The Projects: The Amateur Comic, Vol. 1 – The Dark Knight Returns

Dark_knight_returnsBy Jeremy. Full Disclosure: I am a nerd and am completely comfortable owning that label. Everyone should be a bit nerdy; it’s a necessary component for being a well-rounded person. There has always existed a stigma around being a nerd, but recently (meaning the last 3-4 years) it has become quite cool to be nerdy.

Television shows like Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead have broken down the wall and now are fixtures in mainstream media. Historically, the genres of these shows, fantasy and zombies, have been regarded as nerdy. Now the masses have adopted them. The trend is even more prevalent in theatrical films; the popularity of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies prove that fantasy stories have become cool. And there is a larger steam engine that is driving this movement — comic book movies. Comic books are dominating the box office and this trend is not going to stop any time soon. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, The Avengers, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past have completely redefined what is popular at the box office. With Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment, it is expected that comic book movies will continue to dominate.

“The book was better than the movie.” This statement is common whenever a film attempts to recreate the same experience as the book. I remember reading comic books as a kid, but I only had the ability to read issues sporadically. My first exposure to comic book films was Tim Burton’s Batman and I had no frame of reference. I walked away from the film ignorant of the accuracy of the story. Does one really need to understand the original material in order to be entertained? With those questions still in mind, I’ve decided to conduct an experiment: I am submersing myself into reading nothing but comic books for the summer.

But where to begin? I’ve scoured the net for what are considered the “best” comic series and graphic novels. And I’ve set a few ground rules. To develop a fair assessment I will do the following:

  • Read a single book/novel/series without beginning another book.
  • Read a book/novel/series within a period of no more than 2 weeks. This is to account for series with multiple issues.
  • Attempt to refrain from comparing novels to other novels. In the event comparisons are made, I will abstain from comparing across genres.
  • Provide a fair analysis.

When you ride roller coasters, do you start with the biggest, fastest coaster? Or do you start small and work your way up? I’m of the opinion that it’s best to start big and therefore set the bar. Ask most comic book enthusiasts for the “best” and they will respond with The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. So that’s where my summer comic book experiment will begin.

There are certain irrefutable truths.

  1. Sean Connery is James Bond.
  2. There are only five Rocky movies.
  3. Batman will forever remain superior to Superman.

For example, take #2. There are in fact only five Rocky movies in the series. (Rocky V simply does not count – for the sake of the series, it is banished). When examining the Rocky series, a definite arc is apparent:

  • Rocky – The amateur (underdog) fighter takes on the champ and ultimately loses. He ultimately fights for his pride.
  • Rocky II – The amateur returns and is triumphant. The amateur assumes the role of hero.
  • Rocky III – The hero faces adversity but ultimately is triumphant.
  • Rocky IV – The hero faces more adversity and still triumphs.
  • Rocky V – As previously discussed, this film never happened
  • Rocky Balboa – The hero has retired. He struggles with his place in life and eagerly awaits an opportunity to return to the familiar. The hero ultimately is provided the opportunity only to come up short – but he proves to himself he can still do it.

What the Rocky series does — and that most comic book films neglect to do — is tell the story of the hero who is past his prime. There is a mass appeal to the amateur story and more importantly the hero in his prime. But audiences are simply not interested, it would appear, in stories where the superhero must face his own limitations (old age). Strange that the same rule doesn’t necessarily apply to athletes; fans ultimately gravitate towards athletes that are nearing their end of their career. Want some examples?

  • Kurt Warner was 37 when he led the 2008 Arizona Cardinals to a near victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
  • John Elway was 37 (& 38) years old when winning back-to-back Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos.
  • After his first retirement and the delusion he could play Major League Baseball (there is only one Bo Jackson), Michael Jordan returned to the NBA to lead the Chicago Bulls to a second three-peat.

Success at, or past, one’s prime is possible but the odds are slim; but that’s where there is a compelling story.

DKR01A superhero past his prime: that’s the foundation for Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries, The Dark Knight Returns. Considered to be part of the holy trinity of graphic novels (the others being Watchmen and The Sandman), The Dark Knight Returns directs its focus to an aging Bruce Wayne who has retired from his career as Batman. Before I delve into an analysis of Miller’s masterpiece, I believe it’s necessary to start with the wider Batman mythology.

Since Bob Kane created Batman in 1939, an entire mythology has evolved — not just for the character, but also for Gotham and all who reside within its mythological walls. At its core, the Batman story is dark in nature. A boy falls into a well that happens to be a cave. The cave is filled with bats and the flying rodents swarm the young boy. Later in the story he witnesses a hoodlum gun down his parents. It is the combination of these events that prompts him to assume the identity of Batman. While the elements of this story have seen numerous revisions since the inception of the character, an apparent darkness remains.

So where does The Dark Knight Returns fall on the timeline of Batman stories? To determine this, one must look at some of the various representations of the character.

