Welcome to the first installment of Miller-Palooza! With the upcoming release of the The Dark Knight III later this month, I’ll be looking at Frank Miller’s long and varied history as a comic book writer and artist throughout November and December. These articles will be more of a retrospective and analysis on Miller’s work at DC, Marvel, and his independent comics. So, let’s get started with arguably Miller’s greatest work of graphic literature, The Dark Knight Returns.
The Dark Knight Returns is often credited as the epitome of a Batman book. It is the Batman comic discussed among fans and critics, and was a huge source of inspiration for Tim Burton’s Batman films, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s upcoming Batman V. Superman. The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR), along with Watchmen, is considered to be the launching point into the “Dark Age of Comics,” and raised the character of Batman from the Adam West camp, to a more complex superhero. The book has been referenced, discussed, adapted, given sequels, and become a household name for every comic fan from casual to hardcore.
However, does The Dark Knight Returns still hold up?
I know that sounds like comic book blasphemy considering TDKR has done so much for the character of Batman, and comic books in general. One can’t deny the impact Miller’s magnum opus has had on the industry. But, this article isn’t about the cultural weight TDKR has, it’s about the story itself. Specifically, I’m trying to see if after all the hype, the influence, and the impact it’s had, does the comic still stand strong on its own?
I have to say, the story of TDKR was immensely creative for its time. It was such a radical departure from the comic stories that were on the shelves. Most of the stories back then kept a similar tried and true superhero morality with only slight discussions about social issues back then. Comics were starting to get a little darker, and more serious, but they still followed basic moral stories we were all very familiar with when it came to super heroes. TDKR was vastly different from the other comics that soon after its release a lot of writers tried to copy the formula.
TDKR stood out by focusing on a very specific concept, which was essentially the idea of a broken superhero returning to his mantle. But, the story is dripping with Batman tropes and Miller has an ideal version of the character. A strong, silent figure who is kind of like a wrecking ball of aggression. Yet, Batman remains the detective, and mental strategist. Even going as far as wearing disguises and collecting evidence. The story’s antagonists are all intimidating and memorable from the unbalanced Two-Face and brutal Mutants to the homicidal Joker and even the big blue boy scout Superman.
The main narrative surrounding Batman is focused and specific. However, there is another element to the story that drenches itself in political and social commentary along with Miller’s strange brand of satire. It’s easy to see why Miller discussed these issues considering where he was living at the time and what was going on in the world. 1980s New York was not a safe city due to a rise in crime, and with the fear of the Cold War, and Soviet Union Miller must have felt that it was necessary to merge these elements to his story. The problem is that they don’t hold up after time has passed and distract from the basics of the story that are so strong.
Specifically, there are a few elements that stand out as particularly bizarre. For starters, Miller gave narration captions for Batman, and while some of them really work, and perfectly capture the essence of The Dark Knight, there are a few that feel unnecessary, and straddle the line between Frank Miller’s commentary and Batman’s point of view. It’s hard to know at times if certain aspects of Batman’s character are what Miller’s own beliefs and ideals, or if he’s trying to get further into Batman’s mind. Also, as stated earlier, the commentary about the Cold War is mostly very distracting. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was easy to mock for Miller, but it really takes away from Batman’s exploits.
However, most of the story is still focused on Batman’s narrative fighting crime and reclaiming the city. And while the Cold War element is distracting, it does all come together in the end into a very memorable climax, which I won’t spoil here. But, I will say it’s a great ending to the story, and pretty damn epic.
The art of the book is some of Miller’s best, the images are dynamic, and haunting, with muted colors and a Noir style. Each character looks different, and there’s an inherent ugliness in the book that enunciates the tone of the book well. Every action scene has movement to it, every pose looks intimidating, every facial expression is specific. Klaus Janson also helped the inking on the book, and certainly deserves some credit, but Miller was the star here. However, the art does suffer a bit when it comes to the panels in the book. Some times there are just so many that it becomes difficult to read. And when the colors are all so muted, sometimes you have to strain your eyes to see what’s going on.
Overall, The Dark Knight Returns is still a great book; there are some problems, but it still holds up well. It’s a comic that just about every comic fan should hold on to. However, I wouldn’t call it Miller’s greatest work. If you want to know what I do think Miller’s greatest work is, join me next time when I talk about the “Man With Out Fear” himself.
If you’re not interested in reading TDKR, Warner Bros. Animation did a phenomenal adaptation of the story. You can get it on iTunes, and the movie (in my opinion) actually outshines the original source material. It has Robocop, Peter Weller, as the voice of Batman, and Michael Emerson as one of the most disturbing Jokers ever put on-screen. It also does away with the monologues and shortens the Cold War element much. It also has some great action scenes and keeps Miller’s artistic style. It’s definitely worth a buy soon.