Title: The Dark Knight Returns
Author: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, John Costanza, and Lynn Varley
Genre: Graphic Novel
Stand alone or series: Part of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Universe
Summary: (from DCComics.com)
It is ten years after an aging Batman has retired and Gotham City has sunk deeper into decadence and lawlessness. Now as his city needs him most, the Dark Knight returns in a blaze of glory. Joined by Carrie Kelly, a teenage female Robin, Batman takes to the streets to end the threat of the mutant gangs that have overrun the city. And after facing off against his two greatest enemies, the Joker and Two-Face for the final time, Batman finds himself in mortal combat with his former ally, Superman, in a battle that only one of them will survive. This collection is hailed as a comics masterpiece and was responsible for the launch of the Batman movies.
Why did we read this book: This is Thea’s all-time favorite graphic novel. Since we had set up the Batman Long Weekend, it wouldn’t be right NOT to read and review this classic.
Thea: It started with economics. My freshman year at UCLA, my boyfriend and I were both economics majors. Dear BF was a year ahead of me, and realized that in order to proceed with the major and to graduate, he would have to take an English II writing requirement class, so he picked the basic “easy” course where all the reluctant math/econ/sciences (basically, the “literature-challenged” kids) enroll to get the requirement out of the way. And, one of the books he was assigned to read was none other than Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. And I was insanely jealous–every day he would come back from lecture and be energized, babbling away, discussing the intricacies of Gotham and Bruce Wayne with me. Now I had read a few Batman comics, was a big fan of the animated series, but had never read The Dark Knight Returns; and so, once my boyfriend’s class had finished, I stole the graphic novel for my own, and delved in, eager to see what all the fuss was about. **On a side note, this class convinced my bf that he needed to change majors, and he graduated with a degree in English. Thus is the power of the Batman.**
Holy canoli, Batman. This was something else.
The Dark Knight Returns is the Omega of Frank Miller’s Batman arc (not counting the sequel following this one), and deals with an aged, frustrated Batman in a world that no longer wants him. This is my all time favorite graphic novel, and there is no way we could do a long weekend focused on the Caped Crusader without discussing this quintessential book.
Ana: Let me start by saying that I love super-heroes. As a child I loved nothing more than to watch the JLA cartoons. I watched every single super hero movie that would fall on my hands – all the Supermans and all the Batmans and everything in between. But when it came down to actually read the source material, i.e. comic books, I was always a Marvel Comics kind of gal. ( I read every single issue of the X-Men and it’s spin -offs, from number one up to the point where Magneto extricated Wolverine’s adamantium from his skeleton. That was way too painful to read and I realised that I had become too obsessed and was spending too much money so I quit my comic book addition. But I digress). I always thought the DC super-heroes, mainly Super-Man were too goody-goody for my tastes. The one exception was of course, Batman, the Dark Knight himself. Even though I never read the source material, I still followed the discussions, the movies and had friends who read and talked about the story arcs and graphic novels. Then came Batman Begins and I absolutely loved it. Best super-hero movie I had ever seen. Christian Bale knocked my socks off as Batman.
This rather long introduction is to say that when Thea proposed that we had the Batman long weekend and that we should read and review Dark Knight Returns I jumped at the opportunity. Graphic novels are my new found obsession and from everything she said to me about Dark Knight Returns, I knew I was in for a treat. What I didn’t know was that I would stare in awe at the book when I was done with it. From page one , this surprised and unsettled me and one word kept creeping through my mind as I was reading it: Definitive. This is the definitive Batman story. I know this with every fiber of my being even if I had never read single issue of any Batman comics. This is both for the uninitiated and for the long-time fans. Definitive, ultimate, essential.
On the Plot:
We open the story with Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon celebrating retirement–Gotham is a more modern city, and calls for new blood to fill in their roles. Batman has been retired 10 years since, and Bruce has taken to drinking, and hoping for the best. Gordon is eager for his retirement, to finally hang the badge up and trust that the next generation will be able to deal with the problems Gotham has always faced. Bruce, however, cannot accept his forced retirement. He feels empty, and numb, and he grows restless–he feels the beast within stirring.
