There are a few definite must haves of any comic book collection, and The Dark Knight Returns is one of them. Not only is it a classic worthy of any serious comic book fan’s collection but it is also a great starting point for “getting serious” about comics. This is because it is one of those rare tomes of popular culture that actually have something to say about the conditions in which we humans strive to survive and even though Frank Miller penned it in 1985-1986, the feel of the book, the rebellious and revolutionary tone, is just as relevant and striking today.
The Dark Knight Returns is a great introduction into the Batman universe. This may seem a strange thing for a book that is set in the near future towards the end of Batman’s life and ten years after he has retired; but as the novel reads like a review of Batman’s whole life at times, it is excellent in providing the novice reader with an insight into the Batman psyche. Not only do you learn much about the troubled spirit of Bruce Wayne and his struggles with his demon within, but the relationships between Batman, Jim Gordon, Two-Face, The Joker and, most notably, Superman are exposed in all their complexity. As a result, not one character in this book could be described as two-dimensional, as they are all explored through their interactions with Batman – who it seems is the nexus point of Miller’s dystopian future. What also makes it more accessible is that little prior knowledge of the Batman history is needed to make sense of the graphic novel. References to Jason Todd – Batman’s second ill-fated Robin (the mutant leader’s use of a crowbar just before the new Robin débuts appears to be a prescient coincidence) – may stump the newcomer but will not diminish or hinder understanding of the novel as a whole.
The Dark Knight Returns was and is a book very much of its time. The cold war overtones are overwhelming and the threat of nuclear war between Russia and America– to which Superman is America’s deterrent – is always present. Whereas currently the cold war is supposedly over (with Russia anyway – one thinks of Iran…), the most striking resonances with today’s society lie in the depiction of poverty and the marginalised youth of Miller’s vision of the near future. Deep in the dark pits of the recession as we now are and with the riots of last August still within our consciousness, the idea of a Batman, a common man with the resources of a billionaire who will not stand for injustice in any of its forms, is one hell of an attractive prospect. Miller’s pits his Batman in direct opposition to the conservative, political puppet of Miller’s Superman. The opposition of these two characters is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel and culminates in climax which does not disappoint. But no spoilers here!
In today’s world the media is inescapable and Miller’s use of television screens and sexed-up news seems almost prescient. The portrayal of a very Ronald-Reaganesque President only heightens the whole novel’s distrust of authority figures and taps into the ever-present distrust of politicians in the real world. Miller understands the dis-satisfaction that everyone at some point feels with the powers that be and it is this that makes this graphic novel a classic.
Now a few words about the artwork. Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley have created exactly the right atmosphere for Miller’s writing. Dark, muted colours and scratchy, sketchy lines have the effect of creating a dangerous, dirty and real world. While Janson’s art is at times unattractive, it is exactly this which makes it perfect for Miller’s world. Looking at the pages makes you feel uncomfortable, the artwork with its imperfections denies aesthetic pleasure. The sketchy haphazard lines and meticulously wrinkled faces show this world, this comic book fantasy world, with all its warts on display, with its pants down. But you can’t imagine another artist drawing graphic novel, because the artwork is so exactly right for the message of the writing.
I urge you to buy and read this graphic novel and if you have already done so, read it again. It is a mark of any great work of literature that it stands the test of time and is relevant whenever it is read; Miller and Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns is a shining example of such a piece.