How Batman moved from campy 1960s high jinx to the gritty brooding realism we know and love today. Welcome to a dark, threatening and hopeless Gotham City. In which gangs rule, the government is corrupt, violence and brutality are the order of the day and the media distorts and lies about everything. And the few citizens not cowed by this decent into anarchy ask “Where is Batman?”
Reborn in Darkness: From Campy to Grim
‘The Dark Knight Returns’ by Frank Miller is a classic masterpiece that redefined Batman’s character and his world forever. Gone was the naïve optimism and good natured humor of earlier decades. This graphic novel was a loss of innocence, when Batman entered the real world.
Frank Miller lived in New York City during the 1980’s. It was a scary time to live in NYC. Gang violence was rampant, serial killers were terrorizing the city and the government seemed corrupt and impotent. Miller got mugged several times, incidences that clearly left him traumatized.
It is this sense of decay and insecurity that riddles the pages of The Dark Knight Returns.
Bruce Wayne, the Batman, is old. He is no longer the flawlessly handsome, infinitely athletic man who is perpetually 29. He has wrinkles. After a lifetime of extreme abuse, his body doesn’t have the strength and speed of his youth. Defeated. Retired from the role of Batman ten years ago. Retired to the life of an old playboy, who feels dead inside and has grown to hate the city he once loved. Because just like him, the city has given up…
A violent sociopathic ‘youth’ gang called the ‘Mutants’ is pillaging and raping their way through Gotham. A heat wave is putting everybody further on edge. The villain Harvey Dent, ‘Two-Face, is released from Arkham Asylum –declared as reformed and cured by his over eager psychiatrists.
In the face of all this Bruce is haunted. Haunted by his failures. Haunted by the tragedy that gave birth to Batman. Haunted by the carnage of Gotham burning, with nobody to save it.
And in his darkest moment an omen comes to him. Hitting rock bottom in the lake of despair that is drowning him, Bruce Wayne sees a sign. In the darkness a bat crashes through his window. Something comes alive in a dead man.
Somebody starts striking back against the Mutants and criminals terrorizing Gotham. We see how the ‘good’ citizens of Gotham ignore and collaborate with the evil that is tearing them apart. Soon the rumors that the Batman is back flow through the city.
A young girl is saved and inspired. A nemesis that had withdrawn from the world wakes from his stupor.
But the public is split. The media calls the Batman and vigilante, a criminal. Thugs and murderers lawyer up and work the system in order to get off on technicalities and banalities of the law.
Is A World Drowning in Brutality & PC Culture Too Much for the Batman?
We get to see a much darker Batman. One who isn’t overly concerned with political correctness, legalities or empathy for evil doers. A Batman willing to kill, maim and torture.
It looks like Harvey Dent isn’t a reformed as we thought he was. And he is planning something big. Still behind bars, we see a much more deliberate and cold Joker maneuvering to use Dent’s plans for his own ends.
A young girl takes up the mantel of Robin and manages to touch the heart of a man who had long cut himself off from other people. Can Batman and Robin stop the Mutants and whatever plans the Joker may have for them?
To beat the Mutants, Batman will have to break them. But what happens when Batman and Robin have to go up against a corrupt and perverted establishment? Politicians who avoid solving problems and keep passing the buck down the chain of command.
An old friend of Batman’s and true American icon allows his patriotism and respect of authority to be turned against him. Will Superman’s weakness in the face of despicable and manipulative politicians lead to nuclear war? Will Clark Kent betray his oldest friend, when he becomes a political embarrassment?
When Batman is declared public enemy number one and an ambitious and political new commissioner replaces Jim Gordon. The Bat and Gotham PD are headed for a show down. All while the Joker starts his final scheme of horror and madness. If that isn’t enough, the Mutants make one last push to take over Gotham.
Can Batman, Robin and the Sons of Batman gang stop them?
Frank Miller dystopian take on Batman is chilling. He captured the spirit of the times through the eyes a pop culture icon. Yet in all this there is a message of hope. That when all seems lost, and the majority are cowed by monsters, a few brave souls will stand up against the darkness.
The theme of dark and light is a very important in The Dark Knight Returns. Batman was born of and lives in darkness. The evil he fights claims and uses darkness. But in the end, the dark is only a tool for Batman to serve the light.
Okay enough abstract thinking.
The Art and Writing of The Dark Knight Returns
The writing in The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel is awesome. The characters we know and love actually feel and act like believable future versions of themselves. And while the story is tinged with the social issues of the 1980s, it still resonates today. This isn’t just a graphic novel about a superhero growing old and seeing everything he has spent his life fighting for fall apart. This is a very strong critique about society, apathy and governance. Sounds heavy but Miller manages to weave all of these strands into a complete and captivating narrative.
I loved the interactions and genuine affection between Bruce and the new Robin. Bruce’s friendship and arguments with Clarke Kent (Superman) are also very realistic.
The use of TV news report to create an atmosphere of tension and to parody the media in general was very smartly done. You see the media giving attention to anyone who can create drama and therefore increase ratings.
We see the obsessive, almost psychotic, desire that some in the more progressive parts of society (and institutions) have about rehabilitating people that have continually shown themselves to be beyond all help (by nature or by choice who can say).
We see how money plays the legal and political system and that under the right circumstances we are all capable of being corrupted.
We see the scariest thing of all –apathy and a breakdown of civic spirit. If it’s a taxi driver willing to allow a pimp to attack and mutilate a prostitute in his cab (for money, dog eat dog world). Or a respectable middle class office worker pushing a crippled beggar to his death onto railway tracks –rationalizing that he felt threatened and that ‘these people’ aren’t really normal human beings (class warfare?).
Frank Miller is the grand master of black and white art, as he later demonstrates in Sin City. Yet, The Dark Knight Returns stands out for another reason. Miller’s minimalistic style shows so much with very little. It’s hard to describe so I’m going to show you instead.
Millers style leans towards the cartoonish but his careful and sparse use of detail and shading give it an aura of visual realism that is incredible.
The coloring in this graphic novel is amazing. It looks simple until you look closer and realize that you are not looking at one tone but a very subtle shading that lends the art work a very discreet painted look. You can also differentiate between the main characters and everybody else –because the important players stand out very unobtrusively.
The Dark Knight Returns is a monumental work in the realm of superhero fiction and a must read. Part thriller, part political commentary –this graphic novel stands out through its deep atmosphere and involving narrative.
Follow Batman on his last case… ever.
Enjoy reading this masterpiece of US superhero fiction.
PS: Want to read it? Get The Dark Knight Returns (30th Anniversary Issue) here.