Monday, February 15, 2016

The Dark Knight Returned, But Was He Batman? Part One



Batman: The Dark Knight (March 1986)
"The Dark Knight Returns"
Frank Miller-Miller/Klaus Janson

Doug: "It Had to Happen!" "Because You Demanded It!" Get set to have your senses shattered and your minds blown as Karen and I begin a four-part discussion of Frank Miller's magnum opus, The Dark Knight. When we were discussing whether or not we'd like to commit to a series of partner reviews once January gave way to February, I suggested this series. Karen hesitated, thinking we'd already reviewed it. We have certainly spent a fair amount of time on this series in various posts and even more conversations -- near as I can tell, there have been over a dozen posts in our history dedicated specifically to some aspect of this graphic novel. But no -- we've never actually given it the BAB partner review treatment. That ends now.

Doug: One of the pledges we made to each other when we cut the deal to do this was that neither of us would be writing any sort of exhaustive plot summaries. Each volume in this series is 48 pages long -- sorry, I don't want to have to summarize that much text and to be honest, who hasn't read this? *note the sorry fellow there in the back with his hand sheepishly positioned near his ear* So what we are going to do is break this thing down into particular themes, scenes, and general impressions. We hope that you'll feel like you're eavesdropping on a couple of consumers at the comic shop racks. And once you join in, that aisle could become a little crowded!

Doug: Below is a page of publicity from DC Comics released in anticipation of what many now consider Frank Miller's masterpiece. Read what Dick Giordano had to say about The Dark Knight:

Scan courtesy of Greg A (@garaujo1) via Twitter. Thanks, Greg!
 

Doug: Let's begin by talking about the Batman and the basic premise of the story. It's somewhat of a psychological/sociological mashup, in that an aging Bruce Wayne, retired from crime fighting for the better part of a decade, has watched his city crumble around him. He satisfies his urge for action by driving race cars. The Batcave has long ago been shuttered. Bruce Wayne is restless as the Gotham City Police Department struggles to maintain any semblance of order in the face of the rising threat of the Mutants street gang. Frank Miller crafts several young/old dichotomies with his plots and subplots: Batman and the Mutants, Commissioner James Gordon and his coming retirement (to be replaced by a woman decades his younger), the new Robin and history. I liked all of this conflict. From the time I first read this I thought Miller had a good handle on these basic antagonisms for the leads of his subplots. Seen as an Elseworlds-type of story, Miller crafted a wonderfully dysfunctional Gotham, really one that would come to life in Tim Burton's 1989 film, Batman.

Karen: When Doug approached me about reviewing this series, my chief concern was being able to separate the work from the influence it has had on comics in the years since it premiered. As he says above, taken as a one-shot, Elseworlds sort of story, it is just fine. But it proved so popular that it became the template for not only Batman but comics in general. Personally I felt it that while the story itself had its merits, the impact it had on comics as a whole was terrible. It continues to this day - one has only to see the commercials for the Batman v. Superman film to see that. So I have very mixed feelings about The Dark Knight but will try to look at the material only for this commentary.

Karen: It's difficult to imagine the Batman ever retiring. One aspect I liked about this story was the fact that we are dealing with an older Batman who has physical limitations. Unlike so many heroes, Batman is truly just a man -yes, he's brilliant, an expert martial artist, rich, but he's still only human and his body has taken a huge amount of abuse. Returning to the role of the Batman at his age is not easy. We also see that being Batman is like an addiction for him: he's fought it, buried it as much as he can, and used other diversions to distract himself from his craving, but eventually, he gives in. 

Doug: We've both hit on Batman's age. Having just read the entire mini-series, it seemed to me (unless I totally missed it along the way) that Miller was all over the place on Batman's "current" age. It seemed I was asked to do a little math in the first issue and came up with an age of 50. Later on, I was leaning heavily toward 60. And if I'm not mistaken the number "55" was finally announced in the fourth issue. I can deal with either of the last two age suggestions; 50 seemed too young to me for this story. Maybe that's because I'm almost there? I did think it was interesting that Miller/Janson aged Bruce Wayne's face as the story wore on.

Karen: Despite Gordon's dedication and skill, Gotham City is still a cesspool. What does that say about him? And the attempt to rehabilitate Harvey Dent was a failure. Gotham feels like a little pocket of Hell, but Batman continues to try to save it.

Doug: Miller returned to the "Gotham City as cesspool" theme in Batman: Year One as well. I really enjoyed this grizzled old Gordon. He was obviously worn out, a man looking 20 years older than the 69 that he was. Whereas Gordon was still in the fight, it was obvious that he was ready to throw his hands up. But we know he welcomed the return of the Batman. So a couple of questions for you: First, what did you think of the cryptic manner in which all of the super-powered types disappeared, and then second, did you like or dislike the ambiguity of "what happened to Jason"?

