I was contemplating Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns after recently reading it, and trying to remember the last time hype resulted in anything other than slight-to-severe disappointment. Sure, you get a pretty respectable mix of positive and negative experiences when plain-old, garden variety expectations precede said experience. But hype is different than the plain-old, garden variety expectation. Expectations are largely the product of your own prior experience or knowledge of a thing. If the experience fails to live up to your expectations, you have yourself to blame. Hype, on the other hand, is the result of media over-exposure, recommendations from friends and peers, internet memes, and/or the established, socially accepted notion that a thing is deserving of the hype it’s received because it receives hype. And even when a thing is so good that it warrants the hype heaped on it, it rarely, if ever, turns out good for the late-comer.
This is the boat I find myself in when considering the highly praised, often reverently spoken of comic pinnacle, The Dark Knight Returns.
Now, you might be thinking that I’m about to take a metaphorical bat to Miller’s landmark book based on what I’ve said so far, but rest easy, friends and neighbors. There’ll be no metaphorical batting practice here at The Sound and Fury tonight (besides, my wife doesn’t like me swinging things in the house), but I do have a few grievances to air before we get around to the part where I tell you that I actually liked the book.
Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was published the same year as Watchmen (1986) and is considered by many to be every bit the landmark comic that is Alan Moore’s dark, gritty twist on the superhero genre. Set in a dystopian Gotham City years after Batman has hung up his cape for the last time, a new, more savage criminal element threatens to bring the city to its knees, and Harvey Dent, the ex-Gotham City D.A. otherwise known as Two Face, is set to be released from Arkham Home For The Emotionally Troubled. From the inside out, Gotham City reeks of trouble. It oozes fear and self-loathing, too full of modern sophistication to admit that it still needs the Caped Crusader. And on the outskirts, an aging Bruce Wayne, tormented by revenge and promises left unfulfilled, once again dons the cape and mask to haunt the rooftops of Gotham, and the hearts and minds of the criminals who prey upon those who live beneath them. Malcontents emerge from every walk of life (including The Joker, of course), and like dogs, take turns trying to bite off a piece of the noticeably older, less resilient Batman.
Sounds pretty good, huh? It is, I assure you. But it’s not without its faults.
For one, The Dark Knight Returns is confusing. The narrative switches clumsily between the main storyline and TV news segments where pundits and talking heads are depicted debating the events as they unfold within the story. I actually liked the use of the device as a means of giving the reader a social context for the events in the story and for building tension, but I felt like the writing and/or pencils could have made these transitions much smoother and easier to follow with a bit of skilful editing. On my first read through, I had to keep backing up and taking closer looks at and re-reading certain panels to understand what had just happened. I don’t think there’s any excuse for this.
I also thought the Superman subplot was mishandled. It felt tacked on, alien, and just disingenuous. And it led to a climax, and ultimately an ending, that didn’t seem worthy of either characters.
Admittedly, those are two pretty sizable complaints. Despite them, though, there’s plenty to like between the covers of The Dark Knight Returns.
The art is just…fascinating. Upon cracking open The Dark Knight Returns, the reader is immediately transported to a nightmare vision of Gotham City. Panel after panel of noir imagery, subverted and augmented by the rowdy, pastel influences of the 1980’s, leap off the page. Wispy tendrils of smoke and ground fog drift out of the panels as shadowy appendages drag the reader’s gaze into Miller’s Gotham, a Gotham that is comprised of as many shades of gray as the characters who inhabit it. This ain’t your grandaddy’s Batman, boys. And, obviously, that’s part of the appeal. Part of what made TDKR stand out above the rest of the comic stories that were still doing the same, tired, kid-friendly stories they’d been doing for nearly fifty years. TDKR reflects the pessimism, greed, and fear that permeated the Cold War society of people that had been living in fear of imminent nuclear attack since the sixties.
If, for some reason, the art doesn’t blow your cape up, the writing is sharp enough to make up the difference. Miller seems to hold a magnifying glass up to the darker, grimier corners of Gotham. He shines a light on corruption and greed and self pity as if he were on some crusade of his own. In any case, it feels honest. And honesty makes for easy reading. In this case, it also makes for really good reading.
The Dark Knight Returns, though a bit confusing at times, and lacking any real wind behind its sails by the time it gets to the climax, is a great Batman story. Is it more than that? Maybe. Is it the book to end all books? The final word on Batman, Robin, and even Superman? Nope. Not even close.
See you ‘round the cave.