Batman Timeline

Bob Kane’s original Batman fell on the darker side of comics for the time period. Given the “pulp” nature of those comics, Batman embodied a character that showed little restraint when dealing with criminals. It was not uncommon for him to kill or severely maim if necessary. batman1930s

Nearly ten years later Batman was reproduced in movie serials, and later in the 1960s Adam West television series. Despite the dark nature established by Kane’s creation, these incarnations initiated the transition to a comical (clownish) representation. The 1960s Batman served its purpose and is well known; however, the essence of the Batman origin, on screen and in the comics, was abandoned.

batman1950s batman1950s-2 batman1950s-3 batman1950s-4

In an effort to return to Batman’s roots, director Tim Burton revived Kane’s darker vision for his 1989 movie version. Burton ultimately embraced Batman’s tragic roots and weaved it into the film. But while the darkness remained, the movie still integrated some comic elements (Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker) to preserve a light-hearted appearance. Like Rocky V, 1995 through 1997 are completely lost. The producer who allowed Joel Schumacher to take the lead on Batman Forever and Batman & Robin should be banned from filmmaking. Both of these films are recreations of the television series, but without Adam West. Luckily, eight years later, Christopher Nolan would revive Batman. Without going into detail, Nolan correctly interpreted the story. His trilogy minimized the comic book element and placed the mythology in the “real” world. The films are dark and correctly convey the torment felt by the character. Nolan got it spot on.

Alright, done with the history. So where does Frank Miller’s story fit into this timeline (not chronologically, but rather thematically)? The Dark Knight Returns possesses both the dark nature of Nolan’s Batman and an element of absurdity. What is interesting is that the absurdity works.

Batman is retired and 55 years old. Gotham has gone to hell and is overrun with crime and corruption. A gang referred to as the Mutants have assumed control of Gotham — or are attempting to. The Mutants’ visors are a cross between Geordi from Star Trek: The Next Generation and a Cylon (not Tricia Helfer – the sexy blonde) from Battlestar Galactica and they have dentures made of shark teeth. Needless to say, Bruce is restless. Like Brett Favre, who simply could not walk away, Bruce opts to suit up once again.

What follows is the Cliff’s Notes version:

  • Upon coming out of retirement, Bruce must face Harvey Dent (Two Face), who has been “cured” of his dual personality. This ends up being false when Dent holds the city ransom with a bomb. Batman defeats Dent.
  • Batman rescues a 13-year-old girl, Carrie Kelly, who buys a Robin costume and proceeds to be Bruce’s sidekick.dkr04
  • Magically, the Joker awakes from a catatonic state because he senses Batman’s presence. Oddly, the Joker resembles a green-haired David Bowie. He escapes via manipulation and kills numerous people. Batman and Robin track him down. A fight ensues and Batman nearly kills him; but to turn the tables on Bruce, the Joker snaps his own neck. This is done in the hopes of framing Batman for murder.dkr03
  • Batman becomes the enemy of the Gotham police.
  • Batman continues to fight the Mutants. He is beat a couple of times and damages his aging body. Like Brett Favre, he does not take the hint and continues to risk his life.
  • A nuclear explosion (which Superman fails to prevent) starts a nuclear winter in Gotham. As if he were Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Batman rides a horse and rallies the Mutants into a non-lethal army that works to thwart looters and ensure essential supplies to the people of Gotham.dkr05
  • Batman is considered an enemy of the state and the president orders Superman to take him out. Bruce alters his suit with technology to fight Clark Kent. A fight ensues…they trade punches…Batman kicks Superman’s ass. During the fight, Bruce seemingly suffers a heart attack and dies.dkr06
  • Alfred dies of a stroke after Bruce’s funeral.
  • Bruce, having faked his death, rallies an army back at the Batcave with the goal of continuing to fight crime.dkr10

There are elements of this story that might seem absurd but are warranted. For example, Batman wields guns (hell, at one point he uses a sniper rifle), or rides a horse later in the series. These seem ridiculous but work within the confines of the story. Bruce has aged and the stealth element is now difficult. His tools/toys become primitive. If he wants to play the game he must lower his standards when necessary. What is compelling is the intense desire that Bruce possess. It is the desire to embody what he once was.

dkr08Miller’s presentation is unique and his use of the television talk show advances the story. There were times where I found this format to be distracting and I hoped that the next page would adhere to a standard comic book format. The artwork embodies Miller’s personal style and is present thorough the entire series.

Given that there was the opportunity to develop an entirely new villain, I was let down by the Mutant characters. Overall I enjoyed the story and initially longed for the classic villains instead of the Mutants, but I had to remember that the core of the story focuses on a retired Bruce Wayne. The introduction of Harvey Dent seemed unnecessary and fleeting. His role in the story gave the appearance that it was an afterthought.

dkr09The characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne was spot on. To witness a superhero past his prime was compelling and further supported a belief that Batman is the best of the best. Since Bruce is a real person the reader has the opportunity to age with him. He is not frozen in time. He is not invincible. He cannot fly. He has no super power. He is simply a man with lots of money, toys, and an unresolved past.

