Even though its been out for some time, Dark Knight Returns is such a ground-breaking graphic novel that we thought it deserved a second look.
If I knew twenty-five years ago, that comic books and graphic novels would be dominating the silver screens, I would have read even more of them. Back then, graphic novels had the stigma of being more adult – and not adult in a Fritz the Cat or Heavy Metal sort of way (both of which I saw inappropriately young and could barely grasp anything other than boobies).
More in a sense that the heroes that were illustrated in the pages within were not the heroes that I had been conditioned to love; where even the most dire of catastrophes could be resolved in 24 pages or 22 minutes. When I watched Super-Friends, the schemes were always foiled and everyone walked away without a scratch, and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends always saved the day with enough time left over for homework.
“My superheroes lived in candy-colored cartoons, on metal lunchboxes with matching thermos and on innocuous primetime serials. They weren’t forboding or morose, and above all they were never, ever dark. I mean what would the neighbors think?”
And if indeed, I had read graphic novels like the Dark Knight Returns, I would have had a completely different perspective on superheroes and comic books in general. And while it almost sounds like a marketing term nowadays, superheroes, like I said, were never dark. They were the bright shiny beacons of virtue, truth, honor and all that good stuff – not the complex, tortured stuff of the 80’s graphic novels. I wish that I could say that I was hip to the unapologetically brutal, noir-drenched grittiness that was Frank Miller during those days, but I cannot. Years before he wrote Sin City, 300, or Daredevil: Born Again, Miller was taking a stab at revitalizing the images of one of the most recognizable and beloved superheroes of all time: Batman. But gone were the day-glo costumes, bat-gadgets and groovy theme song. Now, it was no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Now we all hate those smug pompous d-bags that say, “You HAVEN’T seen (insert overrated film classic here)?? Oh man, you’ve got to watch it. How you’ve made it this far in your life without seeing that film?!” If only we had a nickel for every time we heard that right? Well, this is another one of those times and I am going to be one of those d-bags right now. If you haven’t read the Dark Knight Returns, read it. If you want to know where just about every iteration of Batman that you have seen for the past quarter century was informed by, then you need to read DKR. Miller didn’t just tell a cool story, he created the blueprint for everything that followed. It painted everything forward: Tim Burton’s films, the brilliant animated series, and especially the current Nolan films. Everything, in fact, but those two Schumacher train wrecks. Nipples on the Bat-Suit?? Inconceivable!!
Now here’s the simplicity of his approach. Instead of even attempting to mess with Bats origin, he takes fans to the near-future, years past the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. It has also been over ten years since the last time anyone has even seen Batman. It starts with an older, guilt-ridden and overall melancholy Bruce Wayne rocking a pornstache and sharing a drink with the Commish, Jim Gordon. Not only had Bruce retired the cape and cowl, he also faked his own death. He wanted out, but good. However, in the vacuum left by his absence, a new threat has arrived in the form of a psychopathic and violent gang calling themselves, the Mutants. And I would be remiss if I did not mention how prophetic it was of Miller to utilize the news reports and media in general to provide exposition, especially since the news was not nearly as sensational twenty-five years ago as it is today. It’s a nice touch that will seem familiar and completely natural.
A certain archenemy of his that has been rotting in Arkham Asylum since the death of Jason Todd also watches the news and is reenergized at the news of Batman’s return. Now, in an effort not to entirely spoil the story for those of you out there who haven’t read DKR, I will give you the broad-strokes of what follows after his return.
First and foremost is a new Robin. By this point, Dick Grayson had already flown the coop and apparently he and Bruce do not keep in touch, but what is Batman without Robin right? This time it’s a girl named Carrie Kelly who dons the tights in an effort to repay Batman for saving her life. Similarly to what became of Tim Drake’s origin, she has no training and feels that Batman ‘needs’ Robin.
One of the most authentic aspects of DKR is how Miller portrays this older Batman. With Bruce Wayne ‘dead’, Batman never needs to worry about his alter ego. Batman is all that’s left. Gotham City has become a brutal place and now so has Batman. But keeping true to form, Batman is not at the top of his game, as he quickly discovers when he confronts the leader of the Mutants and promptly has his cowl handed to him, leaving Robin to pull his fat out of the fire.
The Joker inevitably escapes Gotham, almost kills the new Robin, and goes on a killing spree. Whereas in the standard comic continuum, Batman would never actually try to kill the Joker, in DKR don’t be so sure. Aside from the Joker, the only other Batman heavies you see are an aged Selina Kyle, her Catwoman days long behind her as well. Harvey Dent shows up as well as a ‘reformed’ citizen. And unlike most Batman graphic novels, DKR is used as an opportunity for a smorgasbord of caped cameos. I once read somewhere that ‘Superman is the American dream, but Batman is the American reality.’ DKR paints a future with the American dream in the toilet, particularly Gotham. This leaves Batman with his work cut out for him and he is willing to take care of business by any means necessary.
The story climaxes with a confrontation between the World’s Finest heroes. I’ve always felt that while they both had very different ideals, Superman admired Batman while Batman respected Superman. In DKR, that bond and those beliefs have been strained to their breaking point as these titans clash in no more fitting a place than Gotham’s Crime Alley, the very place where Bruce Wayne’s parents were slain. Without ruining the ending, I can only tell you that it doesn’t end the way that you think it would.
I really love this book, I mean sure its message can be heavy-handed and certain parts may come across as dense, but before Frank Miller got his hands on the Dark Knight, Batman was anything but dark. And I, along with legions of comic book fans, have nothing but the utmost gratitude for him dragging one of our favorite heroes through the dirt.