When Frank Miller’s stunning vision hit the stands in 1986, he single-handly buried the charming kitschy Batman of the 60’s and raised up a vigilante that had more in common with Clint Eastwood than Adam West.
Here was where Batman lost the “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker to become our “Dark Knight”. He no longer solved crime. He waged war on it.
This strong paradigm shift moved the entire Batman franchise – I’m sorry, that’s sloppy. There was no “Batman franchise”! He was a character DC marketed on lunchboxes and produced a comic with. Batman began to be a franchise with this series. His monthly title sold some 30,000 copies a month.
The Dark Knight Returns sold 200,000 to 400,000 copies an issue. I remember feeling lucky to get a THIRD printing of the first issue by April.
Lucky. Lucky old man.
And three years later, thanks to this success, Tim Burton’s wildly gothic Batman arrived on the silver screen. Our Dark Knight was forever cemented in the hearts and minds of America as a properly dangerous vigilante to be respected not scoffed at. A cloaked figure of the night, a gargoyle of vengeance and creature who descended from skyscrapers to terrify criminals, not run up city steps in satin blue in broad daylight.
This was not the Batman we deserved, but it was the one we needed.
Miller knew that, understood that. His iconic inks and silhouettes growl at us. Refinement is for the delicate. You did not get the carefully crafted, highly plotted dystopian future of Watchmen. No, Miller did something nearly a polar opposite: he gave us an epic myth in colors and forms suitable for opera or jazz – where the vocals are sometimes so beautiful you are lifted to the skies and sometimes so raw you swear you are face down in the mud.
Miller’s work, aided by Lynn Varley’s heart-stopping watercolors, just hit and hit and hit until you could be hit no more. There is not a dull page in the entire 4-issue series and every fanboy, filmmaker and critic since then has held this as a high water mark of excellence. They will cite all the little moments that captured their imagination; they will praise his work and sorrowfully admit his latest is not as good, but they cannot tell why.
I have a clue as to why it was so great then, and some of the secret glories in Miller’s work that are overlooked by too many fans. First, some technical reasons why it was great:
1) It Did Not Look Like a Comic Book. It was squared “Perfect Bound” [glued, not stapled] on new paper with new processes for color. It was like nothing on the shelves. We who loved comics wanted the world to see the potential in them we’d imagined — the film-quality story that had been cruelly obscured for the last twenty years by cheap paper. Pulp is cheap, disposable. Just by printing on slick paper – “Baxter paper”– you could show more detail in and more color.
2) It Was Direct Market with No Ads. Like film vs. TV, this upped the game. The entire book was for the story. I cannot tell you what it was like to hold that for the first time. It made it serious, weighty, epic.
You had to walk into the comic shop to get it, but it also meant it was not going to be beaten and abused on the newsstand or spinner rack. So when you walked in, if they had a copy, and it was visible– baby, you bought it. It was the closest thing to paying a ticket to see a Batman movie that had never been made. We drove miles and miles to get it, to experience it. You cannot understand. It was validation of a hero we’d seen done ridiculously for years.
3) Lynn Varley Showcased Color as Never Before. She rightly deserved and got front cover credit. Today we commonly use Photoshop, but that wasn’t possible in 1986. You did it by hand. And if you wanted gradients, you had to use zip-a-tone and masking. But with the slick paper and 4-color process, Lynn was able to do her gorgeous volumetric watercolors knowing they would appear sharp and clear on the prestige paper “as-is.”
4) It Had No Competition: There were not 15 graphic novels on the wall to choose from. There were not 40 collected trades on the shelf. There was The Dark Knight Returns and nothing else. Watchmen you say? That came out in September, three months after it was over. Once finished, they stood side-by-side, of course. But the first horse out of the gate was The Dark Knight Returns.
[Some Philistines opine they like Watchmen better. I nod politely. Really, you must not judge the lost.]
And now my artistic reasons The Dark Knight Returns was so great. You have never heard these before, so listen tight.
Yeah, chicken-legs. My man Just don’t shiv.
1) It was a Grand Western, not an Urban Tale. Yes it was. “But it was in Gotham City…” Yes. And caves. And mudpits. And with sheriffs. And gangs. And horses.
