Sunday, 10 November 2019

How Frank Miller Ruined The Dark Knight Returns

Art from The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley is the story of Batman coming out of retirement at the age of 55 to find a more violent world that is less tolerant of his obsessive crime-fighting mission. It is one of the most influential superhero comics ever written. Since its publication it has shaped the way the character of Batman has been depicted in print and on film. It has also contributed to a change in how the medium of comics and the genre of superheroes are generally percieved. Ask a comics fan where to start when getting into comics and there's a good chance that The Dark Knight Returns will be one of the recommendations you recieve.

Unfortunately DC Comics and Frank Miller have spent the decades since the publication of The Dark Knight Returns doing their very best to lessen the impact of this seminal and unique comic.

Art from Spawn/Batman by Todd Mcfarlane

Since 1986 Frank Miller has written two sequels to The Dark Knight Returns - The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002) & The Dark Knight III: The Master Race (2015). Miller has also proclaimed that all of his DC Comics stories featuring Batman are set in the same fictional universe. This means that Batman: Year One (1987), Spawn/Batman (1994), All Star Batman and Robin (2005), The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (2015), and Superman: Year One (2019) all feature the same man we see coming out of retirement in The Dark Knight Returns.

In my opinion this robs The Dark Knight Returns of much of its power, and much of what I found compelling about it as a story.

In his introduction to the softcover collection of The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore wrote:

"Beyond the imagery, themes, and essential romance of Dark Knight, Miller has also managed to shape The Batman into a true legend by introducing that element without which all true legends are incomplete and yet which for some reason hardly seems to exist in the world depicted in the average comic book, and that element is time.

All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarek, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo. In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years' time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in the perpetual limbo of their mid-to-late twenties, and the presence of death in their world is at best a temporary and reversible phenomenon.

With Dark Knight, time has come to the Batman and the capstone that makes legends what they are has finally been fitted."

Regardless of the content or quality of the sequels, their very existence robs The Dark Knight Returns of its status as capstone to a legend. It becomes just another Batman story where, like his mainstream depiction, the character is immune to the passing of time and all the pathos that entails.

The death of Robin Hood, as played by Sean Connery in Robin and Marian (1976)

The prequels are just as damaging to the power of The Dark Knight Returns as the sequels. In my view The Dark Knight Returns works best as an ending for the same Batman we see in mainstream, ongoing DC comics. There's a poignancy to the idea that the ever-young Batman we see triumphing heroically every month ages & becomes an obsessive brute. Likewise there's a poignancy to the idea that Superman - the god who chose to live as a man so that he might be a hero for everybody - eventually becomes a secret weapon of the US government who has distanced himself from humanity.

Art from the Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns forces the reader to consider that maybe Batman & Superman have always been these things and that in a world like ours there is no way they could ever have been anything else. Maybe it's only nostalgia and naivety that made us, and the characters themselves ever believe otherwise. However, in his prequels and sequels Miller explicitly demonstrates that yes, his version of Batman has always been an obsessive brute, and yes, Superman has always been removed from humanity. If The Dark Knight Returns is set in the same universe as all of Miller's other stories then it just becomes another story in the saga of this particularly violent version of Batman. There is now only one way of reading this story and it's impact is diminished.

Art from Superman Year One by John Romita Jr

A particularly striking example of how the prequels and sequels have undermined the original story can be seen in Miller's depiction of Dick Grayson and his relationship with Batman. In The Dark Knight Returns, during his first battle with the Mutant Leader, Batman reminisces fondly about going into battle with Dick Grayson as Robin by his side. He remembers how Dick had named their car the Batmobile - a "kind of name a kid would come up with" and how Dick was always "his little monkey wrench." Upon seeing the Mutant Leader Batman reflects that he and Dick "never faced anything like this". We, the reader are compelled to join in with Batman's reminiscence of a simpler time as we recall the more straightforward, less violent adventures of Batman and Robin that were still being published in the regular Batman titles during the mid-80s.

Art from The Dark Knight Returns

Yet we (and Batman) are simultaneously confronted with the reality of bringing a child into combat as we see Carrie Kelley, the latest Robin, desperately risk her life in a literal war zone to drag a horribly wounded Batman out of the muck and away from the Mutant Leader. Awaiting us back in the Batcave is the late Jason Todd's memorial display - "a good soldier". A hint that previous Robins were perhaps far more than "monkey wrenches" and that the villains Batman faced in his youth may have been just as deadly as the Mutant Leader.

Art from All Star Batman and Robin by Jim Lee

However, in the prequel series All Star Batman and Robin we see that rather than being the laughing daredevil of our (and Batman's) memories, Robin was definitely and unambiguously an abused child drafted into a war. The Nazi dominatrix/henchperson Bruno from The Dark Knight Returns makes an appearance, confirming that Batman did indeed face the same kind of menace in his youth as he will do after his "return".

Art from All Star Batman and Robin by Jim Lee

In The Dark Knight Strikes Again we see the consequences of the abuse Dick suffered. We discover that Dick was fired for "cowardice" and has become a sadistic, shape changing murderer. Any subtlety, ambiguity and poignancy that the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns scenes may have had is removed.

Art from The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller

One might argue that the prequels and sequels can be easily ignored, and this is true. However I can't help but feel that people experiencing The Dark Knight Returns today, in the context of its many spin offs and expanded universe, aren't experiencing its full impact. When I first read the story in the early 90s it wasn't one of many alternate "Elseworld" depictions of the Dark Knight. It was the final exclamation point to a legend that made me look at the ongoing adventures of Batman with new eyes. That is still how I choose to experience it today.

Art from The Dark Knight Returns

1 comment:

  1. I think your reading is too literal for what Miller went for. The Dark Knight Returns is played straight up, it is what it seems to be. But (almost) everything that follows is a commentary on the original comic, one way or another. There's no going back after TDK so Miller attempts different things with the tone of the core work.

    Batman: Year One is the other work that is meant to be read as shown. It's a hardboiled detective story, presented in a very cinematic style. Not one of my favorites simply for reason that it doesn't attempt anything new and bold like the rest of the works do. That said, it's a very competent book and one of the better Batman books out there. Miller was still developing his style and sense of what you could do in comics: if you like, you can read this as an ultimate version of what he did with Daredevil.

    Dark Knight II on the other hand is a bold new thing, one that I can't remember having seen too often before. It is an attempt to merge TDK grimdark and Silver Age levity. Heroes are colorful and fantastic, plots even more so. This is best personified in Plastic Man who keeps shouting the normal tough guy talk while transforming himself into eggbeaters or a toilet to flush down enemies. The intent is to mix obviously humorous (Silver Age) and just laughable (all the grimdark crap of 90's) into one book and point out how silly it is at its core. Surely you can't take the very last shot of Batman seriously? Read it as a criticism of what happened after TDK and Watchmen and you'll gain a new appreciation for it.

    All Star Batman & Robin on the other hand is just a straight up parody. I have no idea why it wasn't received as such. Maybe it hit too close to home? It exists simply to poke irreverent fun at the characters, tropes and superhero cliches we all know. My only great regret is that Miller quit the book before he had a full issue with Joker. I really wanted to see what Goddamn Batman and the new Joker would've done.

    Post-Sin City Miller has clearly attempted to write something new. He's a sick old man, there's no point in writing the same stuff over and over. His stylistic choices may be odd and they don't always work but they're always interesting and fresh. That's very rare in comics.