The first part of ComicsVerse’s trilogy of articles focusing on Frank Miller’s Batman began with my co-worker Glenn analyzing BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Despite his concerns over the amount of pressure it was to write about such an iconic piece of Batman’s history, Glenn did it with flying colors. BATMAN: YEAR ONE gave a new edge to the Dark Knight and did a superb job showcasing Gordon in a way comic book fans were unfamiliar with up until that point. It is without a doubt the definitive Batman origin story and will continue to be referenced as such for years to come. However, the follow-up, which also showcased the earlier years of Batman, was not as well-received by comic book fans.

Among those fans was my co-worker Travis, who vented his feelings towards the graphic novel in his analysis of ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN. His criticisms ranged from all the characters sounding like they wandered from Miller’s other comic, SIN CITY, to the botched storyline which served to show cameo appearances of Miller’s versions of famous DC heroes. Travis also expressed disappointment (more annoyance really) that the series was canceled after ten issues. Since there are no signs of this story continuing, comic book fans may never know where Miller was going with it. Personally, I feel this is no great loss, as Miller already made a significant contribution to the Batman legacy nearly 30 years ago.

The final story to cap off Frank Miller’s Batman trilogy is none other than THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS! I was so excited to read this story again, and found that the second reading was a bit of a different experience.  There were moments of the story that I felt could have been different, but overall, it is an amazing story with Miller’s art complementing his noir style of storytelling.

CLICK:  More info on the third chapter in Miller’s Dark Knight story!

Let me discuss the art style before going into detail about the story itself. Frank Miller is both the author and the artist, and his panel set up is different from what comic book fans are used to. He consistently uses small square panels that show a news anchor telling viewers and the reader what is happening in the story. This technique makes the comic feel realistic to the audience. By incorporating a news-style approach to telling parts of the story, he covers many aspects of the plot while exploring how people would react to Batman returning. There are dark overtones, but the comic is full of colors scattered throughout its pages. The balance between dark and light are wonderfully expressed in scenes exclusively involving either just Batman or Superman. The final confrontation has a mix of dark and light, but we’ll talk more about this encounter and the relationship between the two heroes later.

Bruce Wayne vs. Batman- The Dominant Identity in Frank Miller’s Batman?

The story takes place ten years after Bruce Wayne has retired from being Batman. He is now a 55-year-old man who is constantly tormented by the life he left behind. Watching Bruce being mentally tortured by his inner Batman voice shows that being “normal” is killing him. It also doesn’t help that after all of Batman’s years of crime fighting, Gotham is still flooded with crime. It may have taken ten years, but Batman slowly creeps back into Bruce’s life and subconscious.

I love the way Miller uses Harvey Dent as a parallel to Bruce/Batman. In the story, Bruce funds the surgery that Harvey needs to fix his face, but in the end, Harvey can’t overcome the urge to be Two-Face. Similar to how Bruce can’t fight the urge to be Batman, the two men fail to resist becoming the people they’ve tried so hard to forget. In Bruce’s mind, his chance at a normal life died with his parents all those years ago. The only way he can ever be at peace with himself is by continuing to be Batman. Of course, not everyone is exactly thrilled to have the Dark Knight return. He suffers an extreme backlash from the media and a new gang terrorizing Gotham, the Mutants.

Mutants/Sons of Batman

Initially, Batman charges in with a tank version of the Batmobile and completely demolishes the majority of the Mutants. He could have easily wiped out the leader, but he allows himself to be egged on and attempts to defeat a younger and stronger man in a fistfight. Batman puts up a good fight, but he soon becomes overpowered by the superior opponent. It is only with the assistance of Carrie Kelly, a young girl that Batman had saved from the Mutants earlier in the story, that Batman can get away safely. Eventually, with the help of Robin and the soon-to-be-retired James Gordon, Batman is able to defeat the leader of the Mutants. In this scene, Batman appears to have accepted that he is older than he used to be. Before this, Batman still continued to fight and think like a younger man, but in the second fight with the Mutant leader he fights smarter. After Batman inevitably defeats the Mutant leader, some of the members of the Mutant gang disband and form a new group called the “Sons of Batman.”

Frank Miller's Batman

However, as one might expect, this isn’t exactly a good thing. The Sons of Batman use excessive force against very minor criminals. For example, a shoplifter steals a handful of magazines and a candy bar, so the Sons of Batman chop off his hands. Batman should feel some sense of responsibility for these individuals, considering he created them. The only interaction we see Batman have with the Sons of Batman is when he needs their help after the citywide blackout in Gotham. The gang is never reprimanded or punished for their excessive force. This is only a minor issue with the graphic novel, but some may feel that Batman should have put a stop to it sooner rather than later.

