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An Open Letter to Frank Miller, Part One: The Dark Knight Returns‏

By: Super Mark

Dear Frank Miller,

Dude, what happened to you? You have let yourself GO!!!

Honestly, I know you’re like the proverbial Picasso of comic books or whatever, but at some point the crazy doodles have stopped secretly being masterpieces, and now they’re just crazy doodles.

I know you’ve had a lot going for you. You’ve had an illustrious career in the comic book industry, both as a writer and an artist, under more than five different publishing companies, since the late seventies. You’ve pumped life back into Daredevil, you’ve brought Batman back to his roots, and you’ve had two of your most acclaimed works (“Sin City” and “300”) adapted for the silver screen.

But let’s face it, your work of late hasn’t been gems. I know The Spirit was your first foray in to film-making, but … watching that movie was like having a barbed wire colonoscopy. And not the fun kind, either.

Basically, if I were to judge the span of your career based on what you have accomplished with Dark Knight universe alone (which, as you’ll realize once you continue reading, is basically what I will be doing for the rest of this article), I have seen you having gone from creating a revolutionary milestone in comic book history comparable to the finest works of Alan Moore, to eschewing utter travesty that makes Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin almost watchable.

(Author’s Note: Nah, I’m just kidding. That movie sucked.)

This four-part article is directed at you, Frank (even though I’m pretty sure you won’t be reading this anyway.) Here are my personal reviews for “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”, “Batman: Year One”, “Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again” and “All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder”.

BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS

The story begins roughly 20 years into a dystopian future, set after an unspecified incident that has turned a judgemental and scrutinizing eye to the superhero community and forcing many of them into retirement. Although based on the context of this book, no doubt its insidious origins have something to do with Ronald Reagan.

Bruce Wayne is in his 50’s during the course of this story, marking his eventual return as Batman as a sort of super-hero version of a mid-life crisis. It’s hard to imagine anything that would deter Batman from his crusade against crime, but this story diverges from mainstream continuity as Batman retires following the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Batman, among other super-heroes who have been publically criticized as vigilantes, hasn’t been seen in ten years.

In order to silence his inner-demons, Bruce Wayne has resorted to alcohol and apparently invoked his inner Tom Selleck by growing a moustache. The alcoholism, I can understand from a dramatic perspective. The moustache, on the other hand, is just plain confusing. To be honest, most of the (albeit short) time when he was sporting it I often mistook him for Commissioner Gordon. Thankfully, this only lasted a few pages.

Of course, it’s rather evident that he can’t stay out of the fight forever. No matter what the reason he’s turned his back on the cape and cowl, as always he has personal demons that cannot be ignored.

It’s fitting that the catalyst that makes him become the Batman once again is a reminder of that fateful night when his parents were murdered, a night that will forever continue to define who he is.

I forget where I’ve read this, so you’ll have to forgive me for plagiarism, but I think you wrote Batman as an older man so that the figure you looked up to as a child would be someone you could still look up to as an adult. This is something I can actually sympathise with. Superheroes are certainly figures that children look up to when they’re young, but as adults it may seem increasingly difficult to look up to these heroes when you surpass their age. Will I still be able to take Superman seriously once I’m older? That’s why I liked “Kingdom Come”, because we were given an older, wiser, and more seasoned character who has experienced more life lessons than his mainstream version. For that same reason, I like “The Dark Knight Returns”.

The Dark Knight has few villains to deal with, from Two-Face to Mutant Gangs to the Gotham City Police Department trying to apprehend him. In fact, at the heart of this story is a commentary that takes an introspective look at the thin line that separates super-heroism and vigilantism. With a retiring Commissioner Jim Gordon no longer able to vouch for him, Batman is regarded as a vigilante and by extension no better than a criminal.

Batman’s response to this accusation is “Sure we’re criminals, we’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.” Of course, Batman speaks of the technicalities of law, and his statement is meant to be ironic.

This aspect of the story is best exemplified in the satirical depiction of the media. In one ironic example, we have a low middle-class individual praising Batman for cleaning up the streets, wondering when he will get around to getting rid of “the gay’s”; alternatively, we also have an upper-class individual who believes it isn’t Batman’s place to operate outside of the law, admitting that he lives well outside of the confines of the city and thus has never been victim or witness to Gotham’s criminality.

But as always the Joker completely steals the show. The Dark Knight Returns not only offers a concise depiction of the character, but also of the mythology of the character. It has often been theorized that the Joker exists because of Batman, as if to appease some sort of proverbial cosmic balance. Since the disappearance of Batman, the Clown Prince of Crime has been sitting quietly in Arkham Asylum, apparently in a catatonic state. Once Batman returns, however, the Clown Prince of Crime snaps out of his funk and brings newfound Chaos to Batman’s newfound Order.

