Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (commonly abbreviated to DKR) is a Batman tale written and drawn by Frank Miller and published by DC Comics from February to June 1986. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is especially notable as the series that dispels Batman's former campy image, a result of the 1960s television series and for pitting Batman and his former ally Superman against one another. It is also the penultimate story in Miller's Dark Knight Universe.
DKR was originally published as a four-issue limited series in a then-new printing format called prestige format. This format later became more common. In addition to Frank Miller's story and pencils, Klaus Janson inks, and Lynn Varley provides colors for the series. Just as the characters of Norse mythology have their Ragnarok, Frank Miller sought to create a fitting end for the character of Batman.
DKR takes place in a timeline outside the continuity of the DC Universe, but is still considered at least partially faithful to the source material and Batman mythos at the time it debuted, as it makes use of Post-Crisis characters. Certain elements of the main DC Universe did eventually come to match Miller's tale, most notably some of the backstory of the series. For example, Miller's Batman is haunted by the death of Robin, and later the character's lack of popularity led to the A Death in the Family story, where Robin (Jason Todd) is killed by the Joker. Also, an explanation of how Miller's Green Arrow's lost arm is used, although in this latter case, continuity deviates somewhat from DKR.
Batman has retired from the Batman mantle after the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Ten years pass, during which Gotham City is overwhelmed with crime and plagued by a violent gang called "The Mutants." Bruce re-assumes the mantle of Batman after he encounters Mutant gangs in the alley where his parents were murdered. Batman is aided in fighting this menace by a new Robin, a young girl named Carrie Kelly.
Batman eventually confronts Harvey Dent, who has once again become Two-Face despite having his scars repaired long ago, and threatens to blow up Gotham’s twin towers. Batman stops Two-Face and discovers that even though Dent has been physically rehabilitated, psychologically he is still Two-Face. Meanwhile Commissioner Gordon, at age seventy, is forced to retire due to his age. He is replaced by Ellen Yindel, a fierce critic of Batman.
Batman discovers that a United States Army general had been supplying the Mutants with military weapons in exchange for cash. When Batman confronts him, the general confesses and justifies his actions by saying he needs to help his sick wife. However, the general’s conscience is still eating away at him and he eventually commits suicide in front of Batman. Batman then drives a new, fortified version of the Batmobile to the Mutants’ meeting ground at the city dump. He fights the Mutants' leader in hand-to-hand combat, and he is badly injured. Only Carrie's quick intervention saves him. As they head back to the Batcave, Carrie tends to Batman’s wounds. Batman recovers quickly and allows Carrie to become the new Robin.
The Mutant Leader has still threatened to unleash his army on the city, so the Mayor tries to negotiate with him in jail. The Leader then kills the Mayor by ripping his throat out with his teeth. Batman and Carrie infiltrate their ranks and spread a rumor that the Leader wants an assembly. Batman then asks Commissioner Gordon to allow the Leader to escape from jail and draws him to a mud-hole, where the Dark Knight finally defeats him in front of the other mutants. A number of the Mutants accept Batman as their leader and take the name 'the Sons of Batman'; the remainder splinter into small gangs.
Batman’s greatest nemesis, the Joker, re-emerges after having been catatonic for 10 years, his catatonia breaking when he discovers that Batman has returned to Gotham. He convinces the doctors at Arkham Asylum that he is sane and deserves to be released. Once free, he appears on a late night talk show as a PR stunt. When Batman shows up, he is forced to battle the police force while the Joker releases a cloud of Joker venom on the audience and escapes, and Batman and Robin chase after him. The Joker heads to Selina Kyle’s place, and forces her (now running an escort service) to plant special lipstick with the power of suggestion on two of her prostitutes, who are being sent as escorts for a congressman and the governor. As a result of the Joker's actions, the congressman commits suicide, but Commissioner Yindel, due to Batman's warning, saves the governor. The Joker then beats her and dresses her up as Wonder Woman. He caps off his rampage by killing a group of 16 Cub Scouts and planting a bomb on a fairway; Robin defuses the bomb.
Batman chases after the Joker as they run through the fair; during the chase the Joker kills several people and Batman manages to gouge one of the Joker's eyes. Eventually, the two confront each other, ironically, in the tunnel of love. Despite being stabbed several times during their struggle, an enraged Batman finally breaks the Joker's neck, but stops short of killing him. Taunting Batman as a coward, Joker twists his head until the remainder of his spine snaps, committing suicide in order to frame Batman for murder.
