So, I’ve been a little behind on these posts, but this one took much longer than I thought it would. Mainly because I’ve been pretty anxious to tackle something that means so much to not only me, but the rest of comic book fans. Anyways, here goes.
The Dark Knight Returns is the most important Batman story ever told. That’s not an exaggeration, and it’s not something I’m throwing around lightly, because Batman’s had some of the most high-profile writers and artists to ever work in comics take turns on his books. To understand why Dark Knight is so important to the character, it’s important to put the story in proper context. When it came out, Batman had been through a few reinventions as a character already, but there had also been an absence of depth to his stories that was due, in large part, to creative stagnancy. Prior to 1986, when the story came out, the last time Batman had truly been reinvented was in the early 70s, when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams purged the Adam West camp from the character, and turned him back into a noirish pulp hero. Those are some of the most influential Batman stories ever told, but they were also still written like most comics of the time. O’Neil and Adams brought a sense of adventure and intrigue to the book, and Adams’ art was a revelation, but the scripts still fit into the template that comics had been working with since the advent of Marvel in the early 1960s. Even when O’Neil and Adams went on to do other things, the way they’d portrayed the character stuck for over a decade, and like anything that goes on too long, it started to become boring. Then Dick Giordano, longtime editor at DC Comics, decided to hire Frank Miller to write a Batman mini series. If you like Batman at all, you should find Giordano’s address and send him a heartfelt letter of thanks.
Frank Miller had been a rising star in the comic book world for a few years before Dark Knight, having written what’s still the most influential run on Marvel’s Daredevil to date, but he became an institution when he was given the reins to Batman. From the very first page, it’s easy to see why. The story starts out with a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne perilously close to burning alive in an Indy Car crash, with the billionaire having taken up increasingly dangerous hobbies to try and placate his dark alter-ego. Later, we see him walking the street where his mother and father were gunned down in front of him as a child, and it’s obvious that even though he hasn’t been Batman for a decade, that pain still lingers with him everywhere he goes. All of the things that have become so iconic and essential to Batman’s tragic birth, like the pearls falling from his mother’s neck when she’s shot, or his father’s hand tugging young Bruce Wayne’s jacket as he fell to the pavement, were crystallized by Miller in the very first chapter of this book. He was taking Batman seriously, and you’d be a fool if you were reading it and weren’t doing the same.
But so much has been said about this book and the impact that it had on the industry that I feel like anything I say about that aspect of it is frivolous. Much smarter people than I have tried to put into words just how much the book meant to comics as a medium, and any book that’s been written about the history of comics seems to have at least 10 pages dedicated to what Miller and his artistic partners, Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson, really did when they put this book out. So instead of trying to top that, I’m just going to highlight the reasons The Dark Knight Returns is one of my favorite Batman stories.
1. Batman as the monster underneath your bed – The first time we actually see Bruce Wayne flying through the air in costume, he’s a hulking mass of muscle. His chest is huge, his legs look like that of a bodybuilder, and his shoulders are appropriately broad for a man who’s decided to carry the burden of an entire city’s destitution on his back. But before we see a rain-soaked Batman pounce on top of an automobile, Miller treats us to an extended montage of the Dark Knight scaring the living hell out of various degenerates throughout his city. Whether it’s a decidedly touched vandal about to rape a middle-aged woman, or a pimp about to irreparably scar a prostitute in the back of a taxi, Miller uses the Dark Knight to dole out justice in the form of a living shadow. The only visual hint that we get that it’s Batman taking back the city on these pages, and not a formless storm, are batarangs lining a thug’s arm, or a pair of blue gloves ripping blood money to pieces to prove a point. He strikes from the darkness with a purpose, and you can tell that not only is Batman back, but he’s back and very, very angry. Just the way Miller draws Bruce Wayne in the costume makes him look more like the villain in a horror movie rather than one of the most prodigious athletes in the world. That probably has to do with Miller’s Batman being a victim of middle-age, but the way that he constantly hunches over, always looking like he’s a second away from erupting in violent precision gives the character a power that’s intoxicating. He looks rabid even when his face is hidden by rain and his own nebulous silhouette. That, more than anything, is the visual appeal of The Dark Knight Returns.
2. Gotham at its worst – The only way that Batman is plausible as a force of good, when Miller depicts him as anything but, is if what he’s fighting against is even more devoid of humanity. And damned if Miller’s Gotham isn’t the most depressing depiction of an American city I’ve ever read. From Jim Gordon’s own ambivalence towards his job as police commissioner, to the frequent talking heads of 24-hour news stations interspersed throughout the story as a framing device, Gotham never comes off as anything but one of the worst cities in America to live in. It’s dirty, as the book starts it’s in the middle of a record heat wave, and in Batman’s absence, it’s been overrun by a “new breed” of criminals called Mutants. They’re basically every mid-80s Republican’s worst fears brought to life, with dog collars, bad sunglasses, black leather, and body-piercings peppering their appearance. If you’ve followed Miller’s work at all after this book, and especially post-9/11, you’ve no doubt seen how extreme his own political views are, but at this point in time, he was keeping them just enough in check to service his stories. So while the Mutants might seem like a caricature now, back in 1986 I’m sure they were as frightening to readers as Miller intended them to be. And even now, what’s important about them isn’t their look, but more-so what they represent. They’re what happens to social groups when they shun compassion and basic human dignity, and embrace the most basic of animal impulses. When Batman has a showdown with their leader in a muddy landfill – just in case you didn’t think they were disgusting enough – he’s utterly humiliated, and only saved by luck. When they have their rematch, Batman uses years of experience and personal refinement to not just return the humiliation to the Mutant leader ten fold, but shatter everything he ever was, as a man or an ideal. It’s visceral action on the surface, but heady analysis of what it means to live in the world if you dive a little bit further down.
3. Clash of Ideology – Continuing with the ideological dichotomies present in Batman’s fight with the Mutant leader, Miller has Batman trade blows with his mythical counterpart in the series’ conclusion. That could constitute a spoiler, but every time you’ve ever seen Batman and Superman fight since 1986 has been directly influenced by what Miller does at the end of Dark Knight. Like he does with every other character in the book, Miller masterfully reintroduces us to the Man of Steel of his world, who because of 1980s paranoia, has been forced to work for the U.S. government, completely out of sight. He’s the ultimate version of a nuclear deterrent, and the U.S. government, ran by an exaggeratedly out-of-touch Reagan, keeps Superman on a leash. The only reason they’ll take him off is because Batman’s back, and he was the nut job that scared them the most before the age of heroes came to an end, and the mystery men either retired (like Bats), or became civil servants (like Supes). It immediately gives both characters a legitimate reason to have a no holds-barred grudge match, taking out years of differences in a climactic battle on a filthy street corner in one of the worst neighborhoods of Gotham. It reads like Greek myth, with the hardened and weary warrior participating in his final trial against a literal god. It’s incredibly profound, yet because of the setting, also deeply personal. The way Miller writes Batman and Superman’s internal monologues during the fight also helps to bring both of their personalities into sharp focus, while also providing such an obvious contrast that you’d never mistake the two of them for being simple “superheroes” or “crimefighters” again. They represent elements: one of hardened rage and calloused determination, and the other of unbridled loyalty and awe-inspiring hope. But besides all of this, it’s just cool as shit to see Batman and Superman beat the hell out of each other for a few pages.
4. It’s an actual ending – Superhero comics are notorious for being never-ending cycles of repeated story-lines. What was so important about The Dark Knight Returns, and what still makes it relevant, is that for the first time, Batman’s story was over. On top of the aforementioned showdown with Superman, Miller also ends Batman’s conflicts with Two-Face and the Joker in equally final, but decidedly different ways. His showdown with Harvey Dent (Two-Face) is as sad as the devolution of Dent’s psyche, because while he’s threatening the city and its people, it’s obvious that Dent is only doing it because of how broken he is. Miller uses Batman to highlight that yes, Dent is unquestionably wrong, but that he was also a person with the same psychological demons and societal standing as Bruce Wayne before he fell down a very different rabbit hole. His last confrontation with the Joker is as chaotic and thoughtless as his confrontation with Two-Face was sympathetic. The Joker had been in a catatonic state since Wayne retired from crime fighting, but we get glimpses in the first two chapters of the book that with Batman’s reawakening, the Joker’s purpose in life has been restored, too. The purpose Miller gives his version of the Joker is that of a pseudo-sexual foil to Batman’s own demonic judge. Joker calls Batman his “darling,” and in one of the few attempts any writer has tried at giving Joker’s internal monologue a voice, Miller has him admit that they could “line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine — and it would never be enough.” He’s the ultimate sadist because there’s no soul in Miller’s Joker; only the absence of one. When he and Batman finally end it, it’s the obvious conclusion to decades’ worth of an illogical moral tug-of-war. After this, and his idyllic ascension over Superman to claim his place atop comic book Olympus, Bruce Wayne’s story is over. I won’t say whether he lives or dies at the end, but by the time Miller’s done with his story, everything that he’s just spent four issues making essential to Batman’s mythology is razed to the ground by a literal, and metaphorical, fire. The vengeance that’s driven him for so long is replaced by a renewed appreciation for emotional fulfillment, and instead of obsessing over a “good death,” Bruce Wayne starts to think about what it actually means to live a good life. It’s something new, but it also ties everything old off with a nice little bow and sends Bruce Wayne off into the sunset, leaving the characters in the book, along with the readers, satisfied with the outcome. To me, that’s the quintessential definition of a great ending, which are few and far between in most stories, let alone those that exist in an industry that depends on monthly sales figures to stay afloat.
So that was long, but something as complex as Dark Knight could have an entire book devoted to analyzing the various genre tropes and literary themes present in its pages, and that book would probably still leave something out. This was my shot at breaking down what I think makes the book work so well, and I hope it convinces you to read it, if you haven’t already done so over a dozen times. And if there’s any doubt as to the book’s lasting influence on Batman, this is from last week’s Batman #29:
Iconography this powerful never goes away, it just keeps getting re-imagined.