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Looking Back Darkly

Frank Miller's original Bat-epic changed superhero comics forever and cast a long shadow over future creators

By Arnold T. Blumberg     December 17, 2001

Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS heralded a new age in superhero storytelling.
© 1986 DC Comics

The first issue of Frank Miller's new Bat-epic,


, has been on shelves for a little while now (although to be honest, how likely is it that any copies are just sitting anywhere?), and the comic book community is still deciding how this miniseries will stack up in the annals of superhero history. It already seems likely that it will never have the same impact as its legendary forebear, Miller's 1986 groundbreaker, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and that has as much to do with the world in which it has been released than the story, art and creator. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is one of those pop culture landmarks that could only have happened in one particular window of time. It arrived in stores at exactly the moment when such a story was welcome, in fact needed, and such circumstances can never be predicted or re-created with any degree of precision. The first DARK KNIGHT series is indeed a watershed in the medium, by its own merits and the greater environment in which it was born.


Batman, the aged avenger, in the 1986 classic The Dark Knight Returns

Comics were facing an historic turning point in the second half of the 1980s. The industry was going through nothing less than a total transformation, leaving behind its roots on convenience store racks and discovering the salvation to be had in something dubbed "the direct market." While that too would introduce new perils in the years to come, the direct market signaled a rebirth for the industry and a new focus on all kinds of comic book projects aimed at collectors, long-time readers, and fans of all ages.

The Joker enacts his twisted revenge - literally - in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

But if the comic book world was finding a new way to thrive, the world itself was mired in some pretty dire thinking. The Cold War of the '50s had given way to an even colder battle between the US and the Soviet Union, a battle of words and philosophies that led to millions of children growing up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It may seem ridiculous now, but many of us wondered if the next day would bring a clear blue sky or one tinged with red and a cloud of radioactive death. Into that dark world of lowered expectations, atomic fears, and economic recession, a hero would stride whose visage was in and of itself an image of fear. His intent, however, was to strike terror not into the hearts of children but in those "superstitious, cowardly" criminals who usurped our freedom and sense of security, either at the point of a gun, or from behind a politician's desk. The time had come for a new kind of Dark Knight.

When DC Comics' THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS hit shelves in four parts in 1986, there was little doubt that the wait was over a change had indeed come. Written and drawn by Frank Miller (with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley), THE DARK KNIGHT signaled the dawn of a new age in superhero stories, offering a bleak, futuristic look at the familiar DC Universe and Batman in particular. This was merely an extension of that cold, hard world that even comic readers knew only too well a nightmarish extrapolation of where we were and where we might be going, but blessed at least with the presence of a hero who had decided that enough was enough. Justice must be done, and the Bat was prepared for the task.

Superman battles on in Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

For Frank Miller, this was the natural extension of the work he had already been doing for Marvel Comics. Fans already knew and loved Miller's Marvel work, particularly his now legendary run on DAREDEVIL, which had not only reinvented the Man Without Fear in a new and grittier way, but had introduced a certain Greek assassin named Elektra whose ultimate fate would inspire fan debate for years to come. Those Miller followers were surely prepared for the man to produce a true epic, and they weren't disappointed. The DARK KNIGHT series boasted a mythic struggle between good and evil, unflinching socio-political commentary, and an aging Dark Knight detective who had finally had enough of the Joker and Superman as well.

Chronicling one last crusade by a man driven to seek vengeance, the miniseries brought Batman out of retirement following a supposed ten year absence. He acquired a new female Robin, faced the Joker in a final confrontation, and battled the Man of Steel himself, wielding the power of his convictions and little else. In the end, a new dawn breaks for the man who made his home in the shadows, and he withdraws from the pageant of history to prepare for a potentially brighter future. There are few characters who could be accepted as a possible adversary for the Kryptonian Blueboy himself, but in Miller's hands, the man who had trained himself through diligence and discipline to become a human crime-fighting machine was never more believable as a nemesis for Superman than he was in DARK KNIGHT. This Batman was a fearsome creature, but he was still a hero.

Batman takes on a new - and female - partner in the classic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

Miller's vision of Batman, and superhero comics in general, was just the jolt the stodgy genre needed to recover and find a new direction for the rest of the 20th century. Unfortunately, as with so many landmarks of this kind, the DARK KNIGHT series also left a legacy of countless imitators. For years to come, the "grim and gritty" label would be applied to hundreds of other stories that tried to ape Miller's achievement, injecting so-called realism and edgier content into the once squeaky clean superhero genre. Whereas Miller's story remained true to its convictions, most of these pretenders merely added violence and harsh language to pre-existing superhero series in the hope that lightning would strike twice. Of course, it would not.

Today, the story that started it all remains as potent as ever, and the image of an old but unbowed Batman lingers in the mind, influencing the work of all the creators that followed Miller onto the seedy streets of Gotham City. Although Miller himself has now returned to the scene of his superheroic triumph with THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, the memory of that first incredable DARK KNIGHT miniseries is unlikely to fade. By deconstructing the myth and rebuilding the man, Miller created a Batman for the ages a hero emblematic of the era in which he was born, but perennially relevant for generations of readers to discover and enjoy.




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