The Sons of Batman have become vigilantes, maintaining law and order with force. Batman decides to train them to fight crime with non-lethal methods. Meanwhile, a Russian built nuke goes off, blocking out the sun and shutting off electronics in the US. Batman and the Sons restore order in Gotham, but soon, the Government dispatches Superman to take down Batman, as he undermines their authority. However, Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, who is now a one-armed revolutionary, warns Batman of the Government’s plans. Batman begins preparing for his battle against Superman and is equipped with a powerful suit of armor, sonic blaster, a mysterious pill and synthetic Kryptonite which he had spent years developing.
Batman and Superman engage in a powerful battle, and, when Queen shoots Superman using an arrowhead loaded with Batman's synthetic Kryptonite, Batman emerges the winner. However, Batman dies of a heart attack shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Alfred Pennyworth detonates bombs that he and Batman had deliberately planted in the Batcave for just this purpose, and destroys Wayne Manor. Alfred suffers a stroke and dies almost immediately afterward. Bruce Wayne’s secret identity as Batman quickly becomes public knowledge, but his accounts have been emptied and his stocks and funds have already been sold. His body was claimed by "a distant cousin, his only living relative" (which is actually Carrie Kelly in disguise). With the Batcave and Wayne Manor destroyed, there is no solid evidence as to how he carried out his dual lives, or of Batman's methods.
At the funeral, Superman hears a heart beat inside the coffin and, after looking at Carrie, winks at her and leaves. Carrie later digs up Bruce’s body and it is revealed that he faked his death with the pill. Bruce Wayne now begins a new life, leading Robin, Green Arrow, and his new army through unexplored tunnels beyond the Batcave, preparing for a new war against the corrupt government.
- Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, 55 years old. He gave up the Batman identity ten years past, strongly hinted as a reaction to the death of the former Robin, Jason Todd. But when he sees violence running rampant and his personal demons can no longer be denied, he is forced to return.
- Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne's trusted butler and assistant, now in his 80's. He dies of a stroke at the end of the book.
- Robin, aka Carrie Kelley, 13 years old. She becomes Robin, and is accepted by the Batman after saving his life.
- James Gordon, Commissioner of the Gotham Police, 70 years old. He retires towards the end of the storyline.
- Two-Face, aka now middle-aged Harvey Dent, whose face is reconstructed with plastic surgery, but is still Two-Face in his mind and cannot refrain from criminal acts.
- The Joker as an elderly catatonic prisoner of Arkham Asylum. He becomes a criminal again when he sees Batman's return, and sets in motion a final confrontation with the hero.
- The Mutant Leader, head of a gang of teens called the "Mutants," who terrorize Gotham. The leader is a strong, savage brute who puts a hit on Gordon, beats Batman in their first encounter, goes to jail, kills the mayor (while still in jail), escapes, and is eventually beaten by Batman. Several of the Mutants join Batman in his quest and rename themselves The Sons Of Batman.
- Sons Of Batman (S.O.B.), a group of teenagers. They have become followers of Batman, although they are too unruly and corrupt, taking severe measures to control the streets and even Batman. They end up following Batman for good intentions instead of bad.
- Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, the Joker's psychiatrist and staunch opponent of Batman's "fascist" vigilantism. Wolper is convinced that the Joker is really the victim of Batman's crusades, but he ends up murdered by his patient on a late night talk show.
- Ellen Yindel, James Gordon's successor. She starts off as Batman's fiercest opponent, but doubts herself after the Joker debacle (part 3) and is strongly hinted to protect him from prosecution at the end of the book.
- Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen. He has undertaken a clandestine career of terrorism against government oppression. He lost his left arm years ago and has a grudge against Superman because of that.
- Superman, aka Clark Kent, a military super-agent for the United States government. He has agreed to stay out of sight and do as he's told, and in exchange he is allowed to continue saving lives. His very existence seems to be a bit of a taboo subject: when incidents involving him are reported on the TV news, the main newscaster is constantly prevented from naming or making distinctive references to the Man of Steel. Unlike Batman, who is now middle-aged, Superman has remained (at least physically) in his early to mid-thirties. According to Miller, '"Superman has always been 30 and will always be 30."'
