The traditional Gothic was fascinated by empty moors, steeples and labyrinths, all peopled by dangerous creatures. Twentieth century versions of the Gothic have relocated many of these atmospheric conditions of emptiness, threatening settings and dangerous creatures to the city, as exemplified in numerous filmic and literary urban Gothic works (from thrillers like Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho to the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson and films such as Blade Runner or Terminator).
This paper examines popular Gothic literature for its conscious or unconscious ecological themes. I take as a case study what is arguably one of the most famous (definitely one of the most successful) graphic novels of all time: Frank Miller's cult work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986, hereafter TDKR), which consists of 'The Dark Knight Returns', 'The Dark Knight Triumphant', 'Hunt the Dark Knight' and 'The Dark Knight Falls'. (1) TDKR, this essay argues, presents a particular version of the Gothic: what I call the ecological Gothic. (2)
'Ecological Gothic' is the horror, the nightmare and the suffering that arise from misalliances and imbalances among the various elements of life in a particular ecosystem. It is the horror that results from the presence, permeation and persistence of waste (wasted humans as well as other waste) in a system. Ecological Gothic in contemporary popular culture, I suggest, is often seen in the thematization of urban outcasts, the constant emphasis on a city's repressed, on the city's (filthy, disease-and-poverty ridden) underside, a repressed parallel world that intrudes into and is in conflict with the 'true' one. Thus, if Gothic is the name and figure of the tension between performance (and one can easily locate the costumed hero as instituting this 'performance') and depth, as Catherine Spooner has argued, then the ecological Gothic is the tension between the surface, 'civilized' developments of a city and the intrusion of the persistent, undesirable, 'primitive' darker depths. (3) Like the traditional Gothic, which explored the dark side of human nature, the ecological Gothic locates the dark side deep inside the city itself, a dark side that seems to rot the city's internal systems.
Dark (K)Night Atmospheres: The Climate of Fear
TDKR is climatically given to horror and fear. It is not accidental that the four part series is at both ends concerned with the weather and environment: a scorching summer ('The Dark Knight Returns') and a (limited) nuclear winter ('The Dark Knight Falls'), the first leading to excessive violence and crime, the last leading to excessive magnetic pulses that ruins electrical activity all over the US and converts an entire desert into 'blackened glass'. (4) Throughout Miller's harrowing recreation of Batman, he delves into the ecological and psychogeographical effects of vigilante culture and metropolitan civilizations. TDKR opens with three crucial environment-related images in its first pages. The first is the representation of Gotham city baking in the heat. The visual medium of the graphic novel is able to deliver this with a punch: it shows white heat waves circling, weaving and coiling over...
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