The Dark Knight Returns – The Greatest Batman Story Ever Told?

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2014 marks the 75th Anniversary of Batman. This is the second of a series of essays celebrating the Dark Knight.

It was 1986. I was on vacation with my family on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember going into a local convenience store, probably with my dad, when I saw it staring back at me from the magazine rack. It was a comic book, at least it looked like a comic book. It was built more like an actual book, though, with a squared spine.

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On the cover was an enormous and very pissed off-looking Batman who looked like he’d been through hell and was about to make somebody pay for it. I don’t remember opening the book—that would come in the future—I just remember that cover and being completely unnerved by it. That wasn’t the Batman I knew.

That was my introduction to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I didn’t really get into comic books until the next year, and I can’t remember when I finally did read Miller’s modern classic, but I did eventually buy it and it was awesome. I recall my usual comic book shop was participating in the mall’s “sidewalk sale,” where all the stores set up tables outside their entrances.

My original Dark Knight Returns book

My original Dark Knight Returns book

There on a table, in a cellophane bag, was a slightly dinged up copy of the collected Dark Knight Returns. That cover, with Batman silhouetted against a lone lightning bolt, was stunning. I think I bought the book for about twelve bucks. I had heard about the story and how ground-breaking it had been, but nothing could have prepared me for when I opened the book. The Dark Knight Returns was like nothing I’d ever seen before. This was a very adult Batman—completely different from the sixties live-action show and the various cartoons. Forget him not being my father’s Batman, The Dark Knight wasn’t even my Batman, but he would become him.

A legend reborn

A legend reborn

For those unfamiliar with the story, Miller’s tale takes place firmly in the 1980s—Reagan is still President and there are several pop culture cameos. Batman has been retired for ten years and in the void left by his absence, Gotham City is being consumed by crime and a new gang called the Mutants. However, Bruce Wayne still feels the pull of his alter ego and finally snaps, donning the cape and cowl again. He tangles with Two-Face, mentors a new female Robin in Carrie Kelley, has a final confrontation with The Joker, and collides with Superman in the explosive finale. It’s a hell of a story, but is it the greatest Batman story ever told?

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The answer, at least as far as comics are concerned, is yes. Not only was Miller’s story a dynamic reinterpretation of Batman for a single story, The Dark Knight Returns redefined Batman going forward. He became a much grittier and darker character, an interpretation that has stuck to this day. Without The Dark Knight Returns, today’s Batman would probably look much different. Many have tried to recreate Miller’s masterpiece in their own way—including Miller himself. Some have come close, but The Dark Knight Returns is on a level by itself. The story is suitably epic, but never gets unwieldy. Everything makes sense as the tale goes along and I always find new things to love about it every time I re-read it. Some of the elements are wonderfully bizarre—a precursor to Miller’s full-on noir work in Sin City—but they jell so well with the world Miller creates, they don’t seem all that weird as you read the book. Miller’s use of the television talking heads is a fantastic exposition delivery device, but it also helps give the reader a broader feel for the world Batman inhabits. Gotham is worse than ever and giving all these different perspectives shows that.

The other key perspective you get is Batman’s as his internal monologue powers much of the story, showing the reader how he thinks and takes apart problems. Monologues are also given to Jim Gordon, Robin, Joker, and Superman, but Batman’s is the most prevalent, as it should be. It wasn’t the first time a Batman story was told like this, but Miller’s Batman has such a distinctive voice, it’s probably one of the most enjoyable examples.

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Miller’s artwork on the book is a story of contrasts. It’s elegant and ugly, sharp and muddy. As was the case on the cover I’d seen on Martha’s Vineyard—which turned out to be issue #2 of the four-issue series—Miller’s Batman was massive. Gone was the lean, athletic Batman of the 70’s popularized by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano. In his place was a Batman who could be more accurately described as a slab of beef. He was a bruiser who was more about brute force than gracefully disabling an enemy.

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Even the Batmobile reflected this new look as it was more a tank than a car, with armament to match—“Rubber bullets, honest.” Inker Klaus Janson is probably responsible for keeping Miller’s art as clear as possible, but this is just based on Miller’s art on post-Dark Knight projects. Lynn Varley also did a great job on the colors for the book. They are dynamic when they need to be and subtle when a certain mood needs to be created.

Just awful.

Just awful.

Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was the ultimate final adventure for Batman. That’s what made his 2001-2002 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, so ill-advised. It was one of those instances of a story everyone wanted, but no one needed. It was all kinds of awful from the art to the downright character assassination of Dick Grayson, and actually managed to tarnish the original book.

Better art, wackier Batman

Better art, wackier Batman

Then, Miller teamed with artist Jim Lee for All-Star Batman and Robin. The All-Star line of books was DC Comics’ answer to Marvel’s Ultimate imprint—out of continuity stories that allowed new readers to jump onboard with classic characters without being bogged down by decades of previous stories. Miller used the opportunity to weave a prequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Lee’s artwork was gorgeous, but Miller’s latest take on Batman was completely unrecognizable to readers. He appeared to be a completely unhinged character as he took an orphaned Dick Grayson under his wing. This Batman barely even resembled the Batman that appeared in The Dark Knight Returns. So, The Dark Knight is a classic that stands on its own. Miller’s Year One story is just as fantastic, but that’s more of a Jim Gordon story than a Batman one.

