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At the outset of Typee, Herman Melville’s factually irresponsible narrative of his time in Polynesia, a flotilla of Marquesan girls swims out to the author’s harbored ship. With his usual air of subterfuge, Melville describes their warm welcome to the sailors as an act of high-seas piracy:

The ‘Dolly’ was fairly captured; and never I will say was vessel carried before by such a dashing and irresistible party of boarders! The ship taken, we could not do otherwise than yield ourselves prisoners, and for the whole period that she remained in the bay, the ‘Dolly,” as well as her crew, were completely in the hands of the mermaids.

Starting with the conspicuous choice of “vessel” instead of “craft” or “ship,” Melville twists the martial idiom of swashbuckling into a sustained euphemism for the many acts of unbuckling that undoubtedly transpired on deck. The scene that follows Melville characterizes by its “riot and debauchery”: “the grossest licentiousness and the most shameful inebriety prevailed, with occasional and but short-lived interruptions.” The lucky spectator of Moby-Dick! The Musical is not unlikely to undergo a similar experience once the players of San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros have taken the stage.

More later, but the run ends on the 19th, so don’t wait on my last word to see this thing.

An opportunistically selected panel from "An Innocent Guy," script and art by Brian Bolland, reprinted here.

Prologue in the Batcave: An opportunistically selected panel from "An Innocent Guy," script and art by Brian Bolland, reprinted in the new edition of The Killing Joke.

In compliance with internet etiquette, I must warn readers about a certain piece of the comics lore. Anyway…

When the Gotham police discuss their ongoing investigation of the Batman, the camera pans down along a bulletin-board graced with the visages of suspects such as Elvis, Bigfoot, and Abraham Lincoln, a list to which the ranks of film’s commentators have contributed the theory that TDK is TDR and the more frequently voiced suspicion that beneath the rubbery mask of allegory lies the puckered mug of George W. Bush. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Klavan (a novelist, apparently) embraces Nolan’s film as “a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.”  Other proponents of this theory seem less enthusiastic for some reason. No less a critic than Dave Kehr, well on his way to becoming the omega-man of American auteurism, has wryly inquired whether Batman is “just George Bush with a better outfit.” Agnostic as to whether the film actively endorses conservative politics  or reflects them incidentally, Kehr instead seems concerned (or merely unimpressed) with The Dark Knight’s perceived lack of texture, calling the film “Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegal’s ambivalence and ambiguity.” So, what’s the deal?

Asked pre-release about the film’s political resonance, director Christopher Nolan has responded that “in the writing of the films we try not to be too conscious of any political parallels” for the reason that “the terms of the storytelling demand that you be a step removed from today’s political environment.” This step of removal does not preclude visual and thematic references to terrorism, enhanced interrogation, and wiretapping, but Nolan’s point is well taken . The Dark Knight presents a fiction with integrity on its own terms, whose occasional lapses into didactic speechifying arrive with enough internal context and an abstract enough vocabulary (justice, chaos, heroism, &c., &c., &c.) that the membrane of verisimilitude never punctures. This sometimes leads to coy or equivocal passages. During the surveillance subplot, in which Batman enlists the help of a reluctant Lucius Fox to wiretap the entirety of Gotham with a fancy sonar system (one that turns the city into a veritable panaudicon), Nolan both tempts political analogies and deftly prevents them from stabilizing. This subplot resolves as Batman’s final monologue sounds over a shot of Lucius Fox, smiling briefly as the surveillance monitors self-destruct behind him: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” The general correspondence between the image and the voice-over conceals an ambiguous mismatch: Batman has actually rewarded his friend’s confidence by dismantling the spy computer, but the monologue implies that “people” will only have their faith rewarded through expedient deceptions. “Sometimes,” begins Batman, “the truth isn’t good enough.” Does the compromised narration expose the image as wishful thinking? Does the image temper the narration by reminding us of our hero’s good intentions? Does the slight incongruity of this juxtaposition imply that our truth differs from Batman’s? Tune in next time. Suffice it to say that when the icons of print start printing the legend, things can get slippery.

The sense of an autonomous fictional world seems to be why many perfectly smart and observant people have discounted the charges of allegory, treating the politically charged touches (if at all) as fresh adornments to the familiar structure of a comic-book psychodrama. For instance, Glenn Kenny (formerly of Premiere, which I can’t be arsed linking) comments on his own blog (which I can) to the effect that the fictional scenarios won’t sustain the political analogies: “Batman conducts his surveillance undercover, knowing full well that it’s ethically and constitutionally wrong, driven by his own desperation. The Bush programs are done in broad daylight, rationalized by the likes of Yoo and Addington and given a pass by Congress.”  This is a convincing objection if we’re talking about a one-to-one correspondence between fictional events and political fact, such as it is. As a fiction, though, The Dark Knight still shares many features with the operative fictions of contemporary political rhetoric, including the vision of terrorism as apolitical evil that is embodied in TDK‘s Joker. The film does not offer a statement of political views so much as its fictional world gives provisional reality to politically relevant conceits. The Dark Knight, I think, allows us to experience features of the political climate as a structure of enjoyment rather than a collection of ideas of beliefs, a capacity that may go some way to explaining the recent popularity of comic-book films.

More below the cut on comic-book psychodrama, starting with a few notes on scars:

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