Robin (Carrie Kelley) in Frank Miller’s Batman

Carrie in Frank Miller's Batman

In this universe, Batman is an aging hero who has only gone through two Robins. The first Boy Wonder, Dick Grayson, is rarely mentioned in the graphic novel. His absence is certainly felt when Batman fights the Mutant leader for the first time. A beaten Batman recognizes his need for a sidekick and asks where Dick has gone. It is at this moment that Carrie Kelley (dressed as Robin) comes on the scene and saves Batman. It’s a bit out of character for Batman accept her as the new Robin so quickly. Shortly after being rescued by Batman, she buys a Robin costume and makes some slight alterations to it. Then she begins to fight minor crimes, and, with a combination of luck and skill, she arrives at the dump where Batman is fighting the Mutant Leader. After she returns the favor for saving her life, Batman simply states to Alfred that she is the new Robin.

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The previous Robins had to suffer and endure much more before they could obtain the mantle of Robin. If it was anything like what we saw in ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN, then Carrie got off easy! She didn’t have to lose her parents or go through any psychological trauma to become a hero; she only wanted to help Batman. In many ways, she is similar to Tim Drake, who becomes a hero out of a sense of altruism (and because Batman needs a Robin). At the very least, Tim discovered Batman’s true identity, a feat that has only been accomplished by few people in the DC universe. Even after that, he had to go through rigorous training to be the most prepared Robin there ever was to prevent what happened to Jason from occurring again. This is another reason why the ease with which Carrie became Robin is troublesome- the death of Jason Todd is quickly overlooked. Part of the reason Batman is retired in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is that of Jason’s death, so it’s hard to believe that he would just accept a new Robin without any hesitation.

Regardless of how easily Carrie became Robin, she does an acceptable job as Batman’s sidekick. She has that light and childlike wonder that Dick possessed when he first started out. She provides an excellent contrast to Batman’s gruff and rugged personality. Carrie Kelly also represents hope for the future of Gotham, and as long as there are people willing to fight the good fight, evil will never truly win.

Batman and the Joker

Frank Miller's Batman

Speaking of evil, it has been said previously that if there were no Batman, there would be no Joker. This comic shows just what would happen to the Joker if Batman was gone.  At the beginning of the story, the Joker is in a coma, having lost any sense of purpose since Batman retired. While the Joker had committed crimes before Batman’s appearance, Batman played a part in creating the Joker. The constant battle between this agent of order against this agent of chaos lasted for years. To lose Batman was apparently too much for the Joker, which left him in a catatonic state. Immediately after Batman’s return, the Joker awakens and commences to execute his next plan to wreak havoc. It’s interesting that the Joker can come up with an effective plan so quickly after being in a coma for years. Joker could have easily continued to commit crimes in Batman’s absence, but merely didn’t want to.

READ: All about Joker’s love of Batman!

The Joker needs to have Batman there to try and stop him, or else there is no point to committing crimes. This dependence on Batman is a trait that Bruce and Joker share. Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman the same way the Joker needs to have Batman to give himself purpose. This comic shows that the Joker can be stopped if Bruce stops being Batman, but seeing as he is incapable of doing that, their battle rages on. In THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the Joker manipulates his caretakers to allow him onto a television talk show, and he releases gas, kills everyone there, and escapes. Batman and Robin track him to a county fair, where he is already killing several boy scouts with cotton candy. Batman defeats the Joker in a final violent confrontation, paralyzing him. As a final attempt to incriminate Batman, the Joker uses his last bit of strength to snap his neck and dies. Commissioner Gordon’s successor, Ellen Yindel, begins a citywide manhunt for Batman.

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Nonetheless, Batman is the one who gets the last laugh. Despite being on the run from the law, Batman still continues to fight and protect his city from itself. The Joker may not be able to function without Batman, but Batman has proven to get along just fine without the Joker.

Batman and Superman: Day vs. Night

In previous comics, Batman and Superman were shown to have a strong friendship and were teammates. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS shows us a Man of Steel who has allied himself with the government, and Batman is apparently displeased with how compliant Superman has become. The first mention of Superman in the comic is when Batman comes back into the public eye and catches the attention of the U.S. government. The President orders Superman to swing by Gotham and check in on his old friend. Here we see a Superman who is trying to reason with Batman that their time has passed and that this is the new status quo.

READ: All about Superman’s impact on Church & State!

