The books we simply won’t allow you to borrow.
The Dark Knight Returns
by Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley
Titan Books, 224 pages
Big Meanie: Pat Black
We know this Dark Knight well enough, now. Film director Christopher Nolan’s gritty take on the comic book hero Batman has proven a huge hit, with two films racking up literally billions in box office as well as critical acclaim – with a third being filmed now. I’m even willing to argue that The Dark Knight is the best Hollywood blockbuster since Jaws.
But Nolan’s Batman owes a big debt to The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s seminal take on the character. Penned in the mid-1980s, this depiction of the end of the Batman legend was a stunning publishing event in its time, and is probably fighting it out with Alan Moore’s Watchmen for the title of greatest graphic novel ever created. If I’m forced to choose a winner out of those two, then Miller’s masterpiece edges it.
I caught it at exactly the right age – 13 – when, as a reader, I began to hunger for more realistic fare. I’d had my first experience of being underwhelmed by a movie and falling for hype when I watched Tim Burton’s Batman the previous summer. So, while I had always loved Batman as a young boy (see my review of Batman: Year One), I wasn’t sure what to expect when I borrowed The Dark Knight Returns from a friend.
After reading it, I was never quite the same again. It was an electric shock from which I suspect I’ve never quite recovered.
Spread over four parts, TDKR details a dystopian future, with Bruce Wayne in his fifties and getting his kicks from stock car racing rather than pummelling criminals while dressed as a rodent. His right-hand man, Commissioner Jim Gordon, is reluctantly heading for retirement from Gotham Police Department, frustrated by rising crime levels sparked by a street gang known as the Mutants.
Taunted by old demons, in the middle of a pathetically fallacious thunderstorm, Wayne listens to the beast within and comes out of retirement to don the cape and cowl once more, and to do to bad people what he does best.
Kick the ever-lovin’ shit right out of them.
Bats is “reborn” in an electrifying sequence where street punks, robbers, would-be rapists, gang members and general low-lives are pounded by an unseen monster, an avenging angel who strikes with the lightning. With Batman having been gone for 10 years, the public are goggle-eyed at this beast who annihilates the violent and causes fear in the fearful.
For a story which derives its power from pictures, it boasts some masterful writing, from the tough guy interior monologues moving from character-to-character to the future-slang of Gotham’s villains and tech noir teenagers.
The first part sees the caped crusader take on Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, after he is controversially freed from Arkham Asylum. Later, Batman clashes with the Mutant Leader in a bone-shattering contest that would make a superb Bat-movie on its own. Here, Bruce Wayne the man is made to face the inevitabilities of increasing age and decreasing strength in some of the harshest ways imaginable after a brutal battle with his younger, fitter nemesis. He also picks up a new Robin along the way – a girl, no less, a streetwise computer whiz who attaches herself to the Batman - and he drives a Batmobile that is less a showy babe magnet than a full-on battle tank. This is almost certainly where the designers of the Nolan Batman films took their inspiration for the Tumbler from.
Our old friend the Joker appears in the third part, and his homicidal tendencies and distinct lack of lounge-act puns also reminds us of the Nolan Joker, so unforgettably portrayed by the late Heath Ledger. In the midst of this, there’s political and social commentary; talking heads-style soundbite news is brilliantly essayed (a similar style later appeared in Robocop), while then-president Reagan is portrayed as a doddering fool held up in power by another DC stable hero - the one in red and blue from Metropolis. Other ageing DC heroes and villains appear throughout, with Green Arrow in particular enjoying a crazy cameo near the end. We also have the spectre of nuclear war on these pages, which chimes well with the contemporaneous concerns of Watchmen.
On top of that – if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Batman and Superman had a fight, then buy this book, and wonder no more.
I can scarcely do it justice here. Even the colouring is inspired, and ably supports Miller’s own pencil work, with his heroes and villains sketched out in hard lines and sometimes grotesque expressions. It’s as realistic as a man dressed as an animal panelling villains could ever be.
I cringe a little in remembering this, but I was so impressed by Batman’s strength and single-mindedness in this book. He is as tough as they come, but he never wavers from his mission statement: to protect the innocent, and to punish horrible people. I loved the righteousness, and I am forced to admit part of me still does.
But that self-same celebration of brawn and mental strength troubles me a little, more than 20 years later. Anyone who foamed at the mouth and demanded things like CS gas, water cannon, plastic bullets or even lead ones in response to the English riots this past while will find lots to enjoy in TDKR. Batman’s policy is that might is right - and if you don’t like that, you’d best get out of the way.
To be fair, just about everyone Batman beats up in this book deserves it. An equal opportunities psychotic, he even batters a few coppers when they get in his way. But real life, as most of us will hopefully realise as we get past the age of 13, isn’t quite as black and white as Batman’s world, no matter how realistic those punches look. No-one really boils down to the purely good, the purely evil, the purely noble or the purely craven. And anyone who truly believes that they can exercise good judgment by clenching a fist and putting it in someone’s face is, frankly, an arsehole.
A more positive message comes from Batman’s stoic response to setbacks. He suffers terribly in this book, whether that’s from the ongoing mental trauma of his parents’ murder before his eyes as a boy, or from the physical punishment his opponents deal him. In this book you’ll see Batman shot, stabbed in the guts and beaten to within an inch of his life. But always, he takes it, he learns from it, he gets stronger, and he comes back. To a young and fairly naive boy who wasn’t too far away from some harsh life lessons when he read this masterpiece, it proved to be an inspiration.
And that’s why I cannot allow you to borrow it.