The Dark Knight Returns is a true comic book legend. I don’t have to tell the comic book readers among you. Even those who aren’t Batman fans should have a rudimentary familiarity with Frank Miller’s work. This comic is a milestone that (helped) save the superhero comic and is still influential 36 years after its publication. The work has also left its mark on film.
The Dark Knight Returns
In 1986, the comic was initially published in four individual issues. It was written and partly drawn by comic guru Frank Miller, co-drawn by Klaus Janson and colored by Miller’s wife at the time, Lynn Varley. The story describes an alternate version of Batman and his world. For the uninitiated, very roughly outlined: The major superhero stories, since their first issues in the 1930s and ’40s, have basically experienced an ongoing history, with major and minor changes and evolutions. If you have a rough idea of what Batman’s or Superman’s story is, it’s based on that continuity. Deviating from that are what are called one-shots. These are self-contained stories that either fit the continuity or tell completely independent, quasi-experimental stories. Some of these stories wonder how Batman would hunt for Jack the Ripper in a Victorian London, or they tell a story for the sole purpose of daring to do something experimentally drawing-wise.
Miller’s book, then, is such an alternate narrative. You can read The Dark Knight Returns without any prior experience, and it could easily be the only Batman comic you read in your lifetime. It wouldn’t be the worst choice.
We experience an aged Batman who is at the end of his rope and has no more desire. The Joker has been locked away for many years and is only a shadow of his former self. Nevertheless, Gotham is no safer. An extremely brutal street gang, the mutants, still mixes up the city.
Since I want to arouse the curiosity of non-comics readers with this article, I won’t give too much away here. In the further course, however, a new Robin appears: Carrie Kelley – the first female Robin ever, a sensation!
The Dark Knight Returns was so immensely successful and influential, and not just because it’s a well-written and very interestingly plotted story. Above all, it came at the right time. At the beginning of Batman comics, the stories were still relatively dark and also violent. Over the years and decades, however, Batman became more and more child-oriented and adult readers dwindled. Not least because of the immensely popular and immensely silly Batman series of the 1960s, the character was often perceived only as a harmless joke. DC tried to counteract with darker stories starting in the ’70s, but the redemptive blow only came with this comic book here. This is definitely not for children: the story is sophisticated, dialogue-heavy and the characters are all complex. This volume is highly recommended to all curious people*!
TDKR – The sequels
As is always the case with such gigantic works, there have to be sequels. Sure, it’s not always for commercial reasons, but it’s certainly a bit of a sequel. There was a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns 15 years later, also by Frank Miller. Supposedly, he didn’t really want to do it. I still don’t understand what he delivered, and I’m by no means alone in that. Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again is loosely based on the original, but continues the plot in a completely obscure way, throws in all sorts of other superheroes and presents this in an idiosyncratic design. Every 2-3 pages the characters change and the short storyparts were so muddled and uninteresting to me that I was unwilling to somehow make out a thread or understand the overall work. For me, this volume was a big disappointment, as it apparently was for fans and critics in general. You can check it out here*.
A few years ago, the third and final volume of Batman: Dark Knight III – The Master Race* (translated into German as “The Superhumans”), now called a triology, was published. To preface it: I haven’t bought it yet, and I haven’t read it. The lengthy publication schedule of 9 individual issues had put me off, and I simply haven’t bought the collection yet. The appeal wasn’t there. Miller, however, is energetically assisted by younger comics greats like Brian Azzarello for this third story arc and seems to have returned to some strength, if not quite his old strength. Based on the rather positive reviews I’ve decided I want to read this third volume again at some point. However, it is by no means urgent.
At the same time, however, a short prequel was created, which already shook up the triology. Batman – The Last Crusade tells on 48 pages how the well-known Batman could become the disillusioned old man. Miller and Azzarello have written again, drawn this time by John Romita Jr. whose style not everyone likes, but I do. The story is quite good, though no great shakes. Fans of The Dark Knight Returns can get this one without hesitation, unlike the sequel. Others don’t need the story.
Last but not least, it should be mentioned that there is a very nice animated film of the original comic. The Dark Knight Returns was released in two parts in 2012/2013 and can be described as quite faithful to the work. The English voice actors are great chosen: Batman is spoken by Peter “Robocop” Weller, for example. In general, there are also elements in this conversion that work better in the comic and where the cinematic production pays off. Fans will find a nice cinematic realization here (as long as you can relate to adult animation). Who has no desire for comics, can get here very well an impression of the template:
The old Batman as a miniature
I was very pleased to also find some tabletop miniatures based on The Dark Knight Returns at Knight Models. Batman, Robin, the Joker and his little robots, Green Arrow and a couple of Sons of Batman have appeared. The miniature of Batman captures the edgy look and wrinkled, crinkly costume well and is a nice contrast to the otherwise modern-elegant versions of the cape. Unfortunately, I’ve only painted the Dark Knight so far, but the rest of the figures should follow as soon as possible. A special surprise is also waiting in my collection, I’ll tell you more about it soon. Oh, best I stop writing now and sit down again at the painting table…