Bat With A Vengeance
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its forty-sixth choice, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, reviewed by Tripwire contributing writer Laurence Boyce…
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller and Klaus Janson
Colourist: Lynn Varley
Letters: John Costanza
“The rain on my chest is a baptism – I’m born again.”
The image accompanying this quote sees Batman – back in Gotham City after a long absence – leaping into the night sky with a savage grace. Muscles are taut, the visible part of his face is contorted into a grimace of intimidation and his cape frames the rest of body. This is Batman not only as icon but as archetype. A mythological figure burst back into the human world to set them on the path of righteousness.
At the time The Dark Knight Returns was seen as something of a rebirth for the character of Batman, a reconfiguration of a costumed hero who – in the mainstream media at least – was still Adam West dancing the Watusi. Today, more than three decades since it was first published, Frank Miller’s classic work has become one of the defining influences of the character as we know him today. From Tim Burton to Norm Breyfogle to Scott Snyder to Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Returns looms large in the mythos of Batman in a way in which no other has done.
The story follows an older Bruce Wayne, his costumed alter-ego retired. Yet Gotham City is still the crime ridden cess pool of old. Batman’s rogues gallery may be locked away – mostly under the care of psychiatrists waiting to sell their next books as much as help those under their care – but the criminals still roam the streets. As a vicious new gang called The Mutants bring a new wave of violence, Bruce Wayne can no longer keep the Bat cooped up inside him. As Batman re-enters the world, one question becomes apparent. Will Batman adapt to a new world, or will the world be forced to change itself in his image?
There’s still an urgency, a vitality, a freshness to Miller’s work more than 30 years since it was first published. The Dark Knight Returns gives us an America that is something akin to an urban hell. The streets are awash with a population too scared to live or too emboldened by causing fear itself. All the time the media act like a venal Greek chorus, amplifying their terror and letting a string of pop culture theorists and uniformed experts pollute the world with their opinions. Superman works in secret, little more than a government puppet (“Yes”—you always say yes—to anyone with a badge—or a flag.”). The rest of the superheroes have retreated from a world jealous of their success and status. Batman becomes the figure to shake a population from their malaise, to reclaim the world for the righteous. To bring back a symbol that people can rally around.
There’s little restraint on offer here, in a narrative that offers a succession of bold set pieces. The rebirth of Batman, climatic confrontations with the likes of Two Face and The Joker and an almost legendary fight sequence with Superman. Everything is built around a series of iconic moments, each one upping the stakes and the tension. There’s little time for reflection or release. Everything moves forward with an unrelenting pace as Batman faces not only a new world but the increasing indications of his mortality.
It’s certainly easy to see The Dark Knight Returns as a right wing fantasy writ large especially in terms of Miller’s later work and beliefs (though he has since distanced himself from his more outrageous views). Batman appears to reclaim the streets, to throw away due process and deal with the guilty as he sees fit (“You’ve got rights. Lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy.”) But hasn’t this always been true of the Batman character? Traditionally the problematic aspects of his psyche – the undoubted psychological problems of a man who decide to use his great wealth to weaponise himself and others into a war on crime – have been buried deep within the narrative. Here the problematic aspects are dragged to the forefront, brought into sharp relief. We’re allowed to explore them, examine his flaws, debate his methodology. Miller’s treatment of Superman, as the bright blue boy scout who’ll do anything the government says (his recent Superman: Year One shows that his feelings may have mellowed) shows where his sympathies ultimately lie. But for all its urgency and forthrightness, there is still room for more of a degree of subtlety than its reputation may belie.
But for all its darkness, there is an underlying sense of humour throughout and a sharp sense of the ridiculous. A selfish yuppie, Byron Brassballs, keeps getting his deserved comeuppance. The various TV pundits (one of whom bears a very similar likeness to David Letterman) are treated mostly with disdain and given ridiculous personalities. The new iteration of Robin – the female Carrie Kelley – leaves her parents who are too high to even notice she’s gone (“Hey, didn’t we have a kid?”). These provide relief against the darkness as well as a satirical bite.
For all its political comment and satire, The Dark Knight Returns is also a wallow in comic book lore. Its reconfiguration of classic characters – a bitter Oliver Queen whose lost one arm, an old and bloated Selina Kyle, the aforementioned new version of Robin – plays with mythology with glee. It is perhaps difficult nowadays to appreciate the boldness, the difference of something like this once was when – now – every second comic book is an ‘alternate history’.
Miller’s art is scratchy and angular, creating a world of chaos that is urgent and sharp. There’s a constant play between realism and the grotesque, the outré world of the superhero clashing with the grubby world of humanity. The imagery is often striking: the aforementioned ‘reborn’ Batman, a leering, sexualised Joker or a dessicated, husk like Superman floating in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Lynn Varley’s washed out watercolours contrast with the traditional world of the comic book – all bright and primary.
Along with Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns ushered in a ‘dark ages’ of comics with psychological problems and despair becoming the watchword for the medium. That, and its subsequent influence on Batman as a whole, would seem to have dented its impact. But that’s clearly not true. As vital and provocative as it was when it was first released, The Dark Knight Returns is not only one of the towering works within the Batman canon but also one of the greatest examples of the medium ever published.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far