Monday, 16 January 2012

Books: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns


The Dark Knight Returns
Written by Frank Miller
Art by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

My mum isn't really a comic's person. I mean - I can't be certain - but I'm guessing that if you said "Watchmen" to her she'd probably think you were talking about those things you strap to your wrist.

But still: I fairly sure that the first time I read The Dark Knight Returns (and there have been many many times since) was because of her. According to my memory - it's a rainy day - I'm stuck indoors (I have no idea how old I am - 8? 12? 16?) and I'm rooting around her bookcase looking for something to distract me: and I'm flicking through - no, no, nothing, rubbish, no, no, no - and I get to the bottom shelf and I see it: a Batman comic? What the...? I take it out and look at the front cover. It's a very cool cover - not the one above [1] - but much starker and much blacker (hell - it is called The Dark Knight): with Batman abstracted to the point where he looks less like a man and more like a giant gothic ornament - standing behind a building with the Bat-signal projected on to it - so that it sits pretty much where his chest-plate should be. It's a very cool cover [2]. And at first I can't get over the fact that my mum has a Batman comic on her shelf - and then I start reading it - "I've got the home stretch all to myself when the readings stop making sense" - and oh my god - Bruce Wayne dies on the first page? What is this? This is like no Batman comic I have ever read.

I mean - of course - at that point it's likely that I'd never even read a Batman comic. But like any child everywhere on the planet - of course I knew who Batman was, what he did, what he stood for (for those of you who don't know thats: Bruce Wayne, dressing up as a giant Bat and fighting crime, and truth, justice and being a total badass): but this - The Dark Knight Returns - it just felt - well - I guess the word I would have used would have been wrong: it was all wrong. In every other Batman story I'd come across (I'm guessing the two main sources at this point would have been the Adam West version and the pure awesomeness of the Batman: Animated Series) there was always a sense that everything was going to be alright - yeah: the Joker or whoever would cause some limited amount of mayhem and a little bit of wanton destruction - but Batman would soon figure out what they were up to and work out a way to stop them: and then everything would be alright. But in this book it felt like all the normal certainties had been taken away. First of all: Batman was old. And even back then I knew that Batman was never supposed to get old - he was supposed to stay in prime, peak-physical fitness for all time so that he was always there to take out the bad-guys: Batman being old? That was as crazy and stupid and as wrong as God getting old [3]. The second thing that was wrong was that - in the Dark Knight Returns - Gotham wasn't right. I mean - yeah - I knew that the city had it's fair share of troubles - all those super-criminals and all - but apart from that normally it was just like any other fictional city: you know - clean and litter-free: like a better version of real life (with the only small hiccup coming from the Animated Series where it seemed to have a strange affliction of only ever existing at night time [4]). But in Frank Miller's hands - Gotham was a decaying shambles falling apart from the seams - with the streets lined up with trash - dead nuns and dead cats - stapled to church doors - and the thought of going out by yourself after dark was practically suicidal. Yeah. Kinda like real life a bit I guess - only ten times worse. And: well - things start off bad and then - instead of Batman swooping in to make things better and doing all his restoring the status-quo-stuff ("And then everything went back to normal") - for the average Gothamite - things just get worse and keep on getting worse [5]: at the start things are just kinda rubbish - but towards the end it's all practically apocalyptic (hell - there's no "practically" about it).

(How have you not read this already? Literally - even my mum has read it). 

Of course - all this "wrongness" is what makes everything about this book so goddamn right [6]. And even reading it as a kid and taking in the transgressiveness of the story - I didn't want to stop reading - hell: it just made me want to read it more: in fact it's what makes it so totally compulsive (again: maybe this is just me sugar-coating the memory - but I'm pretty sure that I once I picked it up and peeked inside - I didn't put it down until I'd read all the way to the end). All the other Batman stories until that point (hell: nearly all the other stories period) are always about playing things safe and acting as reassurance: a safe place where everything is going to be ok and everyone always lives happily ever after [7]. The Dark Knight Returns doesn't care about doing any of that sort of stuff. Bruce Wayne has a death wish right from the get-go and altho it does have a choice selection of Batman bad-guys for him to fight - by the end he's not going up against any one freak in a funny outfit - he's seemingly taking on the whole world in a fight he can't possibly win (can he?): but then - when the narrative safeties are off and the possibility of victory seems impossible (and #1 in Pixar's 22 rules of storytelling [8] is: "You admire a character for trying more than for their successes") there are few things in the world better or more exciting. Insurmountable odds and the very really possibility of failure and death lurking at each step? Bring it on [9]: Has there ever been a Batman more primal than this ("While in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need")? It's less like a comic book like we normally know it (with bright multi-coloured heroes and villains in fabulous-looking costumes) and more like an opera [11]: Extravagantly theatrical, overly dramatic and twice as big as you can possibly imagine. 

When art-forms start out (training wheels firmly attached) they muck around in the shallows for a while and don't try too much - until someone comes along, rolls their sleeves up, pushes it as far as it will go and then blows the whole thing up. That's The Dark Knight Returns. The Big Daddy of all the "dark, grim and gritty" / "serious" / "for mature readers" graphic novels out there - and (along with the aforementioned Watchmen) the prime mover in showing the rest of the world that - Boom! Pow! Bang! - comics weren't just for kids anymore! and could even be - just maybe: quote unquote "Art": It's also one of the most assured, inspired, and - well - hands down best mainstream comic books of all time. Yeah - ok - hyperbole (maybe) but this is a comic full of sophistication, poise and an emotionally damaged billionaire dressing up like a giant bat and going out and kicking ass.

You want to know the story? Well ok: Gotham City (and the world) has gone to hell and "the Batman" is just a legend [12]. Until one day: he's back and - well - everything goes insane - building up towards several end-of-the-world-style showdowns and - hell yeah - the best fight scene in a comic book ever ever ever. Quietly innovative (as strange as it sounds to refer to anything in this book as "quiet" [13]) and totally masterful in it's use of (amongst other things) colour, panel construction and text-boxes - with so so many lovely little touches (amongst which: "Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled" is one of my favourites) plus drawn with patience that at points slows down so much that it's like reading individual frames from a roll of film ("You remember that night"). Basically - yeah: it's Frank Miller's magnum opus and a shining exemplar of just how magnificent a comic book can be. It might not be exactly your cup of tea: but there's so much skill/craft/workmanship built into every small facet of it's towering being - that kudos must be given. Or to put it another way (as someone else from the Comic Forum so excellently put it): it's made of awesome.

In fact I'll say it again: How have you not read it already? It's The Dark Knight Returns. It changed the way the world thinks of not just Batman - but the whole medium of comic books (what they are and what they can do): so much so that - damn - like I said: even my mum has a copy. And if you haven't yet had the experience: well... 

[1] Designed by Chip Kidd who also did the starey Batman eye cover for the Dark Knight Strikes Back (which I must admit I do quite like) - and who wrote the The Cheese Monkeys (which is quite good and is how I know who he is): plus - he's the guy who's (pretty much) responsible for the Jurassic Park logo - so: yeah (and this too). 

[2] It must be well out of print by now because if you google "dark knight returns cover" it doesn't even show up until the second page (if you're curious you can see it: here).  

[3] There's a quote somewhere from Frank Miller who talked about part of the inspiration for the Dark Knight Returns came when he realised that he was gonne be older than Batman - ah! Here we go: "In Miller's strip Bruce Wayne was a fiftysomething alcoholic, forced out of retirement to clean up a Gotham City abandoned by its government. With the Cold War at full boil and Reagan still president, it was a searing indictment of the times. "Suddenly I realised I was about to turn 30, and Batman was permanently 29," Miller says. "And I was going to be damned if I was older than Batman." No. Wait. Actually (I guess it's a story he's told a few different times) he tells it best in his introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition: “1985. My apartment in New York City. A sudden realization, and not a pleasant one. My thirtieth birthday is right around the corner. I’m poised to turn one year older than Batman. I’ve come to accept, in recent years, that Spider-Man is younger than my little brother, but Batman? My favorite childhood hero? That lantern-jawed, ever-wise father figure? I’m actually gonna be older than Batman? This was intolerable. Something had to be done. Later that same year. On board an airplane headed for Texas. Dick Giordano and I sip white wine and talk. Enthusiastically, if clumsily, I lay out to him the collection of ideas I've got for this Batman thing he's wanted me to do. The central notion is simply to move Batman through time, and chronicle his last case. Move him through time, and, just by happenstance, make him once again much older than I am."   

