Friday, March 25, 2016

The Semiotics and Ideology of The Dark Knight Returns Part 1

Hello All, 
Since Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is set to premiere soon (or has already premiered IDK when you're reading this) and the massive internet discussions I've been having about the character has forced me to dig-up and old old graduate paper.  
I want to apologize for some of the content.  I wouldn't write a paper like this today but at the time I had like three 15+ page papers due that week so it was a bit rushed.  
I've added some silly photos to keep you awake while reading this piece of academia. 
Without further explanation, if you're having trouble sleeping please give it a read. 

            When studying semiotics and ideology it is important to understand how closely associated the two things are and what they mean.  Jeff Bernard states “sign work causes the transformation of an already socially given (signatum), mediated by a material antithesis (signans), to a social result, i.e. the sign itself” (Bernard p.47).  Signs have applied meanings based on what society mandates.  The meaning that certain signs have, come from the idea that is placed on it by society. 
            There is a debate about what comes first ideology or semiotics Winifired Noth says “if an ‘ideology’, in its broadest sense, is ‘a system of ideas’, semiotics, the study of sign systems, is predestined to make essential contributions to the study of ideologies”  (Noth p.11).  Semiotics is an important aspect in the study of ideology.  It is not possible to study ideology and how ideas come to being without understanding the signs that are involved in those ideas. 
             Eero Tarasti believes that semiotics comes before ideology “in the history of semiotics, the concept of ideology arises in many contexts.  Of course, its weight varies greatly with different scholars and periods”  (Tarasti p.23).  When studying semiotics it is very common for the idea of ideology to come into focus.  Whatever the case may be semiotics and ideology are very closely associated with one another.  Which makes analyzing the two separately difficult.  For the purpose of this paper is not important to determine which comes first. 

A quick Google search has provided me this picture of Eero Tarasti.  I;m not sure if he's the dude on the left or the right though.  

This paper will highlight the use of signs and political discourse in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.   It will show how Batman is an anti-platonic character through his actions and the use of semiotics.  The Dark Knight Returns It is a story about a retired vigilante known as Batman living in a city riddled with fear and crime.  Bill Radford describes it as “an aging Batman who returns from retirement to face a world filled with ineffectual politicians, murderous teen gangs, twisted villains from his past and a new police commissioner opposed to his style of vigilantism” (Radford).  The story is a commentary on American cities in the twentieth century. 
Watching the world around him Batman realizes that he alone has the power to change things for the better.  He returns to wage his “one-man war against crime” (Miller p.11).  Harry Thomas descibes the story as taking place “back in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president, the Cold War was at full boil and comic-book artist Frank Miller wrote and drew a graphic novel called The Dark Knight Returns” (Thomas p.98).
            The Dark Knight Returns dealt with the issues that surrounded 1980s America.  A scorching condemnation of its times, Miller's Batman was rage incarnate, a half-nuts citizen-soldier who kicked Superman's ass for kissing up to Reagan” (Thomas p.98).  It was a politically charged graphic novel telling people to take control of their own destinies.  According to Raoul Mowatt “Miller took numerous jabs at pop and political culture of the time” (Mowatt).  The political discourse in the book creates Batman as being the anti-platonic character that expressed to people not to follow but to lead. 

With this image one could argue that Batman is the Charioteer in the Phadrus and thus the definition of a platonic persona leading people to their destiny and also completely ruining my argument but fuck you it was the mid 2000s and I was trying to get a grade, okay!!! 

            There are semiotics all throughout the graphic novel.  Commissioner Gordon describes what he sees when he looks at doorways in Gotham.  “Me, I can’t look at that doorway over there without thinking about the seventy-two corpses I’ve found in spots like that” (Miller p.58).  To him a doorway is no longer just a doorway.  He associates certain doorways with all the murder sites he has witnessed in his police career.  A doorway has a different meaning to him than it would for other people.  
When looking at the Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne he chose the icon of the bat because it is the creature he most fears.  He is placing his own meaning on the sign that others may not share.  The bat is described by Bruce Wayne as “Gliding with ancient grace unwilling to retreat” (Miller p.19).  When he sees a bat he thinks of it as a terrifying unyielding creature.  To him a bat represent something more then a nocturnal animal that flies.  “When you came for me in the cave I was just six years old” (Miller p.187).  He remembers an instance in his childhood when he first saw a bat and how much it terrified him. 

