Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986. Along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, it set a new watermark in what many began to call the “Ninth Art”. Of course, they’re known better to you and me as comic books.
The Dark Knight Returns has gathered around it a considerable layer of controversy. It’s far from everyone’s idea of Batman. Debates rage between those who relish the influence it has had on The Caped Crusader and those who deplore it.
The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR) is without doubt one of the most important comics of all time. For that alone, it’s a must read. It’s also a witty, funny, satirical, intelligent, political, exciting, intense and mythic comic. TDKR’s world is a nightmarish, beaten and crushed 1980’s America; Reagan is eternally in office, the Cold War is unending and the threat of nuclear annihilation hangs heavily in the air. It’s a dark mirror, an endless 80s that has only gotten worse. The famed Superheroes of the DC Pantheon are gone, forced into retirement, exile or restricted to secret missions on behalf of the US Government. Bruce Wayne, now in his Fifties, spends his time just about defying death in motor races and drinking with Jim Gordon. It’s not long, though, before the levels of crime in this terrifying new world push Bruce Wayne back into Cape and Cowl.
What we get is a troubling interpretation of a Batman that is deeply troubled. Miller gives us a Batman more violent, more brutal and more vicious than ever before. This is perhaps what happens when Bruce Wayne tries to stop being Batman. The years of forsaking the mantle of the Bat has clearly left Bruce far more unbalanced than Miller’s younger man from Batman: Year One, published a year later.
This Bruce Wayne is mentally disturbed, but the one becoming Batman wasn’t. It seems that, for Miller, being Batman keeps Bruce balanced.
Squint your eyes and you can just about see this as Adam West gone sour. When he first takes to the night once more, he is garbed in the classic blue and grey with yellow bat-symbol, the same costume made iconic by West in the 60’s. You could make the argument that West’s straight-laced, socially responsible authority figure Batman would indeed be driven mad by a world as vile, nasty and corrupted as the one we find in TDKR. It’s just one of many allusions Miller makes in a story that was astonishingly more ambitious than the bulk of its contemporary works.
So we have a Batman that unleashes a torrent of pent up righteous fury, a Batman that is borderline fascist, a Batman who would regard Dirty Harry Callahan as a bleeding heart liberal.
I know, I know, that’s not My Batman. Anyone who’s ever heard me wax lyrical about the Masked Manhunter (and that’s a whole heap of people) will know it couldn’t be further from how I see the Bruce Wayne character.
And yet, it works.
It’s an interpretation of the character that works in this context and this context only, but still. This story, taken on its own merits, is just staggeringly good. It interprets the character in the way that best serves this particular tale. It has things to say, points to make and quality to showcase. Miller’s writing and art have rarely been better. He excels here, knowing the size of the task he has set himself and meeting it with gusto. It’s a bravura performance from the writer/artist and a treat for readers who get to enjoy that lightning in a bottle moment of a considerable talent at the top of their game.
The legacy of this book shouldn’t be the Grim N Gritty, EXTREME Dark Knight. In many ways it is; several creative teams have taken this direction with Batman in a context entirely divorced from the one it works in. The 90’s saw several such interpretations. Scott Snyder has incorporated much of it in his recent take on Bruce Wayne. We saw it in the openly and unapologetically murderous Batman of the Tim Burton films. That other Snyder, Zack, has been far from shy about acknowledging the influence this book has had on Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
This is a cautionary tale Bruce. This is a one-off, only-if-things-go-horribly-wrong Bruce. Its legacy should be that ambitious, thoughtful comics with an individualistic style, unique sensibility and artistic purpose crafted with real skill, artistic vision and big ideas are the rule rather than the exception.
In the rush to condemn the unfortunate and irritating impact it had, to point out that right-wing nutjob fascist Batman isn’t one we want to see much of, to make clear that the ‘real’ Superman would never be such a stooge, many forget the startling quality of the comic. Of course the ‘real’ Batman and the ‘real’ Superman aren’t like this. Of course they wouldn’t let the ‘real’ DCU get like this. But that’s beside the point. The ‘real’ Batman and the ‘real’ Superman are characters so rich and powerful and lasting because a whole host of very talented creative people want to work on them. They all want a shot at the big beasts of comics. This is some of those creative people (Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley) working on them to staggeringly powerful effect. This is one of the many shots taken at Batman and, for my money, one of the best. It’s one that stopped the comic book world cold.
Not for the first or only time, this is a Batman story that’s great not necessarily because of the type of Batman presented therein but the strength of the story. Tremendously written, dynamically drawn and well put together, The Dark Knight Returns is an indisputable artistic achievement.
Its reputation is well earned.