Widely considered to be one of the best and most important works of its kind, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns transformed the superhero genre, its media, and one of its most prominent characters. DKR greatly elevated the popularity of Batman and superhero stories in general among a wide population who were not traditionally readers of comic books, but found appeal in a graphic novel that looked attractive on a bookshelf and delivered trenchant social commentary in the guise of fiction. DKR was so influential that readers who have come along since its publication may find it pedestrian and unoriginal in comparison to later works that were, in fact, inspired by DKR. Critics’ best-of lists for graphic novels do not make the same mistake: DKR tops many such lists and rarely falls lower than #3.
The element of DKR that is perhaps most noticeable in contrast to the comics before it is the tone. Batman stories from the Forties up through the Eighties had already portrayed their share of homicidal psychopaths in action. DKR upped the stakes: We see previously taboo elements such as profanity and sex (sometimes consensual, never marital). We see guns aimed at children, bullets ripping through soldiers, multiple instances of mass murder, and a limited nuclear war. This is a hard-edged story and while some of those things might have appeared in previous stories, at their climax, in DKR this sort of savagery is practically wall-to-wall.
Perhaps more startling is the way DKR paints the moral landscape in shades of gray. The heroes aren’t all good and the villains aren’t always wrong. Enemies aren’t always the costumed lunatics with flashy names and weapons. They are the media, the politicians, and some of the bystanders. The effects of Batman’s war on crime are generally positive, but they also, unmistakably, beget more acts of violence in the form of malignant vigilantism and, most notably, the Joker’s return.
What makes the work so memorable, and its power among new audiences so great is the compelling social commentary. The world of DKR, like that of all superhero comics, has superhumans and implausible mystery men, but it also contained a compelling and haunting prophecy of a possible future for readers in the Eighties to fear. The rise in violent crime that actually occurred from the Sixties onward was projected forward into an imagined dark America verging on chaos. This was a trend that fortunately did not continue in the real America of the Nineties, but the fear that it might was credible and terrifying to see on the page. What was horrifying about the Mutant gang was not the threat they posed to Batman but the threat that forces like them might one day exist in our world.
Perhaps darker than the knives and guns of DKR’s villains was the superficial sleaze of its media. News-as-entertainment, a reality in our world, was portrayed in caricature, replacing reason and contemplation with punch lines and showbiz. Gotham’s response to Batman’s return, as all other issues in the DKR world, was determined by polls and ratings, and not even an imminent nuclear war could hold onto the short attention span of its society for more than a couple of minutes. This also in 1986 seemed to be prophetic, and actually was. Many of the more superficial traits of DKR’s television news, identifiable on today’s CNN and Fox News, combined exposition with social commentary. It pays to read carefully: When Carrie Kelly breaks up a three-card monte game with a firecracker that surprises a few but harms none, the news covers it as the game being napalmed. Distortion and emphasis on opinion over fact shape DKR’s populus into a cud-chewing mass of nearly-indifferent cattle, whose slight preference for one lie over another determines national policy and forces their superheroes to leave or go underground.
One more prophecy, which fortunately did not come true, was the imminence of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and United States. This grew out of a ground war in a fictional Latin American country, Corto Maltese, patterned after actual wars then taking place in Central America, particularly Nicaragua and El Salvador. In this respect, DKR adopts a side plot resembling the main plot of many books and movies of the time, expressing a generally held fear that a Reagan-era uptick in animosity between NATO and the Warsaw Pact might lead to nuclear annihilation. As in Watchmen, the balance of power in the fictional world hinged upon a single, nearly omnipotent, superhero on the Western side. In neither story did this superhero prove to be as decisive as hoped. In the real world, the years of maximum tension passed with the ending of the Cold War. So, in another way, DKR lost one of its compelling characteristics as time went by, but at the time of its publication, DKR and Watchmen begged the reader to consider how threatening the Cold War truly was in our world without Superman, Batman, or Dr. Manhattan.
The preceding commentary describes the world of DKR, but that is merely the backdrop for the groundbreaking portrayal of Batman, who is the central figure not only of the story, but in many ways of his entire world. The history of Batman had previously involved a wide spectrum of “darkness,” with an initially-dark Batman in 1939’s comics giving way to lighter and lighter renditions until about 1964, when things became darker and grittier, just as the Adam West television series acquainted the broad public with a campy Batman who delivered far more amusement than thrills.
