With the release of the quite good but absurdly overrated The Dark Knight in theaters, this seems like a good time to revisit the greatest Batman comic ever written: The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns was written and drawn by Frank Miller, inked by Klaus Janson, and colored by Lynn Varley. It was originally published as a four-part series in 1986.
Here, Bruce Wayne is in his fifties, and he hasn’t been Batman in ten years. A massive crime wave drives him back into action. There’s a lot going on here: crime is out of control, Commissioner Gordon is retiring, superheroes have been done away with, the Cold War is escalating, several of the old, classic Batman villains are on the loose, and Batman’s not what he used to be.
The story here is so multi-layered, so complex, and Miller does an excellent job of keeping hold of all the threads. He also does a great job of blending old, classic characters with new ones. Miller’s one-page vignettes with crime victims make the story personal.
Miller likes to give us characters’ internal narration of events. This works most of the time, but once in a while it’s just too much (“I get sick of the arm…and kill it below the elbow.”). Miller typically does this when the artwork doesn’t show us all he wants it to, and he feels compelled to tell us the rest. This is the most obvious weakness in Miller’s work.
Miller’s art isn’t pretty. It’s dark, it’s sloppy at times, and it’s often downright ugly. But it fits the story, and it, along with Janson’s inks and Varley’s colors, really sets the mood. Even the layout of the panels, which are often cramped and crowded together, add to the story’s smothering feel.
There’s so much here, and Miller gives the reader a lot to think about. All told, The Dark Knight Returns has held up over time, and is one of the two or three greatest comic works ever created, hands down.