Introduction: A Bolt from the Blue
The Dark Knight Returns #1 begins with one of the most iconic comic book covers in the history of the medium: Batman leaps into the night sky, crouched and prepared to strike at something down below, illuminated only by a single slithering lightning bolt arcing across the background. It’s a stark but elegant image, a first strike, an announcement that something big is coming.
In many ways The Dark Knight Returns was a bolt from the blue for the comic book world. Its impact stretched beyond comics and into the mainstream. It transformed Frank Miller from star creator to icon of the medium and revitalized the Batman, transforming him from a pop culture punch line colored with ZAPs and POWs to a brooding, obsessive phantom. Like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it heralded the coming of a new era in comics, a time when superheroes would be more than just men in tights.
Though its quality is still debated in various circles of comic book fandom, the impact of The Dark Knight Returns is indisputable. It’s widely viewed as required reading for comic book fans, and consistently ranks high on various “Best Of” lists, where it competes with the likes of Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. After 25 years of reprints, reissues, and rereadings, we know that it’s here and it’s here to stay. But how did it get here in the first place? Of the hundreds of mainstream superhero comics titles released in 1986 (many of them quite good), why does this one tower like a titan among mortals?
For all its superstar appeal and critical weight, the staying power of The Dark Knight Returns lies in something deeper, something beyond even the primal power of Miller’s rough-hewn art. It reads like a superhero story in overdrive, but The Dark Knight Returns is something more. A quarter century after its release, it remains a psychologically and thematically complex tale honed into a bullet of visceral energy, and at its heart is Frank Miller’s demand that the reader confront an aging, obsessive, and violent Batman, and walk with him into darkness.
Talking Heads and Flying Fists
The Dark Knight Returns opens with a barrage of media. Television screens, and the pundits and newscasters that populate them, take up whole swaths of the book. Miller utilizes the mass media to drop the reader into a fully formed, near apocalyptic world, a world awash with nuclear tension, gang violence, and Reaganomics. The initial effect places the reader in the setting of 1980s excess, but as the story continues, and the pundits analyze Batman’s every move like a psychoanalytic Greek chorus, the television voices portray thematic elements of schizophrenic and uncertain truth.
The world he’s created, the Gotham City terrorized by a street gang known as the Mutants and subject to fear-mongering by self-righteous faces on TV, is one in which the concept of right and wrong has been abandoned in favor of a spin zone. There is no sense of justice because no one will admit that they’re wrong. There is no sense of evil because no one will admit that the world’s problems are real. Everything is reduced to psychological conditions or differences of opinion. The aging Bruce Wayne grows furious as he languishes in retirement while electronic voices chronicle the fall of everything he spent his life protecting. Though Miller never directly shows it, you can imagine him skulking down to the Batcave late at night to watch cable news and stare at his old costume, waiting for the moment when it will snap back into place. We don’t have to see it, because Miller makes sure we’re thinking it.
When Batman finally emerges from self-imposed retirement, violence erupts in bold, titanic panels of art. The fuzzy faces that dominate the media of The Dark Knight Returns fade from view, and in their place the grinning, dementedly pleased face of Batman leaps back into action. The final three chapters of The Dark Knight Returns consist of scenes of Batman fighting The Mutants, television pundits clashing, and Batman and his new Robin leaping across Gotham’s rooftops. It’s a war between technology and physicality, analysis and action, justice and professional second-guessing.
How to Cure a Supervillain
While the Batman was in retirement and the Mutants began their rampage through Gotham, the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery was largely pacified. It’s unclear what became of the Riddler, the Penguin, or any of the minor villains (death is a possibility), but we see the Joker and Two-Face confined to Arkham Asylum under the psychological guidance of Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, a man convinced that his patients are victims of the Batman’s own psychosis, that he made them out of his unchecked aggression. Other Batman writers, most notably Alan Moore in his seminal Batman story The Killing Joke, have probed the idea that the very presence of someone like the Batman would produce a particular breed of criminal insanity. Miller agrees, but in his world, a world in which the Batman has retired, the villains have a different kind of insanity, a sort of psychic withdrawal.
Wolper, a frequent guest on the talk shows scattered throughout The Dark Knight Returns, is convinced that he can cure his star patients and reintegrate them in society. He performs plastic surgery on Two-Face to repair the scarred half of his face, operating under the theory that the scarred half of his personality would be repaired along with it. The result is nightmarish: the wrong half of Two-Face’s personality is erased, leaving him with a normal face and a forever scarred, deadly personality.
The Joker is a much tougher case to crack. Imprisoned in Arkham since the end of Batman’s reign in Gotham a decade earlier, the Clown Prince of Crime is in a catatonic state, never speaking, following the world with his eyes alone. When the Dark Knight returns to action, he utters a single word—”Batman”—and schemes to have Wolper declare him cured.
Few authors before or since Miller have gone so far in examining the relationship between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. Many writers have explored the idea that Batman and the Joker cannot exist without each other, including Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, and Miller takes this to the extreme. The Joker is muted by the absence of his rival, even castrated. Miller even goes so far, when the pair finally do square off in the story’s third chapter, as to hint at a homosexual attraction between the Joker and the Dark Knight. In the Frank Miller universe, where everything is taken to its extreme, the Joker’s need to face off with Batman becomes a metaphor for always hurting the ones we love.
The Joker’s death at the end of the third chapter, “Hunt the Dark Knight,” is both an affirmation and contradiction of the idea that Batman and his arch rival must exist together. The Batman cracks the Joker’s neck, but only to the point of paralyzing him. He can’t end him, but it’s no longer because he refuses to kill. He can’t end him because he feels it would end himself. It’s the Joker himself who switches off his own existence, using his last ounce of strength to snap his own neck. It’s the ultimate break-up, a pair that’s been together for nearly 50 years splits up with a gurgling laugh and a cracking of bone. For the Joker, it’s also the ultimate last laugh, a chance to ensnare the Batman in further trouble. But it could also be an effort to continue the fight, to push his rival/lover/twin to keep running, to keep fighting, to find something new to obsess over. His death leaves many stones unturned, but the one that matters is never in doubt: the Batman has to keep moving.
The World’s Greatest Detective and the Man of Tomorrow
As The Dark Knight Returns hurtles toward its climax, Miller raises the stakes by introducing Superman. After an era of government fear of superheroes that helped retire the Batman and forced every other hero of the DC Comics universe into exile, Superman was the last one standing. He “walked the razor’s edge,” as he put it, and saved as many people as possible with government sanction, at the price of answering to corrupt and craven politicians. For Superman, as with the Batman, justice has become a murky concept, balanced between the whims of the masses and the real, public good. As the Batman’s status as a threat to the status quo becomes clear, Superman understands that he will be ordered to hunt down his old friend.
Among the most commonly voiced criticisms of The Dark Knight Returns is its treatment of the Batman character as a whole. Some critics, among them columnist Nicholas Slayton of Comics Bulletin, say that the essential elements of the Batman character are abandoned in favor of the brutal, obsessive dimensions. The loss of his parents, his relationships with Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Robin, and his love of Gotham are all deemphasized.
The Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight Returns is 55. He’s been out of the cape and cowl for a decade. His second Robin, Jason Todd, died in the line of duty and his first Robin, Dick Grayson, no longer speaks to him. The city he swore to protect is overrun with gang violence, and the leaders of the free world he defended don’t want his help. He’s taken to wearing a mustache, perhaps as an attempt to adopt a mask for himself. He’s at odds with the world, and the only thing that makes him feel like he has any power—the Batsuit—he gave up long ago. This is not the Batman we’re used to.
It’s this sense of helplessness, coupled with an obsessive need to return to form, that Miller’s Batman grapples with. When he finally dons the cape and cowl again, it’s an orgasmic experience of energy. He’s old, he’s tired, and he’s off his game, but he is at home again in that suit. True, the angst over the loss of his parents is less prevalent here, but it’s been replaced with angst over the loss of a surrogate son and the loss of the city he swore to protect. He still loves, though, only as much as the Batman can. He still cares deeply for Alfred, admires and respects retiring Commissioner Gordon, and reluctantly accepts his new Robin. It’s not a traditional version of the character, but it is true to a central theme in the Batman’s character concept: the battle never ends.
The Dark Knight Triumphant: A Conclusion
The Dark Knight Returns is 25 years old, and it’s just as fresh and raw and bold as it was when it debuted. This is a comic book that challenged Batman readers and writers alike to probe the darker corners of the darkest of superheroes, and it shook perceptions of the Batman to their core. It’s not the traditional interpretation of the character, but that’s the point. What Miller did with this four-part comic masterpiece was imagine a Batman stripped of his youth, his energy, everything but his will to wear the suit, and made him claw his way back to whatever victory he could muster. He made the reader go there too, to that dark place where DC’s darkest hero became a driven, hulking beast intent on survival above all else.
Just as Miller stripped the Batman bare for his definitive take on the Dark Knight in his twilight, so too has director Christopher Nolan battered the Batman into an endgame. His Dark Knight trilogy begins with a Batman bent on conquering his own fears in Batman Begins, and continues to show us a Batman challenged by chaos and the burden of justice in The Dark Knight. Now, as the third and final film in Nolan’s saga, The Dark Knight Rises, is upon us, we can see parallels between Miller’s Batman and Nolan’s. Both are men burdened with purpose. Both are men in some way crippled by the understanding that they will always exist as outsiders no matter how much good they do. Both are men facing an ending who must venture out into the night one last time to save a city that may not even want them anymore. Both are men wearied and worn by a life spent fighting a battle that won’t end even when their physical endurance is gone. But just as Nolan shows us a Batman willing to keep fighting, willing to rise up, Miller revealed a Batman who—even in old age—wasn’t ready to lie down. The Dark Knight Returns remains one of the most powerful, brutal, and enduring chapters of the Batman mythos because, in the end, it’s a story about how heroes never really stop fighting.