Welcome to a special edition of Comics Rewind. This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most influential comics ever written, Frank Millers The Dark Knight Returns. In observance of this milestone, I offer my extensive thoughts on this iconic comic book.
Introduction: A Bolt from the Blue
The Dark Knight Returns #1 begins with one of the most iconic comic book covers in the history of the medium: Batman leaping into the night sky, crouched and prepared to strike at something down below, illuminated only by a single slithering lightning bolt arcing across the background. It’s a stark but elegant image, a first strike, an announcement that something big is coming.
In many ways The Dark Knight Returns was a bolt from the blue for the comic book world. Its impact stretched beyond comics and into the mainstream. It transformed Frank Miller from star creator to icon of the medium and revitalized the Batman, transforming him from a pop culture punch line colored with ZAPs and POWs to a brooding, obsessive phantom. Like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it heralded the coming of a new era in comics, a time when superheroes would be more than just men in tights.
Warning: there may be a few spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want to know how things unfold in this story, read with caution.
Though its quality is still debated in various circles of comic book fandom, no one can argue the impact of The Dark Knight Returns. It’s widely viewed as required reading for comic book fans, and ranks consistently high on various “Best Of” lists, where it competes with the likes of Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. After 25 years of reprints, reissues and re-reading, we know why it’s here and we know why it will stay. But how did it get here in the first place? Of the hundreds of mainstream superhero comics titles released in 1986 (many of them quite good), why does this one tower like a titan among mortals?
For all its superstar appeal and critical weight, the staying power of The Dark Knight Returns lies in something deeper, something beyond even the primal power of Miller’s rough-hewn art. It reads like a superhero story in overdrive, but The Dark Knight Returns is something more. A quarter century after its release, it remains a psychologically and thematically complex tale honed into a bullet of visceral energy, and at its heart is Frank Miller’s demand that the reader confront an aging, obsessive and violent Batman, and walk with him into darkness.
Talking Heads and Flying Fists
The first thing you notice when you open The Dark Knight Returns is the barrage of media. Television screens, and the pundits and newscasters that populate them, take up whole swaths of the book. It’s an effort by Miller to integrate his tale fully into the nearly apocalyptic world he’s imagined, a world awash with nuclear tension, gang violence and Reaganomics. The initial effect is to place the reader firmly in the mindset of 1980s excess, but as the story continues, and the pundits analyze Batman’s every move like a psychoanalytic Greek chorus, it becomes clear that Miller’s up to something else.
The world he’s created, the Gotham City terrorized by a street gang known as the Mutants and terrorized further by self-righteous faces on TV, is one in which the concept of right and wrong has been abandoned in favor of a spin zone. There is no sense of justice because no one is willing to admit that they’re wrong. There is no sense of evil because no one is willing to admit that the world’s problems are real, rather than the result of a psychological condition or a simple difference of opinion. This infuriates the aging Bruce Wayne, who languishes in retirement as electronic voices chronicle the fall of everything he worked so hard to protect. Though Miller never directly shows it, you can imagine him skulking down to the Batcave late at night to watch cable news and stare at his old costume, waiting for the moment when it will snap back into place. We don’t have to see it, because Miller makes sure we’re thinking it.
When Batman finally does emerge from his self-imposed retirement, the violence that erupts comes in bold, titanic panels of art. The fuzzy faces that dominate the media of The Dark Knight Returns are gone, and in their place is the grinning, dementedly pleased face of Batman as he leaps back into action. The final three chapters of The Dark Knight Returns are a fist fight between these elements. Scenes of Batman fighting The Mutants clash with talking head panels, which in turn overlap with images of Batman and his new Robin (a teenager named Carrie Kelly who puts on the costume simply because she wants to) leaping across Gotham’s rooftops. It’s a war between technology and physicality, analysis and action, justice and professional second guessing.
How to Cure a Supervillain
While the Batman was in retirement and the Mutants began their rampage through Gotham, the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery was largely pacified. It’s unclear what became of The Riddler, The Penguin or any of the other more minor villains (death is a possibility), but The Joker and Two-Face are both confined to Arkham Asylum under the psychological guidance of Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, a man convinced that his patients are victims of the Batman’s own psychosis, that he made them out of his own aggression. Many Batman writers have probed the idea that the very presence of someone like Batman would produce a particular breed of criminal insanity. Miller agrees, but in his world, a world in which the Batman has gone away, the villains have a different kind of insanity, a sort of psychic withdrawal.
Wolper, a frequent guest on the talk shows that dominate portions of The Dark Knight Returns, is convinced that he’s able to cure his star patients and release them back to society. He attempts to restore Two-Face by performing plastic surgery to repair the scarred half of his face, the theory being that the scarred half of his personality would be repaired along with it. The result is nightmarish: the wrong half of Two-Face’s personality is erased, leaving him with a normal face and a forever scarred, deadly personality.
