Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (The Dark Knight Saga, #1)

Frank Miller
If any comic has a claim to have truly reinvigorated the genre, then The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller--known also for his excellent Sin City series and his superb rendering of the blind superhero Daredevil--is probably the top contender. Batman represented all that was wrong in comics and Miller set himself a tough task taking on the camp crusader and turning this laughable, innocuous children's cartoon character into a hero for our times. The great Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, the arguably peerless Watchmen) argued that only someone of Miller's stature could have done this. Batman is a character known well beyond the confines of the comic world (as are his retinue) and so reinventing him, while keeping his limiting core essentials intact, was a huge task.Miller went far beyond the call of duty. The Dark Knight is a success on every level. Firstly it does keep the core elements of the Batman myth intact, with Robin, Alfred the butler, Commissioner Gordon, and the old roster of villains, present yet brilliantly subverted. Secondly the artwork is fantastic--detailed, sometimes claustrophobic, psychotic. Lastly it's a great story: Gotham City is a hell on earth, street gangs roam but there are no heroes. Decay is ubiquitous. Where is a hero to save Gotham? It is 10 years since the last recorded sighting of the Batman. And things have got worse than ever. Bruce Wayne is close to being a broken man but something is keeping him sane: the need to see change and the belief that he can orchestrate some of that change. Batman is back. The Dark Knight has returned. Awesome. --Mark Thwaite


Reviewed: 2019-01-12
Reviewed: 2018-10-06
Reviewed: 2016-06-14
I've been wanting to read The Dark Knight Returns for years. It's one of those graphic novels that people speak of in tones of hushed reverence, regarded as one of the heights of the genre and one of the greatest Batman stories.

It's not surprising that I was disappointed.

I often am when I read "acclaimed" graphic novels. I've never understood the appeal of Alan Moore, and now I'll add Frank Miller to that category. There are such amazing possibilities for the graphic novel medium, but if this is as good as it gets, then something is wrong. Miller creates a gritty, dark vision of urban American streets, but I find little of interest beneath the surface. Bruce Wayne is tormented by memories of his parents' murder. Is this enough to motivate a life of Batman? Many people in the world witness much more horrific acts during childhood, but they grow to embrace life and even find joy amidst seemingly inexplicable chaos. Bruce's struggles just don't interest me, because they seem one-dimensional and selfish.

This isn't helped by the nearly constant clunky, expositional, internal dialogue from most of the main characters (Bruce especially). Most of that internal speechifying could be adequately summed up as: "I'm depressed and hopeless. Stupid bleak world. Time to end everything?"

More annoying than this exposition, however, is the use of little TV screens on nearly every page, showing us how strange the world has become in its reliance on the media to tell us what to think. It's hard for me to believe that this was a new idea even in 1986, but it certainly isn't very innovative now, almost 30 years later. The use of the TV screens is a gimmick that does little to enhance or advance the story.

For reasons I don't really understand (I've always been more of a Marvel guy, and I don't know as much about DC), the story builds to a climactic battle between Superman and Batman, in which Superman doesn't die and Batman doesn't die.

Again, because I don't know much about the DC world, maybe I'm missing something--but I really dislike the weird Robin character in this story. She (?) looks a bit like Velma from Scooby Doo, and I just don't get the character at all.

One of the things that most attracts me to graphic novels is bold, vibrant artwork. The artwork in The Dark Knight Returns is washed-out and dull. Occasionally there's a bold graphic image that I liked--the top of p. 55, or the silhouette of Superman on p. 164. But most of pages are not appealing to me.

I don't know how old Miller was when he wrote this story, but I sense that he was fearful of middle age. I assume he has now successfully navigated those years and found them to be not as dismal as he'd feared.
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