Until last week, I had never read The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.
I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the weight of its significance on the culture of comics made me shy away from it. The way it was often paired with Watchmen – which I have read, and agree that it’s a classic of boundless invention that many writers and artists have been aiming to match since its release – made me believe that it was something I should have already read, not something I, as a pro in comics, should put on the “to read” list. In any case, while I powered through and loved the other classics in the upper echelon of the Batman canon, from Year One to The Killing Joke to Jeph Loeb’s revered collections, I put off my journey into Miller’s gritty future. Until now.
There’s a lot I liked about it, a lot I didn’t like, a little I loved, and a little I hated. Throughout, particularly in the second and third of this four-chapter saga, I found it compelling, surprising, and paced like a damn racecar. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, whose style is anything but the hyper-detailed, Jim Lee-inspired work modern readers have been trained to expect in any and all Bat-books, I’ve never read anything that looked remotely like this. Rife with pages that have more than ten (a LOT more, at times) panels, The Dark Knight Returns plays with form in an immensely satisfying way. Text is often outside of the panels, guiding the eye as much as the art. There are some strange lettering choices, but as a writer and comics lover, it was the lettering and page layouts that excited me even more than this story of an older, out-of-practice Batman coming out of retirement.
That said, the plot is gripping. The antagonists of the first half of the story are a gang of mutants that have been terrorizing Gotham. The rise and resolution of that plot was my favorite storytelling aspect of this, as Batman’s two brawls with the Mutant Leader hit like punches to the gut. Showcasing perhaps the best internal narration I’ve ever read during a fight scene in a comic, the two first book climax with realistic rock-‘em-sock’em scraps between the aging Batman and the monstrous Mutant that hammer home the reason why Batman is the hero of the DC Universe that readers favor. Batman takes the Mutant down using the elements around him, his wits, and his knowledge of the science of the human body as a weapon more powerful than any fist or punch. More powerful than a gun.
The third chapter was another score, as Batman and his new Robin – Carrie Kelley – take on the Joker. The entire chapter is coiled tight with tension, as Batman outruns the pursuit of the new commissioner and her police troops bent on taking him down, while he tries to stop the Joker’s final rampage. It’s an ugly, horrible, psychologically twisted sequence, and the thematic statements made here about both the Joker and Batman as individuals and as a deadly pair of best enemies, of demolition lovers, echo through many works I’ve read, watched, and loved before I went back and read this text. Even after reading the works that were inspired by this, Miller’s take on them – his very final take on the Joker – was poignant, funny, scary, and sad.
The fourth chapter, which I’d heard most about before reading the book, features an epic showdown between Batman the fugitive and Superman, the government employee who was once Bruce’s friend. Though the narrative build toward this is present, it felt like a bizarre climax to this (admittedly consistently) weird but enthralling story. The inclusion of Green Arrow playing a huge role directly after he’s introduced, only to never be seen again, made this fight pale in comparison to the tension and thematic strength of Batman’s bouts with the Mutant Leader and the Joker. While it was still a strong read, the ending felt rushed in a way that the previous three chapters did not – which, I discovered upon reading the back-matter, it seems was a result of deadline pressure. I’m not sure if I prefer the original story outline, which does not feature the strange, abrupt Green Arrow appearance, but reading both side by side made me like this graphic novel more. Process junkies will really the stuff in the back. Well, I assume they did and do dig it, as I may very well be the only one in the country who hadn’t read this!
Also, while I enjoyed the story, I do, however, believe that the narrative – or, to be fair, perhaps my personal reading of the narrative – has been poisoned by the knowledge of what Miller’s politics have become, and what they always were. A scene that would’ve been seen as satirical in a Batman story penned by someone else (for instance, a citizen wanting Batman to get “the homos” next) comes off as crass and ugly here. Gordon’s reaction to a woman being elected as his successor – “A woman? Christ almighty” – and the depiction of Carrie’s parents as aloof, pot-smoking parents interested in only protests also left a sour taste in my mouth. The Dark Knight Returns may have not elicited that reaction from a reader when it was released, but in 2014, with its right-leaning undertones and a scene that is painfully, obnoxiously racist and perhaps even transphobic in the beginning of the third “book,” I don’t think it’d go over quite as well.
An aspect of The Dark Knight Returns that has not come up in the copious conversations I’ve heard and shied away from about this classic is the new Robin. I loved Carrie Kelley, from her design to her enthusiasm to her dialogue. Her speech patterns are sharp and distinctive, she’s instantly likable, and she often proves herself by not listening to Batman. I like her more than any Robin I’ve ever read, even with the bizarre splash page (one of the only ones!) where she hugs a decrepit, almost naked Bruce. Carrie Kelley, Alfred, and Police Commissioner Ellen Yindel are, for me, the most human characters of all. Carrie is us, by proxy. We admire Batman, we want to hang out with him, we want to be his sidekick and confidant. Fuck, we’d probably give him a hug while he’s naked, who knows? Alfred is the voice of reason, the humanity, the one that tells Batman maybe it isn’t a good idea that he’s about to take a teenager to a fight with the Joker (again). Alfred is us, though, when he loves Batman anyway. And Yindel is the character that, like Gordon before her, sees herself subtly changed and not-so-subtly challenged by Batman.
While The Dark Knight Returns may have lost some of its gloss as times and its creator have changed, I enjoyed the hell out of it and am in awe of what it got right, and what it tried – and mostly succeeded to do – with the form I love most.
PAT SHAND is a writer primarily known for his work in comics… which makes him more than a little ashamed of himself. When he’s not catching up on the classics that help define the medium that allows him to pay his bills, he’s writing Robyn Hood, Grimm Fairy Tales, and Charmed: Season Ten for Zenescope Entertainment.