The plot also follows the gang of criminals called the Mutants, and their misguided attempts at causing any kind of difference in the city–the gang is comprised of youths, who dress to fit an image, and speak in slang. There’s Harvey Dent, whose face has been restored via reconstructive surgery and who, according to the doctors at Arkham, has been completely rehabilitated, and ready to leave (his surgery has been paid for by Bruce Wayne, though the media isn’t so sure what the connection is). When Harvey is released, however, he immediately disappears, and reinstates himself as a boss in the Gotham crime circuit.
It is this, then, that causes Bruce Wayne to don the mask, one more time. He stops Two-Face, and appears once more to the public as the Batman. Only, this time around, the public does not want him. Increasingly he is seen as a menace and an unwelcome problem that inspires crime–later we see the Mutants assume Batman’s image and call themselves part of Batman’s army, as they main and kill criminals instead of leaving the job to the proper authorities.
There’s Carrie Kelley, 13 year old girl, thoroughly ignored by her parents and willing to help Batman in any way she can. She dons the suit, and joins the battle.
There’s the Joker, who manages one final escape from Arkham, and in one last killing spree, brings a dramatic conclusion to his love affair with Batman.
There are the politicians that have no idea what to do about the Batman. The new Police Commissioner who is idealistic to a fault, the Mayor quaking in his boots, the Governor, and ultimately the President himself. Not that the Batman is the prime focus for the politicians–full scale nuclear war breaks out in an attack from the Soviets, and the president sends in ‘his boy’…
…the Man of Steel. Serving as the country’s golden boy in red, white and blue, he’s sent to fight off the communist attack. And then, when nuclear winter strikes and all the power across Gotham goes out, Batman, Robin, and their band of former ‘mutant’ followers bring order to the chaos. Finally, the government decides that enough is enough–and send in Superman to deal with the vigilante problem for the final time.
Thea: This is Frank Miller at his very best. His multiple, intricate story lines never meander and are deftly plaited together to form a story that is as darkly beautiful as it is complex. The storytelling here covers a lot of ground and brings the Batman’s saga to a fitting climax. As Ana says, there is an air of finality and poignancy here. The integration of old friends like the Joker and Harvey Two-Face, along with the new invocation of Robin with Carrie Kelly all speak to the Epic nature of this book. While the players may have gotten older, nothing really has changed. The Joker, who has been catatonic for the past 10 years in Arkham, snaps out of his stupor when the Batman is back in the headlines. Harvey Dent, supposedly rehabilitated–who Bruce desperately WANTED to believe could change–remains the same, twisted man obsessed with duality. Even Robin, no longer Jason Todd (whose death led Batman to retire), makes a reprisal here to emphasize that things are all at once different, and yet the same.
The Mutants storyline, with the malleable criminals becoming something more feels different, however, than anything we’ve seen before–it’s like a personification of the struggle for the real ‘soul of Gotham’ (as the Joker so aptly puts it in The Dark Knight). As the Mutants become the followers of their Mutant Boss, then Sons of Batman, then of the Joker, and ultimately back to Batman again, the answer becomes clear: people need to believe in something, whether it be chaos and crime, or hope and decency. Like the mutant gang, the people of Gotham will follow whoever wields the power.
In terms of storytelling, the book features a number of focused spotlights from the media, and television’s interpretation of Batman and his actions. This pervasive, third party perception added dimension to the story–and is a masterful choice as a means to convey the sentiments of Gothamites. The sort of talking heads portrayal gives a frenetic, almost schizophrenic dialogue to Gotham–and examines with an ironic eye the role of the media in shaping perception. Similarly, the Cold War discussion is a biting commentary on the state of affairs at the time this was written, with the portrayal of a President that looks and sounds very much like a bumbling cowboy Ronald Reagan, and the ultimate nuclear strike.