The best evidence of The Dark Knight Returns’ greatness is in its lasting legacy. Yes, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it ushered in the “grim ‘n’ gritty trend in comics, which in truth, wasn’t all bad, depending on the characters, but it also left an indelible mark on Batman as an institution. Tim Burton’s Batman films were more gothic than The Dark Knight Returns, but the dark tone was still there.

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Christopher Nolan doesn’t call the best film in his trilogy The Dark Knightwithout Miller’s book and he also borrowed other elements from both Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. The tumbler was clearly inspired by Miller’s Batmobile and the whole “Batman retiring” set up from The Dark Knight Rises is straight from The Dark Knight Returns as well, some would argue to that film’s detriment. The Dark Knight Returns’ Batman even forced his way into the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Legends of the Dark Knight,” which was inspired by the classic comic story, “The Batman Nobody Knows,” from Batman #250. Beyond that, all writers strove for a darker Batman. Only fairly recently, with the work of writer Grant Morrison, have the Batman comics embraced some of the silliness of his 50’s and 60’s incarnations.

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However, word is that Zack Snyder’s Batman in the 2016 film Dawn of Justice—I will not type the whole, stupid, title—will fully embrace Miller’s Dark Knight Returns incarnation.

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Also, if reading’s not your thing, you can see The Dark Knight Returns in full-color motion by checking out the fantastic animated adaptation from Warner Brothers Animation. Though it excludes Batman’s ever-present monologue from the book, it’s a faithful and satisfying interpretation of the story, perfectly blending the Bruce Timm DC animation style with Frank Miller’s. The legacy lives on.

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The book demonstrates how even at his advanced age, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents still not only resonates, but dominates his life. There are several scenes and moments in The Dark Knight Returns that are now iconic and although it was later classified as an Elseworlds title, it always feels like the dark future is just around the corner, like in the X-Men’s Days of Future Past. Who can ever forget Bruno or Superman as a government stooge—I’m not sure, but it’s possible Miller coined the phrase “Big Blue Boy Scout” to describe the Man of Steel. If not, he was certainly one of the first to call him that. The character of the Mutant Leader remains today—his influence is clear in the much smarter, but no less deadly, Bane.

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Echoes of this story continue to surge through Batman’s existence. It helped pave the way for other “greatest” Batman stories to be told. I would argue that the greatest Batman on film is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but if you open it up to animation as well, you have to consider Mask of the Phantasm. Regular readers already know how I feel about Batman: The Animated Series. Stemming from that stalwart pillar of Batman’s legacy comes a very close competitor for the title of Greatest Batman Story Ever Told status. However, the story I speak of can’t be found in a comic book, or a film, or even on TV.

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No, it is found in a video game: Paul Dini’s fantastic story that powers Arkham City. It’s a similarly epic tale to The Dark Knight Returns that provides a compelling mystery as well as logical reasons for the participation of Batman’s full rogues’ gallery, or at least the majority of them.

However, all these stories I mentioned don’t exist without The Dark Knight Returns. It stands the tallest of all Batman stories and sets the benchmark for all others to shoot for. It is, quite simply, The Greatest Batman Story Ever Told.

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If you want to know more about Batman as well as The Dark Knight Returns, check out Kevin Smith’s fantastic podcast, Fat Man on Batman. Also, check out Episode 32 of The Hodgepodge Podcast, which was devoted to Batman’s 75th Anniversary.

Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014. Please follow him on Twitter

Doug Simpson

Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014.

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4 thoughts on “The Dark Knight Returns – The Greatest Batman Story Ever Told?

  1. bane says:

    What a great read. Thanks so much! I agree with everything said. It changed all of our lives of those of us that read it when it first came out. My Mexican wifey knows really nothing of Batman. We got the Dark Knight returns movie and she loved every bit of it.

  2. Great article as always, Doug! I picked up the book for the first time back in High School, when I should have been paying attention to my studies in Sociology I was too enthralled with the world that Miller created where some of my favorite comic book heroes didn’t have such happy futures.

    The one part of the comic that always gets me…I mean makes me sad and fills me with rage against the Mutants is the subway scene with the Mother. Miller masterfully crafted that page, very powerful, and it makes you want Bruce don the cape and cowl all the quicker.

  3. LeBrainBoy says:

    I loved the article, Doug! I was still a young man back in 1986 and, at that point, I had been reading comics for only a few years. Fortunately, my introduction to what comics were evolving into in the ’80s was by way of First Comics…, American Flagg, Nexus and Badger, for starters. I was never a fan of the campy ’60s interpretation of Batman (by way of William Dozier), so I was primed for more adult, more mature content. The legendary JW Chapman, who managed the equally legendary Comics & Comix on K St. in Sacramento, was my guide to the amazing works publishers such as First and Eclipse Comics were putting out at that time. JW introduced me to Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” to Moore’s “Watchmen” and to Moore’s “Miracleman.” EVERYTHING changed for me after that. Of the countless fond memories I have of the time, two memories stand out for me the most clearly. First, I can still feel the thrill of reading each new issue of TDKR, Watchmen and MM, as they landed on store shelves, my heart racing, my breath catching in my throat. Second, I recall my amateur detective work as — being new to comics fandom — I tried to figure out who was who in TDKR from contextual clues and my limited knowledge in those “bone knives and bearskins” pre-Internet days. Ah, those were heady times! :)

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