What I love about this scene is the fact that Clark has the powers of a god, but Bruce is the one who is controlling the conversation. It demonstrates that Batman is the dominant personality between the two of these heroes. Despite Clark’s best intentions, he fails at convincing Bruce to give up his crusade. The two are not seen together again until their final confrontation at the climax of the graphic novel. The story flips back and forth between the two heroes, each dealing with their issues until they eventually overlap with one another.  When Superman diverts a Soviet nuclear warhead away from civilization, it detonates in a desert. The United States gets hit by an electromagnetic pulse, resulting in a nationwide blackout. Ultimately, this leads to more chaos as people descend into anarchy.

Back in Gotham, Batman and Robin gather the Mutants and Sons of Batman to form a non-lethal fighting force. Together they collect essential supplies and bring order in a city full of chaos. During the nuclear winter, Gotham ends up becoming the safest country in the U.S. The government sees this as an embarrassment and orders Superman to take care of Batman.

Frank Miller's Batman - The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Fights Superman!

This fight has lead to many fan controversies about whether or not Batman truly beat Superman.  Superman can easily overpower any opponent, including Batman. If Superman wanted, he could not hold back and just waste Batman. Superman does not do this because, despite everything that has happened between the two heroes, he still considers Batman, a friend, and he would rather reason with Batman than fight him.

In this fight, Batman uses everything he can to gain the upper hand. From technology, the environment, and outside help, Batman does the best he can to make Superman feel pain! It also helps that Superman was greatly weakened by the nuclear warhead, so this gives Batman another advantage. The fight shows that with intelligence, deception, and plenty of technology, a human can take on a god. Let’s be honest, if Batman had not used any advantages, then this fight would have been over very quickly. In the middle of Batman’s epic speech to Superman, warning him to stay out of his way, Batman suffers a heart attack.

Before the fight, Alfred destroys the Batcave and Wayne Manor, then immediately dies of a stroke. The news reports reveal that Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne has been exposed and that the remainder of the Wayne family fortune has disappeared.

READ: Why has Superman endured all these years?

After Bruce’s funeral, Clark begins to hear the heartbeat of his “fallen” friend. Understanding the situation, Clark winks at Carrie Kelly in disguise, letting her and Batman know that he will keep their secret. This book does a tremendously good job at showing how different Batman and Superman are, and how, despite almost killing each other just a few pages earlier, they respect one another. I can only hope that their friendship translates well on the big screen in the live-action movie BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

The Dark Knight Returns Influences in Media

Before going into how THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS influences the upcoming MAN OF STEEL sequel, let’s look back to all the other films that were inspired by Miller’s work.

Frank Miller's Batman influenced 1990's Tim Burton Batman

Tim Burton has cited THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as a major influence in his first film adaptation of Batman. References to the comic series are made in the films, with Vicki Vale taking photographs of the devastated Corto Maltese. Miller’s dark, somber tone from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is certainly seen in Burton’s film. The days of the campy and silly Adam West Batman had become a thing of the past.

Frank Miller's Batman is inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, took the central concept of Batman returning to Gotham City after a long absence from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Another element Nolan included was having Bruce Wayne become a recluse after retiring from being Batman. The scene with Batman’s first public reappearance during a high-speed car chase, where an observing veteran policeman comments to his young partner about Batman’s return, is very similar to a scene in this book, also. Nolan also incorporates the use of a brace to aide Bruce due to the strain of being Batman has caused on his body. However, in the comic, the brace is for his arm, and in the film, it is used for his leg. Both stories also end with Bruce Wayne faking his death.

Frank Miller's Batman vs Tim Burton's Batman Finally, BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE has taken several elements from Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.  This was obvious right from the announcement of Batman being in the MAN OF STEEL sequel at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013 by Harry Lennix (General Swanwick).  Lennix read Batman’s speech to Superman at the end of their fight from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, leading to the reveal of the new Batman symbol. Time passed, and fans eventually saw pictures of Ben Affleck as Batman in a super suit that looks exactly like the one in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Now, while the trailers and the photos have already confirmed that these two titans will clash like they did in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Zack Snyder has stated that BATMAN V SUPERMAN is not an adaptation of the comic. It is, however, drawing inspiration from that comic to tell a new unique story.

READ: Why Batman v Superman will be the best Batman on screen!

In the end, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is a classic piece, a part of the history of not only Frank Miller’s Batman but Batman, the character. It is a definite must-read for anyone, not just Frank Miller’s Batman fans. The way Miller uses Batman and other DC heroes to showcase the concerns of that period makes this comic almost a window to both the past and the future. Readers will get to see what life was like for people in the mid-80’s, while also seeing the future of some of their favorite characters.  Fans are so used to seeing Batman as a man in the prime of his life, so seeing him aged to a man in his 50’s made the character feel more realistic. The effects of this graphic novel have resonated with fans for years, and I for one cannot recommend it enough!

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