Simply The Best, the comics you must own… The Dark Knight Returns

1986 was a big year for comics, in September of that year, the run of one of the most talked about comics ever began, Watchmen. Earlier than that however something that, for better or worse, has had a similar effect on comics hit the stands, Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’.

Collected in a trade paperback in 1987, along with Watchmen, it could be argued the public’s perception of comics as graphic novels started here, though we nerds know the difference between the two.

There will be more spoilers than past reviews in this one so if you want to bail now, hit the ejector seat button on the Batmobile.

TDKRs saw a 55 year old Bruce Wayne, existing rather than living, having retired from being Batman a decade earlier. He shares tales of old rooftop activities with a soon to retire Commissioner Gordon, but a news reports of Gotham falling further into chaos on the anniversary of the Batman’s disappearance, and Harvey Dent suddenly taking hostages following a mental relapse to his old Two-Face persona, causes the Dark Knight to return.

The Dark Knight Returns after a 10 year absence

Gotham is a gang war zone with the Police outnumbered, and more useless than usual, and the sudden reappearance of Batman brings The Joker out of a virtual coma at Arkham, and a rampage of death and destruction begins.

Superheroes in general are either gone having been outlawed, or underground, bar the corrupt US government’s pawn Superman, forced to work as their agent to ensure old friends and colleagues are left alone.

As good as the book is I have a couple of criticisms to get out of the way, one that I have a problem with to this day. Firstly, and forgivably, TDKRs is a product of its time, very much like Watchmen. The cold war was still in effect, and political sabre rattling, and even a nuclear missile launch by the Russians features. Miller works in some of that politicking using news reports and talk show clips, which can make for messy story telling at some points as too much gets squeezed in at once. It’s a style that’s been mimicked at lot since then, but at the time it was still a fresh method if clunky on occasion.

My main complaint is that the portrayal of Superman, I feel, has had a bit of a negative effect on the character long term. He was always the big boy scout, but the truth, justice, American way, and moral stance, of the character was made to be seen as weak in TDKRs. It’s as if as the American way in the book has become corrupted, Superman is made to bend to the will of that new world order. Yes in the end despite his being dispatched to remove Bruce, and it’s touched on he’s protecting friends in acquiescing to government demands, and he does something cool at the very end, I’d have much preferred not to see him used in such a way. With the world in such a state, I’d have preferred to see him and fellow heroes take the Miracleman route, and take over to protect mankind from itself. It seems this view of the character has stuck in people’s minds a little over the years.

However, as I mentioned, despite weakened by diverting and being caught in the blast of the Russian nuke, Clark is dispatched to take out Batman. Batman has seized control of the major gang in Gotham, with the help of a new Robin, a girl, Carrie Kelley, who was a great character, and someone Batman had saved earlier in the story.

Batman and Robin Carrie Kelley from TDKRs

He has created the Sons of The Batman, an army to protect the city in the wake of the nuke’s EMP, which has paralysed Gotham and further afield. The Government embarrassed by both The Batman’s more effective handling of the crisis, and influenced by his apparent killing of The Joker, a plan set in motion by his nemesis when Batman almost kills him but stops, only for the clown to finish the job himself and frame Batman.

Clark and Bruce talk, with Bruce disgusted by Clark’s role as government lacky, and he refuses to surrender, issuing a challenge of a battle royale in crime alley to settle their differences. Enlisting a one armed, but up for the challenge Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, and equipped with a Kryptonite tipped arrow, the fight is on.

Bruce beats down a weakened Clark in Crime Alley, where Wayne’s parents where killed and his mission began

What follows is a battle that has been much debated and rehashed in the following years, master strategist Batman, with exo-suit, and kryptonite on his side, against the Superman, although a reluctant combatant, and weakened by his run in with a nuke. With Clark fallen before him Bruce’s heart gives out and the Batman is no more. Almost simultaneously Alfred on his master’s orders destroys the manor and the infamous cave, succumbing to a stroke and passing himself.

A funeral follows, with old friends in attendance, including Clark and the new Robin. As the mourners leave Clark picks up Bruce’s heart begin to beat, his death a feint, and with a knowing look to Robin he leaves. Bruce and Carrie lead the army of the Sons of The Batman deeper into the cave network, to marshal their forces to return to Gotham, ensuring The Batman will protect the city he loves once more.

Despite my critical elements this still ranks as one of my Simply The Best, as it showed a fantastically detailed possible future for Bruce Wayne, and it seemed quite grounded despite the obvious fantastical flying alien. It gave a fitting end to the struggle between Batman and the Joker as well. They are always portrayed as being linked, and Bruce hampered by his reluctance to kill, keeps the cycle going. This can give a bit of a predictable and damp squib ending to most stories featuring the two, the end of the recent ‘Death of the Family’ arc in the comics comes to mind, but here it is suitably and horrifically ended.

I like dense reads in comics, something you have to get into without distraction, to immerse yourself in, and this certainly qualifies as one of those. I liked Miller and Klaus Janson’s gritty art, and this tale became the marker for very dark stories to come for the character, many have been awesome, some will be future Simply The Best reviews, but it all started here :-)