REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS

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I got a chance to work on Batman, I was 29 years old at the time and dreading the nightmare of turning 30. And So I figured Batman’s gotta be older than me. So I made him an impossible age of 50. From that sprung everything about the story”. – Frank Miller

Context: There is only one really good Batman story, and Frank Miller found a way to tell it twice. Once with The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, and again the following year with Batman Year One. In those two books he’s able to repackage the origin story and also gives the character an end point. The impact of it all is so strong it’s now impossible to avoid, and even harder to deviate from when dealing with the character. Miller’s story stays within the basic superhero parameters, but his shift in tone with the character is unique and has had a deep impact for the medium of action adventure comics.

The Batman myth has an interesting construct – he was created by a single individual but through time a broader group (writers, artists, fans) have regulated his makeup. No definitive rules are written anywhere, but there is a core story that has a definitive structure that the collective imagination has moulded throughout the years. Instinctually when reading Batman you know when the work is off the mark, and when it’s on the mark. Batman never kills anyone, rarely uses guns, sticks close to a moral code of doing good and never grows old. With the Dark Knight Returns we see Miller dutifully follow the tropes of action adventure stories, but the reason the work resonates is because of the select few rules he choses to deconstruct.

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In 1986 DC Comics were financially at an all time low, which seemed to have influenced their openness to let an up and comer like Miller do what he wanted with their beloved franchise character. Bringing him back to his darker origins and explore the quasi-fascistic tendencies inherent in the character’s set up. In doing so, the work was talked about and passed around as a “gateway comic” – something you gave to someone to show that “comics were just not for kids anymore”.

The opposite seems true to me and I will bet that its imagery and deconstructions can only really work if there is a certain familiarity with the source material – a nostalgia from reading it at a younger age. It reminds me of a Dan Clowes quote that mentions how disappointed he was that this was the chosen book that was being passed around to change people’s minds about the medium at the time  – that at the end of the day it was all pretty straightforward superhero stuff (mixed in with a Charles Bronson plot). I don’t disagree with that statement, and see what he meant in contrast to his own work – but also think some of the peak points in The Dark Knight Returns are some of the best in the action adventure genre.

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Story: Bruce Wayne is fifty years old and has retired from crime fighting. Gotham is collapsing in the face of new street gangs and the last public sighting of Batman was ten years ago. The first half of the resurrection story sees a frustrated Bruce Wayne surrender to impulses that bring him back on the street to fight. Tested by the new breed of terror, his reaction is to slip into brutality as a born again tyrant. After beating the gang’s leader, its remaining members start worshiping Batman and appropriate his ideals as their new guiding ideology towards aggressively stopping crime.

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A new Robin is found and after years of living in a near catatonic state the second half of the Dark Knight Returns marks the reappearance of the Joker. Resuscitated by the new Batman sightings, he breaks out and is able to set up a terror attack and face Batman one last time. The confrontation pushes their symbiotic relationship to its natural finality. The story ends with an all powerful Superman ordered by then president Reagan to confront and stop Batman, who’s (according to some) now spiralled out of control.

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WRITING AND STRUCTURE

Miller has talked about how the simplicity of Batman allows for many different character interpretations. As a counter punch to the lighter depictions of Batman at the time, Miller focuses on the darker implications of the character’s design for TDKR.

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By defining his persona as an extension of the murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne puts himself in a constant headspace of reliving trauma. It’s a self-sabotaging impulse that fuels a masochistic tendency rarely explored in his stories before Miller. From a certain point of view, Batman’s position seems moral and righteous – but TDKR points out how he has more in common with his enemies than the people he is trying to save. Both the villains and Batman are moved by an inner struggle that haunts and pushes them to engage in brutality.

It’s interesting to see how Miller methodically guides the viewer and sets up visual markers along the way. The first two books are more conservative and the last two take larger leaps. It’s almost as if he is carving out a path … here is the Batman you know, watch me deconstruct it all and push him (and the whole of modern comics) over HERE.

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Look at how Batman’s main logo is dealt with throughout (above). Miller begins with the older, more traditional yellow insignia. Along the way, as the story grows darker the yellow oval is taken out – sharper edges cut across his chest. And by the end the logo has completely disappeared, buried along with Bruce Wayne under metal plates of armour. Bruce Wayne is about to dissolve and what Batman represents is now somewhere else.

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Robin: Another subversion Miller pulls off is changing Robin’s gender. And this time Robin choses Batman instead of the other way around. Having her in the narrative allows for an essential part of the superhero template to be showcased – the moment when they first put their costume on and go out.

For some reason we really love to see that shift from “normal” to “super” … we eat it up time and time again in comics and movies. The thrill of reinventing yourself, or better yet getting a glimpse of a character finally allowed to be themselves for the first time. Batman is the authentic expression, Bruce Wayne is the mask. Same applies for Robin.

