Last month, we looked back at Alan Moore’s Watchmen and began to explore the literary and visual art of graphic novels. However, around the same time of Watchmen’s release, DC Comics published another graphic novel that is as influential and critically adored as Alan Moore’s classic. This story is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Like Watchmen, this story helped pioneer the mature age of comic books, but unlike Watchmen, which had original characters, The Dark Knight Returns brings the mature cynicism and dark realism to DC’s mainstream characters.
The Dark Knight Returns is about what the title states, it is the return of Batman. However, the story is not just a simple story of Batman coming back from retirement, but about the ripple it has in this separate universe. Batman’s sudden return is truly the entire plot. All the characters’ actions are linked to his return.
Like Watchmen, the story takes place in alternate 1980s, but unlike Watchmen, it is not so defiant of actual history. Ronald Reagan is the president. America is still engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and cable news has influence over many minds. Also like Watchmen, this 1980s is very far from the Golden Age of Comics. Superheroes have been outlawed. As the story states, DC characters have moved on with the times and away from the public. Wonder Women moved back to her homeland, Green Lantern stayed in space, and Superman works for the U.S. government. Luckily for them, they had opportunities to explore, but Bruce Wayne was forced into retirement.
The story begins years after Wayne’s retirement as the caped crusader. Now a middle aged man, Wayne reminisced the old day with the elderly and soon retired Commissioner James Gordon. Gordon, now aware of Wayne’s alter ego, is also undergoing trouble between the old days of law enforcement and the new days of public relations. Wayne, even at the age of fifty-five, is still haunted by the death of his parents, and is still unsettled with his war on crime. A lfred, still caring for his master, overlooks him as the same father figure even in their old age.
From the opening frames, the novel has continuous scene of news broadcast. The news in this story in categorized as its own character, and throughout the stories entirety, the news reflects the events of the characters. While watching the news, Wayne has his epiphany. 24/7 news channels assault him with violent news of innocents dying and of injustice. Early in the opening act, Wayne decides to put on his cape and cowl, and thus the Dark Knight returns.
Feeling more alive than he has in the past years, Wayne understands that his body is older and his muscles are more tired. Like so many Batman stories, Miller expresses Batman’s thoughts through Film Noir narration. There are several frames where Batman acknowledges his old body.
Batman’s sudden return starts a chain of events that shakes Gotham City. A gang of youngsters that terrorize the city are now faced with a vigilante they once believed to be a myth. The Gotham City Police Department has recruited new blood over the years. Many officers do not know the significance of Batman. While some of the old police officers are welcoming to his return, the new society is not very pleased with his break from the established order. Gordon finally retires and a new young Ellen Yindel becomes commissioner. Her first order is for the arrest of Batman.
Batman’s returns inspires a young Carrie Kelly to don the Robin costume. At first, she performs on her own, but eventually makes acquaintances with Batman under dire circumstances. Feeling old and nostalgic for the dynamic duo, Wayne accepts Kelly as the new Robin. Like all of the Robins before her, she is overconfident and reckless, but she learns over time.
Like Batman, time moved but it did not change The Joker. The Joker has spent the last several years in a semi-comatose state. He never laughed and hardly smiled, but as the Batman returned, so did The Joker. The Joker returns just as vicious and brilliant as ever.
Batman, blaming himself for all the murders The Joker has committed, engages his arch-nemesis with extreme prejudice. In his mind, he contemplates killing The Joker, but he also remembers his parents. In close quarters and brutal engagement with The Joker, Batman performs a crippling maneuver on The Joker’s neck in self-defense. It paralyzes him. The Joker then taunts the wounded Batman for not going all the way. He then turns his head further, laughing as he does it, and The Joker laughs no more. He rigs The Joker’s body to blow, since the police are right behind him. He spits on the corpse of the madman before setting his trap. As his body burns, Batman escapes with Robin, and police then charge him with the murder of The Joker.