But Miller’s Batman is not simply darker than previous versions of the character. He is (excepting his ten-year retirement which is seen at the start, and explained only partially) absolutely singular in his devotion to his war on crime in ways we had not seen in earlier versions. In all previous renditions of the character, he had devoted his life his life to the mission, but Miller gave us a Batman who seemed to have no other priorities whatsoever. He could joke, he could jest, but there was no indication that he sought any human comforts that might distract him from his cause. He seemed endlessly buried in the details of being Batman, and Miller explained even the most superficial trappings of the character as part of a purpose (such as the yellow symbol on his chest serving as a target to attract gunfire to his armor). Though not infallible, he was never completely off guard, even deducing from a simple power outage that a Soviet nuclear explosion had produced an EMP, and he immediately had a countermeasure in mind (traveling by horse instead of car). Miller’s Batman was – simply put – relentless, in a way seen rarely in all of literature. And so, Miller replaced in the consciousness of the wider public the Adam West Batman who was amusingly mannered with a character that is by definition the perfection of human striving, the paragon of focus and dedication. Before Miller, “Batman” meant a crime fighter who had a sidekick, a butler, and bat-themed everything else. After Miller, “Batman” means a person of singular, unwavering determination, who also happens to be an unimaginably skilled bat-themed crime fighter. And the second definition has proven to be far more compelling in the wider consciousness than the first.
The writing in DKR is so powerful that one may forget that Miller began as an artist. Eschewing the realism of a Neal Adams, Miller excels in creating a mood with his work, creating with a single face a character you’d like to know better. He’s also clever, shaping panels like TV screens, and blending a close-up of an American flag to a close-up and then zoom-out of Superman’s symbol so smoothly you don’t notice at first, but then think about it a lot once you do notice. He also worked subtext into the background, such as the bird of prey snatching a rodent as Superman threatens to arrest Batman. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the first page, narrating Bruce Wayne’s near fatal crash in a car race, symbolically encapsulates the entire story’s plot, down to the last page. The colors are perhaps even more remarkable, Lynn Varley’s paint looking nothing like the halftone dots that colored comics on newsprint over the preceding half century. The look and the feel of the graphic novel perfectly matched the more serious tone, and were instrumental in putting DKR in the hands of people who would never have bought four staple-bound comic books, no matter how cheap the price.
Above all those aforementioned virtues, the greatest power of DKR was its premise: The story of an older Batman when he comes out of retirement to address the faults of a world gone mad. This borrows a central element from the Iliad while upending the traditional serial format of comic books by skipping ahead to the “end” of the characters’ lives. The plot has no climax as such: Batman, the relentless hero, engages every source of chaos in his world and bests it. The four way division of the story pits him against Two Face, the Mutant gang, the Joker, and Superman, but he also begins to win over the new Gotham Police Commissioner, Ellen Yindel, escapes from the corrosive media spotlight, and in organizing youth into his own army, neutralizes the problem of age.
The Dark Knight Returns was, at the time it was published, the most substantial work that DC Comics had produced in decades, arguably ever. It was, of course, promptly and many times since imitated and homaged. It inspired the Burton films and Nolan films and arguably, in tone, many non-Batman superhero movies that followed. Remarkably, DKR, though set in an uncertain future, changed the portrayal of Batman in current continuity: It began a trend to make Batman “more realistic” (that is, with vaguely realistic-seeming explanations of his still-impossible feats). It broke decades of tradition by making Superman and Batman something between rivals and uneasy allies. And it suggested that in some sense, Batman’s mind is more than human, that his skill of anticipation, preparation, and utilization of his human abilities is superhuman and even absolute. All of these characteristics have been adopted and developed in later works, not because they follow DKR in story time, but because Miller’s depiction of Batman is simply more compelling (and better selling) than the Seventies Batman, a detective/gymnast/fighter who ekes out tough victories on a human level.
The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece. It changed the genre in ways that perhaps no work since has been able to, and nearly 30 years later, we may need to wait decades more for a work of greater impact to come along.