I am so fucking scared right now!
To him the bat is a sign, the animal is the signified, and the fear that is brought on in his mind when seeing a bat is the signifying.  “Eyes gleaming, untouched by love or joy or sorrow breath hot with the taste of fallen foes the stench of dead things, damned things”  (Miller p.19).  He talks about the bats breathe smelling like the things it had killed and eaten.  He refers to those things as damned just like the criminals that he hunts are damned.  “Surely the fiercest survivor glaring, hating claiming me as his own” (Miller p.19).  He embraces the fear he has of the bat and uses it as his symbol against criminals.  He wants the criminals to feel the same fear he felt when he first encountered the bat.  The fear from the bat is the meaning he assigns to it and wants criminals to associate with as well. 
The bat is to Bruce Wayne what Batman becomes to criminals.  Batman is a sign of fear against those who commit acts of injustice.  Commissioner Gordon describes just what Batman is a symbol for in the war against crime and why he supported him.  Gordon talks about Pearl Harbor to explain what Batman means to the people of Gotham and to himself.  “Hell, we were scared.  We didn’t even have an army.  So there we were, lying in bed pulling the sheets over our head and there was Roosevelt, on the radio, strong and sure, taking fear and turning it into a fighting spirit.  Almost over night we had our army”  (Miller p.36).  Gordon goes on to talk about how years later he heard rumors that Roosevelt new that Pearl Harbor was going to be attack and how he was so conflicted that the President would let so many innocent people die.  “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it.  It was too big.  He was to big”  (Miller 36). 

You can't get more badass than Barry Bostwick playing you in a movie.

This supports the claim that Batman is more then just a man in a costume but he is a symbol for all people to follow.  His presence is what inspires people to do the right thing.  Commissioner Gordon believes that Batman is the answer to the crime problem in Gotham City.  As Tarasti states “value is something that does not exist in an ‘absolute’ manner, but only as a part of structure, as does any sign or term” (Tarasti p.33).  The value that is put on a sign is not definite or permanent.  The people looking at that sign associate the respective meaning to it.  The value that is placed on Roosevelt and Batman is different for different people.  For Gordon, Batman is the structure for putting an end to the crime that consumes Gotham City.
Tarasti goes on to state that “values ‘rest’, so to speak, upon facts.  If there are two completely identical physical facts, such as two painting in an art exhibition, and if one of them is said to be of excellent quality, then the same must be said about the other” (Tarasti p.38).  Gordon believes that Roosevelt is a great man.  He sees Batman as someone who is identical to Roosevelt in what he is doing.  Therefore he is assigning the same value to Batman that everyone assigns to Roosevelt.  “What is involved is a logical relationship between values and facts” (Tarasti p.38).  Gordon is logically relating the two figures as something iconic and too large for him to try and control. 

I'm just using this picture in the hopes it increases my web traffic. 

Works Cited
I wish a picture of Danny Devito could be used in place of all Works Cited

Abrams, Judith Ann.  “Plato’s Rhetoric as Rendered by the Pentad.” Rhetoric Society
Quarterly 11. 1 (1981) 24-28. EBSCO.
Bernard, Jeff.  “Inside/Outside, Ideology, and Culture.” Semiotica 148. 1-4 (2004) 47-68.
Hofstra U Lib., Hempstead. 16 May 2006 <>
Gordon, Jay.  “Techne and Technical Communication: Toward a Dialogue” Technical
Communication Quarterly 11. 2 (2002) 147-164. EBSCO.
            Hofstra U Lib., Hempstead. 16 May 2006 <>
Miller, Frank, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC
Comics, 2002.
Mowatt, Raoul V.  Batman gathers fellow heroes to set things right in DK2Chicago
Tribune (IL) 08/30/2002. (2002) EBSCO.
Hofstra U Lib., Hempstead. 16 May 2006 <>
Noth, Winfried.  “Semiotics of Ideology.” Semiotica 148. 1-4 (2004) 11-21. EBSCO.
            Hofstra U Lib., Hempstead. 16 May 2006 <>
Radford, Bill.  Batman fans eager for return of the Dark Knight.Gazette, The
(Colorado Springs, CO) 12/06/2001. (2001) EBSCO.
Hofstra U Lib., Hempstead. 16 May 2006 <>
Richards, I.A. “The Philosophy of Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition Readings from
Classical Times to the Present Second Edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell, and Bruce Herzberg, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 1281-1294.
Richards, I.A. and C.K. Ogden. “The Meaning of Meaning.” The Rhetorical Tradition
Readings from Classical Times to the Present Second Edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell, and Bruce Herzberg, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 1273-1280.
Thomas, Harry.  “The Dark Knight.” Rolling Stone 867 (2001) 98. EBSCO.

Hofstra U Lib., Hempstead. 16 May 2006 <>

Written by 
Joseph Ammendolea
“I Like To Play With Toys” Productions®