Karen: At the time, the mystery of what had happened was very intriguing. Obviously, nothing good had happened in the  preceding years! Reading this as a 22 year old, none of the pessimism about the future really got to me, but I find it hard going now. What does it say? Our childhood heroes couldn't make things right. It is just so damned bleak.

Doug: I guess on my first read, and it's difficult to remember, I saw some of Miller's politics across the story. Here's a bit of irony for you: When this came out I was a sophomore at Eureka College, alma mater of Ronald Reagan. To attend that school while he was in the White House was an experience that had a little good and a little bad, as you might imagine. Anyway, upon leaving high school I suppose if I had a political worldview I would have been characterized as "moderate". However, the friends I soon began to run in college with were pretty left-leaning. So there I was at the school associated with Reagan, yet interested in the political ideas of Illinois Senator Paul Simon (for one). But I have to tell you -- when I read this first issue of Dark Knight, I rooted for this aging Right-winger Bruce Wayne! But if you think of the Left's view of the Reagan years, many of the themes present in Dark Knight were social concerns of the day. Miller chose to portray those issues as solvable by force. Hmmm... not unlike some of those criticisms of the Reagan administration.

Karen: And yet... Batman, when he shows up, is wearing that bright blue cape. For some reason that really struck me this time around. Now he soon winds up in a dark grey and black outfit, but here, as he makes his return to the city in a night of sheer, in-your-face domination of Gotham's criminal element, he could easily be a humongous version of Adam West.  

Doug: The splash where Batman first appears in the traditional colors is one of my favorite panels in the series. It's just so powerful, and a real "Oh, yeah!" moment for the reader as the suspense has built.

Doug: Let's talk about the panel layouts. What did you think of telling the story through a series of small panels emulating television screens? I liked it. I think by the mid-'80s we were becoming so inundated with media coverage and the dawn of media "stars" (beyond the journalists of previous decades, who had their start in radio and/or in TV's infancy) across the many cable channels that became available. It made sense to use the storytelling itself as a form of commentary for Miller. Interesting that Miller chose Lana Lang for a mouthpiece rather than, say, Vicki Vale. I'd also pick your brain on the aforementioned Harvey Dent and his "curing" by Dr. Bartholomew Wolper. Did you like this element of the greater story? I thought the addition of a psychiatrist who can rehabilitate the "un-rehabilitatable" served as an interesting consideration opposite the Batman's increasing presence in Gotham City.

Karen: One thing I did notice regarding layout was the small panel size. By and large, pages are laid out on a tight grid of about 16 panels. Now when Batman is in action, that changes, but otherwise there is a sort of staccato rhythm to the art due to this layout. The TV screens -was this a new idea? So hard to recall now! It seems reasonable -- obviously, Miller had a lot to say about the media, and it's not good! I know we had some discussion about the media here on the blog recently, and it wasn't favorable. Our news programs are full of 'personalities' and a lot of fluff, and it had its beginnings in that era. I don't have any real problems with that. It's Miller's contempt for psychiatry that  I do take issue with, as I think the practitioners of psychology and psychiatry can provide valuable help to some people. Are you going to be able to rehabilitate, or save, everyone? No, I don't think so. But we have to try. I think the effort is as important as the result. Back in the 80s, everyone was so concerned about being "soft" on crime, that we often got reactions that went too far in the other direction. You could make the argument that in some areas, that never stopped,  but this is a comic review and not a political forum, so let's move on. I will say that the politics of TDKR bother me much more now than when I first read it. When I was younger, I could enjoy it as over the top satire, like Robocop. But with all the years between, it becomes less humorous to me.

Doug: Across this nation we see the results of inadequate care for the mentally ill. Perhaps Miller was harping on that. Or, maybe he wanted to use both Two-Face and the Joker as counter-weights to the Batman's terminal obsessions. Either way, they were interesting elements to the story that proved thought-provoking throughout. You know, in the end if you wrap in Superman and even Green Arrow, no one really changes from how they begin this tale. Maybe that's part of Miller's statement.

Doug: Of course we're not going to leave today's post without any discussion of the new Robin, Carrie Kelly. We only just meet her in this first issue; in fact, I'm not even sure I knew she was going to become the new Robin. It's hard to remember the publicity of the story ahead of it's release -- mostly I remember wire service stories telling of the basic premise of an aging Batman and so on.

Karen: I've never had much of an opinion on her, one way or the other. I've heard that it was John Byrne who insisted that this new Robin be a girl. That's intriguing. She's got spunk, which is nice. And she does what Robin should do -she helps keep Batman human.

Doug: Do you have a favorite scene in this issue? The one I distinctly recall having an "Oh, maaaaaaan..." reaction to is on page 39, where the Batman lay in wait under some stairs for a descending thug. Miller makes it quite clear that this is not the Silver Age Batman, but one that hearkens back to the 1930s roots. "The other... hurts." Indeed.


 



Karen: That full page shot of Batman in his blue and grey outfit is still stunning to me.


 


Doug: Wrapping up today's installment, I wanted to discuss the art and coloring. I've gone on record a few times as saying that I feel Miller's art devolved throughout this series. But after having re-read the entire graphic novel recently I think I'd come off that complaint. Overall Miller delivered the goods throughout the series. Sure, it's a little inconsistent here and there, but I almost feel now like that's a storytelling device in and of itself. When Batman's down, Miller draws him very big and heavy, really sketchy. But when Batman's strong and in control, it's seems he's drawn in a more toned fashion, tighter. The art in this first issue is magnificent, and Klaus Janson's inks really let Miller's pencils do the talking. Miller's wife, Lynn Varley, completes the package with excellent colors throughout. This first issue is a sight, yes it is.




38 comments:

Colin Jones said...

"...and to be honest, who hasn't read this ?" - well, me actually. I'm the sorry fellow in the back with his hand sheepishly positioned near his ear. I wasn't reading any comics between 1983 and 2007 and I was a 100 per cent Marvel fan anyway. I only know TDKR by its' reputation as the start of the grim & gritty/violent era of comics. "Across this nation we see the results of inadequate care for the mentally ill" - by a strange coincidence one of the top news stories in Britain this morning is...inadequate care for the mentally ill.

Edo Bosnar said...

Nice start to what looks to be a really intriguing series of posts.
I'm also of two minds about this, i.e., there's the story itself and then there's the influence it seemed to have on all things Batman and superhero ever since (like its similarly ground-breaking contemporary, Watchmen).
I think of DKR as a damn good Elseworlds Batman story - and nothing else (it's the same way I think about Morrison's All Star Superman: it's a really good Elseworldsesque Superman story, but not the Greatest. Superman. Story. Ever. as it's often described).
As I read your comments, I realized that it's been quite a while since I last read DKR - like well over 20 years. I suspect that, like Karen, there's things I would find less amusing or rather, more disturbing than I did when I was a younger person.

Graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I had stopped reading comics in the early '80's, when I returned to the comic book shop ten years later I was shocked at how the tone of story telling had changed. I soon discovered that change could largely be traced back to DKR. It was great as a standalone piece but unfortunate that it became the template for much of what followed. Still, the art is very well done although it took a while to get used to the grizzled, heavyweight Batman.

Kevin

Doug said...

Colin -- hopefully our thoughts and today's comments will inspire you to seek out a copy of TDKR. Regardless of where you'll land in the love/hate spectrum, I think you'll find it thought-provoking if nothing else.

Kevin, you're right about this "heavyweight" Batman. This is not the Batman of Jim Aparo or Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez!

Karen and I have finished our contributions to Part Two, which will run next Monday. In it we discuss the very issue you've raised - Batman, upon his return, seems more enamored of striking fear in a physical sense and neglects what made him an able colleague of the super-powered JLA: his brains.

Doug

david_b said...

Great series so far, you two. I'm probably a lot like Kevin where I stopped all collecting around 1977 or so, and when I returned in the mid-80s was quite surprised at the change. Like Karen, I didn't like the rampant influence seeping into both the writing and art of comics from Miller's book (birthing all the '80s long-bow grit, and eventually flowing into the entire '90s 'extreme' comics we discussed a few days before...). It's influence remains vast and hard-to-calculate even today.

But as a single series, I found this book an interesting take on the legend as long as folks don't think of it as canon.

Doug said...

David, I think your point about "hard to calculate" is really important. For creators who cut their teeth on comics after 1985, this is all they've ever known. For all I know, they may find a barrier to enjoying Bronze Age comics as some of us have trouble appreciating material from the Golden Age.

Doug

Karen said...

That's a great point about how some creators may be starting from TDKR -this hits home especially now as this last weekend my husband wanted to go see the Deadpool movie, which I had zero interest in, but as a good spouse, I agreed to go. (It didn't hurt that the theater was a dine-in with excellent food!) I had never read anything with Deadpool in it that I could recall and had no interest in the character, and from the clips I had seen, I thought the film looked pretty terrible. I was right -just a lot of potty and dumb sex gags strung together, interspersed with a lot of super-sped-up gunplay and fighting. It did absolutely nothing for me. Even my husband said it wasn't very good. But it made a ton of money at the box office this weekend. I know I am not the audience this movie was made for.

Is Deadpool a direct descendant of TDKR? Only in the area of violence. It's far too goofy to be closely related. But that violence, which I think led to a moral ambivalence, is there. Too many of Miller's successors focused on the violence and the look and nothing else. As TDKR influenced the comics and creators went over the top with violence and dark, gritty characters, it became the norm. Anyone who grew up reading comics in the 90s didn't know anything else. So is it any wonder the books have become what they are today? I think you guys have hit it right on the nose. The Bronze Age books we grew up with must seem so silly and quaint.