- Catwoman, aka Selina Kyle, now runs an escort service.
- Lana Lang, TV broadcaster and fierce defender of Batman's vigilantism.
Upon its publication, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns turned the comic book industry on its ear. It helped to introduce an era of more adult-oriented storytelling to the mainstream world of superhero comic books, and it received media attention the likes of which had never been seen before in a medium long believed to be little more than children's entertainment.
This story, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen (published in the same year) and Art Spiegelman's Maus, helped to raise the medium to a more mature level of literature, and it ushered in the popularity of graphic novels as a form of literature that truly differs from "child-oriented comic books." Critics have accused this story of giving birth to the era of "grim and gritty" comic books that lasted from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, when comic books took many adult-oriented themes (especially explicit violence and sexual content) to "the limits of decency." Although the Batman has rarely been as obsessive and powerful a figure as Miller depicts him here, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was tremendously influential; since the work was originally published, Miller's portrayal of the character as a dark and compulsive figure has dominated most Batman projects to at least some degree. This includes the 1989 Batman film directed by Tim Burton which drew upon Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (as well as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke) as a major influence. Some have criticized Dark Knight for eventually causing Batman to become a "psycho" in mainstream DC continuity (which is how some view him today), but it is important to note that in the context of the story, Batman's extreme and obsessive actions are a direct result of his overcompensating for his guilt over giving up his life as Batman ten years ago and thus breaking his childhood vow to wage war against crime.
Another innovation is the way in which the superheroes address one another by name (i.e. as "Bruce", "Clark" or "Oliver"). The U.S. officials always refer to Superman as "Kent." The name "Superman" is never even used in the story. The super-heroes look upon their relationship with ordinary humans as a "them" and "us" situation, and Batman is criticized for not realizing "how they've changed!" This us versus them mentality that is developed amongst the super-heroes is a theme that is widespread and used in several other comics, most notably Kingdom Come. Another controversial criticism is that Dick Grayson, the first Robin and the current Nightwing, is not included in the storyline at all. Miller has stated that he wanted it to focus entirely on Batman and those around him. Dick is mentioned but he and Bruce are not on speaking terms.
However, Miller's innovations were not solely limited to characterization. He adopted innovative visual styles and "tricks," many adapted from movies (especially film noir). These included dividing pages into many more frames than usual to give the impression of slow motion (possibly the best comic book interpretation of Thomas and Martha Wayne's murders is achieved by this technique). Also, Miller contrasts many smaller frames against grand backdrops of Batman leaping or brooding over the cityscape; creates "montages" of fast-paced events through rapidly changing commentators, alternated with snippets of the actions being described and builds suspense to the appearance of classic characters by hiding their actions and appearance in shadows (not just the first depiction of Batman, but Superman and Green Arrow as well). Miller also heavily featured television "talking heads" throughout the work.
Numerous public figures were blatantly lampooned, including Ronald Reagan, Dr. Ruth and David Letterman, adding to the suspension of disbelief that made the comic not realistic, but an example of the hyper-realism that would later reach its peak in Miller's Sin City. While there is a generic and omniscient narrator, the most important narration comes from inside various character's heads: Batman, Jim Gordon, Robin, Catwoman, Alfred and even the Joker are all opened up to examination.
The trade paperback is one of DC's best selling books and is constantly in print. The book is also available in several hardcover editions. In August 2006, DC Comics released an Absolute Edition of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Absolute Dark Knight includes commentary and scripts by Frank Miller, as well as an extended sketch section.
In 2001 and 2002, DC Comics published Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller's controversial sequel to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Despite a heavy promotional campaign by the publisher, the book failed to gain the same acceptance from some fans that the original story received. The sequel, which differs drastically in style from the original, received mixed reviews but was one of DC's biggest selling titles of the time. An "Absolute Dark Knight" version of this series was published as well.
Despite generally positive critical reaction to Miller's art styles, fan commentary has been mixed; some have praised the works for their unique looks, while others have lamented the more stylized visuals.
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #2
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #3
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #4
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- No special notes.
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- Batman: Year One
- All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder
- Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again
- Holy Terror, Batman!
Links and References
- The complete works of Frank Miller
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again discussed at sequart.com
- A detailed analysis of the series
- The Religious Affiliation of Characters in The Dark Knight Returns
- Gotham City Batman Site
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