Graphic novel review: ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (1986)

By Mike

February 29, 2008 Comics Reviews No comments

My foray into the world of graphic novels continued with The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller circa 1986. The first one I read was Y: The Last Man, Book 1: Unmanned and I wrote a review about it around a week ago.

My background on this stuff is highly limited, but there is no doubt that I love superheroes and comics, I just never got into them when I was a kid. I think my parents steered me away from comic books, thinking they weren’t exactly “quality literature.” I am in no way upset about that missing element of my childhood, because I read so many books growing up that I think it was key in who I am today.

Yet I still feel like I missed out on growing up with these superheroes that so many people love and cherish. Batman has always been a favorite of mine so The Dark Knight Returns was a treat and a comic book I’ve been interested in reading for a long time.

I did a bit of research after finishing it up, just because even 20 years after it was published, it seemed so raw and powerful. My wife picked this one out for me because it was on a Top 25 list of graphic novels, and I wanted to know why, despite my instincts perhaps already grasping the answer.

Published over the first half of 1986, The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) changed the way graphic novels and comic books were done. It was gritty and hard, with adult themes. With it, Frank Miller is said to have “ushered” in the era of dark, gritty and grim superheroes over the next decade.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank MillerWatchmen also was released in 1986, and along with DKR, it helped shape a new landscape in the world of comic books. The themes got menacing, heroes became more than just good guys, they had dark pasts and even darker motivations. They were more violent and included stronger sexual content.

That ends the little history lesson I learned, although it was from Wikipedia and I’ll reckon there are a lot of fans out there that have their own versions of how influential DKR was.

I think this book was right up my alley because we still live in a world where superheroes aren’t so cut and dry happy anymore. I enjoy much darker versions of these guys, like with Christian Bale as the new Batman.

The novel is divided up into four books, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt the Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Falls.

My disadvantage in reading DKR was not knowing the history of the characters. I was struggling with names like Oliver (although I watch Smallville, so I shouldn’t have been so dense), Selina and others.

My favorite parts of the book though involved the Clark Kent aspect. I know there have been comics that tell the tales of “Batman versus Superman“, so I got the idea that while they both help in their own ways, they have major disagreements on methods used. Set in the mid-80’s, DKR has a big Soviet Union storyline and Clark is the one-man soldier for the United States. He also seems to be a “company man” in Bruce’s eyes, which he has utter disdain for.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank MillerOne interesting thing I found in reading it, and then in my research later, was that the heroes use real names for each other. Superman uses “Bruce”, Batman uses “Clark.”

The world in this novel is supposed to be set in a future where most of the superheroes have been destroyed and the feeling is an “Us versus Them” mentality when it comes to the normal human race and guys like Batman and Superman.

The plot has all kinds of amazing elements to it. A huge political story is brewing spread out across the country and even locally in Gotham City. Commissioner Gordon is about to be replaced by a woman who will put an arrest warrant out on Batman immediately. The president is ignoring the task of dealing with Batman’s vigilante techniques.

At the same time, mutants have overrun Gotham, Harvey Dent has returned and thus Batman is forced out of a 10-year retirement.

The older Batman is just flat out awesome. Even with gray hair, the sheer size of the Dark Knight is amazing. The visuals in the book are outstanding in the fight scenes and you just get the impression that even aged a bit, this guy could destroy an entire police force.

Like I said before, my favorite parts were the interactions between Bruce and Clark. Especially the end, where they do major battle. You can just feel how epic the moment is as the world watches.

After reading it, I wished that the show Heroes could channel a bit of this style of superhero, because it’s seriously lacking anything dark and powerful.

Loved the book and now I’m just sucked into this universe and plan on reading the sequel to this one, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

Rating from 1-5 popcorns: