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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COMICS REVIEW: HARD BOILED

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I felt much more like a junior partner with Geof Darrow in most of my collaborations, because his point of view was so distinct that he dominates. It’s like being a wrangler at a rodeo, you’re riding a bucking bronco and the best thing to do is hold on”. – Frank Miller

Context: Due to a bad herniated disk I was flattened out a few weeks ago and asked to stay horizontal for seven days. So with a head full of painkillers and limited mobility I was in a unique state of mind to spend time in Geof Darrow’s hyper brutal and elaborately dense drawings. Hard Boiled was Darrow’s American debut and was released four years after the superhero comic industry was transformed by the darker tones of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The work takes its marks from these pillars of comics and further pushes the boundaries and explorations of mature themes and violence in the action adventure genre.

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Story: Set in a bleak dystopian future, Hard Boiled operates in a world of excess and depravity reflected down from its heartless corporate domination. One such conglomerate, called Willeford Home Appliances has put into action a paramilitary army to wipe out any opposing corporate values. Not only do they build products for your home, but also build people. Artificial intelligence that look, think and act like normal humans but are secret corporate assassins. Unknowingly, a robot called Nixon is one of them. Completely reconstructed to think he is a regular husband and father called Carl Seltz working as an insurance investigator, Nixon’s fits of rage and faulty programming get scrambled up in a secret robot revolution that finds him at the center of its possible victory.

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CARTOONING

Influences and background: One of the deciding factors that separate Darrow with your regular American cartoonist seems to lie in a broad international influence. I don’t know what kind of comic shop was around when Darrow was growing up but it was more expansive than what is usually felt in action comics. Moebius is the obvious towering influence, even to the point that they collaborated together (Darrow drew, Moebius inked) on a series of images called La Cité de Feu (above) now impossible to find and a Holy Grail amongst collectors. Influences of Ku Fu films and Monster movies are also in the mix along with a good dose of Hergé’s sensibilities to form and colour.

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Look and feel: It’s as if Hieronymus Bosch had infiltrated comics – decadence and detail. The kind of astonishment and kick in the gut you get from coming face to face with extended volume and ornamentation. At the heart of Darrow’s art is a fundamental exploration of contrasts: big versus small, many versus one, fast versus slow. This creates an interesting push and pull. Full of action and speeding ahead, the plot of Hard Boiled is intentionally designed to be quick and lean. This encourages a fast reading of story, while the image making knowingly jams the breaks demanding full stops. It’s a musical thing – melodies and rhythms that push the narrative against the pull of the heavy visual bludgeoning. It has a dizzying effect, specially when seen in black and white.

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The brutality of it is hard to take in, but the tone and excess of Darrow’s vision really ties in with the story’s overarching theme of corporate culture growing out of control. Logos, product placements and pop culture references like the Flinstones, Astro Boy, Nancy, Porky Pig, Batman, Tweety Bird, Homer Simpson, Ed the Clown, Duran Duran, Hanna Barbera, Popeye, Tintin, Psycho and Bambi are plastered everywhere. Along with Ramones bumper stickers, cars named after Stallone, Eastwood and Norris, highway signs named after Goldie Hawn, giant Pepsi and 7up cans on cars, snickers, butterfingers, Baby Ruth, Milky way, Cheetos – total excess and abundance, the more absurd the better. Although I can’t spot exactly where it is, but Darrow has mentioned in interviews that he even has a battle scene that has one character with a shirt saying Godzilla and the other saying King Kong. It’s a crazy mix.

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I recently read cartoonist Daniel Clowes talking about how much attention he’s given to study how folds work when drawing clothes. How it takes time to understand and take under consideration the points of tension and release. Darrow indulges in this and there is something delightful in seeing his folds worked out with such complexity – wrinkle over wrinkle over wrinkle. Interestingly enough Darrow gives as much care and attention to folded fabric as he does to twisting metal. Car after car crashing, folding and intertwining into each other in the same way that Nixon’s trench coat folds and flows when in motion. For a lot of cartoonists drawing cars seems to be a serious problem to tackle and sometimes its avoided altogether … must be something about the geometric shapes of circles and curves in perspective that proves to be tricky – but Darrow is the opposite. Many MANY cars.

