Miller 'n' Moore. That's where this will start, with that catchy twosome. I'm reliably informed that's where the rejuvenation of superhero comics began, and so thats where I'm going to start my education in mainstream comics. It seems these two took the adult themes that people like Eisner had proven could be portrayed in comics form and brought them into the mainstream. Suddenly sidekicks were maimed, men and woman had (gasp) sex, and, probably most importantly for a superhero, morals were questioned. The simple binaries of golden age comics gave way before the far more sophisticated and in vogue ideas of post-structuralism. Comics under the two M's became about the deconstruction of the superhero. In many ways it became about a question Matt Seneca places central to Grant Morrison's later work, “What if superheroes were real people?”.
Given that then, it seems odd that Miller's contribution to this shift in approach, was 'The Dark Knight Returns'. In DKR, Miller takes Batman deeper into the idea of caricature, both in his art, and his writing. Batman becomes a hulking figure of blocks, and his battle against the underworld of Gotham becomes starker, the fight becoming a war, and war against all that he sees as evil. There is no compromise, no backing down, he is right, always right. Its quite a difference from the other seminal work of this time, Moore's Watchmen. In Watchmen the heroes are troubled, complex characters with recognisable issues. The black and morality of their profession encountered the grey world of politics and society, and they are left groping for ways to understand the world. Only Rorschach retains his absolutist philosophy, and he is eventually forced to confront the stark truth of both Moore's and our world, you compromise or, eventually you die. There's no way to live the black and white life in a grey world.
Miller's Batman is a Rorshach character, placed once again within our world of politics and public opinion. But Miller draws on a different tradition to Moore. As Theo Finigan points out, Miller's Batman taps into the American myth of the frontier. The lawless situation, where established authorities are failing and anarchy threatens, and the lone, brutal, hero, who sets it upon himself to single-handedly impose his order on the community. In a stroke, Miller finds the heart of the Batman myth, and brings it down to that basic premise. Its a macho, hyper-masculine vision, with femininity equated to weakness, where the hulking titans of Batman and the Mutant leader battle for dominance over us all. Ultimately of course, the vigilante outlives his usefulness. When all is achieved, he must hand back authority to more acceptable forms, thus Superman, agent of the state, intervenes. But Miller's answer to the question of superheroes in the real world is tellingly different from Moore's. Here, Batman's black and white morality is imposed over the grey world, not subsumed under it. And this particular Rorschach doesn't die, he simply strategically retreats, until the next time.
The logical extension of this comes in the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again (DK2), where Batman's imposition of morality is extended to the entire world, as the corruption and evil is shown to encompass the whole of America, and, by extension, the rest of the globe. DK2 is full of odes to the morality of the Golden Age heroes, from the resurrection of old heroes such as Plastic Man and the Atom, to Superman's growing disgust with his ever more human troubles. The story, really, is about Superman, about his return to his golden age roots, and his acceptance of his power to impose order. In both Moore and Miller, the morality of golden age superheroes meets the complicated realities of our world. For Moore, the heroes break, they abandon their morals or die. For Miller, the world breaks. In a sense the two are asking different questions. Moore asks, “What would happen if real people were superheroes?”, while Miller asks “What would happen if superheroes were real?”.
Among critics and advocates of Alt Comics, there seems to be an idea that Moore is the superior artist out of the two, or at least the heavier influence. Given the above, its possible to see why that is the case. While both books are positioned squarely within the superhero genre, Watchmen still depicts a realistic world, with all its complexities, while the Dark Knight saga is inherently about reducing the complexities of the world to superhero level depictions. This isn't just on a thematic level either, Moore's art, in exploring the difficult concepts of reality, become increasingly sophisticated, with the obvious example being the renowned temporal reflections sequence on the moon. Moore grapples with the problems that all artists grapple with, how to represent the incomprehensible, whether that be real emotions, or higher concepts such as time or morality. By doing so, he pushes comics into the realms of real art, which is where Alt Comics aim. But the Dark Knight doesn't want to confront those issues, by its very narrative it seeks to reduce them down to the simplistic ideas of superhero comics. While Moore uses superheroes to explore reality, Miller ends up using reality to explore superheroes.
That's not to say I don't enjoy Miller's work, I love the art, and he has an impressive ability to grasp and drive a narrative, all positives which echo in his later work like Sin City. But Miller never moves beyond his world of caricature, still using simplified archetypes rather than addressing the complex unknowns which mark out more mature works. In a way, Miller is the ultimate superhero artist, he knows the characters and the worlds, he reflects seriously on those characters and explores their depths, and he certainly pushed the boundaries of violence and sex within comics. But he never steps back and questions the bigger rules of his genre, the rules which say that all comics can do is caricature, that the only morals in a comics are painted in primary colours, or that you can never depict the complexities of a real human being. Within his genre, within his chosen medium in fact, Miller is a genius. Yet Moore is the genius beyond genre.