There’s a line of dialogue Batman directs at the Joker that is saturated with profound and disturbing insight. “I’ll count the dead, one by one. I’ll add them to the list, Joker. The list of all the people I’ve murdered by letting you live.” Here, the moral dilemma of whether or not it is justifiable for our hero to kill is real, as Batman actually prepares himself to carry out the deed and put an end to the madness once and for all. This book came out before “The Killing Joke” and “A Death in the Family”, so when it was first published the Joker hadn’t paralyzed Barbara Gordon or killed Jason Todd. Therefore, Batman’s resolve to break his oath and kill the Joker in this story actually makes even more sense in hindsight.

And yet, despite all the praise I just heaped onto what could be called your epic masterpiece, it isn’t without its flaws.

As a fan of the Man of Steel, it’s hard to accept Superman as a government stooge, a utilitarian willing to accept a minor evil for the sake of a greater good. Superman is purely altruistic, someone who does good for the sake of good. The Superman I know would be incapable of compromising his sense of right and wrong. What’s worse is that this is how you seem to regard this character overall, not just in this story.

Still, I gotta give you a big kudos on the fight scene between Batman and Superman. It’s an epic clash of the titans, and its awesomeness has not been equaled since (although this will eventually bite you in the ass in “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”.) Batman triumphing against Superman can be seen as an allegory of standing up to the status-quo. I just wish that a beloved character didn’t need to be assassinated (figuratively speaking.)

And then Batman uses guns. Even the most casual Batman fan knows Batman doesn’t use guns. Yet in this book he uses guns … on several occasions. I suppose for the most part, he uses guns for utilitarian reasons. He uses a sniper rifle to disable a helicopter (instead of using some sort of Bat anti-helicopter device.) He also uses a hand gun to set off plastic explosives to eliminate a barrier.

However, he also blasts a hole into a criminal’s stomach. And it’s not like this scene can be misinterpreted, either. Batman has his finger on the trigger, and the criminal is obviously dead. And yet that scene is hereafter completely ignored. Batman can go through the rest of the story preaching all about non-killing, but I can just turn back to page 64 and watch him create a human pin-cushion. If you’re going to have Batman KILL SOMEONE, then not bother to follow through with it, why bother including it in the first place?

I know I just spent the last bit tearing DKR apart, but I gotta give credit where credit is due. It’s a fantastic Batman title, it’s one of your best books, and it’s one of the pioneering graphic novels that revolutionized comics as a more realistic medium of storytelling.

Overall Grade: 8/10

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10 comments on “An Open Letter to Frank Miller, Part One: The Dark Knight Returns‏

  1. When I first read ‘The Dark Knight’ I was blown away. It was my first time reading a Batman comic written with a truly adult perspective, I mean, considering the things that went on in the story, drug abuse, violence, cannibalism and a host of other ‘adult themes.’ But it was really a masterpiece and I loved seeing Batman come out of retirement.
    Yep, the mustache threw me off, he looked a bit like Stalin. Batman/Bruce is better clean-shaven. I also think it was just to show ‘age.’ And loved how he helped that little girl. ‘Chick, chick chick’ I clearly hear the vicious gang in my head. As a 13-year old girl reading it, I was thrilled to see a ‘girl’ Robin my age then. No opinions on her? I guess she was just there to be there and keep Batman/Bruce from truly going off the deep end. It was disconcerting that he resorted to gunplay. I’m guessing Frank Miller decided that desperate times call for desperate measures and Batman had to break his own rules to defeat the gangs. Still, he betrayed all he believed in with that action. And then to see a washed up ex-hooker Selina Kyle in a tattered Wonder woman outfit! What a sock to the gut.

    When I read it a few years later, I was better able to appreciate the talking head satire, and loved seeing Lana Lang debating the issues in every other panel and her defense of Batman. It appeared as if Superman didn’t age in this, and I remember being frightened when he was blasted by the nuclear bomb, such a striking image! I vividly see it now, with him all skin and bone, clawing his way to the sun for rejuvination. I could have cried thinking batman died at the end, but to know he was secretly creating a vigilante force underground made me cheer. There should have been a continuation of that series. That would have been awesome.

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  2. I’m glad you liked the review, Ginge. And thank you for pointing out the parts that I missed in my original review. Since I’m here, it’ll give me the chance to touch on them.

    I can’t believe I skipped over Carrie Kelly. You’re absolutely right that her character was one of the greatest highlights of DKR. It staple the idea that Batman always needs a Robin, someone with light-hearted innocence to soften the Dark Knight’s dark and disturbing disposition.

    I’m glad they put in Lana Lang in the story, even if it is a cameo appearance. For a voice in the media that supported the super-hero community, I would have gone with Lois Lane, but I was glad to see that someone standing up for them.