What also stands out in this graphic novel is the density of the work. Each page is filled with story, with multiple frames and more text than I was ever really accustomed to (still, even today I feel this remains true).
All I can say for this novel is that in the end, this is a staggering piece of storytelling.
Ana: I open the book and I am already stunned. Batman is OLD. I don’t remember ever reading a comic book or of a comic book that had aging super-heroes. (except that is for The Watchmen. But they are not really super super- heroes are they? In any case, allow me to squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee – I woke up today to see the trailer for The Watchmen and OMG they are going to pull it off! It looks stunning, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan looks spot on. yay!.) (Ahem. Sorry about that. back on the topic at hand) .
Batman is OLD. And Retired. This I was not expecting. As I wasn’t expecting that all super-heroes have been absent from crime-fighting for years. The only super-hero still “working” is Superman who has become a weapon for the government (possibly in order to keep his super-heroes friends out of trouble – yeah, here is Superman being all noble and self-sacrificing.)
You can only but imagine how Gotham City has become an even more dark and chaotic place. It is also very clear that Bruce Wayne is not very happy about retiring – he is rather gloomy and at the edge of being an alcoholic. He knows he is old and that his body would probably not cope with the physical aspect of being the Batman. But he feels the beast inside calling. And when the Two-Face goes back to committing crimes, he can do nothing but to don the Bat-suit again. It is like going home, people. That is no denial that Bruce Wayne is the Batman and that he MUST fight crime or die trying. And this is what is hanging above our heads while reading the novel – the feel of Finality or that The End is approaching or very near.
One of the things that I feel keep people from reading comic books is the fact that many may think that they are for children. Well, let me tell you there is nothing childish about The Dark Knight Returns – the themes that grass it’s pages are as adult as can be. From a society that is in the throes of being utterly controlled by the media and hostage to terrorists and criminals to the deep discussion of good x evil, order x mayhem and how one must fight or accept his inner demons or not.
The final volume with a showdown between Superman and Batman and the very ending of the Graphic novel are totally and utterly wickedly AWESOME. There is closure but also a brand new beginning.
On the Characters:
Thea: Before I go into characters, must interject here to SQUEEEEEE at the Watchmen trailer with Ana. Holy crap that looks freaking brilliant. But back to Batman.
Bruce Wayne is old. He’s tired, and he’s a shell of the man he was at the beginning of this book. In a sense, The Dark Knight Returns is the same story a Batman: Year One–Bruce is alone and does not know how to deal with his frustration. His real face is the mask he wears, and his inability to just STOP, his compulsion to become the bat once more defines his character here. In my reading (granted I haven’t read every Batman comic), this is the first true BATMAN comic. Year One focuses a lot on Jim Gordon and doesn’t give the same dark insight to Bruce’s mind that The Dark Knight Returns does. Neither do the other classics, such as The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, The Long Halloween, etc–those focus primarily on the villains. It is in The Dark Knight Returns that we see Bruce Wayne for the obsessed, haunted man he truly is, even referring to his uncontrollable urge to return as the Batman as “the beast” within him. The contrast here with both Bruce and the Joker as being dead inside for years–ever since Batman’s retirement–is brilliant and speaks to the bond between these two equally (but opposite) crazy men. I loved Batman’s inner dialogue, his struggle with every fight that he wouldn’t have thought twice about a few years earlier. For all that the Batman looks infallible to the men he hunts, his thoughts show he is only human, and very mortal indeed. This sort of comes full circle with Year One as well, as in the first book the young Bruce Wayne was still trying to test his limits (often met with serious injury). In The Dark Knight Returns, his limits are all too well known, but he must disregard them anyway, again leading to some serious hurt.
