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The International Writers Magazine: Comic Life

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Publisher: DC Comics
Written By: Frank Miller 1986
Art By: Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson

Stephen Doyle

The Dark Knight Returns is long considered to be one of ‘the’ graphic novels to be read. It is often held in high regard alongside Watchmen, Maus and The Sandman as an example of comic book storytelling at it’s best, and the graphic novel as a medium with maturity and weight to it’s stories.

The main difference though, is that it concerns Batman, a character from popular culture who almost anyone will be familiar with, rather than a ‘stand alone’ character or story.

However, the Batman of The Dark Knight Returns is not the campy 60’s and 70’s brightly coloured ‘caped crusader’. This is an altogether darker character Frank Miller paints for us.

In a possible near-future Gotham City, Bruce Wayne has retired from being Batman after receiving injuries from an accident, as well as having aged substantially. Crime has run rampant, and the police department are helpless to cope, and Bruce is mugged on his way through the city, stirring his feelings into action, and the hunger to take up his mantle once more as The Batman.

Soon, he rejoins his crusade, but quickly begins to find out that a grim and darker kind of world needs a much darker Batman to put it to rights, and he is forced to change his methods to suit, becoming more and more violent and even further outside of societies laws than normal, until he is drawn into and inevitable conflict with the upholders of those laws – who are in themselves corrupt.

Frank Millers’ tale of an aging Batman coming back into action is full of meanings and influences, many of which can still find a lot of relevance today. The subversion of Batman – who was never the most ‘heroic’ of heroes – into a much more dark and threatening figure is both thrilling and frightening to see. As he becomes someone who is willing to go further and further outside of the ‘norms’ of the superheroes we are used to, he justifies each step in cold and rational logic. In the world he fights in, it is hard not to agree with his methods either. And despite this, Miller still keeps the essence of what Batman is there – the detective, with his cunning and sly tricks, bluffing, and psychological insight he has over his foes.

The change in Batman in the story can be seen as the need to change him for the world we live in now. As our world has become more bitter and twisted and a more violent and dangerous place to live in, to keep us safe our protectors have had to change to cope with it, and justify every step to themselves along the way. While the results might keep us safe, we may not necessarily be pleased with what we have left as a result.

While The Dark Knight Returns might not have been written with those ideas in mind, it can be seen as relevant to them in our current day and age, where we see our police and governments having to change to cope with new threats, moving away from a comfortable public face, and more into an ever-present watchful eye, that uses less and less methods we are comfortable with – like Batman in the story.

The Dark Knight Returns holds a lot of relevance and appeal beyond it’s original message, and continues to have a lot to say for any reader, as well as being a most entertaining story.

© Stephen Doyle November 2007

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