In 1986, a storm came to Gotham. To be fair, a storm is always coming to Gotham. But this one? This one was unlike anything we’d ever seen. Partly born of anger and fear, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns offered a brutal re-assessment of the icon born of anger and fear: The Batman. Thirty years ago, this alternate take on Batman’s dystopian future changed the comics’ landscape forever. No longer could Batman only be looked at as just another superhero or even a detective. No, Miller created a warrior god…or better yet, a demon whose crusade became frightening in its mythological scale. Along with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, The Sandman, and Miller’s own Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns ushered in a new wave of comic books, ones that reached for literary heights while never losing sight of the pulp sensibilities they were born from. Of all these seminal works, The Dark Knight Returns is most rooted in the time that it was written in, lacking the elasticity of its contemporaries. We needed that Batman then, but now? Now, this warrior god, this crusading demon, this Batman can no longer comfortably fit within the panels of our reality despite its undeniable quality. Much has been written over the years about this storyline’s impact, legacy, and importance within the framework of literature and culture. For 30 years, we’ve been talking in circles about this story, offering little new substance to chew on. Without devaluing its greatness, and it is great, we’ve romanticized and imitated Frank Miller’s take to the point where it has become a joke, a fetish doll someone keeps carrying around with them instead of trading up for a real-life human being. Many of us have done this without stopping to ask whether this story means the same thing as it once did and if it even should. The Dark Knight Returns was created to provide discomfort within the medium, and yet we’ve grown soft and let it become comforting–something it never should have been. Yes, The Dark Knight Returns is endlessly fascinating and endlessly re-readable, but in 2016 it’s also problematic.
There’s a frequently used trivia piece that states Miller allowed Batman to be a dark character for the first time since his early years. This piece of information is incorrect. We didn’t jump from the “Pow,” “Bang” sound effects of the Silver Age and Adam West’s Batman straight into Miller’s version. There were sixteen years of dark and morally complex Batman stories that were popular all through the ’80s. This is important to note because many think that without the imitations of Miller’s version, Batman would regress to his campy state. But The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t as impactful as it was because it made Batman dark again, it was impactful because it shook off the remnants of the Comics Code Authority that had influenced the way creators chose to tell their stories since 1954. Free of that burden, Miller was allowed to respect the source material while ignoring the chains of continuity. Our icons could fail, they could bleed, and they could be dismantled. As such, The Dark Knight Returns was never meant to be canon. This story of 55-year-old Bruce Wayne’s return to the cape and cowl, after a 10-year retirement and his final stand against the Joker and government sanctioned Superman, was always meant to be Miller’s take on the character. The ongoing Batman titles didn’t suddenly adopt Miller’s style or penchant for Chandler-esque dialogue. The Dark Knight Returns is and always was an endgame story, written during a point in time where the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed to promise our own endgame. Like its sister-piece Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns explores a dire landscape where the world’s government had banned superheroes because of their penchant for destruction, and the fear they created amongst ordinary humans. This was a reactionary look at our world, one where it made sense that Superman would secretly work for the U.S. government in order to do what little good he could, and that Batman would be seen as a terrorist-level threat due to his ability to do what the armed forces couldn’t. Miller explored these icons in their most primal states as the two sides of America: the man who stands for truth, justice, and the American Way, and the man who knows that it’s all a lie and therefore is free to consider the possibility of conspiracy.
There are aspects of this story that remain relevant in our post-9/11 world, and we see its legacy in some of our most important comic runs, including Marvel’s own Civil War. But Miller’s Batman, lacking in compassion and burdened with the sense of his own alpha-male identity, isn’t a character we’re meant to cling to as a whole. He’s a man who refers to his Robins as soldiers, a man who mercilessly beats his enemies to bloody pulps, and a man who raises an army of children to act as vigilantes under his command. Ultimately, he’s a figure far closer to Idris Elba’s Commandant in Beasts of No Nation than he is to the concept of a superhero. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid take on the character, but as the most imitated take on the character we have to question, without necessarily condemning, its modern usefulness.