[4] But then - as we all surely know: Batman sure looks stupid when he's around standing around during the daytime. 

[5] Hell yes Godspeed You Black Emperor! = ideal Dark Knight Returns soundtrack. Failing that: the the best thing about the Nolan Batfilms: Hans Zimmer (that's not counting Heath Ledger obviously).

[6] Although - not everything is changed: there are a still few solid dependables - top of the list being Alfred Pennyworth who's never been in better form than he is here ("Hmf ...he'll just have to wear it wet...")

[7] I think that's why all the good horror films tend to mess you up as kid: because not only are they full of crazy monsters and whatever - but nine times out of ten - they don't end with everything being ok (That episode of South Park with the 5 year old with cancer? "No hope. No hope.").

[8] See: here. (also available in Lego form). 

[9] Having an email conversation with my friends about everything that was wrong with The Dark Knight Rises I stumbled upon Die Hard as maybe one of the best and most well-known examples of this: I mean you always know that Die Hard [10] isn't going to die - but the way it's made and the way the story unfolds - you still always feel like (no matter how many times you've seen it) there's the possibility that he just might.  That's called good storytelling. Another thing that Die Hard and The Dark Knight Returns have in common (and that The Dark Knight Rises doesn't do): is that they always have the main character going around and doing actual life-threatening stuff rather than say - just sitting around and flying about in a stupid Batcopter (if all your main action stuff is someone just sitting around pressing buttons - especially if that someone is Batman -then there is something very wrong going on). 

[10] Yes - his name is Die Hard - why? What do you call him? (It's like they say in Peep Show: 'Of course he's called Jaws. "Here comes Jaws, Jaws the shark, mind he doesn't bite you with his enormous jaws.")

[11] Frank Miller in that Tenth Anniversary Edition introduction again: "And there was Batman himself. He was the real boss. As he was quick to assert, Batman has a personality and a purpose all his own, a definable core. He's no whiner ; there's not a trace of self-pity in his soul. He's smart. He's noble. His passions are grand. Even his unhappiness is not depressing, but a brooding, Wagnerian torment. And his triumphs are Olympian."

[12] I don't know if anyone has pointed this out (and probably this is just boring geeky comic talk) - but there's a strange little sliver of precognition embedded within The Dark Knight Returns namely: the reason why Bruce Wayne retired as Batman being that Jason Todd died: "I gave my word. For Jason. Never. Never Again." There's even a little memorial cabinet in the Batcave for his Robin costume that Bruce stands in front of and does his brooding. Of course (yeah) Jason Todd being dead is (at this point) common knowledge amongst all semi-serious Batman fans (let's ignore his subsequent resurrection): he was blown up by the Joker and DC had a telephone poll letting the readers choose if Jason Todd should live or die and he was killed off by a vote of 5343 to 5271 (ouch - harsh) but what of lot of people may not realise nowadays is that The Dark Knight Returns was first published in 1986 while Jason Todd wasn't done away with until 1988. Which means that the gravitational pull of the Dark Knight Returns is so strong that the mainstream DC continuity has been somehow warped into falling in line with it. (Or maybe it's just because Jason Todd was so annoying that Frank Miller realised that it was a no-brainer that at some point they were just gonna have to kill off the little squirt?). [Edit: Oh wait - yeah they mention it in one of those Big Other article below - but - yeah - they make less of a meal out of it].

[13] And if you're looking for a full breakdown of the all the marvelous things it does - then check out the Big Other Articles linked below - they're very good.

Links: The M0vie Blog Review, Mindless Ones Analysis, Big Other Analysis of The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8, Comics Alliance Article: Away From Human Memory: Editing And Composition In Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns'.

Further reading: Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Batman: Year One, Batman: All Star Batman and Robin, Ronin, Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, 300, Kingdom Come, Batman: Year 100, SupergodsBatman: Knightfall

Profiles: Frank Miller.

All comments welcome.

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