By the mid-1980s, the BATMAN books published by DC Comics were mired in what could charitably be called a bit of a slump. The Denny O’Neal/Neal Adams-inspired renaissance the character had undergone in the 1970s, which had restored much of the darkness and mood to the series, had been gradually slipping, with several years of storylines revolving around Bruce Wayne’s involvement in a prolonged custody battle over the orphaned Jason Todd, who would become the new Robin. In addition, many years of overuse of Batman in a “teamup” fashion, whether it was in the monthly Superman teamup in WORLD’S FINEST, appearances as a member in both JUSTICE LEAGUE of AMERICA and BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS, or his monthly teamups with pretty much everyone in the DC Universe in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, had unavoidably drained the character of much of his “mystique.” There were a few bright spots, particularly Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis’ brief but excellent run on DETECTIVE, and the comics weren’t at all horrible, but there was certainly nothing exciting going on. The Batman books were as comforting and predictable as an afternoon nap.
And then Frank Miller woke us all up in 1986 with BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
Miller, best known at the time for his extremely popular work on Marvel’s DAREDEVIL, delivered a home run with his writing and art on this 4-issue series that would eventually become one of the most read graphic novels in the DC Comics library, having gone through two hardcover reprintings and six print runs in softcover. Moreover, Miller’s conception of a Batman as a tersely speaking urban vigilante with a tendency to play a little rougher than longtime Bat-fans were accustomed to seeing, had such an impact on the popular culture that it forever affected the character in whatever genre it appeared in, whether it be film, animation or the comics themselves. Driving it all was a strong, compelling story, one of Miller’s best, which holds up even 18 years later, and still has the crackle and spark of a brand-new book. Follow along as we take a look at THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
The book is set 20 years in the future, and introduces us to a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne, retired from a life as Batman for a decade, following the death of Jason Todd, Dick Grayson’s young replacement as Robin. In the intervening years, crime in Gotham has soared with 70-year-old Commissioner Gordon, about to be forcibly retired, doing all he can to keep things under control. Although Wayne has given up his war on crime, it’s clear the desire to punish those who would prey on the innocent is still strong:
Eventually, Wayne’s demons overcome him, and in a harrowing sequence intercutting Wayne’s torment at Gotham’s deterioration with his own memories of the murder of his parents, a decision is reached.
(A digression: the device Miller uses to convey the murder of Wayne’s parents, transposing the firing of the pistol with the thief’s grabbing and breaking of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace, has become one of the most lifted, borrowed and “homaged” bits of business in the character’s publishing history. I’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, comics, non-Batman material, everywhere; a testament to just how big an impact this book has had over the years.)
Suddenly, Gotham’s underworld finds itself under attack from an adversary that this new generation of criminals has only heard about from their parents. And as seen here, these days he’s playing a little rougher:
As it turns out, Batman isn’t the only one back in business. The supposedly cured Harvey Dent, thought to have completely shed his evil persona as Two-Face thanks to plastic surgery and intensive psychotherapy, is apparently up to his old tricks, or so Batman’s investigation suggests. Meanwhile, news of Batman’s return awakens another old “friend”:
And inspired by news of Batman’s return, Commissioner Gordon has another piece of police equipment hauled out of mothballs: the Batsignal.
Two-Face, still bandaged from the plastic surgery, makes his play soon enough, holding Gotham’s Twin Towers for hostage live on television. Batman intervenes, and in the process even answers the question of why he wears a bright yellow oval on his uniform:
After Batman captures Dent, he realizes that while Dent’s face may be healed, he’s hardly cured, and sees in Dent’s visage a reflection of his own dual nature, against which he’s just as helpless:
Introduced in the second chapter of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is young Carrie Kelley, a Gotham teenager who takes to wearing a homemade Robin costume and prowling Gotham’s rooftops, inspired by the return of the Caped Crusader. Also moving to the forefront this issue are the Mutants, a vicious and violent gang that’s been terrorizing the city, and has targeted Jim Gordon for execution. Batman’s strongarm interrogations lead him to a cache of military weapons sold to the gang, and he heads off in the Batmobile to where the Mutants are gathering. Of course, this is not your father’s Batmobile…
As Batman scatters the gang members with mercy bullets (as Miller takes pains to retain Batman’s oath against killing), the leader of the Mutants challenges him to come out and face him man to man. Tempted by pride, Batman emerges, and he and the Mutant Leader engage in a truly ugly round of hand-to-hand combat.