What other characters stack up, then? I loved the addition of Carrie Kelly as Robin here, with her naive, youthful bravery. I loved the rejuvenation of the Joker, and the unchangeable nature of Harvey Dent. I loved Jim Gordon’s ultimate retirement, but still his inability to rest–training the new Commish that sometimes you need a man like Batman, especially in a city like Gotham.
And then, there’s Superman (who isn’t even called Superman at any point in the graphic novel). I’ve never been a huge Superman fan. I relish in the JLA issues where Batman kicks his ass–and, so highly appropriately, I relished in the ultimate showdown here between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, who has become little more than the governments clean-up boy. We learn that the Justice League has disintegrated in light of the new world and Superman is just doing what he must to serve his country and the people–you know, Truth, Justice, the American Way, all that jazz. And Batman isn’t having any of it–he certainly isn’t going quietly into the night. With help from an old friend (Green Arrow makes an important appearance here), the final battle is made of awesomeness.
I should also mention, Selina Kyle makes a brief appearance here as well, as an older Madame (i.e. she runs an escort service). One of the Joker’s victims, he ties her up and leaves her dressed sadly in a Wonder Woman costume as bait for the Bat. Ooh, you gotta love it!
Ana: The thing I love the most about Batman is how he hasn’t got a single super-gene in his body and still he puts himself out there. He is driven by his relentless pursuit of justice taking his own old body to its limits. He is in some points, a single-minded stubborn vigilante who is as insane as any of the villains he fights. Thanks heavens he is on the right side of the law. At least he has limits – there is order to be kept and he tries to never kill the villains. And this one of the things that are discussed in the Dark Knight Returns – how he was always been incapable of killing one of this main nemesis, the Joker and how that has led to countless deaths. Will he be able to finish this once and for all?
The Joker, my favourite bat-villain makes an appearance and he has been catatonic at the asylum ever since Batman retired. The fact that he snaps out of it only when he hears that Batman is back is a clear pointer to the deep connection these two have. Two sides of the same coin indeed.
I love that the new Robin is a girl – although I was bit irked that she was so young. But does that matter to Batman? Nope. To Batman, it is clearly never too early or too late to fight crime.
Final Thoughts, Recommendation and Rating:
Thea: What more can I say? This is the quintessential Batman comic. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it. In fact, buy two and give one to a friend. I love this graphic novel. My copy is tattered and worn with all the rereads I put it through. Plus, with the release of The Dark Knight, reading this graphic novel can give some valuable perspective to the man behind the mask.
Ana: I am not crazy about the illustrations themselves (they seem very dated and everybody seems so BIG) but Dark Knight Returns is essential Batman reading because it changes everything – EVERYTHING. People die, people retire. It is truly the Omega of The Dark Knight. And it also settles once and for all: Superman is a pansy and Batman is the coolest non-super super-hero EVER.
Thea: Discounting the final battle between Batman and Superman, which is a pretty damn huge scene, the other very important part of this graphic novel involves the Batman chasing down the Joker for their last encounter. It’s a harrowing scene.
Ana: Batman has paid for a plastic surgery to restore Two-Face’s face. It was a part of an attempt to redeem the villain. He is released from the mental asylum only to return to a life of crime. Batman of course, goes after him and the showdown is amazing because even with his face whole , Two-Face is still not WHOLE and Batman sees through his face and sees inside and what he sees is a reflection, whatever that may be.
Thea: 10 A Classic. This is my favorite graphic novel, and for good reason. It was groundbreaking in its time and does not feel dated even now years later. It is gritty, and dark and cynical–and everything I could ever ask for in a book of ANY genre.
Ana: 10 Perfection. I was a bit torn about this one because it loses when compared to my favourite Graphic Novels of all time, The Sandman. But then again it is not a fair comparison, because to me The Sandman goes beyond rating. So, when it comes down to it, The Dark Knight Returns is a classic in the genre that started the revolution and rebirth of the comic books in Graphic Novel format and because it is so definitive and so COOL, it well deserves a 10.