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One of Miller’s strengths is his use of inner monologues in action scenes, an internal play by play from protagonists when put in high stress situations. Seen from the outside, heroes in comics are mostly showcasing control, power and dominance. It’s interesting to see Miller pull the character back and explore a more nuanced inner process full of self-doubt, fear and vulnerability. It also works both ways – we see how afraid the character is, but also what kind of psychological headspace he needs to get himself in when dealing with certain situations. The beast comes out and we get an uncensored view of his brutality and methods.

DK Inner Monologe.jpgTime: The commercial side of comics imposes certain restrictions in regards to how their stories deal with the effect of time. Bruce Wayne stays the same age, Batman can never loose and the villains always come back. By allowing time to affect characters naturally in TDKR Miller changes everything about how superhero stories function.

The effect of time in this context allows for a sense of vulnerability to set in – suddenly there is more at stake. Bruce Wayne is older, Batman has to adjust accordingly and no one lives forever … well, no one except Superman. With the proper contrast of everyone around him in natural decline it’s interesting to get to explore and see his true alien stamina. He is as shinny and pristine as he was on day one.

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The effects are different on Batman – with the new time restriction comes a sense of awareness and urgency. Every other Batman story has let him off the hook, but TDKR forces him to face up to his ultimate dilemma. He has to kill the Joker. This means breaking his own moral code, this means self sacrifice, this means letting the Joker win.

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He also understands the symbolic impact of what he stands for, and if set up and dealt with properly he can outlive his temporal body. In other words, Batman dying in the right way allows Batman to live forever. And without the Joker to help define his own position in the world, he is now free to set up his own funeral. And he does.

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The visual impact of seeing all these iconic characters grow old and have definitive end points causes a temporary glitch in the infallibility of the fantasy world. By destroying the iconography he allows it to be seen it in a new way – giving the old story a new life.

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CARTOONING

Look and feel: Although I am a huge fan of the book, I had remembered some of TDKR to have been drawn a bit better than it actually is. This re-read made me realize how integral colorist Lynn Varley was in making it all work. The overall impact is still great – its peak points are so masterfully realized that when taken in as a whole the work still feels powerful and vibrant. Its vision and imagery encapsulates the best of action comics.

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Inks: For years some panels had really stood out for me, they were not always the most significant panels but they had a little something extra that made them more dynamic. I could never quite put my finger on it all till I read that by the end of the series Miller was reworking some of the Klaus Janson inks himself when not fully satisfied. Turns out that all the panels that stood out were the Miller inks. It makes a world of difference:

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Janson is good, but there is a scratchy and nervous quality in Miller’s inks (above) that allows the cartooning to cross over into caricature. It embraces broad exaggerations and moves away from trying to render things “realistically”. It’s these exaggerated moments that work best for me (story wise, and in the artwork). Interesting to see (below) with two pages back to back how the dynamics change once Miller passes his inks, specially on the mid page close ups and the before last panel of an empty eyed Batman.

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Miller’s contour lines are thinner than Janson’s, they have less thick and thin contrasts and make for a flatter result when looked at in black and white. But the restraint seems like a deliberate choice that allows Varley’s colors to play a significant part in the image making instead of it being an afterthought. It’s subtle, and in no way am I saying that Janson’s inks are bad – its just a slight difference that has recently been made apparent to me after years of feeling that some panels were slightly different than others. Below is Janson on the left and Miller on the right:

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Janson’s rendering is slightly more “realistic” looking, Miller more caricatural. Janson inks the shadow on the bridge of the nose, Miller leaves it open for Varley to sculpt. Look at the thicker brush strokes used on the left in comparison to Miller leaving shapes empty and letting Varley use color to create definition.

Shortly after the publication Janson is quoted as saying: “Frank and I had a complete falling out on Dark Knight, we’re not going to work together any more; the falling out was that extensive. Frank was not happy with the inking job that I did on the third book. By my own admission, it’s not the best job I’ve ever done, but it also wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done. He wanted me to quit. But I wouldn’t quit because I didn’t think that I had any reason to quit. My feeling was that I wouldn’t quit, but if somebody were to fire me I would accept that. In a nutshell, cooler heads prevailed and I inked the fourth book. I don`t regret any of it. What I regret is that I wasn’t able to show perhaps more of what I’m capable of doing, that it was artistically restricted because it was a writer’s book rather than an artist’s work. Artistically, it wasn’t my most flashy work.”

