Writer: Frank Miller
Artists: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley (colours)
Publisher: DC Comics
1986 was probably the most important year for comics since Marvel published the first issue of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four. In the space of this single year, three of the most revolutionary superhero books ever created hit the stands: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' revered Watchmen; Frank Miller's Born Again arc in the pages of Daredevil; and Miller's most celebrated work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DKR is widely regarded as a turning point for superhero comics, but it's also such a significant milestone in the history of Batman that it has cast a shadow over all subsequent interpretations of the character. The concept of such a grim 'n' gritty take on the Dark Knight is such an established notion that it's perhaps difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Miller's take on an older, darker Bruce Wayne would have seemed when it first hit the stands, but the visceral, immediate quality of the writing and the sophisticated effectiveness of the art ensure that the book is just as impressive today as it was twenty years ago.
People often cite DKR as a masterpiece of superhero deconstruction - and rightly so - but it's executed with such an obvious love and affection for the genre conventions that it's clear that Miller isn't trying to belittle the work of previous creators in the field. Rather, he's applying new standards of psychological realism and complexity, taking his examination of what makes a superhero tick to deeper, darker places than mainstream comic books had gone before him. Miller is careful not to pick Batman's psyche apart too comprehensively lest the entire edifice shatter and the writer have to face up to the fact that his protagonist is ultimately a grown man who chooses to run around in a grey-and-blue Bat-costume in his evenings. However, he gets under the hero's skin in new, innovative ways, giving us insight into Batman's thought processes work in great detail, but also daring to allow compelling elements of self-doubt to creep in. In casting an aged Bruce Wayne in the title role, Miller removes the safety net of current continuity that can rob ongoing superhero titles of any sense of jeopardy. The threats faced by Batman feel very real, and the relationship with his new Robin allows Miller to examine the sometimes-reckless actions of Bruce from a more grounded point of view. Even if the kind of maturity and complexity that Miller brings to his superheroics is more commonplace today than it might have been in 1986, the way in which Batman returns to his glory days, empowering himself to take on the world, is just as resonant.
To complain that DKR feels dated today due to its 1980s references and period detail is to ignore the bigger picture of Miller's story. In many ways, the story has never been more relevant, with the bumbling, buffoonish President Reagan sacrificing freedom for security in his pursuance of an unwinnable war against domestic terrorism in a manner which would make more recent administrations proud. A key element of the plot is Bruce's growing political awareness, and an acknowledgement that the traditional superheroic manner of dealing with crime and criminals is ineffective and overly simplistic: that society's ills can't be cured with a fistfight and a smug one-liner. It may be territory which has been covered by other books since, but it's never been integrated as flawlessly with the action and spectacle as it is here. In addition to the political elements, Miller introduces a lot of subtle social commentary and media satire, parodying the over-simplified, dumbed-down soundbite culture and the hollow cult of celebrity in a manner which now seems more pertinent than ever. Miller's decision to accomplish lengthy exposition through TV newsreaders and talk-shows gives him a perfect window on the world through which he can make some pointed comments about the world, rooting Batman in a world that we can relate to and showing why he feels that it is broken. The creation of an impenetrable slang for the Gotham gangs and the youthful malevolence of many of his thuggish criminals ("A killer who isn't even old enough to shave") successfully creates a chilling threat which feels more like a portentous warning that an older man complaining about the state of things today. DKR is undeniably a product of its times, but it's also an acute critique of 1980s society, and it's quite worrying to see how accurate Miller's dystopian predictions have turned out to be, 20 years down the line.
The artwork shows a massive leap forwards from Frank Miller's prior run with Klaus Janson on Marvel's Daredevil, an evolution which is as much due to the sophisticated delicacy of Lynn Varley's colours as it is the change in Miller and Janson's linework. Working to a fairly strict layout of 16 panels per page, Miller's pacing is perfect: the storytelling is dense and fast-moving when it needs to be, but occasionally slows right down to examine key dramatic plot points in great detail. The imagery of Miller's story has come to define the character ever since, such as the stark manner in which the murder of Bruce's parents is presented, or the fearful darkness of his childhood fall into the Batcave. There's a great deal of inventiveness in the way that certain panels are merged together to create different visual rhythms (a particular favourite is the vertical panel in book two, in which Batman hangs an unfortunate villain from the top of a skyscraper), and Miller uses the frequent layout of multiple small panels to set up the expectations in his readers which he exploits in order to achieve maximum impact for a number of splash pages which would be worthy of framing in their own right as exemplary pieces of comics art.
There are so many different editions of Miller's opus available that I can't really comment on the extra material that will be included, as it will vary from book to book. My tenth anniversary edition contains the original full plot breakdown for the final chapter, enabling us to study the evolution of Miller's original ideas and his eventual change to a slightly more optimistic finale, as well as a few character sketches - but I'm sure other editions can offer more. Personally, I'm considering swapping my old TPB for the lushness of DC's Absolute edition (which bundles DKR with the underrated but ultimately inferior follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again). However, in whatever format you choose to enjoy Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it always seems even more impressive than you remember. There are more iconic moments in this single story than most creators could hope to achieve in a lifetime; whether it's the early rebirth of Batman (baptised in a thunderstorm), the grim suicide of the Joker, the first appearance of the DKR batmobile, Batman's showdown (and rematch) with the mutant leader, Superman's survival of a nuclear explosion as he drains the earth of its solar power, the quiet dignity of Alfred's final moments, Batman's arrival in Gotham on horseback, or the climactic showdown between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent in Crime Alley, the power of Miller's storytelling is inescapable. If you've never read the story before, ignore the few detractors who claim that the book only has worth as a product of its time and get hold of it at the earliest opportunity. If you're already familiar with the book, it's time for another read of a miniseries which only seems to improve with time.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!