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It’s slapstick Looney Tunes violence gone ballistic (a man gets his arm ripped off and then stabbed WITH it). Almost to the point of being able to read it as a cyclical commentary of how comics had become plagued with gritty hyper violent stories after the influence of Miller’s late eighties work. It’s almost as if Miller and Darrow are addressing this by going all the way with it as a marker for and end point. You want to play this game, here is as far as it can get pushed in commercial comics – now move on and bring it somewhere new.

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Colours: An international comics influence is also apparent in the thinking of its colours. Darrow’s colourist, Claude Legris uses a mix of softer pastel combinations against brighter tones that creates a unique contrast when framing its violent content. And like European comics its size was bigger, the colours more complex and was printed on a heavier stock paper. The entry point to each issue (the covers) where unusually white and minimalistic, offering a sense of design and vision to the whole. These production values really made the book stand out at the time. Even just on the shelf, next to other comics Hard Boiled dominated and bullied its way into your hands.

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When looking at the colour work next to the black and white pages it becomes apparent how important the colour is in directing the eye where to go. The original ink work is so dense that the viewer is lost (which is not unpleasant as a curiosity in the deluxe edition) and totally dependent on the colours to come in as a guide, giving focus points to decode its proper pacing and direction.

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At times the blasts of colours are blood soaked and bright red, but on some pages – the more extreme ones, the blood is black (below). It reminds me of Scorsese talking about how he had to desaturate the colours at the end of Taxi Driver to avoid an X rating. I’m wondering if there was a call on the publisher to tone it down, which seems a bit odd given what else happens in the book.

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WRITING

Frank Miller said that he had to change his whole approach to writing the book when seeing the first three pages from Darrow. So much so that the overall tone had to be completely rethought. The attitude went from being a serious science fiction story to a dark bombastic satire. Miller had to play straight man to Darrow’s visual gymnastics. Look at how this straightforward plot element (main character is chased by police) changes in Darrow’s hands:

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Darrow not only draws the police car bigger (big vs. small) but draws it 12 TIMES bigger! Many times in the story Darrow’s art sets up visual jokes that play on the above mentioned big versus small / many versus one / fast versus slow dichotomies. Another one has the main character needing to get passed a series of security men. A trail of bloody agents leads to a full double page spread that has Nixon locked in and surrounded by the enemy along with the battles casualties on the ground. The damage is not just a few dozen injured men but 578. I counted them all.

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Miller doesn’t deviate much from standard science fiction themes – artificial intelligence rebelling against humans. But something about its tone does feel refreshing. When trying to readjust to Darrow’s art he says “Finally I happened to write down the words “come and get it you bum” and realized that it was going to be a comedy”. That bleak comedic edge might be what sets it apart – in the original letter pages of the individual issues (fake or not, all funny) they ran angry letters almost exclusively complaining about its violence and lack of morality. Truth is the story itself does seem a bit slim at first, but as previously mentioned the best Darrow story is slender and compact, and here Miller’s trimmed the fat considerably.

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Favourite page: (Above) Oddly enough I’m not sure exactly why this is my favourite page other than the look of it feels right. The second issue of Hard Boiled came a few months later and double the size of the first. In my copy, because of the staples and binding design it always folded open at this spread. It was the first issue I bought and always the first thing I saw when I picked it up. It’s not really about the dialogue plot point or action sequence, but more about how the tone of the colours homogenize the page as a thrilling piece of design.

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Favourite panel: (above) For me the dread of the whole thing is summed up in this one image. It’s all a sham and Dorothy can’t go back home anymore. Not smart enough to notice his part in a possible robot revolution, Nixon’s finally cornered and given a last chance. “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Not a fan of Lewis Carol, Nixon gets to keep working in the insurance business – happy ending and all.

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Fun Fact: Miller says he used Darrow’s likeness as the template for Sin City’s flesh eating murderer in the first book in the series called The Hard Goodbye.