William said...

I won't lie. I was not a fan of DKR when I first read it.

My biggest problem with this story is something you guys hit on early in the review. The fact that Gotham City seems like such a hell on earth, or a cesspool. It's all just so bleak and cynical. Even though Batman works with a darker tone, I thought it was a bit too much. I feel there is enough of that darkness in the "real world" and I always read superhero comics to escape all that for a while and be uplifted.

I also felt that Miller's attempt at political commentary was clumsy, and obvious, and a little too in your face. Ronald Reagan is still the president. Oh my, how shocking and controversial. (No wait, I mean stupid). To me it was just so juvenile in it's execution. I could have definitely done without all that in a Batman story. Very unnecessary and self-serving, IMO.

I also wasn't a big fan of the new Robin. The character and her origin was just so out of left field. She just decided to become Robin and put on a costume, and that was it. No reason, no training, no history. And Carrie had absolutely no previous connection to Batman, but he just immediately accepts this stranger into his life and lets her be the new Robin. That always seemed like rally sloppy writing to me. Like Miller just didn't want to have to bother with it. He wanted a girl to be Robin, so it was like she just appeared out of thin air, and we were all just supposed to accept that. Ehhh. I think he should not have listened to John Byrne, and just went with a Batman without Robin like he originally had planned. Again, just my opinion.

Another thing, the "Mutants" street gang name really confused me when I first read this. I thought maybe they were supposed to be real mutants with super powers, etc. Then as I read through the series I realized that they were just "normal" humans who called themselves Mutants to (presumably) instill fear in the citizens of Gotham City. But Frank Miller never really made that crystal clear.

Now, with all that said, these days I have come to appreciate DKR a little more. Not because I re-read the story and decided I liked it after all. No, it's because of the animated movie that came out a couple of years ago. I thought it did a much better job of telling the story than the books did. It just all flowed so much better. In fact, it's just about my all-time favorite Batman movie (along with Mask Of The Phantasm, and Under The Red Hood).

(Forgive any typos that may be in this post). Thanks.

dbutler16 said...

Count me in as not being a huge fan especially for its influence on subsequent comics. I'm with Karen in that it's fine as a one shot elseworlds story, but that's about it. A bit too dark for my taste.

Anonymous said...

Frank Miller has never, ever been a subtle writer. All his opinions seem to be black and white, and really obvious when presented on the comics page. In recent years, his worldview has curdled into something gross. If one is to look at his career from Daredevil to his recent output, one can see that worldview form a little at a time. More than liberal vs. conservative, his stance on everything boils down to Us vs. Them. Daredevil vs. the hordes of homeless people in the sewers, Incorruptible people like Jim Gordon vs. corrupt people like the GCPD, etc. He allows his characters flaws, but no nuance. That's not to say he's a bad writer, and he's written several of my favorite comics. But an industry that deals with grey areas, like psychiatry or the entertainment industry? They're labeled "bad" and Miller's distortions of them are his version of satire. In fact, I've heard DKR called a satire. It is, in parts, but I think there's enough sincerity (especially in Book 1) and dumb ideas to weaken its satiric intent. I've always liked DKR but the social satire (along with Miller's idea of morality) is a bit simple.

Switching gears, Carrie Kelly is my favorite Robin. She's spunky and strong-willed without being annoying. She becomes Robin because she helps Batman and then decides, hey, I'll be Robin now. I don't need a more defined origin. Her design is great, especially with the slingshot.

In terms of the art, it used to be my least favorite part of the book. I never thought it was bad, just not appealing to me. I went to the (now sadly defunct) Words & Pictures museum in the '90s and they happened to be exhibiting some of the original pages. Lynn Varley did a great job coloring the book, but seeing the line art made me connect with the images more directly. I looked at it with fresh eyes after that and now enjoy the gritty/cartoony visuals more than I used to.

Growing up in the '80s & '90s, grim'n'gritty was the default, but not as much as you might think. I read several books that didn't match that description most of the time (Peter David's Hulk & X-Factor, Mark Waid's Flash & Impulse, Alan Davis's Excalibur,etc.). Regardless, I'm glad writing became more of a priority in the late '90s.

- Mike Loughlin

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm standing in the back with Colin, since I've never read this either. It was never on my radar when it came out and I just haven't gotten around to it since.

As for the negative influence, I agree that this (and things like Watchmen or V for Vendetta) pushed things toward a darker tone; I guess the publishers saw how successful those stories were and tried to imitate them, with (mostly) less than stellar results. But comics had already taken a more "serious" turn back in the 70s. Stuff like Tomb of Dracula, Master of Kung Fu, Man-Thing, Warlord, Jonah Hex, and even Black Lightning or the GL/GA x-overs all tried to get away from traditional superheroics and were a bit darker in tone than most books. So things were getting more serious anyway, but maybe DKR accelerated the process too much and all the "grimness 'n grittiness" just piled up on top of itself?

