Perfect Game – BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Book One

This is, I think, one of the most discussed comic book stories of all time, so I don’t know that I’m going to have a whole lot that’s new to add to the conversation. What I can bring to the table is some personal perspective. I would have been 19 years old in 1986 when this first issue of BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS came out, and while I had been a comic book reader for more than a decade at that point, and enjoyed a bevy of Batman stories over the years, the character never completely grabbed me. Some of that is simply the function of wish-fulfillment: I knew, even as a young kid, that I had no chance of ever being Batman. I was simply too doughy and bad at anything physical. If I was going to become a super hero, I was going to need an edge, an accident to give me super-powers or a magic ring or something. In Jules Feiffer terms, I was a Superman kid rather than a Batman kid–in those days most kids tended to lean in Superman’s direction. This book, and the 1989 film that took some of its cues from it, was really the point at which that pendulum shifted on a more permanent basis and the Dark Knight overwhelmed the Man of Steel in popularity.

Apart from maybe John Byrne, there was no hotter or more popular creator in comic books in 1986 than Frank Miller. His stint on DAREDEVIL, first as penciler and then ultimately writer/artist had redefined that character and his world, in a way that, even now, decades later, contemporary creative teams tend to return to his material as the wellspring of their own stories. Miller brought in a variety of influences to his work: film noir, manga (in particular samurai manga), Moebius and the French masters, Will Eisner’s sense of pace and storytelling–and he was seemingly interested in pushing the boundaries of what American comics were capable of. One person who backed him up in this pursuit was DC’s publisher Jenette Kahn. Kahn was faced with righting the ship that was DC’s fortunes, in particular in the growing Direct Sales marketplace, and she recognized that talent was going to be necessary to grab the eyeballs of readers who had for many years quantified DC’s output as “kid’s stuff.” She made a fierce play to recruit Miller to her team, promising to produce whatever project he might want to as a follow-up to DAREDEVIL, including in the realms of paper stock, coloring and format. As rumors began to circulate throughout fandom that Miller might be switching horses to go to DC, the chatter all became about the obvious: Miller’s DAREDEVIL had become much darker and grittier during his tenure, more grounded and akin to the ideal world of Batman. it would be a fan dream come true to see Miller unleashed on the real deal. Audiences were primed for it. But unfortunately, they would have to wait for a bit.

Because the project that Miller was interested in doing was called RONIN. It was a futuristic science fiction adventure crossed with a samurai epic, at once synthesizing all of Miller’s interests into a single unified whole. It also featured no existing characters, but rather a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. In this way, it was more like the work being done in Europe, where stand-alone “albums” were the preferred method of consumption for comic book work. At a time when comic books cost les than a dollar and were often printed on the shabbiest paper, RONIN #1 cost $2.50 and was 48 pages in length on glossy stock. It was a good looking package, but also a bit of an investment for a reader not used to dropping that much coin for an unknown quantity. I had friends who were very much into RONIN as it was coming out, but for me, I couldn’t get past the price point and the subject matter. This wasn’t some beloved character, this was something a bit weird and off the beaten track. I had grown a bit more expansive in my comic book tastes by 1983, but not expansive enough to pay this sort of money for RONIN (the cover price actually increased in subsequent releases.) And I apparently wasn’t the only one–for years, my regular comic shop would have stacks of copies for sale, at least of the early issues. They had invested heavily overgauging demand, and so would be burning off copies for a long while. By all reports, they weren’t alone in this regard. RONIN was a success, and a singular work–but it wasn’t the game-changer that people were waiting for.

I can’t swear that Miller pivoting to Batman next was a reaction to the response to RONIN, though it certainly felt that way at the time, and makes all the sense in the world from the perspective of DC. There was no better sure-bet project than Frank Miller on Batman. And Miller didn’t approach the assignment as just another Batman story either. Working in tandem with Denny O’Neil, who had been his DAREDEVIL editor at Marvel, he instead intended to tell the last Batman story, the ultimate Batman story. In one sense, this was a clever move in that it allowed the regular monthly appearances of the Gotham Guardian to go on business as usual in BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS and elsewhere. (It’s somewhat amazing to go back and to read the concurrent issues of those titles that were on sale when this book came out–while it had been years since Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had brought mysterioso back to the character, his adventures were still remarkably bright and cheery in 1986.) But it also made Miller’s Batman project an event. Preview images showed up in the fan press in dribs and drabs, and that excitement from 1981 began to catch fire again. As with RONIN, Kahn and DC invested in making Miller’s Batman book an upscale project, squarebound on excellent paper and with blueline coloring provided by Miller’s then-girlfriend Lynn Varley–what became known as “Dark Knight Format” for a number of years. The cover was like that of no previous comic book release, graphic and iconic–it screamed that this was a more serious-minded treatment of the subject matter. Each release felt more like a book, given the spine, and retailed at $2.95. but unlike RONIN, nobody balked at that price point this time.

I can vividly remember the week BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Book One came out. As I said at the top, I wasn’t particularly a fan of the Caped Crusader, for all that I’d liked his stories just fine over the years. But as I cracked open those covers and started to read, I found myself inside the story in a way I never had with a Batman adventure before. I felt immersed, transported, into the world that Miller laid out–a world in which Batman had retired a decade previous under mysterious circumstances, in which Gotham City had fallen into greater decay and darkness, and millionaire Bruce Wayne did his best to live a normal life while trying to bury the hungry beast that lived inside him–a beast that, thanks to a confluence of unfortunate events, would emerge once more on this amazing full page splash. Given how the issue is laid out–Miller operated on a strict 16 panel grid format in this first issue, meaning that most panels had a bevy of images/moments on them–and the release represented by cutting to this full page splash (albeit with a trio of inset panels that continue the 16 panel grid format) it is perhaps the best and most effective image of Batman ever drawn. As a reader, this moment completely blew me away. Just looking at it after the other earlier pages that I’ve posted here will give you some sense of its impact.

Miller’s Batman was a force of nature–he incorporated an element of the supernatural into his interpretation where Bruce Wayne didn’t simply choose to adopt the mantle of Batman but rather was chosen by some ancient entity as its representative in the world of men. Amazingly, most readers over the years have overlooked this aspect of the plot, ignored it, but it represents a bit of a sea change from every earlier interpretation of the character that had been done. Miller was also the creator who did away with the golden oval surrounding the bat insignia on the character’s chest, an addition that Julie Schwartz had added when took over as editor and a version of that insignia that was more readily able to be trademarked. Even in this first issue, the art on these early pages looks to my eye as though Miller had drawn the costume without the circle and then added it in as an afterthought. Making lemonade, Miller cleverly comes up with a rationale for the insignia, even as he moves to discard it. Even beyond Batman himself, here recast as an old retired warrior called back to the fight one more time, Miller’s Gotham and its environments became a character much emulated in the days to come. His version of the city definitely set the template for what was done in the eventual film of 1989. His interpretation of Alfred as an acid-tongued somewhat-unwilling accomplice to his charge’s activities became the standard for that character for years.

Miller’s Batman was also a lot more hard-boiled than any previous interpretation. His was the first Batman to be depicted as actively enjoying hurting criminals. Miller even often edged up to the taboo line of having Batman kill–the fact that the Dark Knight will not cross that line is the central premise of the series, and one that’s also occasionally overlooked by those more focused on how Miller toys with the forbidden, such as having Batman use a gun in this first installment. It turns out to be a cable gun (another innovation of Miller’s–before this, Batman simply threw his rope skyward with a grappling hook. The Animated Series cemented the notion that he carried a grapple gun.) which feels like a bit of a cheat, especially given how realistically it’s depicted, but it keeps things within bounds. One does get the sense that Miller would have been just as happy to dispense with such niceties, even if DC wasn’t quite comfortable with that yet. By that same token, it’s also possible that Miller was being just as transgressive as he wanted to be, understanding that those who felt teh character should and would go further would be able to read between the lines of what he had done, whereas those who felt that Batman’s restraint in taking life was what made him a hero in the first place would be similarly sated. This divide isn’t just limited to the readers, a Greek chorus of other characters throughout the series give their perspective on the Dark Knights methods–a perspective which, in the case of certain characters, winds up shifting depending on their own proximity and need for what Batman does.

Speaking as an individual reader, while the remaining three issues of the DARK KNIGHT saga had their good points, I felt as though they very quickly strayed away from what i wanted in a Batman story, and I didn’t like them anywhere near as much as this first release. Chatter of the period tells of Miller reading the early issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN prior to publication and being influenced by what they were doing to go even broader and grander with his own magnum opus. And clearly that worked for most readers, including all those who were brought back into comic shops by news of the DARK KNIGHT series, and all of those who picked it up as a collected edition, one of the first comics to be collected and marketed in this fashion and to be kept in print perpetually. It also had a seismic impact on the field as a whole, as creative team after creative team attempted to replicate Miller’s brutality and style and even language within their own stories, to mixed results. But it was definitely a pivot-point, more than pretty much any other book released in this period and it divides the field into everything that came before it and everything that came after, and which was influenced by it. Today, it seems hardly as revolutionary, even if it’s still an effectively-told story, so pervasive has its influence been over innumerable Batman projects across a myriad of media ever since. But as a singular moment, on this first issue at least, Miller (along with finisher Klaus Janson, whom I haven’t mentioned here enough and who came over with Miller to DC following DAREDEVIl only to experience a parting of the ways halfway through the DARK KNIGHT project) pitched a Perfect Game, and insured his position in teh upper pantheon of all-time greatest comic book practitioners.