    I didn’t particularly appreciate Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman) being a washed-up prostitute. I know Catwoman post-crisis began as a prostitute, but her character eventually grew out of that, learning new skills and becoming a masterful cat burglar. Why would she ever go back to prostituting? I think it was a waste of potential, not to mention an insult to her character.

    The scene where Superman (barely) survives the nuclear explosion was actually one of my favourite scenes in the whole book. Clark’s narration was poetic. The implication that his powers are tied to the sun and to the Earth cemented the mythology of the character, that he is truly a god among men.

    “There should have been a continuation of that series”, you say? Be careful what you wish for, Ginge, because for my next review I will be reading the sequel DKR, “Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.” Trust me, it won’t be pretty.

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  3. Hello Super Mark! I keep forgetting to sign up for responses to my comments. Sorry about that! Thank you for reading my comments. And just so you know, I’m the same ‘Ginger’ who wrote the Batman Ultimate Evil review on here. I’ve been made part of this cool writing team. My 2nd review is forthcoming very soon. 🙂

    Yes, Carrie Kelly! That was her name. She was a little light in Bruce’s life, like a little sprite, very cute. And you made some good points about Selina, I could rather picture her as a very rich and successful business woman with a ‘cat’ theme, not sure what, but something. But it seems like a lot of things ‘went to pot’ in this series, and that includes the heroes.

    Oh I can’t wait to read the second review. I only thumbed through that ‘sequel’ and was pretty appalled. It was like a mockery of all the hard work Miller put into his first. If I’m thinking of the same Graphic Novel. What I meant was, I would have liked to see a new series with old Batman and his new Vigilante force, Carrie Kelly and some new characters. I thought that would have been great.

    Keep up the great writing!

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  4. Accidentally stumbled on this review while looking for the Joker death scene. You neglect to mention a couple of things:
    – this was written and published in the 1980s, at the HEIGHT of the Cold War. The whole setting is based on the feeling of paranoia that was present at the time. It is explicitly mentioned that the US government has cracked down on all meta-humans/vigilantes and that Superman working for them is as much to “keep the peace” as to defend (American) civil liberties.
    – the setting is more like 30-35 years into the future
    – the whole Batman hating guns thing is still prevalent, he uses the pistol to ignite the thermite as a last resort (being near death), and the “sniper rifle” is only a modified grapple hook, which he uses in every medium Batman has appeared in
    – been a while since I read the comic, but where does he kill anyone? He’s a lot more violent than in current comics, but he doesn’t even betray his moral codex to kill the Joker.
    – you criticize the characterizations, but people CHANGE after 30-35 years. Bruce Wayne has about had more than he can take and he turns back into Batman to change things. This is one of the reasons why DKR is so awesome, you get to see one possible route of longterm character development.

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  5. *with “in the future” I mean it’s set during the 1980s, but everyone is aged 30-35 years.

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  6. Cashews….

    Pretty sure the shooting reference is to when Batman rescues the kidnapped baby. He busts throught the wall behind a mutant gangmember holding a chain gun. He then uses the same chain gun to shoot the guy holding the baby.

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  7. Cashews, thanks for reading my review. I would also like to thank you for the constructive criticism. I definitely missed out on a few opportunities while writing this.

    1) The Cold War was definitely apparent in DKR, and there may very well have been some aspects of it that I didn’t touch on in my review. Comparatively speaking, I think the Cold War theme was far more prevalent in The New Frontier and Watchmen. I think the political aspects of the story were focused on Batman, exploring the theme of vigilantism and being persecuted by the establishment. It was illustrated through various media bites, as well as Superman representing the full might of the U.S. government to hunt down the Dark Knight.

    2) It’s been awhile since I’ve read it. Does it explicitly say that DKR is set 30-35 years into the future? I do remember it being set 10 years after the death of Jason Todd’s death (taking into consideration that “A Death in the Family” hadn’t been published yet.) I had always imagined mainstream Batman to be in his early to mid-forties, so a 10-year gap made sense to me; but that would just be my interpretation of the story.

    3-4) I’d like to thank you for pointing out that the sniper rifle was actually a modified grapple-hook. I’d also like to thank for DarthSidious backing me up on this one, but Batman does apparently kill someone in this book. Maybe I’m just being nitpicky; it certainly seems like something that was casually glossed over. It didn’t bother me that he killed someone, but it bothered me that the rest of the book pretended like it never happened.

    5) I actually don’t remember criticizing the characterization all that much. Perhaps a recanting is warranted on my part, because I thought Miller’s interpretation of an aged Batman was absolutely compelling. I suppose I did voice discontent with Superman’s characterization, but it definitely works in the confines of this story.

    Thanks again for the comments.

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  8. Bit of an old post to reply to, but here goes!

