I’ve never been 100 per cent convinced that Batman always has to be a brooding, gritty and dark character. Of course, that’s his most popular characterization, made famous in recent years thanks to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film trilogy. What cast aside that brooding image for me was watching the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which successfully explored the lighter side of the Dark Knight, pairing him up with a slew of DC heroes to create stories I would have never thought imaginable.
That being said, I don’t mean to come across as someone who hates Batman noir. When brooding Batman is done right, it can be spectacular. Such was the case with a graphic novel I knew of for many years but hadn’t read until earlier this week, The Dark Knight Returns, by the legendary Frank Miller, known for his work with 300 and Sin City.
The basic premise of The Dark Knight Returns features the return of Batman after 10 years of inactivity. As Bruce Wayne himself points out at the beginning of the book, in a conversation with Jim Gordon, Batman didn’t survive, but Wayne is alive and well.
Gotham is overrun by the Mutant Gang, led by a bloodthirsty leader who wants to tear the city apart. Miller makes an interesting choice in coming up with Bruce’s rationale for bring Batman out of retirement. He illustrates the metaphor of the bat as a literal thing—Bruce can’t escape its grip once it comes after him.
Naturally, Batman’s resurfacing ruffles feathers, and not just the criminals who suddenly have to deal with the re-emergence of evil’s greatest enemy. Jim Gordon is set to retire, and Gotham’s indecisive mayor elects Ellen Yindel, a woman whose stance on Batman is that he needs to be put in jail.
Soon after Batman hits the streets, he ends up rescuing a girl named Carrie Kelly, who ends up becoming the first full-time female Robin after she saves Batman from nearly being killed by the leader of the Mutants.
There’s one particular scene in the book that I would become aware of before reading it, courtesy of an episode of The New Batman Adventures called “Legends of the Dark Knight.” The story in that episode, and the story in the comic, are more or less the same—a much older Batman and a red-haired, female Robin take on a gang of mutants in the Batmobile, which has been reconfigured into a huge freaking tank. Some of the dialogue in the episode is also straight from the comics—at one point, Batman says “Young people these days…No respect for history.” Later, as Batman begins to shoot at the Mutants, he reassures Carrie by saying, with a grin: “Rubber bullets. Honest.”
Later on, the Joker is released from Arkham Asylum and plots to (and ends up succeeding in) killing hundreds of people, and soon after that the police, under Yindel, are fast closing in on the wanted Batman. As Batman physically hurts his enemies more than ever, the public begins to see Batman as more of a menace, especially when an anarchistic group called the Sons of Batman begin attacking criminals in the name of “justice.” Eventually, the US government sends their chief superhero to stop Batman; that government weapon is none other than the Man of Steel himself, Superman.
I don’t want to go into the plot too much, especially for those who want to be surprised by this saga’s ending, so I’ll leave the plot summary as is.
The art style is definitely something that will be loved or hated. Miller’s style is pretty unique, often making characters monstrous, perhaps as an outer manifestation of their monstrous thoughts. At certain points, Miller makes Superman look like the least perfect being in the universe. Batman looks occasionally liked a crazed savage. The Mutants are outright terrifying,
But at other times, his art style is striking. The first large panel where Batman is seen on a horse is nothing short of breathtaking, even more so when he appears with his “army” in tow.
Characterizations do suffer a little, however. When I read Year One, another Miller Batman story, I was not pleased with his turning Catwoman/Selina Kyle into a prostitute. He continues this characterization here, and Kyle in her old age seems to not be able to do anything but complain and yell at people. I miss the charming, unpredictable Selina of The Animated Series and beyond.
This world of Batman is certainly an absorbing one. As Batman became more brutal, I found a small part of me agreeing with the TV talking heads on why he was such a menace. On the other hand, Miller’s clear disdain for government officials (particularly his portrayal of the eternally-smiling president) is presented well, and his politicians made me (and probably most other readers) despise them greatly.
This is probably the pinnacle of Miller’s writing, at least as far as I see it. In the next edition of Reading Comic Books Out of Order, I’ll be taking on another Miller tale of Batman, and it’s probably Miller’s low point.