Mike Wilson

spencer said...

Enjoyed the review. While it looks like many here don't like it, I think the most important thing for me is that it was different! Yes, I love the bronze age, where our heroes were pretty squeaky-clean, but this was gritty. I do agree with Karen's view that as I've gotten older I disagree more and more with Miller's quasi-fascist. Still, I think this book help create a clear definition between books that are aimed at me, a 50 yr old, and books aimed for teenagers.

Humanbelly said...

I think the problem with more "mature" books like this is that there's always been an unfortunately-high proportion of emotionally-immature folks (in one way or another) in the ranks of our fandom. And they are drawn to aspects of these mature books for, frankly, all the wrong reasons. Well, and heck, that's been true of popular culture since forever, anyhow. But in this case, the heightened violence and. . . nihilism,even?. . . in the books from this period and into the 90's became an element that was just stupidly CELEBRATED and seen, of course, as the big draw and selling point. And it kinda made me sick. If you look back at the make-a-buck comic vendor ads in the books of that time, they're absolutely gleeful in their shilling of books as "Ultra violent!", "Ultra Bloody!", "Huge guns!", "Sexy, violent babes!"--etc, etc-- and I'm not particularly paraphrasing, here. At a low point in the industry's financial existence, there was a conscious decision to pander to that element and market, because it was spending lotsa dollars RIGHT NOW, and the hell with the future of the medium, because, y'know, it's only comic books and who really cares. . . ?

(Gnrghhh)

HB

Martinex1 said...

I'm with Colin and Mike. I never read the series. I feel like I did as I've read so much about it and for some reason I have seen most of the pages you display so I must have perused it at some point, but like others it fell in a gap period of my collecting. And in light of its impact on the industry (as well as the impact from Watchmen), I never went back and read it. As commented above, the obvious fallout from those stories may have kept me away. To HB's point, I think not only the fans but the creators latched onto the surface elements. I probably should read it so I can comment intelligently, so I will leave it at that.

I do have a question though, I swear that in my high school English Lit class, in a textbook of short stories there was a short Batman prose story that seems very similar. I remember an aged Batman going back to work. The story could not have been more than five pages long and I cannot recall who penned it. I cannot find the tale, but I distinctly remember it in a textbook and it would have been around 1982 or 1983. It was in a Lit collection that included Leguin's "Those That Walk Away from Omelas" and maybe Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter". Does anybody remember that? It would have predated DK and I am very curious, as beyond remembering an old Batman I remember little else.

Doug said...

I have to confess that I am surprised (and I do not mean that in any negative way) that three of our regulars have not read this story. But, out of that of course comes an idea for a post. Come back on Saturday for that one.

Doug

J.A. Morris said...

I think it's generally pretty good, especially the art. I generally agreed with the "thesis" Miller laid out in the story the first time I read it and still agree with much of it. But what seemed like biting satirical social commentary years ago now reads like a sledgehammer hitting the broad side of a barn.

Humanbelly said...

That mixed metaphor is so good, J.A., that I think it rates a more respectable-sounding name. . . like, "Compound Metaphor". Yeah? 'Zat work?

I forgot to mention whether I liked it or not myself. Which at the time I rather did. Yeesh-- bought it right off the monthly-release shelves at Geppi's Comic World in Silver Spring, MD. First printing, in fact--- probably has some degree of collectability, I suppose. (Hmm-- not sure those issues are even bagged down there. . . ) It wasn't my cup of tea at all, really, but it was definitely an engaging story with a unique, gripping visual style, and it did suck me right in at the time. I've probably read it a couple of times since then, and the appeal has waned with each reading. Probably because what was shocking and original and (sort of) the main-stream comics version of counter-cultural expression got copied almost immediately, and parodied, and within a couple of years (or less) was more like ground zero for the tsunami of all Gritty-Comics cliche's (hmmm-- speaking of mixed metaphors. . . ). It's-- oh man, I KNOW this'll bring a bucketload of righteous wrath down on my head, but-- it's like THE GODFATHER. I honestly only saw that movie for the FIRST TIME about a year ago. Heck, the MAD Magazine parody had been my lifelong reference point for it. And. . . the movie was almost unwatchable for me because EVERY impersonation, EVERY reference, EVERY bit of schtick that had been copied and expanded on since 1972 was right there in its original incarnation, but now seemed like a joke of itself to me.

A tangential comparison, okay-- but for me an apt comparison still.

HB

Anonymous said...

DKR was and is great, and I'm really puzzled at the somewhat negative reaction here in the comments. Each to their own, I guess.

I broadly agree with Mike Loughlin above... although I'm less critical of the worldview in DKR, and wonder if he isn't letting Miller's more recent output and comments shape how he reads the earlier work.
Theres more ambiguity than he allows; for instance, Miller ridicules psychiatry in DKR but that doesn't make it "bad", because of course the Joker IS drawn back into activity by the re-emergence of Batman. The shrinks are, in fact, correct!

