It's been ten years since the last recorded sighting of Gotham City's Dark Knight. Supervillains no longer stalk Gotham's streets, but street crime is out of control. The Joker is under maximum security in Arkham Asylum, but his psychiatrist wants him to appear on the Late Late Show for therapeutic purposes. It will give him closure, says the psychiatrist, and allow him to deal with the tremendous psychological damage caused by the Batman. Meanwhile Harvey Dent, the supercriminal formerly known as Two-Face, is about to be released from Arkham, seemingly rehabilitated and clean-faced after extensive surgery.
Robin is dead. Green Arrow has gone underground. Superman has become an invisible weapon for the US government, a one-man Delta Force answering only to the President. Commisioner Gordon is about to retire, replaced by a young woman with no tolerance for Batman's legacy. And Bruce Wayne... spends his days waiting for the perfect day to die.
Batman: the Dark Knight Returns (DKR), quite possibly the finest treatment of any of America's superpowered icons, is a 200 page graphic novel written and pencilled by Frank Miller, with ink by Klaus Janson and colour by Lynn Varley. Originally released as a four-part miniseries in 1985, it was written out of the official Batman continuity. For those unfamiliar with comic book jargon, this means it was not conceived as an extension of Batman's monthly adventures. In brief, it was Miller's vision of what would really have happened if a teenaged superhero named Jason Todd, AKA "Robin", were to die in a fight against the Joker. How would it have affected the lives and careers of the heroes who knew him - specifically, his mentor and commander, the vigilante known as Batman? How would it change the public's perception of superheroes and their high-powered war against crime? What would ordinary people, the ones just trying to pay the bills and put their kids through college, think of Batman after his crusade caused the death of a teenager? What would Batman himself think? In the official Batman continuity, these things cannot be allowed to have lasting repercussions. A hero torn by remorse and revenge is bound to either self-destruct or get bloody in the end, and an ongoing monthly series would have been impossible to sustain. This is why monthly comics and television shows rarely contain any real character growth. But given the freedom of a self-contained 200-page story, Miller was able to create a true piece of literature based in the Batman mythos. Yes, that's right, literature. I believe that "The Dark Knight Returns" is one of the best books of the Eighties.
In the pages of DKR, Batman faces lethal street gangs, neo-Nazis, Gotham's Finest, Two-Face, the Joker, and Superman himself, in the climactic battle comic readers have been waiting for since they were all five years old. But the real battle in this book is all inside Bruce Wayne's head, with commentary from TV talk shows presented as a kind of Greek chorus. Miller is merciless in his depiction of Wayne's agony - not just the familiar desire to stop criminals because of his parent's deaths, but remorse over the death of the second Robin, and an equal amount of guilt for allowing the Joker to kill innumerable victims. Wayne's fear of becoming the Dark Knight, of succumbing to the violence in his heart, is equal to his obsessive need to save innocents and stop crime by any method possible. In one brilliant showdown, we see Batman facing down a horde of thuggish gang members from inside a tank-like Batmobile, emptying thousands of rounds into the young urban savages, talking to Robin's ghost - "Rubber bullets. Honest." He is so far over the edge, he has almost become a supercriminal himself, and we don't know if he even knows the truth anymore.
But the Batman's new methods are mirrored by the change in his world. Gotham City is overrun by street crime and a particularly virulent gang known as the Mutants, a breed of evil arguably worse than anything Bob Kane could have imagined Batman would face. Commisioner Gordon is about to retire, and his replacement has declared that her first act as Commisioner will not be to apprehend the Mutant leaders, but to issue an arrest warrant for Batman. Public opinion on the Batman legend is sharply divided between those who support him vehemently, and those who accuse him of horrible civil rights violations. Public personages actually blame him for the crimes of the Joker and Two-Face, as well as the rise in youth crime and an unending wave of copycat vigilantes.
Outside of Gotham, we see American and Soviet troops gathering in the South American country Corto Maltese. Superman is depicted as both an earthbound god protecting all humanity and a personal attack dog for the Reaganesque President, destroying Soviet planes, tanks and warships in Corto Maltese on command.
When Harvey Dent, supposedly rehabilitated (at the expense of the Wayne Foundation), is released from Arkham, he immediately vanishes and goes back to his old "crew". Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has been fighting the call of the bat in his dreams, hanging out with the soon-to-retire Jim Gordon and spending most of his nights drinking in Wayne Manor and sleepwalking into the mothballed Batcave. As the worst heatwave in Gotham history breaks with a crack of lightning, Batman returns to action. At first, he fights common thugs and members of the Mutants, but soon he encounters Two-Face's goons. This scene is a triumph of sequential art. For the first 25 pages of the book - longer than most monthly issues of Batman - we do not see Batman in full uniform. At first we see only Wayne, older, sporting a Tom Selleck moustache, looking not at all like the Dark Knight. The first visual hint of the old hero comes when he shaves off the moustache while sleepwalking. Then, as the storm breaks on Gotham and the shadows claim both Wayne and Dent, we see a midnight-blue glove, a silhouette, and a handful of Batarangs in flight. On page 26, the Caped Crusader is finally revealed in a full-page drawing, caught in mid-leap towards a speeding car full of thugs, cape flaring out behind him like wings: "This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle - broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would... but I'm a man of thirty - of twenty - again. The rain on my chest is a baptism - I'm born again... I smell their fear, and it is sweet." Batman has indeed returned, cloaked in a palpable darkness that will lead him down violent and ruinous paths.
To continue summarizing the story would ruin things for new readers, so I will say no more. The book is almost guaranteed to be available in the SF/Fantasy section of any bookstore. You know what to do.
On continuity - since DKR came out, selling more copies than all the other Batman TPBs to date, a few things have happened:
- Miller wrote "Batman: Year One" in 1988. This was a prequel depicting Batman's very first adventures in the DKR continuity. As I understand it, "Year One" was not supposed to reflect upon the "official" Bat universe. However, later on it became official DC canon. In fact, at one point in time WB planned to do a version of "Batman: Year One" as the much-delayed fifth Batman movie. Miller was supposed to adapt his book, and Darren Aronofsky was picked to direct. Most Batfans were delirious with anticipation. Alas, in the endless shuffling of Batman 5 concepts, the Year One option took too long to come about, and Aronofsky has moved on to other projects. As of June 2004, filming has begun on the movie, tentatively titled "Batman Begins". It is reportedly based on the official Batman canon, which means it is loosely based on "Year One", but not an actual adaptation of that book. Is that all clear now?
- Sometime in the Nineties, a Spawn/Batman crossover was written by Miller and Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn. This book also took place in the DKR continuity, and was not reflected in the other Bat books or in Spawn.
- As of October 2001, Miller was rumoured to be hard at work on the sequel to DKR. I don't know what its name is going to be, but would suggest not using "The Dark Knight Returns Again." Update:The sequel is being launched tomorrow, December 5, 2001. It is titled "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" and will be released in three issues before getting TPB binding. Personally, I am very excited about this and am looking forward to meeting Miller at the signing tomorrow.
- If you do read DKR and are intrigued enough to try other "Comics for Grownups", I highly recommend the following: