The other day, after taking the Hogwarts Express to Camp Half-Blood, I took the magic Wardrobe straight through Mirkwood, used the secret tunnel to find the Mole’s home, guarded by Rat, and finally emerged to find myself in the super-secret headquarters of team Superversive.
(Note: I may have left out some key locations on the route, so as not to be hounded by our many screaming fans.)
There we had a discussion about “Watchmen” and the sea change comics underwent in the 80’s. But it didn’t go in the direction you might think.
Two comics are generally used to mark the end of the silver age of comics and the beginning, for better or for worse, of the dark age. Those comics are “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns”, and despite superficial similarities they couldn’t be more different.
“Watchmen” is better illustrated, more philosophically complex, better plotted, and more detailed than “The Dark Knight Returns” – basically superior in every way except, arguably, dialogue (Moore is very good, but Miller at one time was one of the best ever).
“Watchmen” had a bigger effect on the comics industry, certainly. But do you know which writer had a bigger effect on the culture at large?
I think this is undeniable. Think of how many people saw the Watchmen movie. Now think of how many people who saw Nolan’s Batman films. “The Dark Knight Returns” is about an aging Bruce Wayne, retired for awhile,who returns in order to help keep control of a city run by criminals.
Sound familiar? It should.
(This is when people will bring up “No Man’s Land”, which they should; there can be more than one influence, after all.)
Every show or movie that had a “darker” take on Batman since the 1980’s, starting with Burton and going all the way up to “Batman vs. Superman” (which even cribbed its main conflict from “The Dark Knight Returns”, and used some dialogue directly), took its cue from “The Dark Knight Returns” and Miller’s later “Batman Year One”.
It’s actually quite easy to see why. “Watchmen” is dank and nihlistic; when you remove all of that brilliant wrapping you’ll realize that deep beneath it all is a core of pure crap, along with the words “Screw You” stuffed inside of a fortune cookie. Moore had contempt for the superhero genre, and attempted with “Watchmen” to destroy it; the book can be appreciated for its genius, but ultimately despite the myriad of philosophical themes it touches on it’s juvenile and insulting. Where do you go from there besides increasingly terrible antihero stories about heroes who smolder with generic rage?
“The Dark Knight Returns” and “Year One” are superversive; “Returns” particularly falls squarely in the decon/recon subgenre. It ends with Batman, having taken control of a city formerly in chaos, moving on to help revitalize the rest of the country. It turned out the world did need Batman, and he is a hero. And that’s what readers want to see. They’re all Batman fans, after all.
And “Returns”, unlike “Watchmen”, is fun. The fights are super cool, it’s full of jokes and humor, and the dialogue is snappy and memorable. “Watchmen” is specifically designed to repulse, not to entertain. It’s not fun at all – good, certainly, but not fun.
And here, in a very limited way, is the comparison between Takahata and Miyazaki. Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” is considered one of the all-time great anti-war classics, about two children who starve to death in WWII era Japan. It is a beautifully written, impeccably directed, moving masterpiece…supposedly.
I’ve never seen it. I don’t want to see it. I’ve never heard of anybody who has seen it ever having the desire to rewatch it.
Miyazaki is also very anti-war, and he makes these themes clear in everything from “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind” to “Howl’s Moving Castle”. And yet, unlike Takahata, I can rewatch all of Miyazaki’s films over and over again.
Miyazaki is fun. Always. No matter what.
Takahata has another film, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. It came out in 2013. It has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and each review is absolutely stellar.
Hmmmmm. Ever heard of it?
Probably not. It didn’t do very well in the Japanese box office. In fact, it threatened to contribute to the sinking of Studio Ghibli for awhile, until “When Marnie was Here” was made and Miyazaki came out of retirement again.
This is because, of course, despite being a beautifully animated work of art, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is crudely anti-male and dull. It’s not fun. It’s not particularly entertaining. If you’re a guy, you’re basically being poked in the eye every few minutes. Critics love it, but audiences didn’t give it the time of day.
You know what came out the same year? A Miyazaki film called “The Wind Rises”. It was also slow-moving introspective, and sad. It only has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, though, it didn’t go out of its way to insult half of its audience, and it was more concerned with being entertaining than being important. Which one would you want to see?
Now, Miyazaki is a far, far better creator than Frank Miller, as much as I adore “Born Again”. And Alan Moore is a better creator than Takahata, as talented as Takahata is (Takahata is pretty good, mind). The comparison isn’t meant to be one to one. It’s just a general observation.
Am I going anywhere with this? Well, not really. Just touching again on a theme: If you want lasting fame and recognition, do your job, and that’s not Saying Something Important or being Critically Acclaimed. It’s pleasing your audience. And it’s the reason that Frank Miller and Hayao Miyazaki are going to achieve the sort of lasting fame that Alan Moore and Isao Takahata, as influential and successful as they were, can only dream of.