Retrospective: The Dark Knight Returns

Posted on: January 26th, 2012

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The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of a middle-aged Batman who comes out of retirement to fight crime, only to face opposition from the Gotham City police force and the United States government.




As anyone who’s read comics in the last ten years with any degree of seriousness will know, 1986 was the year that everything changed for the industry and indeed the readership. The Secret Wars and Cosmic Odyssey’s that had paved the way into bold new universes and lasted through the hard times of comics code crackdowns and the witch-hunts of the 50′s were soon to be replaced, as a new spirit took hold of the comic’s zeitgeist.

Years of brightly clad heroes entwined in socially relevant, yet colorful antics gave way to a darkness that was borne of Reagan Era corporatism, the inception of the ‘nanny state’, the culmination of cold war politics that had loomed from the 50′s red menace onwards and the social austerity that had birthed the punks and would pave the way for mod’s, blue beat electro, synth and eventually grunge, the generational voice that would be the last of the 20th century.

This darkness came in the form of comics that weren’t only relevant (Denny O’Neil and Neal Adam’s had shown the world the real life harrows years before with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and while Siegel and Shusters socialist Man of Steel was gone he was not forgotten) but reminded us of the power that they once so mightily wielded. While Alan Moore’s Watchmen might have been the dream of utopian solidarity from the roots of a long forgotten cause, it was Frank Millers return to a character so engrained in the popular mythology that to ignore his impact would be difficult, to ignore his reemergent relevance; Impossible!

The Dark Knight Returns came in 1986 as the brain child of Frank Miller and Dick Giordano and is a dark and powerful allegory of the times that birthed it. The 1980′s warts and all, given outlet through the most pure of mediums: the comic book. Miller wasn’t in deep with the tough guy dialogue just yet. There’s touches of what later would become his cliche trademark gruff, but in this story every character has a distinct voice, not just running parodies of Hammet or Chandler, but of Miller at his cynical peak. Bruce Wayne’s an old man now, lived long enough to enjoy the wine and the lie of his alter-ego. But there’s a beast in the cellar and as his city, a dilapidated crime riddled Gotham begins to cave in around him, that beast grows louder.

Jim Gordon is a man who’s seen Gotham at it’s worst and lived through the war years. Due for retirement, he’s watched Gotham fall from grace once more, and without a dark avenger, the necessity of which he realizes all too well, he fears his last days will be his worst. The mutant threat hangs on every street corner, people are afraid, money is scarce, the financial climate is volatile and the youth are disenfranchised. The beast grows louder in Bruce Wayne’s cellar. A window smashes, a creature dark and fierce and primal cuts through the night. A legend was once born, and now a hero returns.

To say this book is a hard edged look at the world through the medium of fiction is one thing, but it’s most powerful elements are steeped in the modern mythology it inspires. Batman’s reemergence is akin to Dirty Harry’s in Sudden Impact (Miller claimed the film was a direct inspiration), an aged crime fighter returning uncertain to a climate he once dominated. Things have changed, the world has changed, but Batman’s universal relevance; a force of good that metes out a justice only boasted at by the courts is the sort of socially just vigilantism that people can never have enough of.

The nanny state has sanitized the superhero, the world is wracked by war while the populace are fed saccharine propaganda from a proselytizing president. Where have all the heroes gone in this crumbling global metropolis? So when a 55 year old crime fighter returns from the shadows it is with a degree of euphoria that we realise we have not forgotten them. They were with us all along, and reading DKR is akin to remembering what you loved about comics, and re-finding it. With this book it’s the return of the kind of old school heroism, our love of such symbolic gestures and how some concepts, while tainted and forgotten can never really die.

But things are no longer so simple. Tackling his returned foes like Two Face – Harvey Dent and The Joker, Miller looks at the other side of the coin, the modern quack route of politically correct apologists and two bit shrinks that populated the 80′s and continue to poison our culture with warped rationalism all in the name of the dollar. But the question of Batman as a catalyst and culprit for his deadliest foes murderous behavior is a good one, and the writer doesn’t dodge it. Nor does he wince at questioning Bat’s use of a teenage side-kick, with the new female anti-Batman commissioner Ellen Yindel (taking over from a reluctant Gordon) accusing him of reckless child endangerment.

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