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This slight shift in visual approaches between Janson and Miller also mirrors a shift in the story, and while parts of the beginning of TDKR might have had the inclination to flirt with treating Batman “realistically” its natural end point derailed into something closer to heavily stylized operatic drama. Alan Moore’s Watchmen addresses the practicalities of what if superheroes were placed in a realistic context, The Dark Knight Returns is about what happens when superhero tropes and codes get an injection of steroids.

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Color: Lynn Varley is the unsung hero behind The Dark Knight Returns. She truly was Frank Miller’s secret weapon and a major collaborator in his most significant work. In an all boys club of macho superheroes makers, the genre’s best colorist was a woman.

All hand painted with what seems like a combination of gouache, acrylic, airbrush and possible crayon highlights. With the nuances of Varley having the final pass in the image making, Miller’s original drawings are allowed to be more sparse and economic – less lines are used and more empty spaces are left alone when carving out the foundation.

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Look how the shades and tone work completes the image, rounding out the shape of the hand, creating texture in the clothes and fully rendering the dimensions of the flat gun. It’s the proper way of seeing the cartoonist / colorist relationship, working together as the Varly completes the vision with tone, texture and mood. Not just filling in the shapes. Clearly there was a back and forth between them as the initial drawings were being done.

Bleeds and color mixes work best with Miller – his line work doesn’t adapt well to the older, flat CMYK color block printing process. The blends and nuances add fluidity to some of his ridged, sometimes stiff drawings. Kevin O’Neil is another cartoonist that flourishes when allowed to have textured color and is not allowed to reach its full potential and disappoints when not. I struggle with Miller’s recent output, and a large part of it has to do with how badly his colorists know how to handle his cartooning.

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Favourite page (above): One of the rules set up by the comics code in 1955 prohibits the Batman to kill anyone. This sets up an interesting dilemma for the character when dealing with his nemesis. If Batman DOESN’T kill the Joker, he always breaks out of jail and keeps hurting innocent victims. If he DOES kill him, the Joker succeeds in having pushed the Batman to go against his moral code. Batman is ultimately doomed to loose. It’s a loop that spins at the centre of the Batman myth and is directly addressed on this page as an end point to the conflict.

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It’s worth pointing out something Miller does as a build up to the page. It’s subtle, but definitely present. As any other normal comic, Miller uses white dialogue balloons when showing characters talking. But for inner monologues, he sets up a color code system, where each character has his or her own color.

Superman is blue:

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Robin is yellow:

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Batman is gray and Joker is green:

Batman_Gray_2.jpgThe narrative building up to the moment on my favourite page has Batman chasing the Joker in a tunnel. He catches up to him, they fight and Joker is left crippled on the floor. Still alive he takes it upon himself to crack his own neck, fully realizing the impact his corpse will have when the police find it and link his murder to Batman. It’s a grim ending that finds the Joker celebrating, but there is another slightly off-kilter take on the events that I find interesting.

Batman and Joker fight in a tunnel, both seriously injuring each other …

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Witnesses are around, running away while calling Batman a killer.

DKR_29.1.jpgAnd this is where an interesting shift happens … Batman and Joker are now alone, side by side after hurting each other and the Joker starts talking. But instead of using normal white dialogue balloons, his are gray. So that means that on the same page we go from reading Batman’s gray coloured inner thoughts to the same color used for Joker talking out loud. It’s easy to miss at first and it could very well be a mistake, or a choice used to reflect a darker tint because they are in a cave – but it could point to something else.

I love the idea that in a half delusional state Batman would be able to talk himself into believing his own lie. A lie that absolves him from breaking his moral code and allows him to walk away with his psyche still intact. He didn’t kill the Joker – the Joker killed himself by snapping his own neck. Batman is doomed to loose, but found a way out. When is reality, in Miller’s world – superheroes grow old, villains are murdered and when it comes to the last Batman story, things are different.

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Favourite panel: I’ve cheated a bit by picking the cover to the third book and not an actual panel in the comics, but not only is this my favorite image in The Dark Knight Returns – I think its my favorite image ever made in the action adventure superhero genre! It really sparked my imagination when I first saw it as a kid, and I’ve had a hard time finding anything that tops it in mainstream comics.

The wrinkles are great, the desperation and build up of anger is great, the claustrophobic cropping is great. I love how the washes of colors are unsaturated but the blue still has a vibrant pop that makes it seem like it was painted on an animation cell or something.

Seeing a bruised up hero is nothing new (at one point in every spaghetti western, Clint Eastwood gets beat up) but I love the creative use of proportion in this, how Miller depicts the symbolic aspect of Batman’s larger than life mythos in a real and literal fashion. His fists are as big as his face, and he’s shaped like a grizzly. Comics have this unique elastic quality that allows a manipulation of form to project psychological states. It’s one thing that comics can easily do and films can’t, and this this case Miller stretches the familiar enough to make it feel like a reinvention.

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