Matthew Kresal revisits a comic book classic.
It's hard to believe that it is thirty years since one of the seminal works ever published by DC was first released. The Dark Knight Returns, initially published as a four issue miniseries, was the story that saw writer/artist Frank Miller reinvent Batman in a tale of one man's battle against not just a city and world on the brink of destruction but also against his own mortality. It was a tale that has proven, over time, to be one of the most influential Batman, and indeed comic book stories ever told.
It all starts with its lead character. A decade ago, Batman disappeared and left Gotham City to fend for itself. Bruce Wayne, the billionaire behind the mask, has grown old while he's watched Gotham become more controlled by criminals and the vicious Mutant gang. It's in this atmosphere that Wayne finally returns as Batman to face a city in crisis. This isn't a campy Batman at all, instead we are treated to a rougher, grittier version of that character. Here is a man who has returned to the role he left behind, a man who at times isn't quite sure if he is even up to it anymore but nonetheless carries on fighting not only for the sake of the city he once abandoned but to fight his inner demons as well, ever blurring the lines between hero and vigilante as he does so. Yet he will ultimately be hunted when his brand of justice is deemed too much by some, such as the new police commissioner Yindel, and a political liability to others. In short this may very well be Batman at his best.
Yet this is a battle he can't fight on his own as we learn though the cast of supporting characters, both allies and enemies. On the side of his allies are returning characters such as Alfred the Butler and retiring police commissioner Jim Gordon, along with a new Robin in the form of thirteen year old girl Carrie Kelley. On the enemies side is a who's who of villains including a supposedly reformed Harvey Dent aka Two Face, the leader of the vicious Mutant gang and even the Joker back for one final battle. Perhaps the greatest threat facing Batman though is Gotham's own police department when new police commissioner Yindel takes over. In the end, it will lead to the ultimate showdown between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel himself in a battle that blurs the lines between good and evil. Add on a range of supporting characters including satirical takes on figures of the mid-1980's such as President Ronald Reagan, David Letterman and Doctor Ruth with the result being a wide range of supporting characters.
One of the strengths of The Dark Knight Returns is that it is a fast paced story that is enjoyable even if you're not previously a fan of the DC comics universe. This was the very first graphic novel I read having finally decided to do so after seeing Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in the cinema back in 2008, a time when I had little or no knowledge of the DC universe. So if you're looking for either an introduction or just want a peak into it, here's a perfect place to begin. Why? Because the story takes place in a world unto its own, so to speak. One that is a gritty and twisted version of the mid-1980's with a city in the midst of urban decay and the Cold War threatening to go hot at any moment which is perfectly brought to life through the artwork as well as the writing. As a result, many things are explained up front very quickly, and what isn't outright explained can be inferred pretty easily (such as Superman never actually being referenced to by name). The story moves very quickly but gives the reader a chance to see things from many different points of view, not only through character monologues but through TV newscasts and the like. Even better, reading it again now after some further dipping into the DC comics universe the story has actually gotten better, not worse, with age.
Perhaps because of that, the story has a wide range of influence on further Batman comics and the character's presentation on screen. Various animated Batman television series have paid homage to the tale, most notably in the 1998 episode Legends Of The Dark Knight which presented a section from issue two. It's influence can be felt right through the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, especially in its finale which sees Bruce Wayne come out of retirement to become Batman again, while the upcoming Batman v Superman can be seen to draw inspiration as well. The Dark Knight Returns finally received a proper adaptation in the form of a two-part, two and a half hour animated film released in 2012-13 as part DC Universe Animated Original Movies series. Miller himself returned for the much derided sequel series The Dark Knight Strikes Again in 2001 while The Dark Knight III: The Master Race being co-written by Miller and Brian Azzarello began its run this past November.
So while the Cold War and 1980's elements do date The Dark Knight Returns, this tale is nonetheless an iconic Batman story. It is a faced paced tale that has plenty of action, emotion and thrills to satisfy even the most novice of readers. It is without a doubt a dark tale with little room for humor but plenty of room for social satire from the era in which it was written. As the title says: The Dark Knight Returns.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.