5 thoughts on “Perfect Game – BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Book One

  1. Not mentioned very often now but RONIN was originally going to be published at Marvel for the Epic Comics line. I sometimes wish Miller would have stuck to his original plans for Dark Knight as outlined in an issue of Amazing Heroes but you can’t argue with the massive success it achieved.

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    1. Frank, what were his original plans, as shown in “Amazing Heroes”? I remember reading he had ideas for a “Man of Steel” and “Amazon”…

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  2. About time, Tom. NOW we’re gettin’ somewhere. 😉 Thanks for your very well-written thoughts on this, from the perspectives of a 19 yr old fan, and then a 30+ years experienced professional. You wrote that so much has already been said about this book, what else, or new, could be added? But you summed up just about every reason this book was so explosively successful, impactful, & influential. I felt like I was reading an afterward to a recent collection. Top-notch.

    I was 4 or 5 months away from turning 15 when I first saw Issue 2 of this DK series. It was on a shelf next to a comics spinner rack, in a McMillan’s-style bookstore inside the Stroud Mall in the Poconos, in PA. My mind was blown, reading, and I had to go back and find the 1st issue. Then get 3 & 4 in comic book stores as they were released. I hadn’t heard anything about the series when I saw # 2 on that shelf. I was Batman kid, though, and it looked too inviting to pass up. I still remember how that format’s paper SMELLED. Lol

    Then after reading & re-re-reading issues 1, 2, & 3, I’d caught up with much of the fan press about it. Eventually finding out it’d piqued Rolling Stone magazine’s interest enough to cover it, & even give it a positive review. It pushed comics farther into the mainstream than I’d seen it in my young life, and certainly in a more serious, appreciative, and respectful manner than it had been, previously.

    And it incorporated so much of, well, life in general into its story, it felt on par with an acclaimed motion picture, in how it dealt with more mature, sensitive themes. To hear Jim Gordon’s rationale for working with Batman, comparing it to FDR’s alleged knowledge of Pearl Harbor, letting it happen, “but we won the war”. And Miller wrote these characters as if he had been for years. He made me understand Bruce & Gordon’s relationship far deeper than I ever had. I “heard” Batman’s voice. Yeah, there was a harder edge. But it made sense after decades of combatting countless personifications of the worst of human nature. I think Bruce’s more tactical, paramilitary approach in “Year One” might’ve been more startling compared to pre-Miller Batman. But by then, we’d seen DKR.

    As for the supernatural element, some elemental exterior force choosing young Bruce, that has been picked up on by others, since. Peter Milligan’s “Dark Knight, Dark City”. Grant Morrisson’s Barbatos, and other stories. Darwyn Cooke’s “Batman: Ego”. To me, I think it hints at some delusion on Bruce’s part. Some mild psychosis, maybe, definitely obsessive behavior, PTSD from his parents’ murders. I’m not a mental health professional. But that perspective conflicts with Englehart’s idea that the criminals are nuts, and Batman isn’t. I also subscribe to the idea that Bruce isn’t out for vengeance, but justice. And that sometimes, too often, justice isn’t achieved through the Law…

    I also disagree that Batman was still “cheery” in the years before DKR. Especially visually. Look at that Batman Annual # 9 (I believe), by Mike W. Barr & stunningly drawn by Trevor Von Eeden, with the first comics coloring work by DKR’s Lynn Varley. Re-read Doug Moench’s runs before & through 1986. Nocturna. Black Mask. NOT “cheery”. Not as sophisticated or as articulate as DKR, either. The regular monthlies also had to adhere to the Comics Code, which DKR didn’t.

    As for your grapple-hook gun mention, that the Bruce Timm animated TV cartoon cemented their use, I’d argue that it was the 1989 movie. And then almost immediately after, Norm Breyfogle drew the dynamic duo using them in the monthlies. I’d have to move a lot of comics boxes and dust to see if Batman’s prevalent use of these devices pre-dated the movie, but my memory leans towards a “no”.

    And the legacy. “Legends of the Dark Knight” comes to mind. Not the same format, but often featuring a “prestigious” line-up of talent (including DKR’s Klaus Janson in the 1st or 2nd year), and a return to the “oval-less” chest symbol, darker cowl, cape, gloves, briefs, & boots.

