The cinematic comic book that launched comic book cinema
Originally published in 1986 as a four-issue comic book miniseries, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was written and drawn by Frank Miller, with inks by Klaus Janson and colors by Lynn Varley. Almost immediately, the four issues were collected into a trade paperback. Nearly 30 years later, it’s still one of the all-time greatest graphic novels in superhero comics. As the story opens, Batman has not been seen in Gotham for the past decade. Now 55, Bruce Wayne sees the rising tide of violent crime that’s sweeping his city’s streets as an invitation to come out of retirement. This ain’t your daddy’s Batman, however. Though this is a DC comic, Miller was primarily known for his work at Marvel Comics, and he definitely brought the Marvel sensibility to his Batman work for DC. Rather than a nimble detective matching wits with clue-dropping lunatics, Miller’s caped crusader is a hulking, brutal vigilante who fights violence with violence.
Judging by today’s comics and the movies that spring from them, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when superheroes weren’t trying to kill their adversaries. Back in the late ‘80s, however, Marvel and DC were just emerging from the confines of the Comics Code Authority and testing the waters of sex and violence. This graphic novel was like a big fat belly flop into the latter category. It’s much more than just a mindless slugfest, however. Watchmen is often hailed for its philosophical vision of superheroes in the real world, but Miller presents a more realistic and cynical view of how mankind might react if giants walked among us.
The art was also pretty ground breaking for its time, but in hindsight it’s not Miller’s best work. Most pages are cluttered with too many tiny panels. Batman is usually depicted as a blocky chunk of muscle while the bit players are often rendered with the wispy sketchiness of a Jules Feiffer caricature. Overall the art here is like a prepubescent stage in the development of the mature, in-your-face style of his Sin City books. One look at the neon-punk couture of the street gang known as The Mutants leaves little doubt that this book was a product of the 1980s. Regardless of the dated fashions, it’s a brilliant document of that decade’s Cold War paranoia. At times Miller gets a little heavy-handed, like depicting Reagan in a star-covered blazer, but he vividly calls to mind a time when a Russian-induced armageddon seemed an imminent possibility.
The Dark Knight Returns reads more like a movie storyboard than it does a typical comic book. With the finesse of a skilled film editor, Miller interweaves several competing narratives. A television is always on in the background, alternating between newscasters, talking heads, and pundits who provide political subtext and ethical discourse. More than any other American comics creator, Miller is responsible for the explosion of comic book action movies over the last quarter century. The comic books he created were so much like the movies we all wanted to see, the moviemakers were forced to follow his lead. 300 and Sin City are obvious examples, but rarely does a superhero film appear that doesn’t lift ideas from him in some way. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy owes a great debt to Miller’s work. The Dark Knight Returns started it all. Though Miller has garnered his fair share of critical acclaim, he’s just as likely to be accused of being sadistic, misogynistic, or perpetually adolescent. Heck, if it’s Keats and Shelley you want, try Neil Gaiman. But if you like hard-boiled pulp fiction, visceral action, and epic thrills, Miller’s your man, and The Dark Knight Returns is the place to start.
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