So should The Dark Knight Returns be part of the holy trinity of comic books? From my current knowledge, I can see it in the top five. It is hard when my knowledge of comic books is limited. What I can determine is that it is unique and holds a special place among the best.

*[Author’s Note: Since reading The Dark Knight Returns, I was informed that there is a modern cartoon based upon this comic. I have earmarked it and plan on viewing it soon.]

7 thoughts on “The Projects: The Amateur Comic, Vol. 1 – The Dark Knight Returns

  1. TDKR is definitely my favorite graphic novel, and its such an artifact of its times — with all the 80s Reagan imagery and the way it portrays urban decline and the rise of gangs into something so much scarier than what actually happened. Aside from the “superhero past his prime” angle, which is obviously the centerpiece, I really love how this story changed the whole relationship between Batman and Superman into one that’s mostly antagonistic. That was revolutionary at its time, but when you stop and think about it, it’s ridiculous that nobody had thought of it before. Superman is the boy scout; Batman is the reckless vigilante. There’s no way they’d get along!

    The other fascinating thing is how Miller finally addresses one of the themes that had been running through Batman comics since day one: Batman’s decision to never kill the Joker, and the consequences of it. He basically lets us know that Batman plans to finally reverse that decision, even though the Joker takes it out of his hands. I’ve always found it fascinating that Batman comics set up this moral dilemma as so sacrosanct, and how we all buy it as the correct choice — when in real life, or even in other comics like Marvel, killing the villain is totally acceptable and sort of makes more sense.

  2. I agree with just about everything in Jeremy’s analysis and Spencer’s response. The Dark Knight Returns definitely broke important new ground for mainstream comics in a number of ways, and it was for the most part a compelling story. The Watchmen also explores the unique theme of heroes past their prime (among other things), fyi. And like pretty much everyone, I do highly recommend Sandman with the caveat that the first graphic novel is just okay, but it keeps getting better and better from there. (Neil Gaiman was clearly learning the medium as he wrote.) For what it’s worth, I think some of the other greatest collections ever now include:

    Y the Last Man
    Astonishing X-Men (the Joss Whedon run)
    Civil War (by Marvel, not a lame re-enactment put together every weekend by your distant cousins that still think Jefferson Davis had some good ideas)
    Kingdom Come

    More recent great stuff includes:

    Astro City
    All-New X-Men
    Young Avengers (both the original run and the just-completed one)
    Iron Man (the Matt Fraction run)
    Thor: God of Thunder
    Wolverine & the X-Men (the Jason Aaron run)
    Uncanny X-Force (the Rick Remender run)

    The last one should’ve been terrible based on the name alone, but it was amazing. You can’t go wrong with any of these titles, unless you have awful taste.

  3. Adam – I read all of the New Avengers series and now have come around and am reading the Civil War Saga. I have both Fables and Astonishing X-Men on the tablet ready to go next.

    You both make good points that I wish that I would have focused on a bit more…I did find the Reagan portions to be quite humorous and well portrayed. When it comes to the relationship between Superman and Batman (pre TDKR) I simply did not understand why it was assumed they were buddies. Yes, they both fight “crime” but have completely different ideologies. In the upcoming movie I am curious how long they will allow the “versus” portion to remain prevalent.

  4. I’m disappointed you failed to cover the really big questions, Jeremy. Like this one, from Drew Magary’s Deadspin mailbag:

    “How does the Joker eat? Not “how does he physically eat,” but “where/when does he eat”? I mean, he’s still a human being (albeit in makeup) and needs to eat to live, but when he’s on the run from the law/Batman and all of Gotham knows what he looks like, it’s not like he can go to the grocery store or Chipotle and pick something up. Even without the makeup on, his facial scarring would give him away if he tried to go incognito. Note: I’m thinking of the Heath Ledger version of the Joker who’s totally a solo act (not the Nicholson version where he has henchmen who could run errands for him).”

  5. Spencer, I think you could do a whole best-selling graphic novel just answering this question. Brian Michael Bendis should write it in his eventual DC debut (after he’s finished writing every Marvel Comic that has existed or will ever exist, per his current contract, I think.)

    Jeremy – Jonathan Hickman’s doing some really interesting stuff with his current New Avengers run. Highly recommended if you aren’t already reading it, but the aforementioned Bendis’s recently completed 8-year run really put the Avengers back on the map. I’m honestly not sure there would’ve been a viable movie franchise without it.

  6. Adam,

    Finished the New Avengers last week. I loved it and it prompted me to read the Civil War saga. When reading these great stories it makes we wonder why Marvel Entertainment (Disney) would not take more of these story lines and integrate them into a film. Personally I find them to be much more engaging than the current offerings.

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