    Decades later, DK2 was a big letdown. It looked as if Frank skipped the pencil drawing and went straight into sketching with ink. DK3 only got only a glance from me. I hope I don’t ever see Frank need cash enough to allow a trainwreck combo of “Batman & Ronin”… 😉 But you are correct- DKR was a huge mile marker in the life of the character. And he was changed by it ever since. I think we were, too, to various degrees. As was the entire industry. And how it could be perceived by the public at large. A “seminal work”, for sure.

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  3. By mid-1986, I had turned 24, and after roughly 14 years of collecting comics, mostly Marvels prior to 1982 but expanding to others since then, my collecting was starting to wind down. I was becoming much more selective in what I got. I passed on Ronin for much the same reasons Tom gave. I also missed the first issue of The Dark Knight but certainly read about the hype and got the subsequent issues. Up to that point, I hadn’t collected much of either Batman or Superman — I think I may had already gotten the Adams/O’Neil Batman issue, “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” and the Englehart/Rodgers Detective Comics run, but not much more than that. Anyhow, I enjoyed TDK, but not quite as much as I’d liked Miller’s collaborations with Mazzucchelli on the Daredevil Born Again story published that same year and the later Batman: Year One. I think I was a bit put off that Miller’s style in TDK appeared much more cartoonish (IMO) than typical for him, at least as based on his earlier artwork for Daredevil. Still, Watchmen was the 1986 series that really got my attention. I’d already become a fan of Alan Moore from his work on Swamp Thing and then latching onto Eclipse’s run of Miracle Man, however sporadically that came out. Of course, looking back, Moore & Miller magnum opus’s combined to make 1986 a transformative year for DC in particular and for superhero comics in general. Once and for all, IMO, DC put it’s old fuddy-duddy, resting on it’s Golden Age laurels reputation to rest and many of the betters comics creators took positive inspiration from them, although too many others simply told grimmer and nastier stories, assuming that was the best way to emulate Miller & Moore. Makes me think about what particular issues of superhero comics would be considered the most iconic in shaping and transforming the field — certainly Action Comics # 1 and Detective Comics #27, the Alpha & Beta that got it started with the two primary proto-types; Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15, representing Marvel’s twin shots in giving superheroes more relatable and somewhat realistic personalities; and TDK #1 and Watchmen #1, representing shifts to more complex and mature styles in telling superhero stories — they certainly weren’t new in doing so, but they both got far more attention, even by much of the non-comics reading public, than any previous efforts.

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  4. Awesome, Fred. Alan Moore is my favorite comics writer. As earth-moving as “Watchmen” was, and the new possibilities both “Swamp Thing” and “Miracle Man” created, his “America’s Best Comics” felt even more satisfying to me.

    Maybe Miller’s exaggerated style was to play to more iconic imagery. Broad, larger than life visuals to match his scope, and the mythic characters. “Batman: Year One” might have a more grounded, more realistic feel and scope, from the story and certainly the art.

    B:Y1 is probably my favorite comics story ever. And Mazz’s Bats in it is about as good as it gets. I do also like seeing slightly more distorted depictions, as if seeing Batman through the eyes of the “cowardly, superstitious lot” of criminals he hunts.

    Matt Wagner’s “Faces”, & the first “Batman/Grendel”. Paul Pope’s “Batman: Year 100”. Trevor Von Sweden’s expressionist 80’s stuff.
    Denys Cowan. Some of Sienkewicz’s.

    But I always come back to Mazz’s model and other depictions more similar. Lee Weeks does one of my other favorite versions of Batman. Steve Rude can be slightly too clean & slick, but some of his pen & ink Batman images are beautiful. Clay Mann does a great, solid, powerful Batman. Greg Capullo’s in “Court of Owls” was dark & dynamic. And Dan Mora is currently capturing almost all the elements of the character that I love. Gorgeous stuff.

    Seeing the pages Tom posted reminded me of how great DKR was, though. What a Batman story. What a comics revelation. And it opened up Batman to so many other possibilities and high quality talent. Yeah, there were a lot of junk imitators who only emulated the superficial violence. But all the great stuff that did come after DK2, may never have, without it being not only 1st, but so dang great.

    I loved Batman putting the clues together in that 1st DKR issue. And showing empathy to some of those he still had to defeat. His different reactions & approaches to Two-Face & Joker speaks volumes as to who they are.

    The different reactions to Batman, by Gordon, Merkel, the new Commissioner, & members of the public. Just adds layers to the Legend. Amazing stuff.

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