But it should never have been a surprise.
Alan Grant, one of the legends that came out of 2000AD, once said on Newsnight:
...comics are one of the most subversive forms of literature that you can get. Nobody wants to ban television, because television doesn't make you think, it just entertains you. Nobody wants to ban books, because you read books in a logical, linear fashion. Comics force you to use both sides of your brain at once, which is why they were banned in repressive societies like the USSR.
And it was quite fitting that, in this era, Batman was one of the flag bearers.
By the mid 1980's, American comic books had reached a crescendo. The heydays of the colourful 60's had given way to a darker strand of storytelling in the 70's. The collapse of the traditional newsstand distribution network at the end of the decade coincided with the opening of specialist comic book stores, which led to the rise of indie publishers, and mainstream titles becoming much more adult and experimental in response to the challenges from these indie publishers.
Sales of Batman titles were slumping yet, when surveyed, the character always topped ‘most iconic hero’ polls among the American public. Not a surprise as every generation finds something within Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation. Mixing action with tragedy, introspection with struggle and typifying the ultimate loner fantasy of being secluded in a mansion with a sumptuous cave filled with gadgets, there’s a sincere purity about his objectives, and action is always guaranteed.
Crucially, what has always resonated with many is that the tale of Batman is a very human one. A child who blames himself for the death of his parents, his one-man war on crime allows him a purpose and a never-ending search for forgiveness. Interestingly, however, Frank Miller doesn’t see him in that light as he claimed to Amazing Heroes in 1986 that Batman:
…wants the world to be a better place, where a young Bruce Wayne would not be a victim … In a way, he’s out to make himself unnecessary. Batman is a hero who wishes he didn’t have to exist.
A thought-provoking take, but one that maybe is too dismissive of the vengeance angle (probably because vengeance is not an attractive trait for superheroes to have). After all, if you’re so driven to right the wrongs of the world that you feel the need to dress up and inflict violence on others, then surely that indicates deeper issues (with vengeance being one of them)?
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Set in 1986, Gotham City is in the midst of a brutal crime wave. A gang known as the Mutants have been involved in a string of killings and kidnappings across the city. Batman has not been seen for ten years and the youth consider him a myth. In that time, Bruce Wayne (now 55) has become a heavy drinker and increasingly embittered at how things have turned out. After an encounter with some mutants, and the disappearance of Two-Face from Arkham Asylum, he comes out of retirement to clean up Gotham.
Along the way, he is beaten to within an inch of his life by the Mutant Leader, attracts the attention of Reagan (who enlists Superman to bring him into line) and takes on the Joker in one final battle.
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Why is it so great?
Firstly, let’s start with the writing.
In Miller’s hands, Gotham City is a decrepit, chaotic hellhole, filled with nihilistic thugs hellbent on destruction, burnt out hippies nostalgic for the 60’s and public officials with no regard for who they serve. The surroundings are run down, shabby and emit an air of sordidness. Even the TV sets have an air of dirt to them.
Bruce Wayne, often depicted as a millionaire playboy with a dark edge, has been completely engulfed by Batman. As a result, the more sadistic and masochistic elements of his character are brought to the fore, meaning that the boundaries between defender of the night and masked vigilante are heavily blurred. Even whenever he’s saving children from the Mutants, you never feel like cheering him on. You’re just left with a general sense of unease reading about an unhinged millionaire who could go either way.
Secondly, Miller’s art (combined with the colouring of Lynn Varley) is exceptional, depicting Gotham exactly how it is written. The dirt just oozes off the page. Also, there is a cinematic element that informs the storytelling and the art. Take these two pages as an example, where Wayne recalls the death of his parents while watching TV.
Notice how, for the memory, each individual panel is a self-contained image, but the angles and positions evoke the feel of a slow-motion replay, while the in-person segment feels sped up because of the different images? For me, these two pages demonstrate Miller’s genius in that it places the reader firmly in Bruce Wayne’s hell, tortured by endless reruns of the murder of his parents and seeing how the world is spiraling out of control. At the same time, the imagery is utterly striking (the panels dealing with the pearls snapping are utterly evocative and nightmarish).
Here's another example.
This single page has stuck with me since I first read The Dark Knight Returns in 1992. Today, as a 36-year-old, it makes me cry and punch the wall in anger. It’s an absolute masterclass in writing. Within a few panels, we know and sympathise wholeheartedly with Margaret. We feel anger at her humiliation and her death leaves us numb. Through the storytelling (and the art/colouring) we, as readers, get to see just how deep the poverty (spiritual and material) runs in Gotham City, how people try to retain hope in the face of such bleakness and how such acts of violence are so commonplace, they only merit one line in the news, leaving us with the view that her life was inconsequential to the city.
Notice how grey and washed out the scene is, with the bag and the Mutants the only colour? The bag tan leather, indicating sturdiness and reliability. The Mutants a mix of green, blue and orange, indicating the brashness of youth. The panel with the Mutants blended together, akin to the sort of scene found in a nightmare, is chilling due to the combination of the mundane (subway window) and the demon imagery. It suggests utter evil, contrasting with Margaret’s deeply held Catholicism.
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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece. By examining the chaos (social and political) evident in America during the 1980’s through the lens of an iconic character, Miller helped to refashion the superhero into someone who could either be an utter sociopath or a lackey for whatever government is in power at the time. The fear of the four-minute warning, as well as the collapse of places like New York, are also reflected in here with their focus on the individual. However, Miller never forgets that he’s writing a comic book and allows for plenty of action, including a climactic battle between Batman and Superman (signifying individuality and government control respectively).
No wonder it’s never been matched.
Frank Miller, Lynn Varney. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns DC Comics ISBN-13: 978-1401263119
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.