Our book today is that megalith of all comic book graphic novels, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which ran as a four-issue mini-series in 1986 and was collected into a single volume shortly thereafter. I recently re-read it on the occasion of giving it as a gift to a friend who’ll never read it at all (proselytising about graphic novels is almost as fruitless as proselytising about Erasmus), and as always in such instances, there’s the fear that you’ll discover you’ve been venerating and recommending something for years that turns out to be not all that good. When it comes to Dark Knight Returns, this isn’t too great a fear – Miller’s quirks, obsessions, and shortcomings are well-known to me, and there were certain factors in the run that had me keeping it at emotional arm’s length from the moment Locke Peterseim showed me the first issue – but nevertheless, I was happy to find that it all holds up quite well. Despite the fact that the story is very much rooted in the early 1980s (David Letterman, Dr. Ruth, President Reagan, rampant crime, the threat of nuclear war with the Russians, etc.), Miller has managed to make out of it something that feels timeless. The atmosphere, the narrative energy, the iconic action sequences (plus the great inking by Klaus Janson and the shrewd coloring by Lynn Varley) – all the stuff that works here works perfectly.
As perhaps even non-comics people will know by now, the story is set in a dark, dystopian near-future in which Gotham City (the richly baroque architecture of which is one of the little revelations of Miller’s artwork throughout) is a seedy rat-hole engulfed in crime, its citizens a shambling mass of misshapen zombies preyed upon by ‘mutant’ street gangs whose crimes are virtually unchecked by the outnumbered and out-gunned Gotham police force headed by stalwart Commissioner Gordon, who’s facing mandatory retirement. In the world of this graphic novel, it’s been ten years since the last sighting of the notorious urban legend crime-fighter Batman, and all the other famous superheroes of the DC lineup – Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Superman – have likewise disappeared.
We know where to look for one of them, at least: Miller turns his eye on stately Wayne Manor, where we find a fifty-something Bruce Wayne drinking himself into oblivion every night, lost in bitterness and inner defeat. The TV news brings him clips of all the atrocities going on in the city he once protected, and slowly, in the first chapter, the depravity eats away at whatever vows he’s made to keep him away from it all. In a wonderfully-realized sequence, his long-slumbering duty awakens and he dons his cape and cowl again.
He quickly runs up against not only his old Rogue’s Gallery but also against Miller’s seething, bubbling hippie-nutjob paranoia, which sees very little difference between neo-Nazi street gangs and the U.S. government. When news of Batman’s return begins to spread, it isn’t just the street gangs that get their hackles up – it’s the government too, headed by a very geriatric Ronald Reagan and enforced by a gloriously ageless Superman. Miller portrays the Man of Steel as a Republican lapdog content to remain covert so long as the government gives him permission to help people once in a while (why he’d need such permission is never explained – we never see him help anybody except the U.S. military). We’re privy to this Superman’s thoughts about his former colleague: “You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough. When the noise started from the parents’ groups and the sub-committee called us in for questioning, you were the one who laughed – that scary laugh of yours – ‘Sure we’re criminals,” you said. “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.’ We almost threw a party when you retired.”
Batman fights Two-Face, recruits a new Robin, has a gritty, final confrontation with the Joker, but all of it becomes prelude to the craziest distraction of the entire book, something so fundamentally nonsensical it almost derails everything: Miller decides he can’t conclude his story unless Batman has an actual fist-fight with Superman and wins. None of it makes any sense – reading it, you get the clear feeling of the climactic Batman-Joker confrontation that would have been the centerpiece of the book if this whole Superman distraction hadn’t overtaken Miller. But such is the strength of his storytelling gifts that the thing succeeds anyway; Batman gets to strike one last definitive blow against what Miller views as the ultimate fascist authority-tool, and it’s all done with such epic assurance that fans have loved it every since. Loved it to the point of consistently voting Dark Knight Returns one of the two greatest comic book graphic novels of all time, alongside Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. Certainly even the most overblown claims those fans make about the impact of Dark Knight Returns have plenty of truth in them: this thing changed superhero comics forever, permanently removing their whimsy and elevating their intelligence. The recently-ended (and hideously overpraised) trilogy of Hollywood Batman movies would have been unthinkable without this book, as of course would all the later elaborations done by Miller himself (the inspired Batman: Year One, the execrable Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and the oddly entertaining Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder).
And here at the beginning of all that, the original does indeed, thank God, hold up fairly well. Small consolation for a paperback that will sit unread on a snob’s bookshelf until the next Salvation Army donation drive … but some forces even Batman can’t fight.