THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS | ‘New to Comics’ Review

New to Comics is a segment where I look at various comic books; explaining, reviewing, and breaking them down for readers unfamiliar to the medium. 

With Michael Keaton’s potential return big in the news at the moment, and an excellent ‘DC Classics’ sale going on on Comixology at the moment, I’ve stocked up on my reading for the next month or so, and decided to kick things off with what is generally regarded as THE Batman story: The Dark Knight Returns

Published by: DC Comics
Written by: Frank Miller
Art by: Frank Miller & Klaus Janson
Year: 1986
Collects: The Dark Knight Returns #1-4


WHAT’S THE STORY?

There are hundreds of Batman stories out there, but few have had as much of an impact on Batman and the comics industry as a whole as The Dark Knight Returns

When people list off their must-read comics, it’s usually up there alongside Watchmen

The book made such an impact on the Batman line that the majority of Batman films reference the book in some way. 

The most obvious example is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the story is pretty much just a weird amalgamation of The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman (especially bizarre due to the fact those two stories are both ‘endings’, and BvS was supposed to be the beginning of a cinematic universe). 

The Dark Knight trilogy holds numerous references as well, with The Dark Knight Rises also borrowing heavily from this source material. 

The reason for this lasting legacy is because the story is often regarded as the comic that ‘saved’ Batman. 

While, initially, Batman was a gun-toting vigilante, the implementation of the comics code authority, the introduction of Robin and the Batman TV show of the 60s meant that the character had abandoned his dark detective roots and swayed more towards the guise of a campy adventurer. 

In the seventies, this was altered somewhat by the works of Neal Adams, but it was Frank Miller who fully cemented this dark, gritty form of storytelling as the new norm in comics. 

This continued throughout the nineties, with its fascination with violent anti-heroes, and into the 2000s, where superhero movies like BladeX-MenBatman Begins and even Man of Steel in 2013 ditched stories about characters in colourful spandex for black leather, lots of violence and a gritty new reality. 

We’re now starting to see creators strike a balance between gritty anti-heroes and colourfully, pop-y heroes, but it’s clear that the influence of The Dark Knight Returns has lasted well into the modern-day. 


SPOTLIGHT CHARACTER:

BATMAN

Real Name: Bruce Thomas Wayne
Affiliation: The Justice League
First Appearance: Detective Comics #27 (March 1939)

As a child, Bruce Wayne wanted for nothing – the son of some of the wealthiest and most respected people in Gotham City, Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce was, in essence, heir to the throne of Gotham. But all that changed when Bruce’s parents were gunned down in front of him, instilling in him a deep hatred for criminals that would hang over his entire life. Committing himself to become skilled in multiple disciplines such as combat and detective work, Bruce used the wealth and resources of the company he inherited from his father to become the vigilante known as the Batman. A figure of fear, Bruce now wages a war against crime with his trusty Batmobile and high-tech armoury of weapons, assisted by his loyal butler and father-figure Alfred, police commissioner Jim Gordon and his extended ‘Bat-family’ of sidekicks like Robin.


WHAT’S THE PLOT?

It’s been ten years since the Batman, now believed dead, has been seen in Gotham. But as Commissioner Gordon nears his retirement, a gang of criminals called the mutants begin causing strife for the citizens of Gotham City.

Feeling the urge to get back into the game, Bruce Wayne returns to the streets as the Batman, ready for one final fight before he disappears once more. But as Batman’s return takes Gotham by storm, old foes like Joker and Two-Face come crawling back from obscurity, while the President grows uneasy with Batman’s effect on Gotham and readies himself to put his secret weapon – Superman – into play to bring down the Dark Knight. 

REVIEW:

Last time I read The Dark Knight Returns, I remember coming away from it thinking it was overrated. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t in the right mood for it at the time, or maybe it’s because I’d also read the prequel comic All-Star Batman and Robin (unfinished and poorly written – don’t check it out), but I’d forgotten what all of the hype was about. 

Maybe that’s why I’ve been so hesitant to revisit it, but revisit it I did, when I saw in among the items on sale on Comixology. And I’m so glad I did. 

While I wouldn’t say The Dark Knight Returns is THE BEST comic ever written, as some might (I personally prefer Watchmen) it is still an excellent comic, and a definite high point in the publication history of Batman. 

In some ways, you could argue that this story transcends the medium – in some ways, it’s like reading a strong bit of prose. 

While the plot varies from issue to issue (Batman gets back in the game and fights the Mutants, Batman fights Two-Face, Batman fights Joker, Batman fights Superman) the overall narrative is tightly written, with a strong focus on its core cast of characters. It marries together Bruce’s inner monologue with the growing tension seen in Gotham through news reports to steadily amplify the tension and build towards an interesting climax. 

Each issue effectively analyses what Batman is doing, and how it affects the wider world, and how other factors may affect his return (such as the Cold War and Heat Waves). 

Further, each character has their own unique voices, with a different style applied to the various dialogues, along with different colours for some speech bubbles, to really differentiate them all. It gives you a great sense of who they are, and where they’re at in this bleak future (now, past). 

The art isn’t always the best quality, compared to say more contemporary artists or even some of Miller’s contemporaries such as Mike Grell. Some designs especially are questionable (like… what even is that Batmobile? *two pictures up*). Half of it is bold and emotive, while the rest looks unrefined. But even then, it’s effective in capturing the grit and grime of this broken Gotham that Miller and Janson are trying to convey, and it speaks a language all it’s own. 

While some could question the nature of the climactic battle between Batman and Superman, and how it serves as a conclusion to the graphic novel (Batman has this speech that people seem to love about his victory – even though it’s barely a victory if you think about it) the way they’re written really speaks to who they are and highlights the fascinating dichotomy between DC’s two most popular heroes, and what they represent. 

Of the Batman comics we’ve covered here, this is easily the one you should go for if you want a good Batman read. At 50 pages per issue, it’s got a tad more content than your usual graphic novels, and as long as you know who Batman and some of his immediate supporting characters are, you’ll be fine following along.

 

All-in-all, I give The Dark Knight Returns

 

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on The Dark Knight Returns? Have any Batman reading suggestions you want to share or any comic book topics you want to learn about? If so, let me know in the comments below!

And if you enjoyed this post, feel free to give it a like and even click that follow button for more New to Comics content! 

3 thoughts on “THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS | ‘New to Comics’ Review

    1. Personally I feel the writing is stronger in the first half than it is in the second, and between that and the art, other stories end up standing out more.
      (maybe I should have said ‘ever made’ rather than ‘ever written’).

      It is definitely a rich comic book though, and seeing that deontology/consequentialism debate play out in Batman’s battle with the Joker among other parts is always interesting.

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