Almost since his debut in 1939, the character of Batman has alternately been condemned and celebrated as an image of male homosexuality, and the various subsequent iterations of the character have frequently alluded to this characterization, whether implicitly or explicitly. In his seminal 1986 book The Dark Knight Returns, author and illustrator Frank Miller takes uses the potentially homosexual signification of Batman's character as a means of exploring his psychological motivations by presenting Batman's anger, drive, and physicality as indicative of repressed homosexual tendencies. These tendencies reemerge in his interactions with the new (female) Robin, a highly feminized Joker, as well as Batman's relationship both female and male characters, such as the former Catwoman Selina Kyle, retiring police commissioner James Gordon, and the leader of a violent gang called the Mutants. By examining these interactions in light previous scholarship concerning Batman's potential for homosexual signification, one is able to see how Miller uses Batman's repressed sexuality as a means of exploring the relationship between the character's ostensible motivations and his problematic actions, showing that in the end, Batman seems motivated less by the death of his parents and more by his own need to express himself in the only way he knows how: violence and fear.
Before examining The Dark Knight Returns in detail, it will be useful to firs outline how Batman, in general, has been viewed as a homosexual signifier. Perhaps most infamously, Fredric Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent argued that Batman, and particularly his relationship with Robin (then a young boy named Dick Grayson), represented a kind of celebration of homosexuality that largely conforms to one of the most pernicious myths about homosexual men; namely, that they seek to actively recruit young men and boys to the "homosexual lifestyle." As Andy Medhurst notes, Wertham's analysis is largely "a gripping, flamboyant melodrama masquerading as social psychology," and it depends on "an astonishingly crude stimulus-and-response model of reading" that assumes the audience absorbs whatever it consumes seamlessly and unproblematically (Medhurst 150). In contrast, Medhurst offers a more reasonable consideration of various homosexual elements contained within Batman's character, charting the way the character has vacillated between presenting a steadfast dedication to heterosexuality through the inclusion of Batwoman (who effectively functioned as beard) to the campy character of the popular 1960s televisions series (Medhurst 153-154). In the end, Medhurst argues that more than anything, Batman serves as a kind of cultural barometer, reflecting the anxieties and interests of his audience over his now seventy-three-year history, and changing his character in light of his historical context.
In this light, Batman's "actual" sexuality does not really matter; rather, what is important is investigating the way that his sexuality is visible (or invisible) to the audience, and it is this approach that will help make the implications of Miller's homosexual characterization of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns clear. The first thing to note about Miller's representation of Batman's sexuality is that it is conspicuously absent, considering the character. Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is traditionally notable for his frequent dalliances with a variety of beautiful women, but in The Dark Knight Returns, Wayne's is notably abstinent; in fact, his butler Alfred remarks on this point, saying "I'm hoping the next generation of the Wayne family shant face an empty wine cellar. Though given your social schedule of late, the prospects of there being a next generation..." (Miller 22). Batman ignores a phone message from Selina Kyle (formerly Catwoman, and a frequent romantic interest in previous iterations of the character) when she calls to tell him that she is "lonely," and his friend James Gordon tells him that he "just need[s] a woman" (Miller 13, 27). In response to Gordon's suggestion, Batman says that "in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need..." And it is this line that effectively serves to introduce the connection between Batman's seemingly repressed homosexuality and every other element of his character (Miller 13).
On the most obvious level, the "creature" Batman refers to is the symbolic bat that drives his crusade against crime, but it is almost impossible not to read this as an allusion to a repressed sexuality, especially since the comic comes right out and says as much through the character of Dr. Volper, who in some ways acts as a kind of caricature of Wertham himself. Volper states that the "nature of Batman's psychosis" is "sexual repression, of course," and although Volper is presented as something of a quack, his diagnosis does not seem that far off considering the way Miller writes and draws Batman (Miller 127). One can see this in Batman's interactions with the new Robin, who, despite the fact that she is female, is repeatedly referred to as a boy by the media (Miller 146). In what is arguably the most sexualized image of the entire book, a seemingly nude Batman holds Robin in his arms, but her back is to the viewer, such that anything that might identify her as female is hidden from view, and her scantily-clad behind is forefronted (Miller 93). While the actual character is a girl, when she becomes Robin, she is coded as male, because this is seemingly the only way that she can act as a suitable partner for Batman.
Batman's seemingly repressed homosexuality is hinted at by his interactions with the feminized Joker, as well, because as Medhurst notes, "the play that the texts regularly make with the concept of Batman and the Joker as mirror images" presents "the Joker [as] Batman's 'bad twin,' and part of that badness is, increasingly, an implied homosexuality" (Medhurst 160). However, in the case of The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker's implied homosexuality is not meant to represent an opposite of Batman, but rather an image of Batman unrestricted by whatever social or moral codes he holds to. One of the central elements of Batman's character is that he does not kill, and this is contrasted with the Joker's gleeful approach to murder. The Joker chides Batman for this, making fun of Batman for his ultimate inability to kill him despite all of the damage he has caused, and this may simultaneously be read as the Joker mocking Batman for his inability to ever effectively express his homosexual desire (Miller 152). Batman does not "have the nerve" to fully act on his desire to kill the Joker, so the Joker actually does it for him by breaking his own neck (Miller 152). This connection between homosexual desire and violence is integral to Miller's characterization of Batman, because he seems to suggest that Batman's violence is a kind of terrifying return of the repressed.
This connection can be seen most clearly in Batman's initial confrontation with the Mutant gang leader. As Batman approaches the gang leader in his armored Batmobile, he looks over his opponent's body through a scope, noting that "he's got exactly the kind of body I wish he didn't have... powerful, without enough bulk to slow him down...every muscle a steel spring-- ready to lash out-- and he's young...in his physical prime" (Miller 78). The images which accompany this narration are close-up shots of the leader's muscles, focusing on his physicality and strength. While he is ostensibly sizing up his opponent with the worry that he will not be able to beat him, Batman is simultaneously demonstrating a kind of longing for physical intimacy with this young, strong body, even if that intimacy comes in the form of violence. This desire for violence is a central part of Miller's Batman, and he expresses it from nearly the very beginning of the book, such as when he imagines "so many lovely ways to punish" the man who killed his parents (Miller 14). Essentially, Batman has subverted all of his own desires into his crusade for justice, but this has merely meant that those desires return in an alternate form. He seems to seek some kind of physical intimacy with men, but he can only do so through violence.
It almost goes without saying that Miller's representation of Batman and his treatment of the character's potential homosexual signification is problematic, but it will nevertheless be useful to discuss it, if only because it highlights the continuing flux which characterizes Batman's sexuality. Because Miller's Batman sublimates his sexual desire into his crusade, he must continuously fight against its return, and he responds with extreme violence whenever this desire seems likely to manifest itself; this is why he has such an antagonistic relationship with the Joker. Because the Joker represents unrestrained desire, he forces Batman to confront his own restrained desires; in essence, Batman's brutal response to the Joker is much akin to a self-loathing, homophobic-yet-homosexual man taking out his inner turmoil on an openly gay person, because that openly gay person represents not only something that he views as despicable, but also threatens to reveal a truth about him. The Joker constantly threatens to reveal Batman for what he…