DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: A Storytelling Landmark — Whose Cracks Show 35 Years Later

Frank Miller’s magnum opus is a creative achievement, but too often misunderstood…

The Dark Knight Returns — one of the greatest and most influential comics ever — debuted 35 years ago March 20, making this the anniversary of a major turning point in comics history. To mark the date, we’re publishing two columns: One about the graphic novel’s mixed legacy, by 13th Dimension columnist Fred Van Lente (below), and the other by former DC exec Paul Levitz about the company’s inner workings the day Issue #1 was released (click here). For past commemorations, click here. Dig it. — Dan


The Dark Knight Returns isn’t the best Batman story ever. It’s not even Frank Miller’s best Batman story. Hell, it’s not Klaus Janson’s best Batman story. It’s not even the best Iconic-Superhero-Defeats-All-His-Enemies-Then-Fakes-His-Death-And-Retires story published by DC in 1986. (That’d be this one.) Among the triumvirate of 1986’s game-changing graphic novels, it takes home the Bronze behind Watchmen and Maus.

But, cracking it open 35 years since the first time, when I was 14 years old, I could immediately see why it blew everybody’s mind, including mine, when it debuted. Having spent much of that subsequent 35 years engaged in making comics, the thing that impressed me most in 2021 is how evolved Miller is as a comics storyteller.

The first successful American creator to be heavily influenced by manga, earlier works like Daredevil and Ronin are full of ninja and samurai; but in DKR he internalizes his Japanese counterparts’ more sublime skills at using page layout to affect the ebb and flow of time.

He uses rapid-fire cuts between individual vignettes, oftentimes just one-panel long, and TV talking heads to speed up time, as in DKR’s most bravura sequence, the return of Batman from his decade-long retirement:

But Miller also uses page layout to the opposite effect, using the careful division of panels and micro-focused moments to slow down time, as seen in his introduction of Joker, Two-Face and Arkham Asylum:

The ideological themes of DKR haven’t aged as well as its formalistic brilliance. As “Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled” suggests, Miller’s thesis is that the world has been ruined by limp-wristed liberal sissies and only a real man, I mean, a real Bat-Man, can drag it out of the sewer.

In Bats’ absence the horrific Mutant Gang has overrun Gotham, murdering nuns for kicks. Slimy politicians have made a flunky of Superman, making him do their bidding in exchange for not putting superheroes in camps (or something). Batman wants to believe that a decade-older Two-Face has reformed, but he hasn’t, because people don’t change. A scarred half-dollar never heals. Bad people are just bad, full stop. Mercy is for chumps. Only the strong and uncompromising have a right to rule.

It’s no surprise that Bats gives up on this sick, sad world at the end of the story. He burns Wayne Manor to the ground and goes underground to restart society with a cadre of young paramilitaries who worship him blindly.

Uh, look. You don’t need to be Hannah Arendt to see this is Fascism 101.

But it’s also not anything you couldn’t see in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series or Stallone’s Rambo: Vietnam II: This Time the US Wins or any number of 1980s action movies. I suspect that The Dark Knight Returns is more of a product of the pop culture zeitgeist of the Reagan Era than a sincere expression of its creator’s political beliefs, particularly since those have proven rather fungible over the years, much like the rest of us.

What Miller does to Batman isn’t that much different than what Julie Schwartz & co. did to the Flash, Green Lantern, and other All-American heroes at the beginning of the Silver Age: He’s updating their mythos to reflect modern mores. Anyone who complains that DKR ruined superheroes by making them all grim and gritty is looking at the genre in a vacuum. Like a shark, genres that don’t keep moving, die. Just ask the classical mystery, as practiced by Agatha Christie and friends. That’s what the superhero genre was pre-1986, mostly ignored by the general public, except to be trotted out once in a blue moon for meta– and/or kitschy-retro fun.

Yet for all its nun-murdering and Cub Scout-poisoning, DKR insists on, and contrives as a major plot point, the rather old-fashioned idea that Batman refuses to kill. He beats criminals senseless, he throws them through windows, he breaks their bones, he tortures them for information (a lot), he runs them over in a tank, he shoots M60s at them, he inspires a psychopathic cult to murder shoplifters and jaywalkers, but no, no, he’d never kill them. It reminds me of that classic Futurama bit where Fry is aghast at corporations selling ad space in your dreams.

Far be it from me to agree with Zack Snyder about anything, but he’s right that the idea that Batman could exist in the real world without racking up a massive bodycount is, literally, childish. It reminds us that these superhero characters were originally created for the enjoyment of children. If you want to enjoy superheroes as an adult, that’s great. God knows I do, and so do millions of other people. And if because you’re an adult now, you also want Batman to be more “realistic,” absolutely, go for it.

But a lone millionaire with zero superpowers and Q Division gadgets fighting crime and the cops without getting his own hands dirty is the opposite of realistic. It’s bananas. It only makes sense if Batman lives in a bloodless, nerfed world, which DKR decidedly is not.

In many ways it’s a more preposterous concept than Superman himself, who is a god-like being from outer space. For Christopher Reeve’s Superman to work, only he has to be a fantasy. For Adam West’s Batman to work, everything has to be a fantasy.

(Or, you can just chuck the no-killing code whenever it gets in the way of kicking ass, a la Christopher Nolan in the Miller-influenced Batman Begins. Bats delivers the ridiculous line to Ra’s al Ghul, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” Ra’s has already seen Bruce Wayne blow up a castle full of previously-living ninjas at the beginning of the movie, so his holier-than-thou posturing rings particularly hollow.)

At the end of DKR #3, Joker frames Batman for his own murder, thus making it appear that Bats has violated his I-Don’t-Actually-Kill-People-Myself-But-Otherwise-Everything-Goes code. This makes the US government finally sick of his Bat-Nonsense. A Soviet EMP attack gives President Reagan cover to sic Superman on him amid a nationwide blackout. Miller clearly intends this climax to be the scrappy underdog using brains and skill to defeat a vastly more powerful foe. That’s certainly how I saw it as a teenager, why readers go nuts over it and why we’ve seen it play out over and over ad nauseam since 1986, including in the dueling Marthas of Batman v Superman: Lawsuit of Justice.

As an adult, though, I got to say I’m rooting for Superman.

When you grow up, you realize the world teems with Batmen, at least DKR’s version: angry tough guys who break things and push other people around yet always see themselves as the victim.

What the real world needs is more Supermen, people who use what they were born with to help those around them. You act out of care for your adopted home rather than from anger at what your birthright has become. As an adult you recognize that you can’t cure trauma by traumatizing others. You cure it through love.

It’s telling that the protagonists of the major adult superhero works of the 1980s, like Watchmen and DKR (and my personal favorite, O’Neill and Cowan’s The Question), all reach the same conclusion: “You know what? Being a superhero is dumb and probably counter-productive. Let’s stop.” They go on to contribute to society in more substantive, less violent ways. If you’re a Joseph Campbell fan, this is no surprise. The Hero’s Journey is always a coming-of-age story; it’s a passage from youthful exuberance to adult acceptance. The dream becomes reality: less flashy, but more precious, because it’s real.

Even old-ass Batman finally grows up and ditches his cape at the end of DKR. Though I can’t help but notice on the last page, that to rebuild civilization, he has brought, by my count, exactly one woman with him.

Who is 13 years old.

So, uh, yeah.

Good luck with that, Bats!


— PAUL LEVITZ: What Happened the Day DC Learned DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Was a Smash. Click here.


DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: A Storytelling Landmark — Whose Cracks Show 35 Years Later