Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
***NOTE: This was a re-reading in prep for reading DK2 (The Dark Knight Strikes Again)…I’ve already read it, and I’m going to stick with the 5 star rating, but more for what it means than if I just read it today and was born any time AFTER Michael Keaton’s Batman.***
1) There is no doubt in my mind, Frank Miller saved Batman. Between this and Year One, he’s got 2 of the Top 5, if not THE top 2 Batman books ever written, essential, and even essential for comics in general.
– Without Miller, there’s no Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman in 1989 (a movie, and event, which literally awed my 8-9yr old self in such a way that Batman will always be my #1, even more than 25 years later.)
– Without Miller, there’s no Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy. (Year One)
Without Miller’s inspiration of Burton and later Nolan, does the Superhero Movie Franchise business take off like it does? I’m not sure, and if it does, is it the same? Does it carry the same gravitas? Or do these movies end up more like Superman? (No knock on the early Superman, but I can barely tell you a thing about Superman IV, which also came out when I was a kid, other than there was an Atomic Powered dude in a cape who looked like He-Man, and everyone else in the world thinks it might be the worst comic movie ever.
Without Miller, does Scott Snyder develop into the same writer he is? Maybe, still strong, but the same? No. Does he become one of the great Batman writers ever? No. Read Snyder’s current run on Batman (especially Zero Year) and tell me he’s not supremely indebted to Miller’s work (and this particular book).
I would then tell you that Miller plans to write DK3, which might be a great idea, or a horrible one, but then I’ll tell you that Scott Snyder is going to co-write it with him…and you’ll definitely check it out at some point.
It’s hard for anyone under a certain age (and I think I just qualify as old enough, because I remember the Adam West Batman, and the comics being ho-hum until Jason Todd died and the Tim Burton movie) to realize just how useless Batman was before this. Miller also opened the door for everyone else to make him the DARK Knight, and to add their work to the canon.
That is huge, and for that alone, this book deserves 5 stars. When it came out, I think if I were old enough to have read it then, I would have given it 10 stars. So that’s that. It’s untouchable….in THAT way.
However…there is a lot of stuff about it that just doesn’t do it for me, and for others as well. I can see younger readers just thinking, who cares? Why bother, this isn’t original. I can see why too.
– The art…is 50% terrible…there’s some great stuff, but there’s also stuff so bad it wouldn’t be published today.
– It’s extremely verbose and wordy. If a comic is nothing but reading text and long winded internal monologues, at some point it becomes extremely tedious; Show me, don’t tell me! Otherwise I’d read a book. I want to see some wow splash pages too, not just words. Does that make me sound like a troglodyte? No I don’t think so. I understand some degree is allowed, and in many ways, at the time less speech bubbles was a new(ish) idea.
– The Politics of the Cold War and Reagan-era USA aren’t relevant to the readers of today…well…Russia does have a powerful military and single leader…and the US doesn’t like ’em much…but…no.
It can be dated at times, but that’s not a huge complaint for me (I like history and contextualizing oneself in the period) but I see why others won’t like/care/understand.
– TOO MANY TV screen talking heads. But again I think that’s just a commentary on the new-ish 24 hour news channels on cable that sprang up in the 80s (yes kids, there was a time when CNN and MSNBC weren’t a thing, and before the interwebs and cellular telluphones. We played with sticks and rocks and rode dinosaurs in black and white…). I think they’re meant to annoy the shit out of you.
What I do like, is that not only is Batman examined, but this gets into some of the stuff that would pop up later on in Marvel’s Civil War and other books: Superman is a government agent in exchange for freedom, Wonder Woman has left for home, Green Lantern is in space, and Green Arrow is some kinda survivalist nutjob (who hates the big blue boyscout). There’s examination of the legality/criminality of heroes within society and if they help fight evil, or encourage it’s growth. Even if Miller didn’t devote the whole book to the idea, the idea itself was latched onto by many readers who grew into the writers of today, and we see those concepts debated all over the Marvel and DC Universes.
It also gets to the core of Batman himself. Bruce Wayne is the disguise, Batman is the reality. Even if he deluded himself otherwise in retirement for a decade, the hunger, the drive, the spirit of the bat, it is inside of him, and finally comes out, just pushing everything and everyone else to the side. I love the way Miller gets that across, that he cannot escape it; he knows it in his soul, because the Bat IS his soul. The very essence of what Batman is is what keeps Bruce Wayne alive, and without it, there’s no point. The 55 year old man is able to do things a man 20 years younger would have trouble with, and it’s all thanks to, and because of the Bat. Bruce Wayne is irrelevant, Batman and the power of what he represents is key. And surprisingly, what Miller thinks Batman represents, or at least how I see it, is that Batman, for everything that he is, represents HOPE. If not hope, Batman is Gotham. The 2 are tied together, one cannot rise without the other, and both suffer in the absence of the other.
OK now it feels like I’m writing an English essay on a book report…That’s another thing, Miller’s work here was a huge help to the entire industry of comics, and graphic novels. There’s no Sin City without TDKR; I don’t think DC and Marvel become powerhouses, I think the comic industry takes an even bigger hit; Comicon, does that still thrive? I honestly don’t know, but interestingly enough, much like Gotham without Batman, Batman without Miller and this book, could not/would not have thrived or even survived. It would have been a shell of itself.
So there’s my 200 cents on the matter.
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