The Dark Knight Returns
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller
Published: DC, 1986
Fitting that my first review will be the Batman four-issue limited series The Dark Knight Returns: Batman is hands down my favourite superhero. “But, Thor, Batman doesn't even have superpowers,” you might whine. Exactly. The guy has had to rely on his brains and his frail, human body [and the unlimited fortune of his murdered parents] to run with the big dogs in DC's highly hero-populated universe. And run he did! Batman is arguably the most popular superhero in the world. The only non-powered member of the Justice League of America, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Earth's mightiest champions. Yes, he is only a man... but he's a bat man.
Alas, I digress... I should just get to the review. But first! Some context is required: when Batman started off, he was a real badass. During the Golden Age of comics [late 30s to early 50s], Batman was known to use firearms and to even kill his opponents. Any self-respecting Batman fan could tell you that the Caped Crusader lives by a strict moral code that includes no guns and no murder. A new DC editor, Whitney Ellsworth added ethics to our now-noble Dark Knight. Personal standards or not, Batman remained a terrifying scourge upon the fictional Gotham City's underworld. It wasn't until 1954, when the Comics Code Authority was introduced at the behest of concerned American parents, that Batman began to lose his edge. His adventures began taking on more “child-friendly”, fantastical and silly elements [the introduction of Bat-Mite in1959 representing perhaps an all-time low]. Adam West's ultra-campy portrayal of Batman in the 60s did not help to retain his dark image. The Batman we knew and loved was all but gone.
1986: Enter Frank Miller [also, enter Thor Blondal in St. Boniface hospital in Winnipeg]. Writer/artist Miller had previously made a name for himself by revitalizing and introducing darker subject matter to the Daredevil character. He now took on a similar challenge: Returning the Batman to his grim roots.
Whew. Longest intro of all time. I hope they're not all like this, or nobody's gonna read this crap.
So TDKR takes place ten years after Batman has retired. He now lives in an increasingly violent and crime-ridden Gotham City as his alter-ego, 55-year old millionaire Bruce Wayne. He is not the only crime-fighter to have hung up his cape: Nearly all of the DC world's heroes have left the limelight, save Superman, who has been allowed by the government to keep operating in secrecy. Apparently parent groups and government officials became concerned about these “vigilantes” and decided to crack down, although the details of this mass-forced-retirement are never really delved into too deeply.
I have just come to the conclusion as I write that this could very well be a metaphor for the enforcement of the Comics Code Authority. Holy shit! It makes so much sense: concerned parents spearheading a movement to basically make comic book heroes toothless, until one hero [Frank Miller's Batman] rises from the ashes to return comics to their former glory. Wowee wow wow. I impress even myself sometimes.
Anyway, in a show of serendipity, Batman decides to come out of retirement as an old, “rehabilitated” foe [Harvey “Two-Face” Dent] simultaneously relapses into a life of crime. Shenanigans ensue. Batman also takes on a gang of ruthless youths called the Mutants, picking up a sidekick along the way.
Of course, Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, enters the fray in the third act. A Batman story without the Joker is like a hotdog without mustard. The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum and begins wreaking his trademark havoc on the citizens of Gotham. Surprisingly, the confrontation with the Joker is not the climactic battle of the series. The final battle is shocking in both the identity of the opponent and its outcome.
The artwork fits the story perfectly: Miller's messy style reflects the gritty, “futuristic” Gotham (the quotation marks because it just seems like a slightly more advanced 80s: Reagan, though never named, is clearly president). Just as Marv of Sin City is the perfect, massive, muscle-bound anti-hero for that harsh world, Miller's Batman is the Gotham equivalent. I like to call his version "The Fridge". The influence of his take on Batman can be seen in the marvelous 90s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series.
Miller's writing is not the finest I have read. It can be pretty cliché and subtlety is not his forté. But it is effective. Like his artwork, the rough writing is part of the whole “Miller” package: his world is a hard world, populated by hard men [and women: see Sin City] who face hard foes. Every weakness is exploited. Only the strong survive. It's very Darwinian.
At the same time, if one part of the package turns you off, you likely won't enjoy the rest either. Miller is not for everyone. As my friend Shane put it, “Frank Miller is about as gross a human being as they get.”
The book explores the psychological hero-villain interplay more than any other Batman books I have read, save The Killing Joke. The Joker comes out of a long catatonic state after seeing news footage of Batman's return and goes on to murder hundreds. It is as if Batman fuels his insanity, like one cannot exist without the other. It is actually a beautiful relationship, in a really weird, twisted way. The Joker seems to realize this, referring to Batman as “darling” and “my sweet”. And of course, Batman feels partially responsible for the murder spree and starts questioning “how many more” victims before he'll “finally do it” [kill the Joker]. This struggle is one of the central conflicts of the story.
Despite the legendary status of this series, it is not without problems.
I actually thought more time could have been spent inside the Joker's head. He narrates a few parts here and there, but some more insight into his insanity could have added depth to his character. Perhaps Miller was counting on the reader's familiarity with the Batman mythos to fill any gaps.
Actually, Miller's Batman might be a little too badass: at one point Batman seems to shoot and kill a member of the mutant gang with a large machine gun, and this sundering of his moral code is never addressed. It is done in order to save the life of a young hostage, but it stands out like a sore thumb as the only time he directly causes someone's death in the entire book. Maybe the mutant is only wounded, but a bullet to the chest isn't exactly a flesh wound and, as I said, there isn't any follow up.
I am wracking my brain and my slightly scuffed [many, many readings, you see] trade paperback and I cannot think of any other flaws in this baby.
I find if something really touches me [song/movie/book], I will have a "goosebump moment". my GBM for TDKR: Batman and his new Robin make a narrow escape from the police on a hang-glider and a stray bullet cuts Robin's strap. She falls but catches Batman's cape and pulls herself up into his arms. As he holds her, he mutters "good soldier, good soldier" into her ear while in his mind, he questions bringing her into his endless fight for justice. magnificent.
In conclusion, all the critical acclaim for this piece of work is well-deserved. it features all the elements of as classic Batman tale: Two-Face, The Joker, Superman, even an aged, haggard Catwoman [running an escort service, which is a connection to another Miller project, Batman: Year One, in which she is a prostitute]. It has moral dilemmas and conflicts of interest! Freedom vs. fascism, order vs. anarchy! Alfred makes witty quips!
This is a must-read for any Batman fan and a treat for any comic lover. If not for TDKR, Batman would not be the dark knight that we all know and love today.