Remember this is Batman as Clint Eastwood would portray him. Clint made some great spaghetti westerns before becoming Dirty Harry. Just reverse the flow and end with a showdown between two gunslingers in the alley where Bruce’s parents were killed and you’ll see what Miller has done.
2) It was the Beginning of Robin[s]. This, admittedly, backfired into the demanded/desired/prophecy-fulfilling death of Jason Todd. One of our weaknesses as a race is to want to fulfill prophecies on our own timetable. We are impatient. So when Miller revealed Jason Todd as a sadly deceased figure in TDKR, no one would rest until DC made that prediction come true. Hades, DC even put it up for a vote to kill him off just a few years later. Thankfully, some good has come from that, but it meant Robin had to be replaced yet again, and that turned into Tim Drake and later, Damian Wayne. So here is where it began. Miller led the pack, though. It was Carrie Kelly – a girl – who had to become Robin. Miller credits that great decision to John Byrne.
3) It was the Conclusion of All of Batman’s Major Foes. A hero is defined by the people he loves and helps and those he cannot help but fight. From the revelation of Two-Face’s failed re-construction – the plastic surgery that did not change his soul – to the non-surprise of finding Catwoman as a high-class madam to the impeccable Tim Curry-esque depiction of the Joker [“Batman… darling.”], we see the believable end of his rogues gallery. Without them, we have so little to see and appreciate about the heart and mind of the caped crusader.
4) It Was the Conclusion of Batman and Superman, Not a Re-Definition. So many get this wrong. This is not a war between two enemies. It is a war between two ideologies.
[Insert pic Clark meets Bruce with butterfly]
Does humanity need more compassion or does it need its butt whipped? Like all real-world problems, you find the answer is “Yes.” They are two sides of the same coin. In TDKR we have both kids, all grown up: one child who can kill you with a glance and one child who’s glance terrified a killer. They have to work out their heroism differently or it is they who become evil. And their final fight ends in the only way it could – with Superman defeated and Batman dead.
But the story itself ends the only way it should – with Batman alive and Superman smiling.
5) It was Beautifully Romantic; It Was Wondrously Tragic. Nothing chaffs my left butt cheek more than reading posts by the ignorant who think The Dark Knight Returns is about the darkness in Batman and how grim he is and blah-blah-blah-blah. I wish they’d go eat their Darth Vader Cheerios and leave the adults alone.
It is not about being dark. It is about fighting the dark. Outside us is easy. Inside us? Not so much.
It shows the sadness and pathos of a good man who is relentlessly fighting evil, yet not callously nor humorlessly. From “I see a reflection, Harvey. A reflection.” to “I believe you.” to “I almost asked him why…” to “Mine’s Bruce.” to “Good soldier. Good soldier.” Miller shows, over and over, how deep the humanity and compassion of Bruce Wayne is.
That is why everyone writing gritty and grim miss the point – they think more darkness is “awesome.”
Not without the light, bunky. You’re licking coffee grounds and calling it chocolate.
And his final fight with Superman? It is not a battle born out of fear or of hate. Sure, they both have snarky thoughts, but it is battle between two good men who are deep, deep friends.
It is the end of Camelot, not Lord of the Rings. This is not Sherlock going over the falls with Moriarity. This is Kirk and Spock fighting on Vulcan during pon-farr. This is King Arthur having to fight Sir Lancelot for taking Guenevere. This is ugly, and no one wants it. It is a Lose-Lose scenario.
But that is the beauty here, so overlooked. This is Miller’s genius, lost on Watchmen fanboys.
Batman dies – but comes back. Superman is ashamed – and winks back. The heroes win, AND they keep their integrity.
They played out their drama for the cameras and calmed down the world and the governments, but in the end?
Superman has become, by default, Batman’s greatest ally. He has succeeded in making the dark knight a shadowy figure again. He’s dead – what threat can he pose?
And Batman? The boy who lost his parents so many years ago? The man who has lived in a cave ever since?
He has a family now. Not only a daughter to care for, but a team of young men to train and a peer to aid him in his cause for justice.
It is one of the most epic endings of all time. It goes through the darkness and loss and death to give hope on the other side.
And it all happened 30 years ago.
I hope, when you read it again, you will remember it as fondly as I do.