Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (writer/artist) and Klaus Janson & Lynn Varley (Artists)
Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-87) are generally considered the watershed graphic novels that revived and reinvented the comic book industry, forced mainstream critics and readers to take the genre more seriously, and laid the groundwork for a massive superhero movie industry eager to bring classic comic superheroes to the big screen with new interpretations aimed to capture a need for more dark, complex, and conflicted heroes for our times.
Nowadays everyone is familiar with Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (2005-2012) of films, which are just as intense, dark and brooding as Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and excellent filmmaking though I feel they lack a sense of humor or fun. In fact, though they seem to have faded into obscurity now, I really enjoyed Tim Burton’s earlier reboot of the Batman franchise, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), which were ground-breaking films that were clearly inspired by Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Before Miller, Batman was best known for the Adam West TV series that aired from 1966-68. While that program may conjure up fond memories for those who watched it as kids, it clearly represents the campy, strictly-for-kids version of Batman that Miller set out to destroy and reinvent from the ashes. Batman first appeared in film in 1943 and 1949, after debuting in Detective Comics Number 27 in 1939. So Batman has been in existence now for 77 years. But there’s no question that Frank Miller’s bold reinventing of the Batman story and character was the most daring and dynamic change since Batman’s inception, and the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan films took their cue from his vision, not the earlier ones.
So it behooves me, 30 years after publication, to finally get around to reading this seminal work of art. And it is certainly that. In addition to the excellently written storyline, split into 4 story-arcs, the gritty and distinctive artwork really grabbed my attention. I really regret not reading them back in junior high, when they would have blown my mind completely. As it is, I come to The Dark Knight Returns after having seen all the Batman films and experienced the boom in big-budget superhero blockbusters, so it’s always hard to separate that from the original work itself.
Suffice to say, this graphic novel still packs a wallop both story-wise and visually. It breaks down into the following four books, which I will describe very briefly:
The Dark Knight Returns (Book 1): Bruce Wayne is 55 years old and has retired from crime fighting for the last 10 years. However, Gotham City has not gotten better, in fact it is much worse, and the police are too weak to contain the rising tide of crime, especially the vicious street gang known as the Mutants. Jim Gordon is still Police Commissioner, but he is nearing retirement and crime hasn’t improved despite decades of battling it.
Although crime remains rampant, society has taken a dim view of vigilantes like the Batman, and though he still has proponents, there are many talking heads on TV who blame him for motivating criminals, and championing the reform of those like Harvey Dent. Though most think the Batman is gone forever, Bruce Wayne cannot stay content to watch society succumb to violent criminals, driving him to take up the bat suit again.
The Dark Knight Triumphant (Book 2): Book 2 opens with Jim Gordon musing on how a lifetime of fighting crime hasn’t produced visible results. The Mutants are growing bolder, but the spineless Mayor wants to appease them and their fearsome leader. Meanwhile, a young girl is inspired to take up the costume of Batman’s sidekick Robin. Batman is getting more negative press in the media, led by a foolish psychologist who claims that Batman’s anti-social behavior is actually to blame for the rising criminal activity.
Batman decides it’s time to take the fight to the Mutants in the dump, and and epic fight ensues. Meanwhile, crime in the city is spiraling out of control, but still the authorities think the Mutants can be negotiated with, until a horrific incident occurs.
Hunt the Dark Knight (Book 3): In Book 3, the Mutants have dispersed, and there is a new vigilante group called the Sons of Batman (think of the acronym), but there are still plenty of criminals around, including neo-Nazis with machine guns. In addition, Cold War tensions between the US and Soviet Union are heating up. It seems that another old villain of Batman, the notorious Joker, is at Arkham Asylum but is slated to be released soon. Then we are introduced to the Man of Steel himself. It seems that he and Batman don’t see eye to eye on crime fighting: Superman works with the US government and he doesn’t like Batman’s vigilante approach.
This book leads to a climactic confrontation between Batman and his eternal nemesis the Joker that is raw in its intensity.
The Dark Knight Falls (Book 4): In the final book, we see the aftermath of Batman’s fight with the Joker, but have little time to relax as the police are still hot on the trail of Batman and Robin. The Sons of Batman are getting more violent, though their targets are would-be criminals. The city is quickly descending into chaos before an unlikely alliance is formed.
In the final act, Superman and Batman are destined for a showdown – their conflicting ways of battling crime cannot be reconciled. And though Superman is far more powerful than the merely mortal Batman, Batman is smarter and has a number of tricks up his sleeve. When they do engage in battle, it’s much more evenly-matched than you might expect. After reading this, I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
There are so many things that distinguish The Dark Knight Returns from the comics that precede it. The plot is much more complex, and Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon’s characters are far more in-depth in their personal lives and motivations. Miller really wants to understand why a reclusive billionaire would choose to create an alternate identity, sneaking out of his mansion at night to risk his life attacking street thugs and other criminals. Why doesn’t he use his great wealth to attack corruption in government or business? Why take such a physically-punishing approach, trading punches and kicks with knife- and gun-wielding thugs? As we discover, his fundamental rage against criminals traces back to the brutal shooting of his parents in front of him in an alleyway by a common thief. This event haunts him at every turn, preventing him from pursuing a normal life, making him a recluse whose only friend is his butler Alfred. He is a lonely, angry, and tortured soul, and this is a huge change from the heroic crime-fighters of earlier comics. The same applies to Jim Gordon, a tireless crime fighter who has spent decades as the police commissioner, battling a never-ending stream of crime, but he recognizes that this is unlikely to ever be eliminated, only contained. Despite this bitter recognition he soldiers on, thinking of his own family, but he is getting old and exhausted.
In addition, The Dark Knight Returns spends a huge amount of time exploring the various social attitudes of society towards crime, criminals, vigilantes, and the rights of ordinary citizens. In the context of the mid-1980s when this was written, there was certainly a heightened concern about crime which can be seen in the many movies featuring cops and vigilantes fighting crime (though this probably got started with Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson in the 1970s), and the biggest theme of Dark Knight is the powerlessness of law enforcement to contain crime and protect ordinary citizens on the street. Even more telling, there are so many bleeding-heart liberal talking heads on TV defending the rights of vicious criminals like Two-Face and the Joker (who are gleefully plotting crimes and secretly ridiculing these people). Miller’s opinion of this “soft on crime” attitude is abundantly clear here. These weak characters promoting criminals’ rights and the benefits of rehabilitation get dispatched without a second thought.
Even so, this story is not just a one-sided promotion of vigilante justice as the only solution to uncontrolled crime. The story also features the copycat Sons of Batman that target would-be criminals, but are almost as vicious as those they hunt down. And though the Mutants start as typical mindless street hooligans, there are unexpected twists ahead. So I appreciated the nuanced treatment of the pros/cons of vigilantism, even if I found the final solution a bit far-fetched. Overall, The Dark Knight Returns explores enough themes and ideas in sufficient depth to rival any book or film on crime and vigilantism, without neglecting the visual and story elements that comics allow, and the fact that Miller took such as iconic figure as Batman to show this transformation is an amazing accomplishment. The next stop will be Miller’s Batman: Year One, which details Batman’s first year of crime fighting.