Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

1986 was a big year for comic books and graphic novels, with the publication of Art Spiegelman's first volume of Maus, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, three works that have gathered much critical acclaim and commercial success. Each has also had a profound influence on a great number of sequential art works since. A 4-issue limited series, DKR was part of Dick Giordano's plan to put DC Comics at the top of the comics world by hiring the best talents to produce the best works. DKR's status was conveyed by its Prestige format, with thicker, glossier pages and thicker binding. Also, each of the four books cost $2.95, quite a mark-up from the typical 65 cent comics found on newsstands at the time.

DKR takes up a typical trope of DC Comics stories, the glimpse-into-the-future story, except in a much grimmer manner. When this story begins, Bruce Wayne has long given up his mantle as Batman, because of the death of Robin, and lives his life as a drunken, reckless playboy. Gotham City has sunk into a cesspool of crime, chiefly because of a gang called the Mutants, and it is only through a random series of events, which include his enemy Two Face being rehabilitated and released from Arkham Asylum, that he resumes his role as a dark avenger of the night.

In many ways, the story is a response to Ronald Reagan style Republicanism, and it contains a number of references to 1980s popular culture, including Dr. Ruth and David Letterman (when he was still on NBC). As part of the narrative, we see what has happened to a number of other characters, including Superman, the Joker, Catwoman, and Green Arrow, and are introduced to Carrie Kelly, who takes up the role of Robin. DKR was eventually followed by a sequel, 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

At the time of DKR's publication, Frank Miller was one of the hottest artists working in comics, just having come off popular, landmark, definitive work on Marvel Comics' Daredevil and Wolverine. DKR continued his streak of hits, which he extended soon afterward with his Batman: Year One story illustrated by David Mazzucchelli.

Feeling the lure of Hollywood after comic book success, Miller went on to work on the two Robocop sequels, ventures met with less than success, before returning to comics to create the series Martha Washington, Sin City, and 300. He returned to Hollywood after a few years, working in conjunction with Robert Rodriguez to direct Sin City. Today, Miller is perhaps best known for his successes in converting that series as well as 300 into films. Not everything about his recent film career has been peaches and cream, however, as he was also responsible for the movie version of Will Eisner's The Spirit, a critically panned box office failure.

Miller continues to create comics with artist Jim Lee as they collaborate on the sporadically published All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Batman is a character with a long history and different iterations over the decades. For interested readers, here are a wiki archive chronicling a great amount of that history as well as a fansite for different media versions and upcoming news. For more information about Frank Miller, you can visit his Lambiek artist's profile or this unofficial website that archives much, if not all, of his work.

Almost every review I could locate about DKR was positive, as represented by these three, one from Bill Ramey, one by Dave Wallace, and one by Tom Knapp. One contrary opinion I could find was expressed by Mordecai Richler who wrote a review for the New York Times in 1987 that takes issue with Miller's work, citing a lack of imagination and poo-pooing comic books in general.

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