Fundamental Comics: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ and the Lasting Legends

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or lesser-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson
Colorist: Lynn Varley
Letterer: John Costanza
Introduction: Alan Moore
Publisher: Titan Books Ltd, 1986


It’s 1986. The optimism of the fifties and sixties has collapsed, and we’re deep in the mire, suffering the long-term effects of the seventies' energy crisis. In the meantime, our comic book heroes have become outdated, poised in anachronistic limbo while the world has turned and we’ve had no choice but to follow. We’ve grown up, grown older, have become tattered and worn at the edges, and we are crying out for something new. Enter Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in four parts, consisting of The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt the Dark Knight, and The Dark Night Falls.

It’s introduced by Alan Moore, who not only reminds us of the importance of time in myth and legend, but also suggests we have become more knowledgeable and sophisticated as the world races along at a faster pace and information technology has enabled us to discover so much more about the world in which we live. Frank Miller has, therefore, turned forward the fingers of the clock, recreating a legendary Batman with whom we can now identify—older, flawed, and weighed down with the baggage of his earlier years.

The Plot

While Commissioner Jim Gordon contemplates his upcoming retirement, a gang of criminals—the Mutants—terrorizes the citizens of Gotham, inspiring Bruce Wayne to bring the Batman out of a ten-year retirement and reinvigorate a city suffering from years of despair and apathy.

Taunted by his violent alter ego, and tormented by past events, Batman goes after the crooks, all the while lamenting that he isn’t as young as he used to be. Aside from Gordon, older members of the police department, and a young Carrie Kelley who assumes the role of Robin, he has little by way of support.

His arrival, coincidentally or otherwise, also gives rise to two of his old foes—the perennially conflicted Harvey “Two Face” Dent, and his old nemesis, the psychopathic Joker—both of whom take full advantage of the non-combatant attitudes of the day, in order to escape and get back to their deadly business. Consequently, a media storm of criticism follows as chaos reigns and the battle takes to the streets.  The lines between good and bad become blurry and incoherent. Opinions are whipped into a frenzy by the incessant talking heads on TV who fan the flames of contentious discourse and remark that there’s little difference between Batman and his foes.

It’s a dirty job bringing Gotham’s villains to justice, and while Batman works on the ground floor, using any means necessary to defeat his foes, his erstwhile colleague, Superman, is high in the sky, keeping a low profile while fighting lofty Cold War battles on behalf of the U.S. Government.

However, it isn’t long before distant wars come home to roost, and an electromagnetic pulse bomb explodes, plunging the city of Gotham into darkness and chaos. Batman goes old school, becoming the dark knight on horseback, rallying the citizens against the rising swarm of villains taking advantage of the shadows.

In the aftermath, the President (Ronald Reagan, as reflects the era) asks Superman to bring Batman to heel, and we witness a final battle between the two superheroes. It’s an unenviable fight, tainted by Superman’s reluctance and Batman’s bitter determination to teach his fellow a lesson, and despite help from a one-armed Green Arrow, it’s a battle nobody wins. Or do they?

Reception Upon Release

Originally released by DC Comics as a mini-series, it was a commercial and critical success, and is still in print, today. It kicked open heavy, gothic doors to a darker, re-imagined creative era, and became a major influence to future storytellers and filmmakers alike.

Critical Analysis

Looking back, it’s easy to ignore the importance of The Dark Knight Returns now that it’s buried beneath everything that came after. In the years since its arrival, we have seen the release of dark epics such as the Black Lantern Corps, while directors such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have picked up the gauntlet and produced a wealth of cinematic dark storytelling. Is there any need, therefore, to go back and revisit the graphic novel that started it all?

One of the things that strikes home when delving into The Dark Knight Returns—it isn’t just about Batman, Superman, the cops, and the villains. There’s a significant story running right alongside, involving the power of legend and its effect on the everyday people living in Gotham. In fact, some of the best scenes in The Dark Knight Returns involve Gotham’s citizens as the story tumbles everyone inexorably into a vat of terror, anarchy and despair, where making the right choices, and doing the right thing, seems impossible.

Behavior runs the gamut. We see a downtrodden woman, struggling to make ends meet, cruelly blown to pieces by the Mutants. We see a small business owner, disapproving of Batman’s methods and yet using them as inspiration to fight back. There are people caught up in the panic to stay alive, some of whom manage to turn the tide, heed the rallying call and help one another, while others remain blithely committed to their own selfishness. Here, heroism is a fickle flame, jumping from one character to another, sputtering beneath a storm of apathy and willful brutality, before reigniting, raw and unexpected, powered by the legend of Batman and its indelible spark of courage and inspiration.

Ultimately, this is about us. It’s always been about us: how we’re seduced, how we crumble and fall, and how we regain our feet despite intolerable odds. The difficulties are immense, and yet, when examining what really matters, Commissioner James Gordon perhaps puts it best while musing over his retirement: “I think of Sarah. The rest is easy.”

Relevancy Today

What’s changed since 1986? Have we managed to claw our way back to a more innocent, idealistic era, or have we since discovered that idealism and innocence never truly existed in the first place? In our current political climate, would Batman and Superman still be at odds, or would they finally be in agreement on what constitutes a superhero? And are the talking heads on TV any less ridiculous than they were all those years ago?

Throughout human history, we have built our legends to last, to inspire and accompany us through our journeys in life. Like us, on occasion, they stumble and fall, but in doing so help us evaluate ourselves and the world in which we live. In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Miller introduces fallibility and the element of time, and in doing so allows our cape-clad hero to tread the same path through life and brings him closer to our hearts and minds.

Other Points of Interest

Sequels to The Dark Knight Returns include—

The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001)
The Dark Knight lll: The Master Race (2015 – 2017)

Awards include—

1987 Jack Kirby Award: Best Single Issue (Dark Knight Returns #1)
1987 Jack Kirby Award: Best Finite Series (completed in 1986)
1987 Jack Kirby Award: best Graphic Album

Janet Joyce Holden is the author of Carousel, The Only Red Is Blood, and the vampire series, Origins of Blood. Originally from the UK, she now lives on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 May 2018 18:46

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