Retro: Why The Dark Knight Returns is Awesome

"Frank Miller's definitive graphic novel that puts the Dark in the Dark Knight"

My collection of comics and graphic novels is meagre in comparison to some of my better read fellow contributors; my book shelf has space for but a few select and treasured illustrated tales. Yet taking pride of place within the limited confines of said shelf is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. With the (semi) recent release of the excellent Dark Knight Returns animated film it seems like an ample excuse to muse over what makes the graphic novel so Awesome.

As a young teen I was thoroughly entrenched in the Marvel camp of monthly comic book purchases, The Astonishing Spiderman being my poison of choice. However, unconsciously, as I ‘matured’ so did my tastes and I began to find more enjoyment and pleasure in the grittier world of DC’s Batman. Something in the darker mythology of the Batman world struck a resonance within me and nowhere is the usage of the title ‘Dark Knight’ more appropriate than in Miller’s dystopian vision.

We find ourselves thrust into Gotham’s bleak near future; enveloped in a summer heat wave, the city is on the brink of collapse as a lawless group known as the Mutants strike fear into the heart of Gothamites. The only man standing in their way is Jim Gordon, the last moral bastion of Gotham, yet at almost seventy his retirement is fast approaching. Batman has become almost a myth, with few people choosing to believe he ever existed at all. The age of heroes appears to be over.

"Insanity just got insaner"

An aging Bruce Wayne watches all this from a distance, a broken shell, tormented by his past and by his failure to now act. That is until the supposedly rehabilitated Harvey Dent goes missing. In a state of hallucination and anguish Bruce relives his childhood trauma ending with a giant bat smashing through his window. As a thunder storm growls overhead, we begin to see flickers of the Caped Crusader as Mutant gang members are attacked and citizens saved from brutal violence.

Much of the graphic novel’s narrative is framed by a series of media news shows which debate the intentions of Batman as a force for good or evil. This results in some frequently funny scenes where anti and pro Batman campaigners argue back and forth with one another to the point of exasperation. One hilarious segment shows two psychologists (the same who released, the now missing, Harvey Dent) argue that Batman is the menace whilst their patients (such as the Joker) are the victims, psychologically scarred by their encounters with the Batman.

Whilst these claims that Batman is a mental stimuli for the crimes of their patients falls on deaf ears, by the conclusion of Miller’s epic tale they’d maybe have a point. Through the novel we see Batman engage with several different enemies and each encounter is an exercise in brutal violence. This is no better demonstrated than when after immobilizing, his younger (and stronger), opponent he tells him ‘this is the operating table…and I’m the surgeon’ before proceeding to paralyse him. In my opinion it is moments such as this where Miller’s text transcends other iterations of Batman, he is willing to address the boundaries of the character and push them well beyond what had been done before. Ultimately Miller is presenting us with a future where Batman has failed, Gotham and its citizens are at the mercy of criminals, and in order to return balance to the city Batman must push himself and his moral code to its limit. We see this most notably in novel’s final battle which sees Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, awake from his comatose stupor (caused by Batman’s ‘retirement’) to throw hands one final time.

"I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you."

Whereas we can see Batman: Year One as a keystone of Batman Begins, equally I believe we can see The Dark Knight Returns as an influential text in the creation of The Dark Knight Rises. Firstly the aforementioned debate over Batman’s intentions, good or evil, is a riff which runs throughout The Dark Knight Rises, culminating in the jaw dropping sequence where Batman outruns the GCPD on the Batpod. During this scene Nolan even pinches a light hearted moment from the graphic novel where two cops, having heard of Batman’s return, talk excitedly with the elder of the two quipping ‘We’re in for a show, kid’. However the place where the two texts most resemble one another is through their exploration of Batman’s aging and increasingly fragile body and psyche. Whereas Nolan’s Bane provides a more than ample physical challenge, Miller’s novel pits our hero against several physically superior foes, the Mutant leader and Superman most notably.

This graphic novel deserves plaudits for its merits as a story of excellence in its own right, however what makes it Awesome, in my opinion, is the legacy it left behind. The more adult orientated Batman which we find now in this renaissance period of comic book heroes exists because of Frank Miller’s work. The DNA of this Batman is one which runs through both Burton’s, Nolan’s, and to a lesser extent Schumacher’s, Batman films. Read this story, bath in its dystopian vision, and learn where the Batman we now know and love, came to be.

This has been Tomby for the Awesome Update…


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