BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!

Book Review
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS

Author: Bill Ramey
Monday, January 1, 2007

SYNOPSIS FROM DC COMICS:
"It is ten years after an aging Batman has retired and Gotham City has sunk deeper into decadence and lawlessness. Now as his city needs him most, the Dark Knight returns in a blaze of glory. Joined by Carrie Kelly, a teenage female Robin, Batman takes to the streets to end the threat of the mutant gangs that have overrun the city. And after facing off against his two greatest enemies, The Joker and Two-Face for the final time, Batman finds himself in mortal combat with his former ally, Superman, in a battle that only one of them will survive.

This collection is hailed as a comics masterpiece and was responsible for the launch of the Batman movies."

BATMAN: The Dark Knight Returns Action Figures and Deluxe Book Gift Set
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
Action Figures & Deluxe Book Gift Set

It is considered a modern comic book classic as well as one of the greatest Batman stories every told.

Originally published as a four-issue miniseries in 1986, Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (with Klaus Janson on inks and colors by Lynn Varley) reintroduced Batman to the mainstream public as the dark character in which he was originally conceived in 1939. It also helped to bring about a period of "grim and gritty" superhero comic books from the mid-1980s on into the early 2000s.

I first read TDKR about 20 years ago when I was still in college. This was back in the days when I was “too cool” for Batman, so I actually read each issue at a local mall bookstore.

Recently, I’ve been picking up various Batman novels, TPBs, books, etc. each week when I visit my comic book shop. While looking over there expansive selection, it struck me that I had not read arguably one of the best Batman stories ever in nearly two decades. So I did what every self respecting Batman fan would do: I bought the thing.

In the previous four parts of this article, I've provided a somewhat spoiler-free synopsis of TDKR. Now, here's my take on Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS...


Issue #1 of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller

TDKR: JETT'S TAKE

There is no doubt that THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is landmark in comic book history. Naturally, it is momentous in the annals of Batman as well. The trade paperback proved to be a big hit for DC Comics and remains in print some 20+ years after first being published in 1986.

On the comic book front, TDKR altered the way many in the mainstream’s perception of the medium. No longer were they simply “funny books for kids” as TDKR (and Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN) showed that comic books could be written for and read by mature audiences. It also helped to bring in the popularity of graphic novels as a form of literature.

TDKR ushered in a period of “grim and gritty” comic books from the late 1980s on into the 2000s. Furthermore, comic book super heroes began to be written and presented to readers as more “realistic” characters as well as individuals with, ahem, “issues.”

Perhaps most significant for Batman, it changed the way people in general perceived him. Frankly, most people in the mainstream considered Batman to be nothing more than the campy and silly “Adam West” version from the 1960s TV show. TDKR was instrumental in changing that view.

The success of TDKR aided in bringing the first serious live-action Batman movie, BATMAN, to the big screen in 1989. Essentially in development hell since around 1980, TDKR helped pursuade Warner Bros. that a “dark and serious” Batman film could work. Consequently, BATMAN (1989) -- which had a lot of TDKR in it -- further demonstrated to the mainstream that Batman was not about “Bam, Biff, Zap, and Pow.”

It can be argued that, TDKR did a bit of damage to the “in continuity” version of the Batman character.

In the years that followed, the creative teams behind Batman began to believe that Batman should be more like his TDKR counterpart. Thus, the era of “A-Hole Batman” was launched.

From the late 1980s up until 2005 and DC Comics’ INFINITE CRISIS miniseries, The Batman progressively developed into this brooding, bitter, and paranoid individual. To many Batman fans (including yours truly), the character had become so unrecognizable and unlikable by the 2000s, that he was simply “Batman” in name only.

Look, Batman was created to be a dark and grim character, but does he have to be a nutjob as well?

From talking to many Batman and comic book professionals, they consider Frank Miller’s work on THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS exceptional. But what writers failed to realize was that The Batman of TDKR is at the end of his career -- certainly not in the beginning or in his prime. Says the writer/artist of BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN Matt Wagner:

“I think a lot of the current depiction of Batman comes from a lot of so-so writers being swept away and confused by THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. It’s important to remember that the megalomaniacal nuttiness we see Bruce exhibit in TDKR is a state of mind he takes on after years and years of dark adventures and further tragedies. He wouldn’t necessarily be that way at the beginning of his career.”

“Still, TDKR was so powerful and had such an effect that, I think, the various creative talents who have worked on Batman have lost sight of—again—this TRANSITION!”

Onetime writer of DETECTIVE COMICS, Steve Englehart, also addressed this issue:

“Frank's stuff is brilliant, but what people who followed him never understood was, it takes place late in Batman's life, when Frank posits him as burned out. When people after Frank tried to do that Batman as a younger, ongoing character, it never really worked. And the less it worked, the more they pushed it, for a long time - to the point where, as you say, he had no human component at all.”

Frank Miller himself, on the recent BATMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE ANTHOLOGY, comments that the direction comics have taken since his TDKR as being "stupid."


The great Frank Miller

Undoubtedly, DC Comics figured this out and decided that Batman was in need of a revamp. After INFINITE CRISIS, The Batman reemerged as a Dark Knight, but one without his demons. Once again, his heroic qualities would outweigh his, well, “crazy” ones.

So how should a Batman fan take THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in terms of final days of The Batman’s career. I say it up to each individual fan to make that decision based on his own tastes and idea of who Batman “is.”

For me, TDKR is an “Elseworlds” tale -- although it is not labeled as such by DC Comics. DC does not consider the book as cannon as it takes place outside of DC’s continuity. Perhaps I’m being a bit Pollyannaish here (although this will sound funny in discussing a fictional character), but I’d prefer a better end for The Batman. I also hope society doesn’t become so bleak in the future as well -- although TDKR is clearly a product of the 1980s.

Instead of shutting it down in his mid-40s, Bruce passes the Mantel of The Bat over to Dick Grayson, who passes it on to Tim Drake, who passes it on to -- well, you get the drift. And even though someone else inhabits the Bat-suit, it is still Bruce Wayne who pushes the buttons and leads the war against Gotham’s crime for as long as he can do it.

Enough of analyzing the correlation THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and The Batman appearing in comic books today. What one must do is look at it as it really is -- a completely separate entity.

Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is definitely one of the most monumental works in comic book history and arguably the greatest single Batman story ever told. It's just a fantastic piece of literature that every comic book fan should read and make part of their collection. Also, anyone who thinks that comic books are nothing but kiddie nonsense, should be handed a copy of this book.

It's a little over 20 years since TDKR was first released, and we're still talking about it. And you can bet that people will still be reading, discussing, and analyzing THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS years from now as well.

Bill Ramey, AKA "Jett," is the founder and editor in chief of
BATMAN ON FILM, BATMAN IN COMICS, and ON-FILM.NET.

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