    Batman kills the third mutant kidnapper. This is done to establish three things:

    1) Batman is not the same invincible warrior he was back in the day. If there were other choices he would have used those. Either Batman blundered or he just couldn’t come up with a way to disarm the mutant without putting the baby in harms way. This reinforces the narrative where internal monologue is one of a decidedly fallible human and the external perception is of a larger-than-life figure that is beyond mortal judgement (compare to Gordons story about Roosevelt).

    2) It’s to establish mutants as credible threat that require extreme measures, perhaps beyond what Batman is capable of. This culminates in the first fight with mutant leader.

    3) It’s a lead-up to killing Joker. We must be able to believe Batman can actually kill Joker for the story to work. Without showing he is willing to pull the trigger the threat is empty and the tension is lost.

    Not being able to kill Joker despite everything he has done is the final punchline in their perverted, overtly sexual relationship. It’s no accident the final fight takes place in a love tunnel, with Joker repeatedly penetrating Batman and gently remarking about not being able to “do it” despite everything being perfect. This is the ultimate opposite to the sexual frustration Bruce Wayne feels at the beginning of the book.

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  9. Thanks for the comments, Hob. Replies to my reviews are few and far between, so I appreciate it when someone takes the time to comment on my articles, especially (believe it or not) when they disagree with my opinions.

    1) “Batman is not the same invincible warrior he was back in the day.” I don’t think I can agree with this statement. If this is in reference to how Batman was portrayed in stories prior to DKR, he was anything but invincible; if anything, DKR seems to have actually created and solidified the “invincible warrior” persona. If this is in reference to the Batman character in general, meaning that he’s not the same man he used to be, then that rings true to the theme of the book, and I can dig it.

    That being said, Batman killed a human being. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have; like you said, he’s not the same person he used to be. Batman killing someone is very big turn in the character, one that should be explored thoroughly. But the book doesn’t follow through with it. The narrative and internal monologue does not reinforce this in any way. If anything, it flat out pretends it didn’t happen.

    The cartoon adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns reinterpreted this scene with Batman disarming the thug rather than killing him, and the storyline does not suffer at all for it.

    I hate to be so nitpicky about this sequence, especially since it is basically a meaningless throwaway scene that is immediately forgotten.

    2) “It’s to establish mutants as credible threat that require extreme measures.” I can’t really buy into this theory, especially when we are later presented with the Mutant Leader. If anything, the Mutant Leader brings credibility to the Mutant gang; up until his appearance, they were just another gang. Batman’s first confrontation with the Mutant Leader is the penultimate revelation that the old ways don’t work, that Batman isn’t the same young super-hero that he used to be, and that he has to rethink his methods.

    Batman killing the mutant kidnapper, again, is basically a meaningless throwaway scene that is immediately forgotten.

    3) “It’s a lead-up to killing Joker.” I don’t buy into that, either. The lead-up to killing the Joker has been building up since the introduction of the character. The long history of conflict between the two characters is alluded to throughout the storyline. Plus, why would Batman vacillate on killing his arch-nemesis

    I hope you don’t take my reply personally. I appreciate your outlook on the themes and allegories presented in this book, and I’m not trying to start a flame war in any way. I especially got a kick out of your allusions towards the sexual relationship between Batman and the Joker. It’s a very astute observation. It’s just a train of thought I’m not prepared to follow. (Although I always considered the Spider-Man movie a metaphor for puberty, what with the sticky substance coming out of his body and everything …)

    Stay super,

    Supermark

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  10. It bears witness to Frank Millers talent, when a 2½ year old review of an almost 30 year old story still gets comments.

    Not that I have that much to add, other than I didn’t really see the alcoholism you’re mentioning.
    Bruce and Gordon are having a drink together sure. But this seemed more like an indication that Bruce no longer felt the need for a 100% alcohol free lifestyle in order to keep his body in peak condition.
    If he had suffered from true alcoholism he would have had a whole lot more problems coming out of retirement than he did. But nowhere are symptoms of withdrawal mentioned or implied. He’s just an old man out of shape.

    Besides that, I looked in my copy but couldn’t find a page 64 (the page numbers start over for each book and doesn’t go beyond the 40s in neither DKR paperback or The Complete Frank Miller Batman), but if it is the baby kidnapping you’re referring to, where Batman supposedly killed the mutant I must disagree.
    Batman does break tradition by using a gun, but only one panel is shown of the victim which can just as easily be interpreted as a shot to the shoulder than anywhere else.
    I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the use of guns in this story around the net, but don’t forget Batman really is no stranger to guns, bombs, rockets etc.
    A tool is a tool, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a lethal tool.

    By the way, Bruce is 55 years old when presumed dead, so the story takes place 25-30 years in the future depending on how old you assume him to be in current continuity.

    Best regards
    Robert

    P.S.
    I totally agree with Millers view on Superman 😉

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