The Joker’s case is much tougher to crack. Imprisoned in Arkham since the end of Batman’s reign in Gotham (a full decade earlier), the Clown Prince of Crime is in a kind of catatonic state, never speaking, following the world with his eyes alone. When The Dark Knight returns to action, he utters a single word – “Batman” – and begins scheming to get Wolper to declare him cured.
The Joker’s revival and return is a particularly interesting aspect of The Dark Knight Returns, in no small part because few authors before or since have ever gone so far in their interpretation of the relationship between The Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. Many writers have explored the idea that Batman and the Joker cannot exist without each other, and Miller makes this almost literal. The Joker is muted by the absence of his rival, even castrated. Miller even goes so far, when the pair finally do square off in the story’s third chapter, as implicating some homosexual attraction that the Joker has harbored for The Dark Knight. It might be a slight stretch, but in the Frank Miller universe, where everything is heightened, the Joker’s need to face off with Batman turns into a metaphor for always hurting the ones we love.
The Joker’s death at the end of the third chapter, “Hunt the Dark Knight,” is both an affirmation and contradiction of the idea that Batman and his arch rival can only exist together. Batman cracks the Joker’s neck, but only to the point of paralyzing him. He can’t end him, but it’s no longer because he refuses to kill. He can’t end him because he feels it would almost end himself. It’s the Joker himself who switches off his own existence, using every last ounce of strength to finish breaking his own neck. It’s the ultimate break-up, a pair that’s been together for nearly 50 years splitting up with a gurgling laugh and a cracking of bone. For The Joker, it’s the ultimate last laugh, a chance to get Batman in even deeper trouble. But it could also be an effort to continue the fight, to push his rival (lover) to keep running, keep fighting, find something new to obsess over. His death leaves many stones unturned, but the one that matters is never in doubt: the Batman has to keep moving.
The World’s Greatest Detective and the Man of Tomorrow
As The Dark Knight Returns hurtles toward its climax, Miller raises the stakes by introducing Superman into the mix. After an era of government fear of superheroes that helped to retire Batman and forced nearly every other hero of the DC Comics universe into exile, Superman was the last one standing. He “walked the razor’s edge,” as he puts it, working for the government to save as many people as possible, while still being forced to answer to the political and public relations concerns of a corrupt and often complacent government. For Superman, as with Batman, justice has become a murky concept, but he does what he must in order to do what he can. As Batman’s status as a threat to the status quo becomes clear, Superman understands that he will be ordered to hunt down his old friend.
Among the most commonly voiced criticisms of The Dark Knight Returns is its treatment of the Batman character as a whole. The essential elements of the character, some say, are abandoned in favor of a more brutal, obsessive version. It’s a valid point to make, but it begs a question: Why must we assume those essential elements should be there?
The Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight Returns is 55. He’s been out of the cape and cowl for a decade. His second Robin, Jason Todd, died in the line of duty and his first Robin, Dick Grayson, doesn’t speak to him anymore. The city he swore to protect is overrun with gang violence and the leaders of the free world he helped to defend don’t want him anymore. He’s taken to wearing a mustache, perhaps as an attempt to adopt some kind of new, thin mask for himself. He’s at odds with the world, and the only thing that makes him feel like he has any power – the Batsuit – is something he gave up long ago. This is not the Batman we’re used to.
It’s this sense of helplessness, coupled with an obsessive need to return to form, that Miller’s Batman grapples with. When he finally does don the cape and cowl again, it’s a nearly orgasmic experience of energy. He’s old, he’s tired and he’s off his game, but he feels at home again in that suit. True, the angst over the loss of his parents is less prevalent here, but perhaps that’s because it’s been replaced with angst over the loss of a surrogate son and the loss of the city he swore to protect. He still loves, though, as much as Batman can. There’s still a deep sense of caring for Alfred, an admiration and respect for retiring Commissioner Jim Gordon, and even some care for his new Robin, who he reluctantly accepts. It’s not exactly a traditional version of the character, but it is true to one of the roots of Batman’s ideology: that the battle never ends.
The Dark Knight Triumphant: A Conclusion
The Dark Knight Returns shook perceptions of Batman to their core. It’s not the traditional interpretation of the character, but that’s exactly the point. What Miller did with this four part comic masterpiece was imagine a Batman stripped of his youth, his energy, everything but his will to wear the suit, and made him claw his way back to whatever victory he could muster. He also made readers go there too, to that dark place where DC’s darkest hero became a driven, hulking beast intent on survival above all else.
The Dark Knight Returns is 25 years old, and apart from a few very obviously 1980s references in the art, it’s just as fresh and raw and bold as it was when it debuted. This is a comic book that challenged Batman readers and writers alike to probe the darker corners of the darkest of superheroes. It was fertile ground. We know.
We’ve got 25 years of evidence.