There have been a lot of important comic creators over the years, but Frank Miller‘s work in the 80s rivalled Alan Moore‘s work on Watchmen. Miller took characters all too familiar to his readers and, while maintaining their key characteristics, twisted them into something darker and bleaker.
The Dark Knight Returns deals with Batman. Instead of the usual Caped Crusader – of indeterminate age but probably somewhere in his thirties – this Batman is approaching old age with a distinct lack of grace. Having retired 10 years previously, alter ego Bruce Wayne still lives in Gotham, still surrounded by crime. He remains unable to exorcise the bitter memories of the murder of his parents and the long suppressed voice of his vigilante side is breaking back through. Time has not been kind on Batman, who is no longer as strong or agile as he was. His belief in rehabilitation is similarly estranged, leaving the reader with a darkened shadow of the familiar pillion of justice.
The book is masterfully executed and rammed with iconographic imagery. Miller’s eye for dramatic lines, both written and drawn, pulls story and art into a glorious whole. Klaus Janson’s inking flows around Miller’s pencils, creating a dark world that still leaves plenty of scope for Lynn Varley’s magical, subtle colouring.
The Dark Knight Returns is an awesome work, breaking the mould that stifled Batman for many years. It brought a change in the public attitude to what Batman and superheroes in general are all about. While not pandering to what the superhero crowd was perceived to want at the time, yet still containing everything a fan might desire, this book lifts the genre to a new level. If you’re interested in superheroes this book has to be on your reading list. And even if you’re not, there’s still little in the action genre that’s as good or as influential as this.