Not that theres much subtlety... but, you know, its a Batman comic!

On the art - hey Doug, weren't you going to post stuff from an artists edition? Maybe with pt 2?
I demand it!(:

-sean

Pat Henry said...

Had a powerful impact on my comic reading at the time, and it still holds up well IMO. Batman’s a fascist, Superman’s a fascist—when you get right down to it, putting on a mask to dispense your own personal sort of justice that generally involves beating people silly is a fascist sort of exercise—Reagan is comically a fascist.... only Commissioner Gordon really comes off well, a sort of hapless resignation to the way things are.

What I recalled about the early entries in this series was the poignant treatment of Dent. I really had no idea at this time that Dent was so helpful, so crucial to Batman’s earliest days as a non-commissioned vigilante (captured so well in Year One). Batman’s treatment of him is jarringly compassionate, as he understands that Dent’s monstrous duality mirrors his own. The Joker just comes across as someone the Dark Knight is well rid of, and perhaps careless not to have disposed of earlier.

Miller strays almost into apostasy with his treatment of Robin. There’s a blunt sense that this is no world for a sidekick, and Batman is reckless for encouraging one. More than anything else, this wrote the end for Robin in a grittier envisioning of Batman. Yet... Batman needs a Robin, and his most human moments in the series are with Carrie.

Batman’s “thirst for revenge” was always tempered by a vision of doing something good and of benefit. That’s what made hum a hero. But what if all possibility of doing good, of doing benefit is stripped away? Miller plays with these themes rather expertly—but as others have noted, others less skillful took a one-off essay and made it canon.

Garett said...

I think Mike L. hit it on the head that Miller likes Black vs. White in his stories. I do remember he makes fun of the left and right politically in this series, which I thought was a healthy view-- Reagan on the right, and Robin's pot-smoking parents on the left. We never see the parents but we hear them at the window as Robin jumps out.

The tv/media panels were used by Chaykin in American Flagg before Dark Knight, if I remember correctly. I also remember the panel after the page here where Batman kicks the guy and is looming over him-- Batman rummages through the guy's pockets and talks about his bad habits as cigarettes spill out. There were moments like that in this series that stick in the mind.

Karen said: "Reading this as a 22 year old, none of the pessimism about the future really got to me, but I find it hard going now." I agree. Back then it seemed edgy and new, but now it feels bleak. There's a certain vitality that Miller has in his writing, but at the end of the day I don't feel inspired by it or energized by it--more the opposite. In contrast, Lee/Kirby comics have a vitality that makes me feel like jumping up and taking on the world! Powerful and life-affirming.

I like the Meanwhile column by Giordano. Interesting to hear about panels being taped to the first issue's pages, as Miller reworked his ideas.

Pat Henry said...

One other bit-- Was Reagan's Alzheimer's dementia a public fact when TDKR hit the streets? I'm not sure it was common knowledge—don't think Reagan went public with it until the 1990s—which makes the goofy, senile way he is portrayed by Miller almost prescient.

I think Miller captures the "voices" and characterizations expertly. But, again, it is satire. It is criminal that DC allowed a satire to become the "serious" way its properties would be portrayed across the line.

Humanbelly said...

To answer your question, Pat, no Reagan's Alzheimer's/dementia was definitely not public knowledge at that point (quite possibly not yet realized, even, I suppose). There were of course some rumblings during the previous presidential debates when he would sometimes wander off on almost impossible tangents. It also hadn't been revealed during the later Iran/Contra hearings (IImyselfRC) when he stated in several instances that he had no memory whatsover of this event or that conversation, etc. It seemed inexplicable, until a few years later it became obvious that he, indeed, had very likely lost those memories completely. Scary, horrible disease, it is.

Sorry, sorry-- lot train-of-thought email threads w/ my work today. I seem to be in high-fountain mode. . .

HB

Doug said...

Sean --

Graphitti Designs The Dark Knight Returns Gallery Edition ships a week from Wednesday. Hopefully I have it in time to include in our fourth installment. But even if I don't, I am certain it will merit a post all by itself. Thanks for asking.

Pat -- I am pretty sure that when TDKR was published, Ronnie was under the influence of Nancy's psychics and astrologers, which was regular fodder for the likes of Johnny Carson. The dementia was indeed a revelation after his tenure in the White House was over.

And to all -- great conversation today with many outstanding points to ponder. This book has obviously been influential on all of us to some degree. Hopefully this will keep rolling along over the next three Mondays.

Doug

Ward Hill Terry said...