In the ’80s when our biggest cities were overflowing with crime, and subways, graffitied walls, and back alleys were a cause for alarm, it’s understandable why we’d want an excessively and obsessively brutal Batman. Miller’s own experience being mugged planted the seed for this story, and for many others the idea of someone who could ensure we didn’t have to walk the streets in fear was a grand notion. While the media and politicians were concerned with threats overseas, it was the average civilian who was concerned about making it home at night. A Batman who could beat up bad guys and send them to jail wasn’t enough. No, this was an era of retribution, and we wanted Batman to beat up the bad guys so badly that they’d never consider crime again…and then send them to jail. We wanted them barely hanging on to life but still alive, because we were Americans after all. Vigilantism was something we could stand behind then, but now it doesn’t sit so well.
In an era where George Zimmerman can murder an unarmed black teenager and get away with it, do we really want a Batman who takes his anger out on urban youth? A Batman who offers no consideration into the socio-economic problems that led to the collapse of system and created urban sprawl? The teenage criminals in The Dark Knight Returns, The Mutants, are a savage lot whose clothes and speech are defining factors of their membership and subsequent desire for violence, theft, and rape. The Mutants are the pop-cultural successors of Alex and his Droogs, only they exist in overwhelming numbers. By the end of the series, Batman has taken out the Mutant leader and indoctrinated these former Mutants to his own cause as the Sons of Batman. Of course in this world of fantasy, the Mutants are monstrous and the Sons of Batman are the best possible outcome to this situation. But comics don’t exist inside a vacuum; their context comes from the real world and must adapt as the real world changes.
In our world of fear mongering, NRA rights, and police brutality, who are the Mutants? They’re the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Muslims, and the LGBT community. They’re the people we fear without logic or reason. The definition of criminal is no longer only defined by actions. It is also based on looks, speech patterns, and beliefs. Mutants by definition are “others” who deviate from our social construct of the norm, so it would stand to reason that the idolatry of this Batman is problematic, and that this Batman cannot function as an example in modern society. Even if we were to apply Batman’s indoctrination of these teens, his commitment to turning their lives around, he’s using them as child soldiers. And in a world where African villages are torn apart by child soldiers and Middle-Eastern children are asked to walk around with bombs strapped to their chests, the very idea of a child soldier is alarming. It’s easy to say that fiction isn’t always meant to apply to the real-world, that these examples have no real weight. But The Dark Knight Returns was meant to apply to the real-world. It was meant as a takedown of the media, President Reagan, new-age psychology as defined by Harvey Dent and the Joker, and the government as represented by Superman. It was meant as a war-cry to tell people that they didn’t have to be victims. But of course, victimization is all part of perspective, a perspective we’ve steadily been losing sight of over the past 30 years. We cannot take this Batman at face value because we can no longer trust ourselves to discern problems with reason. Yet, ask almost anyone which superhero they’d like to be and they’ll say Batman. For some people, it’s the idea of being the optimum human being, it’s the dedication and the skills that attracts them. And there’s a good many people who truly are invested in the idea of being a hero. But it’s impossible to not presume that there are also a number who have images of The Dark Knight Returns flickering in the back of their heads, and the idea of walking into urban areas to root out crime and stupidity is the only way to save America.
Batman is inherently flawed as a character and that’s what makes him one of the greatest fictional characters ever created. He’s hero and victim because of his own mental illness and ego. The best Batman stories understand this, and whether they acknowledge it subtly or overtly, Batman is just as crazy as his villainous counterparts. The idea that Batman is crazy comes into play throughout The Dark Knight Returns, and whatever Miller’s take on his story all these years later (no doubt influenced by his growing prejudices and radical political ideals), I’d argue that he was never meant to be seen as a moral example. As satire, The Dark Knight Returns still works extremely well, but there were many writers who took the story at face value and tried to force Miller’s take into canon. Some good did arise from this such as the idea of Batman and Joker as doomed lovers, Batman’s existence creating escalation, and the notion that Batman needs a Robin to maintain a childish grip on the world. But there are stories and long-running volumes within ’90s and modern comic books where we see the uber-asshole Batman rear his head once again, the Batman who is quite arguably not a decent human being. It’s this Batman who can win any challenge, who always beats Superman, who’s always right, whose mental competence is never challenged, and who revels in his own capabilities for cruelty. This is Batman created for the bullied and the angry, an impossible idea of masculinity. I’ll admit to enjoying a number of these stories, especially the ones that immediately followed The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, but this take doesn’t work as a constant, and without a strong writer this depiction becomes laughable. Imitations are fine for a while, and every comic book character has had their share following the publication of a successful series or story arc. But it becomes problematic when we don’t see movement in a new direction quickly enough. Even Miller’s follow-up series, The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman and Robin are miserable attempts to chase the shadow of that 1986 series. They don’t re-contextualize the character as the original did but instead operate as a masturbatory power fantasy—a fetish for meanness that comes as a result of no longer understanding how the world works. The Dark Knight III: The Master Race is currently being published (though it’s been set back by delays), and sales indicate that this version of Batman is not one we’re willing to part with.
