Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986 / 2002)
It’s one of the most famous comic series of all time. Along with Watchmen, and characters like Punisher and Wolverine, The Dark Knight Returns was one of the shockingly brutal books that kicked off the 80’s “Grim and Gritty” movement, which attempted to bring a little ultra-violence back to comics after decades of Comic Code Authority censorship. (Some folks wanted to call it “realism,” but let’s face it—it was VIOLENCE that was selling books, not tedious reality.) But does this book really deserve the high esteem and praise that it’s received over the last 30 years? Let’s take a look…
The Dark Knight Returns was written and penciled by Frank Miller, inked by Klaus Janson, and colored by Lynn Varley, and it’s set in a strange, alternate universe in which comic book characters actually get older, and Batman has been retired from crime fighting for about ten years. In his absence, however, a gang of violent thugs, known as the Mutants, has grown into a serious threat to the lives of the citizens of Gotham, and we see this when Commissioner Gordon, who is himself about ready to retire, is attacked in the streets by Mutant thugs. (Gordon kicks some ass.) In addition to the growing threat from street gangs, another weird threat to the safety of Gotham appears in the form of a pop-psychologist, named Dr. Wolper, who claims that he has rehabilitated some of Batman’s worst villains and wants them to be set free. Dr. Wolper has decided that most of the prisoners in Arkham Asylum, a detention center for the criminally insane filled primarily with Batman’s old foes, are actually just the VICTIMS of Batman’s corrosive psychosis. He blames the antisocial behavior of figures like Two Face and The Joker on the existence of Batman, and he believes that, thanks to Batman’s retirement and his own psychological expertise, these once dangerous citizens can be cured of their antisocial tendencies. After some convincing jargon spewing on a series of talk shows and news programs, Dr. Wolper manages to get Harvey Dent (aka: Two Face) released from Arkham—and the “rehabilitated” citizen quickly goes on a rampage.
Between the Mutants and the reappearance of Two Face, Bruce Wayne (gray haired but still obsessed even in his retirement), decides it’s time for Batman to return, and much carnage ensues… The Joker, seeing that Two Face has been released, decides he wants a slice of the fun-pie and convinces Dr. Wolper that he, too, has been cured and is ready to return to society. This goes about as well as you might expect, and The Joker quickly wracks up a serious body-count. Meanwhile, Batman has become increasingly vicious and violent in his methods, partially because he just isn’t as young as he used to be and has a hard time going toe to toe with the new kids on the block. He still refuses to kill, however—his one moral conviction that keeps him from being a true monster. (Interestingly, Batman didn’t originally have an aversion to killing back in the original comics from the late 1930’s and 1940’s, where his tales were based more on the pulp-styled detective stories, and the Bat Man used terror tactics—and a gun—to deal with wicked-doers.) Anyway, with The Joker back in action and dropping folks left and right, Batman decides that each death that The Joker causes is his own fault for letting the villain live…and he comes to the conclusion that he can’t allowed the fiend to continue to kill—one way or the other.
The story is extremely fast paced, almost manic at times, and told partially through these little, square panels, which are meant to represent television screens. These “news flashes,” televised interviews with various personalities and political figures (like the President—who looks a lot like Ronald Reagan), and recorded terrorist messages from groups like the Mutants, give the book a “cut-up” or collaged style, like the quick editing that was popular on MTV at the time. It’s frantic and unsettling, but can also very funny, in a sly sort of way. A large chunk of this book is Miller satirizing the media culture of the day (which is easy paralleled by our own media obsessed culture today.) Miller takes on news reporters (Connie Chung becomes “Lola Chong”) and television personalities (David Letterman becomes David Endocrine) and political figures, like the aforementioned Ronnie Raygun and a few others. The tone of the book is incredibly dark—brutal, in fact—but the news broadcasts peppered throughout the story tend to bring some humor to the book—but they ALSO give an analytical look at the violence in Gotham (which is, of course, only an exaggeration of our own culture.) The commentary of characters, like the frightened mayor or the naïve Dr. Wolper or the various reporters and community activists who Miller features, examine the incidents that occur in the tale from a variety of perspectives, but as I said, they also add some much needed humor to the story, which could quickly become a very depressing tale if the brutally wasn’t tempered with a little satire.
