“The Dark Knight” Returns to the Classroom

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“Good morning students. Today we are going to be starting our next piece of literature (bored stares from students to the front of class). I know we are still exhausted from our adventures with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (collective eye rolls from class), but I think this next book is pretty hip…Trevor do you really have to use the restroom now? Fine, take the pass. As I was saying, I hope you are all excited to delve into our next book…Frank Miller’s…The Dark Knight Returns! (audible groans of agony from the class). 

Creative license aside, when I announced to my Junior English Class last spring that we would be ending the year reading a Batman book, let alone “THE BATMAN BOOK”, I expected to be hoisted upon boney pimpled shoulders and paraded around the hallways to  enthusiastic chants toting me as the greatest teacher alive (suck it Anne Sulliven)! After all, I had been feeding these kids a steady diet of Herman Melville, constitutional documents, and transcendentalists for three quarters, and I was hoping this pop culture filet mignon I was serving them would taste even sweeter in comparison. I mean, come on, these 2019 kids cut their teeth on superhero movies! In fact, looking around the room I could find no less than a dozen pieces of superhero apparel being sported about in the same way Korn fans would plaster themselves in Adidas garb in the mid-90’s. 

Disappointment aside, being a high school literature teacher of twelve years, I did what I always did. I choked back my cultured tastes and pressed on. And in the pressing, I learned a valuable lesson.  

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Teaching Frank Miller’s 1980’s seminal series The Dark Knight Returns is by no means breaking new ground. Many college professors have pilfered parental dollars from pockets with course descriptions that promise semester long analysis of the adventures of the Caped Crusader. This of course has bled down into high schools and rightfully so. The series is often revered by literary critics and scholars like the NTCE (The National Council of Teachers of English) and the worldwide news media as being a watershed piece of American pop culture prose.

As the class moved through the four books in the series, I noticed many interesting roadblocks. One, the students were surprised by the lexile level (a teacher term, not vocabulary a student would belch out) and two, the complexity of the text. 

The Dark Knight Returns is not a children’s’ comic. There is a maturity in language that is up there with Vonnegut. To add to the difficulty in language dissection, in the graphic novel, Miller creates his own slang diction that even the savviest of young hipsters has difficulty parsing.

In addition, the complexity of the graphic novel shocked the students. When I told them we were reading Batman, I realized their perception of Batman in his comic form was completely askew. These kids, although they could tell me the origins of every hero under the sun, only knew what they had seen on the big screen. They had no idea of the inter-dimensionally rich source material of what they had been weaned on. They were not aware that the themes in DKR are deep and mirror the internal themes of the soul. Themes that have been perpetuated throughout the history of English literature: the aging figurehead who is unable to accept retirement and the internal struggle of a man who strives to capture his own justice ala Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet, the extreme goal settings of an antihero in Shelly’s Frankenstein, and the classic hero cycle so beautifully portrayed in Beowulf. 

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What I learned through teaching The Dark Knight Returns is that we are pumping this current generation a diet full of cinema superheroes that have the panache of a hero without the substance.

The drive to “do good” comes at a great sacrifice to literary heroes. Take the Arthurian Legend for example. King Arthur is a complex character that sacrificed his love and reputation for his kingdom. He was more than the “Knights of the Round Table and more than Excalibur. Those elements are the window dressing of a hero: the tantalizing junk food that is necessary to attract an audience to a story but inefficient at delivering anything that negates a deeper reading.  

As my students read the graphic novel, they were fed. They were fed a healthy meal of well-written prose, symbology, themes, tropes, generational politics, and art. While the digestion period was slow, it was nourishing and many of the students left with a greater appetite for a medium that so many of us enjoy and cherish.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the latest super cinema romp as much as the next aging nerd, but before you take your teen to the next big superhero blockbuster, set them down in front of the fire with a warm glass of Red Bull and a real piece of comic literature.


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