Monday, October 10, 2011

Moments That Made the Bronze (and Modern) Age: The Dark Knight Returns

This one was from the 80's, I know, but I consider this a game-changer for the character. Growing up the 70's to Neal Adams' Batman interpretation that later gave way to the awesome Jim Aparo, I knew Batman was cool and tough. I missed the campy 50's and 60's "fat" version of the character, so I'd always seen him that way. But sales on the title were at a lull and he needed a boost.

And along came Frank Miller.

"The Dark Knight Returns" couldn't be considered a reboot. It's supposed to take place in the future, and to my knowledge it's never been branded an "Elseworlds" title, but at the same time the ramifications were felt back into the "real" version of the character as Alan Moore stepped in with "The Killing Joke" and soon the comic book had a gritty hero again.

What makes The Dark Knight Returns stand out to me is the hopeless view given of Gotham City without its hero. We see this place where anarchy pretty much rules and the police can do little to stop it. Then, over the course of several pages, an aging Bruce Wayne decides to suit up again and stop the madness. He has a monster Batmobile that was a nice precursor to the Tumbler we see now in the movies. In one particularly awesome scene, we see Batman pulling along the mutant leader, goading him into escaping Gotham jail only to find himself in a fight with Batman himself. That's the cool stuff.

I also like how we find Superman aging as well, and not quite the same in his views on everything while still holding on to enough Clark Kent to give us someone to cheer for. And then the Joker was crazier than we'd ever seen him before. I think this story was instrumental in helping everyone perceive him as a true threat to Batman rather than the caricature he'd become over time. 

SPOILER ALERT FROM THIS POINT FORWARD:

Of course, the to-the-death fights in here are what made the story stand out to me. First of all, there is the Joker. How many times have we read: "No more! Tonight this ends!" in Batman comics (even today) and known ahead of time he was just going to put Joker away and let him escape again? But this time...this time was different.

Even though Batman technically didn't kill the Joker (the madman broke his own neck to frame him), it was still nice to see a little closure on this never-ending conflict.

And then we had the throwdown with Superman himself. This fight actually changed the way people saw Batman and Superman after this, with Jim Lee letting him beat Superman down in Hush and everyone else practically making him invincible since then.

And of course, the ending is killer. While the story itself is good, it wouldn't be anywhere near that great if it didn't end well. Fortunately, it does.

Unfortunately, when Miller went back to this universe several years later, he gave the world a horrible sequel that could be consider the "Batman and Robin" movie of the comic book world. It successfully killed the universe for all of us.

The coolest part of this is the fact that the upcoming Batman:Arkham City game will have the option for you to play as TDKR version of Batman, gritty looking and all! It's one of the key reasons I'm buying the game.

While not the best Batman story ever necessarily, it's definitely in the top 5 for me.

Next week, we start a new series of posts called "What I Hate About the 90's". Feel free to chime in about your own hated moments of the "Dark Ages" of comics.

7 comments:

William said...

Nice review, but I was never a fan of this. I know I'm in the minority, but I find TDKR to be overrated. I have actually read it 2 or 3 times trying to figure out what everyone else sees in it, and I still don't get the attraction. I mean, it had it's good points, but for the most part I thought it was weird and too cynical for my tastes. Also, Frank Miller's subsequent Batman stories have been pretty much crap, IMO. Especially his sequel to TDKR and his All-Star Batman. Thus further fueling my belief that Dark Knight Returns wasn't as great as its legend.

But, I suppose my main reason for not liking it, is that it was one of the main stories (along with Watchman) that was responsible for ushering in the "Dark Age" of comics that we have today. The popularity of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, etc. made dark, depressing, grim and gritty almost mandatory plot devices in practically every comic published since.

If DKR had stood on its own as an isolated story and had not contributed to so radically changing the comics industry (for the worse), I might view it a little more positively. But unfortunately whenever I think of it, I can't help but consider it to be the beginning of the end of what I liked about comics.

Brian Reaves said...

Very valid points, William. I guess looking back this was the beginning of the slide of comics into the not-for-family fare it's become today. And I absolutely agree about Frank Miller's other Batman stuff. He hit this and Daredevil for Marvel (along with the first Wolverine mini) that I consider highlights of his work. After that, it was all pretty much downhill. Today his work is almost indecipherable to me.

William said...

Yeah, Frank Miller is still riding the wave from his early success on things like Daredevil and TDKR. He got a great reputation from those projects and he's still milking them to this day.

But I guess the real breaking point for my respect for him was when they actually let him direct the "Spirit" movie. It was on of the most heinous things I've ever sat through. It was as bad as the Clooney "Batman and Robin" or Catwoman movies. (The gold standards of awful comic-book films).

Rick said...

I was a fan of the Dark Knight Returns when it first came out. However, I have grown tired of the grim and gritty Batman spewing forth curse words and having a demeanor that makes him just as bad and at times worse then the villains he tries to capture.
I now wish DC and Frank Miller never published this book.

Chris said...

Maybe it's because I started reading comics in the early 90's, right in the midst of the "grim and gritty era" AND at the genesis of the "WE'RE EXTREME, WE NEED MORE POCKETS AND VESTS, AND ARM BANDS AND GAUNTLETS AND ORIGINS, YEAH!" eras, but I wasn't impressed when I read TDKR. Also, being a Superman fanatic, I didn't like how Miller portrayed him in the book. While they were all very interesting extrapolations on all the Bat-characters, they all just felt a little forced. The only way I can describe it is how I feel when I read an Ennis book like "The Boys". Many people go, "YEAH, that's soooo extreme and crazy, that's awesome!"...while I go, "Ok...what are you, 10?" Either way, I agree with William; the legend is better than the book itself. Sure it paved way for much greater things, but in the end it was another good elseworlds story.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a bit late, but my 2 cents anyway: IMHO, The best way to appreciate something like DKR is to have grown up in the 60's and 70's era of comics. As far as mainstream went, wolverine was our borderline gritty. An occasional "dammit" from Ben Grimm also got you feeling like you were reading some cool undergroundish stuff. Batman and Sup were easily classified on the hokey family stuff.

If you were hoping to pick up a mean brash tough guy comic back then, Batman was the last thing to come to mind. Good story or not, I guess what I want to say about Frank Miller's depiction is "shocking and unexpected". I achieved a newfound respect for the caped crusader especially after hours of being brainwashed into thinking Adam West was all Batman would ever be. Kudos to Frank Miller.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a bit late, but my 2 cents anyway: IMHO, The best way to appreciate something like DKR is to have grown up in the 60's and 70's era of comics. As far as mainstream went, wolverine was our borderline gritty. An occasional "dammit" from Ben Grimm also got you feeling like you were reading some cool undergroundish stuff. Batman and Sup were easily classified on the hokey family stuff.

If you were hoping to pick up a mean brash tough guy comic back then, Batman was the last thing to come to mind. Good story or not, I guess what I want to say about Frank Miller's depiction is "shocking and unexpected". I achieved a newfound respect for the caped crusader especially after hours of being brainwashed into thinking Adam West was all Batman would ever be. Kudos to Frank Miller.

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