I think it’s important to note that there are a few moments of actual goodness in this book, too, despite the blood splatter and extreme body-count. During one scene in which a fire is spreading throughout the city, Miller makes a point of showing a large group of citizens making a water-bucket chain to try and help control the blaze, and there are several other moments of SMALL heroism in the text, which keep it from being a complete horror show. Even the seemingly lawless Batman, though ruthless in his methods, is attempting to SAVE lives, not take them. (This may seem obvious, being that he is a “hero,” but many of the heroic figures in this era, like Punisher, often killed almost as many people as the “bad guys” did.)
Another interesting element to this book (which it shares with Watchmen) is the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. The Cold War was still raging when this story was first published, and the real possibility of total global destruction seemed very real—a nightmare that we all lived through. In fact, this element of the book, the apocalyptic shadow, is one of the most chilling parts of the story. The individual crimes (though tragic for the families of those involved) pale before the thought of complete destruction of all life on Earth, and in Miller’s hands, this concern becomes more than just a background element in the story.
Should I mention that there’s a climactic battle between Batman and Superman in this book, too? I probably should. (If you didn’t like the Batman v Superman movie, you might like this battle a little better.)
Probably the most interesting element of this book, for me, is the artwork. Miller’s style in this series is VERY different from modern (American) comic styles. He uses a thin, shaky, almost sketchy line, which I think works well with the frantic pace of the book. I remember reading in an introduction Miller wrote for an old issue of First Comics’ Lone Wolf and Cub (a samurai series) that Miller was very influenced by Goseki Kojima, the artist for that series, and you can see the manga influences in full effect in The Dark Knight Returns. He uses action lines to show movement when the fighting gets fierce, his characters’ posturing and poses are similar to Japanese action styles, he uses large swathes of light and dark for contrast, and his progression from image to image is very Japanese (watch for things like six, eight, or even ten panels in a row with only slight changes in the image—this works to slow the action down, and it’s a technique that is common in manga.) All of these are familiar tropes in manga storytelling, especially in Lone Wolf and Cub (which is another of my favorite books that I’ll have to review soon…) I’m not saying Miller STOLE anything from Goseki Kojima, but he definitely learned from him AND integrated those lessons into his visual style on this book. It’s a great piece of synthesis—a real treat just to flip through and look at the images.
Overall, I would say that this book holds up to the hype. With The Dark Knight Returns, Miller creates a dark, dystopian tale about a rogue vigilante who uses violence to fight violence. He is an obsessed and ruthless figure, but not entirely unsympathetic. The setting for the story is a twisted and exaggerated reflection of our own media driven culture, which is obsessed with violence, but there is enough humor and satirical elements to keep the tale from being completely depressing. The art is fantastic, well drawn and brilliantly inked and colored by Janson and Varley, who don’t try to overshadow Miller’s sketchy (but extremely expressive) line. The story is clearly not for kids, and it could pretty easily be accused of glorifying violence, if one isn’t willing to buy the concept that over-saturating the reader with blood and death is one means of showing how horrible violence can be. It occurs to me that it’s also possible that some younger readers might not get some of the satirical cultural references, which can be found on almost every page of this book, and that is a damn shame. (It might be necessary, if one doesn’t already exist, for Cliff Notes or Sparknotes to do a treatment of this book, or maybe Norton Publishing should put together a scholarly edition, pointing out all the references and influences… Let’s get on this!)
Final words: if you want to read a piece of comic book history, which is also a brilliantly entertaining story, and you can stomach buckets of blood and a massive body-count, The Dark Knight Returns should be pretty high up on your reading list. It’s dark and manic and chilling and brutal, but still (somehow) a fun story to read.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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