But it is possible to take pieces of Miller’s Batman and allow them to become something new. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman has done exactly that. They have cited their love and influence of Miller’s series, but their comic allows for a Batman who doesn’t simply operate under extremes. Their Batman feels like a human being instead of an idea made to push up against our fear of being attacked in the dark. Batman #44 of their run directly tackles the issues I raised in my concerns about The Dark Knight Returns‘ place in modern race relations, and it is the most relevant single issue in the last decade of comics. Grant Morrison’s run on Batman deconstructed the notion of the Bat-God (the idea that Batman can win any battle given time and preparation as seen by his defeat of Superman in The Dark Knight Returns) and married the concepts of the Silver Age stories with darker ones of the modern age. From Morrison’s view, all Batman stories from 1939 to present are canon and we don’t need to pull from just one iteration. According to this his take, Batman isn’t an alpha male, and despite all his skills and knowledge, he’s just a hurt child playing dress-up because he never developed coping skills to function properly in society. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy pulls from Miller’s graphic novel both in terms of design and themes, but it also managed to give us one of the most human portrayals of the character. And while we’ve yet to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I suspect there’s a good reason Zack Snyder opted not to do a direct adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns was an endpoint, and with Batman v Superman seeming to introduce Batman at his lowest point then it stands to reason that we can hope to see a more optimistic Batman in future installments, one who changes because of the arrival of superheroes, not because of the absence of them. It is possible to reference and pay homage to The Dark Knight Returns without committing to its values and condoning its themes in the modern world.
Comic-characterization exists within a vast and complicated multiverse. To cling so tightly to one take doesn’t allow the medium to grow. We don’t need more direct imitations of Miller’s Batman. We need artists who can understand the influence of The Dark Knight Returns and go-off to redefine Batman on their own. The legacy of The Dark Knight Returns should not stand as a statement that this version is the truest, “best” version of Batman but as a reminder that comic book characters are malleable. The greatest issue facing the superhero comic medium right now is its inability to embrace lasting change. We constantly see titles regressing back to the most well-known and highest-selling versions of the characters. We see continuity reset so that it becomes the easiest reading for people who only know the characters from the best-selling graphic novel section of their local Barnes and Noble. We see comics so enamored with specific points in the past that the vast majority of comic history is ignored and overlooked. And many fans have exacerbated this effect by choosing only to acknowledge that which fits into their limited perspective. The Dark Knight Returns shook things up, it reminded us of key factors we never knew or had chosen to forget. It acknowledges the complex and contradictory statements of comic book history. The Joker is merely a crook and a prankster…except he’s killed over 800 people. Batman doesn’t use a gun…except for all the times he does. Superman doesn’t kill…except for all the times he has. In between all of Miller’s panel busting images and talking heads is this through line: nothing based on a rigid statute can thrive without being upset from time to time. Superheroes, like politics, like religions, must change and make us question if they are to survive. We don’t have to like the changes or interpretations, or agree that it’s the best possible version, but we should allow those avenues to be taken. So if there’s anything left to take from The Dark Knight Returns, it’s that we should allow for controversial takes, allow for bold creator-owned visions, and allow ourselves to question evolving purpose and intent, because if we do we might once again find ourselves in the midst of a storytelling revolution and comic age to call our own.
Featured Image: Frank Miller (DC Comics)