Throughout Batman’s return, another crucial event is taking place which serves as a backdrop. The United States military is currently engaging Soviet forces in the fictional island of Corto Maltese. President Reagan deployed his most powerful asset into the battles, Clark Kent. Superman, serving directly under the president, fights his enemy militants without challenge. He knocks planes out of the sky, juggles tanks, and sinks battleships all singlehandedly. In his mind is a different dilemma. Batman was not supposed to return. He’s afraid that soon enough, his superiors will order him to go after Batman.
The police are hell bent on apprehending the Batman. Gangs are still rampant in the city, and the city does not know how to tackle them. While all of this is happening, the fighting between the cold warriors makes its way to Gotham. The Soviets strike first with a nuclear missiles aimed at the US forces in Corto Maltese. Only one man can stop it. Superman uses all his strength to move the missile as the world watches. He is successful. The weapon does change trajectory, but it explodes at high altitude, and the weapon’s true purpose is revealed. The nuke detonated in the sky in order to cause a massive electromagnetic pulse. It shuts down all of Gotham and nearly kills Superman. Gotham goes into chaos, and planes literally crash from the sky. The city starts to burn, but on horseback, Batman and Robin rendezvous with the Batman-inspired street gang. He orders them to not to use guns. Then he leads them into the darkened city, where they stop looters and rioters. Even the retired Gordon uses his leadership to unite citizens in putting out the fires. The scene was written and presented in a unique way. It was shown as an interview with many people recounting their experiences during the blackout. They described how Batman forced them into order. It was then that Commissioner Yindel realized the importance of Batman.
Much of America is out of order for the exception of Gotham. This troubles the president as an outlaw vigilante had overcame the police and the government. Under such embarrassment, he gives Superman the order to take out the Batman. He gives Wayne the courtesy of where to stage their final battle, and Wayne tells him Crime Alley—the place of his parent’s murder.
A large military presence surrounds the run down part of Gotham. Wayne stages a grand exit of this area, presumed to be his grave. Equipped with an ultra-powered exoskeleton, Wayne conspires with an old ally and with his partners, Alfred and Robin, as he faces off against the Man of Steel.
Superman is hesitant at first during the fight. He wants Wayne to surrender. Batman hits him some heavy attack including massive sonic blasts and concentrated electrocutions to his head. Robin distracts the military inside the Batmobile. Batman survives some of Superman’s blows due to his armored suit. After throwing acid at Superman’s face, the Kryptonian stops pulling his punches. At the brink of defeat, Superman orders him to surrender, but Batman has one more trick up his sleeve. In the distance, Oliver Queen, the man known as the Green Arrow, fires, with the use on one arm, a very lethal green arrow at Superman. Superman catches the arrow, but then it explodes in a green mist, and Superman begins inhaling his mortal weakness, kryptonite. Batman rises up. He strikes back at Superman. He beats him down like any petty criminal. I n one of the most iconic quotes in comic book history, Batman says “I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments…I want you to remember the man who beat you.”
However, though defeated and at the brink of death, Batman passes out from a heart attack, and Superman cradles the body of his fallen friend.
A funeral is held for Wayne, and his identity is revealed through the media. Robin successfully manages to escape underground with the Batmobile. Alfred destroys Wayne Manor and the Batcave. He dies alongside his master, ending decades of servitude. At the funeral, Kent is present alongside some remaining associates of Wayne. Selina Kyle, in heavy grief, scorns Kent over their ordeal. As Kent begins to walk away, he hears Wayne’s heartbeat from the grave. The final panel is shown with Wayne assembling the band of young followers as he plans for their future.
As long-time time fan of comic books, The Dark Knight Returns is, without a doubt, my favorite piece of work. The story is the staple of Miller’s collection of work and was the turning point of Batman. From then on out, Batman solidified himself has a dark and brutal hero, and this work of literature is evident the following cinematic visions of Batman. Even today, this work is still influential in all the comic book stories that are written. Gone were days of joyous and lighthearted adventures. Even the brightest heroes were written into dark realties. Superhero literature completely changed after the Dark Knight returned.