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.