Frank Miller, the writer who had already put his stamp on the newly invigorated Daredevil, was itching to put a little darkness back into the Dark Knight. In his four-issue mini-series - one of the first to be printed in the new 'prestige' format, with stiff covers and glossy paper - he took Batman to the extreme, stripping away the decades of baggage to reveal the darkness within.
The Dark Knight Returns is a fascinating look at a Batman and a Gotham City that's far beyond anything we've seen before. Now pushing 50, the older and slightly alcoholic Bruce Wayne hasn't donned his costume for a decade, but he's brought back into action by the urban terrorism of a gang called the Mutants. Unfortunately, his return snaps the Joker out of his catatonic trance, and he fights the Batman to the death in one last battle. The Joker's death and Batman's growing power in the city force the government to call in a reluctant Clark Kent to 'sanction' Batman in an epic confrontation.
In anyone else's hands, the story might have been just another 'what-if' story. But Miller's artwork is as powerful as his writing - he uses a minimalist approach that pays homage to Bob Kane's gothic style in the very first Batman stories; shadow and images have arguably never been used so deliberately as they were here. The connection between art and words is stronger in The Dark Knight Returns than in any other book; for instance, Miller uses panels that look like miniature television screens to show pundits debating the merits of vigilantism - a subtle comment on how the media plays its part in the degradation of this future society.
The story itself is fairly shocking, if only because it takes one of the most recognizable characters and gives him an edge he hadn't had in a long, long time. Miller's style and approach to redefining heroes would often be copied in the years to follow, but never matched.
The Trivia Returns
- It wasn't just the story that made this book stand out; advanced coloring capabilities and a new prestige format allowed for a beautiful array of special effects.
- Miller has said he created the book in part because he felt superheroes had become too humanized. He saw Batman as a 'god of vengeance' and wanted to restore some of the mythic power the character had lost.
- Miller quickly returned to Batman in 1987 with 'Batman: Year One', a four-issue story (Batman #404-407) that put a darker spin on the Batman's first year as a vigilante.
- A long-awaited sequel finally appeared in 2001: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a 3-issue miniseries that was soon reissued as a regular graphic novel.