Frank Miller's legendary Bat book joins the group
Publisher: DC Comics
Tue, 11 January 2005
Email the Author
I get a smile on my face just thinking about this classic graphic novel by Frank Miller. First published in four volumes in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns is everything a Batman comic book should be. Miller at his very best is almost unbeatable and Dark Knight is a perfect example of that. When comic book fans think of the Batman character, this is the book most likely to spring to mind first and rightfully so. The characterisation, dialogue and structure are all executed immaculately. Even Frank himself can’t seem to repeat such lofty standards (with the possible exception of his work on Batman: Year One).
The story is set some time in the future. Bruce Wayne is getting old (well, old for a superhero at least) and has, as of ten years ago, retired from fighting crime as the Batman. A suppressing heat wave has engulfed Gotham City and unlawful, destructive behaviour is on the rise. A gang known as the Mutants are terrorising the citizens and the state of the place in general is on the decline. Bruce is becoming increasingly frustrated and miserable and has taken to drinking quite a bit. Still haunted by the murder of his parents and his promise to make Gotham a safer and better place, Bruce becomes unable to remain idle any longer. He decides to dust off the cape and return to being who he truly is; Batman, the Dark Knight.
Miller also illustrated the book. It was inked by Klaus Janson and painted by Lyn Varley. The art is awesome in the way it matches the story so perfectly. Using chunky, larger than life characters in a gritty, heavily shadowed world -- it manages to look both realistic and slightly abstract at the same time. Several of the pages and panels feature iconic images that have become almost synonymous with comics, Batman in particular.
Many other well known characters are included in the story such as: Two-Face/Harvey Dent, the Joker, James Gordon and Alfred. We are also introduced to a brand new (female) Robin. Miller’s take on them all is spot on. Harvey is shown as a man damaged far more mentally than he ever was physically. The Joker is at his evil best here; tormenting Batman to his breaking point. His demise comes in a most shocking and memorable fashion. Gordon and Alfred are given all the importance they truly deserve as part of the Bat-universe. New Robin Carrie Kelley is very well constructed and provides the necessary contrast (both visually and otherwise) to the Batman’s sombre personality.
The only character who gets a bit mistreated is Clark Kent/Superman. Frank presents Superman as a guy who works for the US government and more or less just does as he is told. Although this seems a little bit harsh, it does allow the differences between Bruce and Clark to appear even more pronounced and results in the legendary fight between Batman and Superman towards the end of the story. Even if the rest of the book wasn’t so great it would be worth buying for that battle alone. Still, some Superman fans have expressed disappointment over the years at how he is depicted in the Dark Knight Returns and I can see their point.
Batman is a fascinating character and never has that been more evident than in this story. As an aging crime fighter everything he does takes him far more effort than it did before. You can almost feel his exhaustion and perhaps even his confusion. You get the sense that, at times, he wonders whether he is doing the right thing or if he is even making any difference at all. While most of us have never dressed up in costumes and fought villains (I hear the Gimmick does it all the time), those all too human thoughts and feelings are something most of us can relate to. As a result of his frustration and anger he also seems more ruthless and brutal than usual, while still struggling to keep himself together and not take things too far.
It would appear that Frank Miller doesn’t have all that much faith in humanity, if the Dark Knight Returns is any indication. The people in this story need to be led kicking and screaming into the right path. That could be interpreted as cynical, but it serves the plot well and, unfortunately, it seems to me that there’s an element of truth to it too.
Whatever way you look at it, The Dark Knight Returns is a superb work. Miller did a follow up in recent years with a sequel titled The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It received a less than rapturous reception, with bad reviews from disappointed fans popping all over the place. But that’s not what this article is about and in no way does it ruin the greatness of DKR. If you are thinking of getting into Batman comics, or even comics in general, I strongly suggest you start with this graphic novel. A special 10th anniversary edition is also available.
Email the Author
More articles by Hillelman
You will read through this beauty more than once