The Dark Knight Returns is widely known as one of the best Batman stories of all time, colouring almost all interpretations of the character since. Over the subsequent years and various creators we’ve seen Bruce go through the wringer, including being crippled, replaced and lost in time and space. But despite this, Frank Miller’s alternate future story of Batman coming out of retirement still retains the power and excitement it had when it was first released.
In the beginning of the story we find an older Bruce Wayne, years after the Batman’s retirement yet still troubled by the crime on the streets of Gotham. As the early part of the book progresses we watch as Bruce broods on his past and the circumstances that led to the creation of Batman. This isn’t new territory for Miller, having already explored Batman’s origins with Dave Mazuchelli in Year One, but it helps to set up the epic tone of the story and keeps Batman’s last adventure accessible to new readers. As can be expected, this is a Batman book after all, and Bruce gives in to his alter ego and resumes the role of caped vigilante.
Over the course of the book we’ll be introduced to a newer and darker Gotham. Technology may have advanced, but the depravity men can succumb to hasn’t changed and Gotham’s only gotten worse in Batman’s absence. A new gang, called the Mutants is running rampant while Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement. Batman will of course confront this new threat, but in addition to that he’ll also be facing villains from his past. Along the way he’ll find help from old allies and recruit new ones, including a girl named Carrie who’ll assume the mantle of Robin. You’re already probably familiar with the story (and if not, this is a blessing I will not spoil), so I won’t go into the major plot points. What matters is that the book is incredible, befitting Batman’s last adventure and Miller tells it with such a style that it feels absolutely epic.
Miller does a good job of updating the readers to the new world, with basics being laid out fairly elegantly in the first few pages and then slowly trickling out to the readers as the story progresses. A large section of narrative takes place in the media, both in setting up the future world as well as relaying the public’s conflicting opinions on the events of the book. This is one of the central concepts of the book, not only looking at Batman’s return, but also at how the city and it’s people react to it. Thankfully while some sections do seem dated and not really viable TV in the modern age, most of it remains news anchors and actually seems quite current in the day of the 24-hour newschannel. Characters feel emotional and like real people, despite the fact that they may only be talking heads on a newscast or victims and criminals.
The cast that appears in the twilight of Batmans’ career is carefully chosen. The villains are picked perfectly, including both batman’s greatest nemesis in the Joker and his greatest failure in Two-face. In Gordon and Alfred we find his most stalwart companions and confidants. In Clark we find both his greatest rival and friend, both of them driving the other to greater heights. Most importantly in Carrie, a new Robin after all those years, we find the underlying hope that drives Batman and justifies his darkness.
Miller’s art is restrained in the book compared to the more stylized noir work he’s known for recently in Sin City. This restraint works wonders though, buttoning up Bruce in the beginning of the story only to see the art grown looser and more kinetic as Batman does battle with the Mutants, his villains and eventually his greatest rivals. Miller’s interpretation of these characters distills a lot of what makes them iconic, making them easily recognizable as the characters we’ve grown up with despite the dust and age.
Miller isn’t alone in creating this masterpiece though, with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley both playing important roles. Janson supplies inks suited to Miller’s pencils and Varley’s colours provide the perfect palette to one of the Dark Knight’s final adventures. The book begins with washed out scenes, matching a city that’s slowly been leeched of life and in the middle of a heat wave. Day-to-day living in Gotham seems an oppressive solitude and the sapped colours reflect this grey existence as much as they reflect the grey in Bruce’s years. That is, until Batman does make his return in a flash of lightning and Gotham just seems more vibrant even though it’s night time.
Batman returns as rainfall breaks the heatwave, one of the high moments of the book mirrored symbolically in the environment. There are a few high points like this spread throughout the volume that will resonate with longtime Batman readers. All of these events combine with Miller’s accessible future Gotham to truly make the book seem like the epic conclusion to a long career of crime fighting. By looking back on the first important memories of Batman’s career, memories that any fan will be familiar with, we do feel the age in Bruce during the beginning of the book. To see him return as the Bat really does feel like the culmination of a long wait, desperately needed by Gotham.
In the end, the most important aspect of the book is Miller’s nuanced understanding of who Batman and Bruce are. He understands both aspects of the man and what drives him. It’s odd to say this, especially since Miller’s recent work is all but subtle, yet the way he treats Bruce and Batman is layered and will go on to colour future interpretations of the characters as long as they exist. A surprising amount of the book is taken up by Bruce brooding, especially in the beginning, reflecting on the world that’s grown up around him and the inspiration that drove his crusade so long ago. A lot of time is spent in flashbacks during the early pages and, as stories tend to be circular, we need to visit the beginning before we can get to the end. Miller explores the core guilt and tragic anger that drive Bruce to become Batman in the first place and the core values of his personality that make him take up the mantle again. This, along with Miller’s collaboration with Mazuchelli in Batman:Year One form perfect bookends to the career of the Caped Crusader and create the core personality that subsequent writers have continued to use for Batman over the years.