Anatomy of the Comic Book: The Dark Knight Returns

Re-boots seems to be all the craze nowadays in movies. Batman was brought back to audiences four years ago and showed what the character and his universe was really made of (Heath Ledger would have something to do with that in the sequel). I also recently saw Star Trek, which refreshed a franchise in dire need of  new direction and yet still honored the spirit of the franchise.

It’s only fitting then that I start off my blog series about relevant comic books with a re-boot that brought the Batman of the comic books out of the campy terrain:

Dark Knight Returns
Dark Knight Returns

Before this book hit the stands, Batman was all about Adam West and the Bat-Tusi in the 60’s.  The campy nature of the show became a hit, but at the same time, it made the character one not to be taken too seriously in the books.  Rotating writers in the 70’s and early 80’s made efforts to bring the character back to his dark roots, but it was 1986 that saw Frank Miller put Batman back on top of the food chain.

Comic book enthusiasts know Miller well from bringing a similar darker edge back to Daredevil and Wolverine around the same time frame.  His independent work on Sin City and 300 would become feature films as well.  This dark, edgy style was the kind of boost Batman needed and would help remind us who he is and why he is the way he is.

Dark Knight Returns gives us a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne long retired from the crime-fighting business, but seeing his city still crumbling under the might of old and new villains.  Not one able to enjoy retirement for too long, he dons the cowl once more and revamps his tactics to take on this new, violent society.  The book is renowned for helping to bring more adult-oriented storytelling to the books and put characters in new lights (a female Robin, a government puppet in Superman, Joker just an unfunny psycho, etc.).  It also (like Watchmen) spoke of a society in the Cold War going to actual war and what its characters’ values spoke of those events.

I also take personal satisfaction in the last issue when Batman must confront a Superman that has to bring him in.  Say what you want about all the help he needed; the sight of Batman kicking the Man of Steel to the floor is a sight that won’t leave me.

What’s interesting about this book is that it speaks volumes as to what Mike and I spoke about in our last podcast regarding Neil Gaiman’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?‘.  Batman is a character that is relentless in his quest to put fear into the criminal element.  The only way he can ever see himself out of the game is if he was dead.  No amount of golf or emptying the family wine coolers would bring satisfaction.  It’s a sad story to see, but it brings the kind of depth to a character that can be difficult to replicate at times.

This darker edge has resulted in many superb stories from The Killing Joke to Knightfall. It transferred over into the animated and movie realms and the rest is history.  Read  Dark Knight Returns and tell us what you think.

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4 Responses to “Anatomy of the Comic Book: The Dark Knight Returns”

  1. It took me 20 years to get around to reading The Dark Knight Returns… it was something that was on my radar, but was never much of a priority. I knew the basics of it – older Batman, female Robin – but had never taken the time to actually read it. A few months ago, I did, and I was quite impressed. It's a great read. I disagree somewhat with the idea that Batman-in-comics was campy in the 70's and 80's as a result of the TV show, though. True, there was some of that in the 60's and 70's, but by the time the late 70's and 80's came on, they were bringing back toward the World's Greatest Detective angle. Honestly though, I may be misremembering it because I was not into the solo Batman books as much as I was into Justice League, and in the old JLA books, he wasn't very campy.

    One thing that DKR definitely paved the way for was stories that had serious consequences. We never would have seen a story arc like A Death in the Family (where they killed off Jason Todd in a rather gruesome way) or The Killing Joke (the crippling of Barbara Gordon) if DKR hadn't come out when it did and had the impact that it had.

  2. Tim Robinson says:

    Maybe not to a great extent, but the TV show did a lot to make the mainstream believe that Batman was all camp and spoofy, which in turn was what DC wanted out of its book to reflect the show's popularity. The Comic Code Authority also had a lot to do with it, as they wanted Batman to be more friendly and happier in his work, which obviously totally conflicts with what the character is about.

    Thank Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams for getting him back to his roots once the 70's started. Still, it wasn't getting him back up high on the sales charts. So when DKR arrived, that sent him through the roof. And that's when, as you already mentioned, stories with more adult-oriented moral consequences started to come into play. Batman would benefit from that a lot the next 20 years given the nature of his character.

    I still remember that Death in the Family arc. DC gave out a 900 number for us to determine if Jason Todd would live or die. Such cruel people, we are. 🙂

  3. It took me 20 years to get around to reading The Dark Knight Returns… it was something that was on my radar, but was never much of a priority. I knew the basics of it – older Batman, female Robin – but had never taken the time to actually read it. A few months ago, I did, and I was quite impressed. It's a great read. I disagree somewhat with the idea that Batman-in-comics was campy in the 70's and 80's as a result of the TV show, though. True, there was some of that in the 60's and 70's, but by the time the late 70's and 80's came on, they were bringing back toward the World's Greatest Detective angle. Honestly though, I may be misremembering it because I was not into the solo Batman books as much as I was into Justice League, and in the old JLA books, he wasn't very campy.

    One thing that DKR definitely paved the way for was stories that had serious consequences. We never would have seen a story arc like A Death in the Family (where they killed off Jason Todd in a rather gruesome way) or The Killing Joke (the crippling of Barbara Gordon) if DKR hadn't come out when it did and had the impact that it had.

  4. Tim Robinson says:

    Maybe not to a great extent, but the TV show did a lot to make the mainstream believe that Batman was all camp and spoofy, which in turn was what DC wanted out of its book to reflect the show's popularity. The Comic Code Authority also had a lot to do with it, as they wanted Batman to be more friendly and happier in his work, which obviously totally conflicts with what the character is about.

    Thank Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams for getting him back to his roots once the 70's started. Still, it wasn't getting him back up high on the sales charts. So when DKR arrived, that sent him through the roof. And that's when, as you already mentioned, stories with more adult-oriented moral consequences started to come into play. Batman would benefit from that a lot the next 20 years given the nature of his character.

    I still remember that Death in the Family arc. DC gave out a 900 number for us to determine if Jason Todd would live or die. Such cruel people, we are. 🙂

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