I eagerly bought this when it was first printed. I remember discussing it with friends, quoting Alfred's lines. I am pretty sure that I liked the challenging artwork. I had been reading Daredevil and had read Ronin. I'll share more in the ensuing weeks. There are two things I want to bring up. First, who amongst you was a regular reader of Batman comics (Detective, Brave and the Bold, etc.) at the time TDKR came out? This was released at about the same time that I was giving up being a regular buyer of the Bat-books. (I was less and less enamored of Doug Moench's stories and really disliked Tom Mandrake's art.) I had been collecting them for almost nine years by then, so my vision of Batman was pretty firm. I know that a lot of the regular BAB responders were Marvel-ites, so I hope some non-regulars respond. I was resistant to some of Miller's interpretations of Batman, Gotham and its inhabitants.
Second, I was thinking the other day about my age and how my hair looks. It looks a lot like the way Joe Staton used to draw the JSA characters! Gray at the temples, or the Reed Richards look if you prefer. So, I was thinking about when I was buying All-Star Comics in 1977, reading about guys who had been young men thirty years earlier. Thirty years ago I was a college graduate! I'm still in pretty good shape, if I had a super-power that would be even better! My point is, someone my age is not going to be be AS fast or AS strong as he was thirty years ago, but the same activities can be done. So, regarding Wayne's age in this story; let's say between 50 and 60. The thing is, that means he quit being Batman sometime in his 40's! That's the part of the story that doesn't fit for me. Something awful happened to Robin and Bruce gives up the costume (like on Earth-2). But Bruce Wayne doesn't give up his work for justice! He doesn't quit! I know that's the MacGuffin behind the story, but it really is too much of a stretch for me.

Anonymous said...

Sheepishly raising my hand along with Colin, Mike Wilson and Martinex1 .....

Yes I too have never read the DKR story but as a comics reader you could feel the influence of Miller's tale all around. While some might not like this version of Batman I think Miller was trying in some sense to return Batman to his roots, so to speak. Coming after the 60s campy Batman TV series and the 'world's greatest detective' Batman of the 70s, Miller probably felt the time was right to unleash a grim and grittier Batman.

While I've never been the biggest fan of such a grim version of Batman, I can see why Miller envisioned this Batman. Batman was always a psychologically scarred hero, and Miller just took this to a whole new level.


- Mike 'shouldn't the female Robin be called Robinette?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Pat Henry said...

Not to get too political about it, but one reason why TDKR perhaps seems so bleak and pessimistic to modern eyes is because somewhere along the way satires like this and George Orwell’s cautionary tales somehow became operating manuals for the United States. In 1986, America was secure, and secure in its morality—we did not torture people, we did not, and that was an _Absolute._ We could even be smug about that. So when Batman beats confessions out of thugs, it seems novel—Unsettling, rather than settled. The American brand of fascism was then the stuff of PK Dick and his Man in the High Castle and, yes, Chaykin’s darkly satiric American Flagg and—similarly—Judge Dredd. These were all dashes of cold water, not a torrential downpour. We could worry about such things in the future, not cringe about it in hindsight.

The staleness is not of Miller, but of the fact that what he satirized is now de rigueur. The fourth wall is broken down.

Redartz said...

I'm sheepishly doing a partial hand raise here, with Colin, Mike, Martinex1 and Mike. I did read the first book when it came out, but never read the rest of it. This was about the time I was getting out of comics. Reading this story, and later on "Killing Joke", rather overwhelmed me. The art certainly impressed me (in both books). It was the bleak, pessimistic sense and graphic violence that troubled me. Not in a prudish way, it just didn't appeal to my more optimistic nature. And, at that time, we were starting a family and my focus was leaving comics. Thus, to be fair, I need to reread the first book, and experience the story's conclusion as well.

Dr. Oyola said...

I think laying the 90s grim and gritty (but really kind of over the top and goofy) thing at the feet of DKR and Watchmen is to overvalue their influence. They may have proved that a "serious" dark and political take on comics could sell and be taken seriously, but I think they are just part of a trajectory that started with Speedy doing heroin and Gwen Stacy's death. Something like "The Death of Jean DeWolf" may feel like it is post DKR comic, but it is really a post-Frank Miller Daredevil and Wolverine limited series comic, which have a lot more in common with someone like Cable or Deadpool than anything in DKR or Watchmen.

As for DKR itself. I think the art is great, and I think the story is great insofar that it takes the problem of the Batman concept (it's oligarchical and fascistic overtones) and puts them in a political context where it is equated with individualism, freedom and justice. It is the absurd far right-end of the genre done about as well as it could be done.

B Smith said...

I eagerly lapped it up at the time, but have to admit i haven't read it since - might be time to dig it out and have another look.

TV screens as panels first came to my notice in X-Men #58, in the Thomas/Adams Sentinels story...more sparingly used than Chaykin (good call there) or Miller, but quite effective nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't George Perez use TV screens-as-panels in New Teen Titans, years before DKR?