In the end, the Mutant Leader’s youth and power wins out, and it’s only through the lucky intervention of Carrie Kelley that Batman survives the encounter. Carrie accompanies the badly injured Batman back to the cave in the Batmobile, and it’s at this moment that she’s officially granted her new role, for better or worse:
While Batman convalesces, Gotham’s mayor makes the mistake of attempting to negotiate with the now-imprisoned Mutant Leader. Gordon, whose replacement has now been named (Ellen Yindel, whose stated first official act will be to put out an arrest warrant for the Batman), is unable to do anything to stop his brutal murder.
Through his new agent Carrie, Batman has the word spread for all the Mutants to meet at a particular time and place, and arranges for one last favor from Gordon, allowing the Mutant Leader to escape, and luring him in front of his assembled followers. This time, Batman fights smarter, using the environment and his years of experience to his advantage, crippling the Mutant Leader in front of his followers, who now swerve their blind allegiance to Batman, adopting bat-shaped facial makeup and dubbing themselves “The Sons of the Batman.”
In Chapter 3, we see multiple threats to Batman’s crusade rising in the distance. The newly appointed Commissioner Yindel makes good on her promise to make the arrest of Batman a priority, while the Joker plots his escape from custody. Meanwhile, a still young and vital Superman warns Bruce Wayne that if he continues his nocturnal activities, Clark will be ordered to bring him in, a threat that Bruce doesn’t seem too alarmed about. If there are any quibbles with the otherwise rock-solid characterization of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, it’s in the portrayal of Superman, who is seen here as a lapdog to the American government, whom he allows to coordinate his activities because they “allow” him to save lives. It’s a bit of an easy out, and doesn’t serve the character well, but it serves its purpose from a plot mechanics standpoint, placing Superman in the necessary adversarial position.
The threats of Yindel and the Joker converge as the Joker, accompanied by his psychotherapist, makes an appearance on “The David Endochrine Show,” a not-at-all disguised Letterman reference. Batman arrives on the scene hoping to stop the slaughter that he’s sure will take place, but is repulsed by Yindel’s SWAT teams, and again is only saved by the timely intervention of Robin. Meanwhile, the Joker murders his psychotherapist, the talk-show host, and the entire studio audience, thanks to the prearranged arrival of a robot full of his deadly laughing gas, which also provides him with a means of escape.
Eventually, Batman tracks the Joker to the County Fair, where once again he’s too late, as the Joker has already passed out poisoned cotton candy, murdering a pack of cub scouts. The sight of it hardens the now world-weary Batman, who begins to consider more lethal options:
Right away it’s clear the stakes are changed, when the Joker takes a Batarang to the eye. Eeugh.
Their battle makes its way though the House of Mirrors, and into the Tunnel of Love, where Batman puts the Joker down, but still refuses to kill him. In the book’s most chilling moment, the Joker takes matters into his own hands, framing Batman for his own murder:
The art here is both enthralling and repugnant, as Batman and the Joker scratch and claw the life out of each other with their bare hands. While Miller’s storytelling and shot composition does a marvelous job of expressing the narrative pace, Klaus Janson’s finishes add a gritty definition to the figures, and Lynn Varley’s muted colors expertly keep the dark mood of the series while subtly adding the necessary gory detail, such as the blood seeping through Batman’s uniform.
Batman engineers another skin-of-his-teeth escape from the cops, and retreats to the Batcave to recover, while things swiftly go to hell in the rest of the world. In a now unfortunately dated subplot running through the book, the United States and the Soviet Union have been playing a deadly game of nuclear brinksmanship (with the U.S. emboldened by the knowledge that they have Superman in their hip pocket), which finally boils over when the Russians launch a nuclear first strike.
Superman manages to divert the missile over the desert, but the blast sets off an electromagnetic pulse, shorting out all electrical devices all over the world. As a powerless Gotham descends into anarchy, Batman and Robin take to the streets on horseback and mobilize the Sons of the Batman, who then recruit Gotham’s other youth gangs, forming a vigilante army under Batman’s command, quelling the riots and looting, mobilizing disaster relief and restoring peace to the city, with Commissioner Yindel helpless to stop him.
Unfortunately, Batman’s high-profile efforts during the riots prove the last straw for Superman’s government bosses, who order him to bring Batman in. In respect to their long friendship, Clark gives Bruce warning of his orders, and even allows him to choose the place:
And so, at the very place where Batman was born the night his parents were taken from him, Superman and Batman have their final confrontation, it’s a battle comics fans had been waiting to see for years, and Frank Miller really delivers the goods.
Already weakened by the nuclear blast, Superman takes a few shots from the armored Batman (drawing his power from the city’s electrical grid) before getting the upper hand, until the arrival of Batman’s ace in the hole: Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, who’s eager to settle the score with Superman over the loss of his arm. Ollie delivers Batman’s secret weapon: synthetic Kryptonite, which weakens Superman enough for Batman to finish the fight before himself succumbing to a fatal heart attack.
Or is it fatal? A visit to the funeral by Clark reveals an interesting sound…
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS still stands as a high point in Frank Miller’s artistic development. While some of his later work on SIN CITY revealed a singular, more impressionistic style I find more aesthetically pleasing, here Miller is still tempering that with a more traditional mainstream style, which I think is most effective for this particular book. Miller also delves heavily into media influence in DARK KNIGHT, which much of the storyline’s background and exposition being established by the talking heads of network television news anchors and commentators, a device seen so often nowadays as to be almost clichéd, but which was a bold new approach back in ’86. Miller here keenly anticipated the overpowering presence of today’s media, and what seemed like a parody of television back then now can nearly pass by the reader practically unnoticed.
Miller also does a clever bit of sleight of hand with his rendering of Batman. In the book’s opening chapter, Batman looks largely as one would expect him to, in the traditional 1970s-era costume, and not too grossly out of proportion in physicality.
Over the course of the series, Miller slowly alters Batman’s costume and anatomy, until by issue 4, he’s truly become a Frank Miller Batman, one that could co-exist in the world of later Miller works like SIN CITY and fit in right nicely.
Rather than force his vision of the character on the reader up front, Miller slyly brings the reader along compelled by the story, until one barely even notices that changes have been made.
The notion of a cranky middle-aged Batman coming out of retirement, and struggling to do the things that once came so easy for him, is a deliciously appealing one, and one that Miller takes full advantage of, both for humor…
…and for drama’s sake, as Batman’s crusade seems all the more heroic now that it hurts him so much more to continue, and he has to try so much harder.
The impact of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was felt immediately, all across the media landscape, probably the most obvious beneficiary was Tim Burton’s BATMAN feature film, which, while it didn’t follow Miller’s novel chapter and verse, most definitely bore its influence, both in Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman as a quiet, grim vigilante, and in some of its visuals, particularly in the flashback sequence of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, complete with the breaking of the pearl necklace.
While Warner Animation’s BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES showed influences from all versions of the character in its conception of Batman, the producers showed their love for the book quite vividly in the episode “Legends of the Dark Knight,” which features a nearly perfect note-by-note reproduction of Batman’s fight with the Mutant Leader, with the Miller Batman played to perfection by Michael Ironside.
Overall, the success and high quality of DARK KNIGHT, along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN (which had an entirely different vibe to it, but also feature a take-no-prisoners vigilante as a central protagonist), set off a “Grim & Gritty” trend in comics that spread through the industry like wildfire, with nearly every book becoming dark, moody and serious. Even books like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN suddenly featured a tortured Peter Parker cutting himself off from human contact and calling himself “the Spider” in faux-gritty first-person narrative captions. And unlike a lot of trends, this one had legs. It really wasn’t until books like Mark Waid’s FLASH and Kurt Busiek’s ASTRO CITY became popular that we really saw comics move away from the dark side.
As for the Batman comics, they were never the same again after DARK KNIGHT. Not long after the success of the book, DC hired Miller to rethink the character’s post-CRISIS origin with BATMAN: YEAR ONE, and in the years since then a number of Miller innovations have found their way into the mainstream books, such as the use of the bulky pouch-style utility belt, and the introduction of Commissioner Gordon’s wife Sarah (only mentioned in DARK KNIGHT, and later introduced by Miller in YEAR ONE and killed off years later in the giant Bat-event NO MAN’S LAND).
The two elements most strongly embraced by later Batman writers were the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, and the concept of Batman’s image of himself and his sidekicks as “soldiers” in the war on crime. Killing off Jason and replacing him with a slightly morbid shrine of an empty costume hanging in the Batcave was sheer genius on Miller’s part, and I honestly believe it was the strength and power of that visual alone that first planted the germ of an idea in the heads of the then-Batman writers and editors that maybe killing Jason would be a good idea.
As for the notion of Batman being an emotionless general in the war on crime, I think this is a nice enough idea when handled with a light touch, but in recent years Batman creators often hit it much too hard, leaving Batman looking like a near-pathological control freak, who treats his subordinates so poorly there’s no reason why they would continue to follow his orders. Hopefully they’ll lighten it up a little. After all, Frank Miller wasn’t afraid to let his tough old bastard of a Batman show a little emotion:
Batman may consider himself at war with crime, but a good general still loves his troops.
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