I can still tell you where I was the first time I heard about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I was sitting in my high school library flipping through an issue of Rolling Stone instead of working on whatever paper I was supposed to be researching. If memory serves, the cover featured Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas of Miami Vice fame. That’s why I picked up the magazine.
Hey, it was the mid-80s.
I’d been a Batman fan since I was a kid who spent his afternoons watching the old Adam West series religiously. Super Friends? Every Saturday morning. Heck, I even saw a stage show that mashed up Batman with the Warner Brother cartoon characters.
I was devoted.
I was already a big fan of Frank Miller thanks to his work on Daredevil. He’d taken a character that was essentially a Spider-Man clone and reworked him to give him depth, darkness and ninjas. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do with Batman.
I had to actively seek out a copy of the book. I traveled across town to a comic shop down by the college. It was the only one in town and I’d never been in it before. I usually bought my books off of spinner racks at drugstores and supermarkets.
Once I oriented myself to the sheer quantity of books available, I located what I had come for. By the time the Rolling Stone article hit, the series was on its second issue and its millionth printing. I picked up both issues and took them home.
My mind was blown. I was a convert. I was an evangelist. I was a Son of the Batman.
For the next ten years I proclaimed the series as my favorite to anyone who would listen – friends, relatives, strangers. Heck, I even bought a tenth anniversary edition for my father-in-law the first Christmas I was married.
During that time, a funny thing happened: the darkness that made The Dark Knight Returns so groundbreaking got absorbed into the comic mainstream and permeated everything. The Dark Knight Returns begat the rise of the Punisher, Wolverine, Deathstroke, Deadpool and Image. If a little grim and gritty was a good thing, then a lot must be better. Right?
Lost amidst the kerfuffle of Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, The Dark Knight Returns turned 30 this year. How does the series hold up? Does middle-aged Bruce still think it’s as great as teenage Bruce did?
Let’s find out.
- WRITER: FRANK MILLER
- ARTISTS: KLAUS JANSON and LYNN VARLEY
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
First of all, even though we’re talking about a 30-year-old series, I feel compelled to say SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned.
The premise of the book is pretty simple. The Dark Knight Returns is set in a future where Bruce Wayne has retired. He is no longer the Batman. He is simply Bruce Wayne, a shell of a man with no direction.
First of all, that’s a pretty bold starting position to take. Most Batman fans believe Bruce Wayne is the mask and Batman is the true self. To flip that as your opening premise takes guts.
The story of The Dark Knight Returns is that of Bruce Wayne reclaiming his mantle and his city. Though he is 55 when the story opens, it doesn’t take Wayne long to get back into the swing of being Batman, albeit with some limitations.
He stops a plot by a supposedly rehabilitated Harvey Dent in the opening chapter. Then he defeats the leader of the gang known as “The Mutants.” Next, he has his final confrontation with the Joker. Finally, we have the showdown between Batman and Superman. Even if you’ve not read the series, you’re familiar with this as it was used as the basis of the confrontation in Batman v Superman.
THE DARK KNIGHT TRIUMPHANT
As I reread the series in its entirety for the first time in probably 20 years, I was stunned by what a long shadow this series has thrown across not only the comic book landscape, but that of movies and television as well. If you don’t care for the tone of the DCEU, you can blame The Dark Knight Returns.
There were whole parts of the plot I had forgotten, namely the nuclear winter triggered by Superman in the story’s final act. I read that on 9/11 and it felt extra weird to me. I’m just not sure I want my comics striking that close to home.
Through it all, Miller understood one thing that a lot of Batman writers don’t: Batman needs Robin. In that regard, he introduces us to Carrie Kelley, a 13-year-old girl who assumes the mantle of Robin and injects much needed color into Batman’s world.
HUNT FOR THE DARK KNIGHT
The first chapter with Batman trying to foil Two-Face remains my favorite. As always, Two-Face is, in my opinion, the perfect Batman foe. His dichotomy and mania so matches that of Batman that even when his face is finally fixed, he knows that his soul is too scarred to pretend he’s not the monster he truly is. Sound like anyone else you know?
When Batman finally decides he has to take Joker’s life to end his threat for good, the Joker still gets the last laugh by breaking his own neck and pinning it on Batman. It’s the perfect sendoff for the Clown Prince of Crime.
I don’t know what’s left to say about the battle with Superman other than I still found it riveting on the page, even after I saw it on the giant movie screen earlier in the year. Batman’s internal monologue as he outlines exactly how he’s slowing down and stopping Superman is brilliant. It also serves as the origin of the “Batman has a plan for any contingency” stories that are so prevalent today.
THE DARK KNIGHT FALLS
Miller has returned to the Dark Knight well twice more since 1986. Each time, the results were far less satisfactory. It could be that Miller’s politics, reflected in his work, had gotten more reactionary. Or, it could simply be that Miller could no longer match the army of clones he had unleashed.
The story was also turned into an animated movie by Warner Brothers. I’ll admit I’ve never seen it. I was sure that it couldn’t match the book’s power, but I could be wrong. Now, having reread the series, I think I want to watch the movie, just to compare.
In the end, The Dark Knight Returns is a fascinating story that examines a middle-aged man coming to grips with not being what he once was. That the man in question is Bruce Wayne only makes the contrast that much sharper.
So, did 48-year-old Bruce enjoy the series as much as 18-year-old Bruce? Probably not, but I do think I enjoyed it differently. The real world implications of the story strike home in a way they didn’t in 1986. I still love the story, but now I can, for better or worse, relate to it more. I’m not an evangelist anymore, simply a fan.
What do you think? Is Batman – The Dark Knight Returns one of the greatest comic series of all time? Let me know in the comments below.