There were other super-hero/ fantasy comics from the big 2 that targeted an older readership- Camelot 3000, Squadron Supreme, Miller's own Ronin- that didn't have nearly the impact of DKR. I think the book's success has a lot to do with Miller's writing and art, but I think the public's perception of Batman as the Adam West camp fest grabbed people's attention. Comic book readers knew about O'Neil & Adams (even if they were never as extreme as Miller) but the brutality and tone of DKR must have turned some heads...

- Mike Loughlin

Anonymous said...

Dr Oyola - I disagree, Osvaldo... I think DKR and Watchmen did reshape superhero comics. Of course they were part of various trends that had been around for a while, but it was pretty clear reading them at the time that they were a leap forward for the form in a way that,say,the Moench/Sienkiewicz Moon Knight wasn't.

I think, though, that Miller and Moore's impact wasn't so much down to their influence on other creators, but rather their appeal to a wider audience - remember all that 80s "comics are growing up" stuff? The ability of DKR and Watchmen to bring new customers into the comic shops was crucial to the growth of the new direct market - I can't really see all those twenty somethings who hadn't read a comic book in years suddenly being enthused by the Claremont/Miller Wolverine mini series.

Its a shame DKR and Watchmen seem to be associated with all the "grim and gritty" nonsense that followed; I recall being hugely disappointed by the first issue of the next "prestige" format Batman after DKR, The Cult.And it was by Starlin and Wrightson, no less; that did not augur well for the new grown up - yeah, right - superhero comic!

-sean

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Steranko did the tv panels thing too.
But, you know, its not so much what you do but the way you do it...

-sean

Edo Bosnar said...

The Cult, yeesh. That has to be *the* textbook example of really lovely art being unable to save a wretched story...

Great conversation, everybody - man, sometimes being at least 6 time zones ahead of almost everyone else here has its disadvantages. It really makes me want to re-read this all the more. That's mainly because I'm really interested in the political layer: I recall that my impression when I last read it (as with Elektra: Assassin, which came out at about the same time) was that Miller was trying to darkly satirize the gung-ho, fascist-leaning patriotism of America in '80s. Reading some of these comments, I'm not so sure about that interpretation any more.

By the way, Pat, although, as others have noted, Reagan's Alzheimer's problems only came to light long after he left the White House, his perceived senility was fodder for comedians and satirists throughout the '80s (SNL alone had a whole sub-genre of skits dedicated to this theme), so there's nothing really all that prescient or unusual about Miller incorporating it into his story.

Humanbelly said...

Golly, what a great discussion-!
I would compliment everyone on maintaining a level thoughtful tone even as the conversation touched on the realm-political. . . but the last time I did that (a couple of years ago?), it apparently jinxed things-- the whole thread blew up about two comments later (due to one particular individual, IIRC), and it was highly unpleasant.

And the odd thing? I remember the fact of the flame-out--- but I don't remember the offending topic at all. It might have been political? Possibly religion? Sexual orientation? Basic rude name-calling? Ahhhh, who can tell--- and I'm not gonna go lookin' for it. . .

HB

Anonymous said...

One interesting reading of the book I have read (I think it was from John Byrne) is that Dark Knight is Bruce Wayne being driven crazy by not being Batman for so long. Barman made Bruce Wayne happy - beating up criminals was deeply satisfying to him. Taking that away, drove him crazy. So, the Batman you see in the book is a crazy, disfunctional Batman - not the way we should want to see him. That makes it ironic this version became the template for the character going forward.

R. Lloyd said...

This was my favorite of all of Miller's Batman stories. Although the art I thought was cartoony and rushed, I thought it captured the desperation in an older 55 yr. old Batman. I liked this one for the new fresh take on Batman I'd never thought I'd see. I never thought DC would let Frank get way with such a radical story but it worked. And Frank should have left it alone after this one, it needed no sequel. I like Batman Year One and would have preferred he do Year's 2, 3 and 4 instead of Dark Knight Strikes Back. The second one was a mess and should have never been released. The new one, Master Race, at least has a coherent plot and good artwork. Poor Frank has been suffering health problems but I think the third one might turn out to be good.

R. Lloyd said...

I just had to comment on what the Batman in the comics devolved into. Which is now the Bat-Maniac who has no restraint at all. It's too violent for me and in no way appeals to me at all. While I liked Frank's Batman as Clint Eastwood in his final years, it doesn't work on a monthly book. Batman for me was the detective, the cool and professional crime fighter who knew restraint and justice through the courts. The Batman that didn't provide the final judgement for the villains of Gotham City. He was a role model for young readers when DC cared abut it's young impressionable fans.

I look at some of the modern comics today and there is too much adult material out there and nothing for young kids who want to read the good stuff. The classic Marvel Masterworks and DC from the 70's and 80's are the better stories and the ones I keep going beck to.


If you look on the Comixology site there is a good mixture of classic and new material. My only resource for comics since I can't afford to store them on book shelves like I used to. The electronic versions collections are cheaper and much easier to store.

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