In 1986, Frank Miller along with Alan Moore redefined mainstream American superhero comics with their runs on Daredevil and Swamp Thing respectively. DC Comics had also started reshaping itself for the late 20th century in the aftermath of their Crisis on Infinite Earths series, so characters who were once set in stone were now a little bit more open to new interpretation by creators. John Byrne, for example, revamped Superman to be more in tune with the Christopher Reeve cinematic version than the Mort Wesinger version that had been the case for the previous 30 plus years.
Frank Miller though had Batman in his sights with The Dark Knight Returns, a four issue ‘new format’ (basically a comic sized graphic novel format) mini-series that reshaped Batman forever afterwards. At this point Batman wasn’t a shifting massive units, nor was it selling badly. In fact, few DC Comics set the sales charts on fire at the time; but Miller’s tale was more than an imaginary story, as it was his story of Batman’s last adventure as a 50-something Bruce Wayne, who comes out of retirement in a Gotham plagued with crime and corruption since he hung up the Batsuit. Miller’s take on Batman wasn’t the similar to other detective comics of the time, instead he was depicted as a brutal fascist dispensing broken bones on a regular basis. This version of Batman is a bullying thug that’s become brutalised by the violence around him – to the point where it’s changed him into the sort of person he used to fight against.
Miller though was not just creating Batman’s Ragnarok, he was making a comment about 1980’s American culture and politics – not to mention the mainstream comics of the time, where murdering anti-heroes was starting to spring up everywhere. Essentially what’s lost by the likes of Zack Snyder or anyone that’s drawn to the Dark Knight Returns for inspiration is the fact that Miller’s satirising what they’re taking from it. They’re missing the fact that, in 1986, Miller really is making it clear he doesn’t think Batman is any better than the people he’s hunting down – like the criminal gangs, or even the Joker. What he is saying that Batman’s methods are effective for Gotham and asking the reader if they’re happy with that. He even has this discussion take place in the pages of the comic yet it’s all been ignored for the fact that Miller’s middle aged Batman hits people a lot.
The other part of the story is that readers by this point are aware of the previous 50 years (at this point) of Batman history, or that Miller is returning to the early days of Batman comics where he’d regularly kill people without a second thought. He’s talking of how Batman’s went back to his roots in a simpler time to deal with more complex threats, but complex threats often don’t need simple solutions.
Miller’s trying to engage a debate as well as entertain here. Would a fascist billionaire vigilante actually be a hero? Are anti-heroes actually effective or are they just replacing one form of terror with another? What about human rights and civil liberties? All of these things Miller throws into the mix while at the same time, quite frankly ripping the piss out of the comic industry, and the fans (the gangs who start following the Batman are the ultimate in zealot fanboys) themselves.
The Dark Knight Returns is a superb work of a creator able to take an established title like Batman and tell a multi-layered story. But over the years this work has just been interpreted as a template for a ‘dark’ Batman where there’s no sense, reason or intelligence behind his actions. There’s nothing of his detective work (The term ‘Dark Knight’ comes from the phrase ‘Dark Knight Detective’ which used to refer to Batman) but all far too many people take from this is the violent, brutal Batman that’s on display in the likes of Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice.
And that does a great work in comics an injustice. It’s not a perfect work, but like Moore’s Watchmen it’s a work I can go back to years later and pick up something new. Sadly, Miller’s decline as a creative force saw a poor sequel in 2001 called The Dark Knight Strikes Again and something truly terrible: a third book called Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which started being published in 2015 and saw that rare thing where a creator shits all over his own legacy without a care.
But The Dark Knight Returns is such an influence mainly because it’s a shining example of how to tell a story well in comics; plus, it’s more than just an ageing Batman coming back to clean up Gotham. It’s a pity more people didn’t read beyond those parts of the comic.