic approach (which reaches its most realistic point with the movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan). In my opinion the Dark Knight has been invented by Frank Miller. The first appearance of Miller's Dark Knight is in the Graphic Novel The Dark Knight Returns. From that point on nearly all following interpretations of Batman - be it in film or in literature - were at least partially inspired by Miller's approach. Joel Schumacher's attempt to make Batman campier again and to return to the style that was featured in the 1960ies TV-Series turned out to be a big failure. His movies Batman forever and Batman & Robin flopped so extremely that Batman vanished from the big Screen for eight years. On The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website - which is probably the biggest English-languaged website about movies and TV - Batman & Robin has been rated with 3.5/10 points. Christopher[7] Nolan's return to a more sinister and believable Batman proved to be a good decision. The Dark Knight currently has a rating of 8.9/10 points and is currently ranked the 9th best movie of all times - according to more than 394.000 votes on IMDB (See

This paper will mainly focus on the Batman of his first appearance as the Dark Knight in DKR but refer to other publications where appropriate and necessary.

4. Summary of The Dark Knight Returns

As stated before The Dark Knight Returns is considered a part of the Elseworlds universe. This probably happened because it would have changed the official storyline in a too dramatic way:

Due to the death of his second Robin[8], Jason Todd, Bruce Wayne decided to retire as Batman. Ten years later he is still retired when a brutal gang called the Mutants terrorize Gotham City during an immense heat wave. The police seem to be unable to stop the Mutants. Bruce Wayne once again reprises his role as Batman to fight the gang. At the same time Harvey Dent - a former District Attorney, whose one side of the face got destroyed by an attack with acid and who became known as Two-Face - is released from Gotham's high security prison Arkham Asylum after a surgeon reconstructed his face and a psychiatrist considered him also mentally recovered. Still he becomes Two-Face once again and threatens to blow up the twin towers (the two highest towers of Gotham City). Batman stops him and discovers that Harvey Dent is only physically recovered but in his mind still Two-Face.

Meanwhile police commissioner James Gordon is becoming seventy years old and has to retire. His replacement is a young woman called Ellen Yindel, who is a fierce critic of Batman and promises to arrest him.

When Batman confronts the Mutants on their meeting ground at the city dump he gets badly injured by the much younger and much stronger leader of the Mutants (his name is never mentioned). Carrie Kelly, a young girl uncared for by her parents has her mind set on becoming the new Robin and saves Batman before the Mutant leader can murder him. Despite having lost the fight they still manage to imprison the mutant leader. After he threatens to unleash his gang on the city the mayor tries to negotiate with him and gets brutally murdered. In a complex plan James Gordon, Batman and the new Robin let the leader of the Mutants escape prison and Batman fights and defeats him in front of the other Mutants. Some Mutants accept Batman as their new leader and call themselves the Sons of Batman. The other Mutants splinter into smaller gangs.


[1] Will Eisner was born on March 6, 1917 as William Erwin Eisner in New York and died on January 3, 2005. He is considered to be one of the most influential persons in the field of sequential art. See also:

[2] The free dictionary says about a book, that it is “ [a] set of written, printed, or blank pages fastened along one side and encased between protective covers. (See A booklet however is defined as “a thin book with paper covers” ( Eisner's A Contract with God is the first comic book that matches the definition book as such. All comic books before have -strictly spoken- only been booklets or magazines (“A periodical containing a collection of articles, stories, pictures, or other features.” (See

[3] In comic book terminology , the back-story of Superheroes and Villains are called Origin Story. A number of Origin Stories of Characters of the DC Comics universe can be found here:

[4] This and another Origin Story, told on only two comic pages can be found in the appendixes 7.2 and 7.3.

[5] Detective Comics is a magazine published by DC Comics on a monthly basis. The first issue has been published in march 1937. With more than 858 monthly issues released as of September 2009 it is the longest continuously published comic book series in the United States. (See

[6] When talking about Batman's suit the term “cape and cowl” got established. Most likely because an alliteration sounds better than “cape and hood” or “cape and mask”.

[7] “Elseworlds is the publication imprint for a group of comic books produced by DC Comics that take place outside the company's canon” (

[8] “Robin the boy wonder” is the name of Batman's sidekick. Over the time Batman had different persons playing the role of Robin. With the exception of Carrie Kelly all Robins were male. (See Greenberger, 2008, p. 314)

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Vigilante Justice in American Culture and Graphic Novels – Analysing Frank Miller’s "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns"
University of Hildesheim  (Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur)
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The Dark Knight, Batman, Frank Miller, Vigilantism, Vigilante Justice, Selbstjustiz, American Culture, amerikanische Kultur, graphic novels, Comics, Comic, Bruce Wayne, der dunkle Ritter, Robin, Joker, The Dark Knight Returns, Der dunkle Ritter kehrt zurück, Declaration of independence, second amendment, Bill of rights
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Björn Saemann (Author), 2009, Vigilante Justice in American Culture and Graphic Novels – Analysing Frank Miller’s "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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