Posted by: Garret | February 20, 2010

The Dark Knight Returns [with baggage]…


The Many Faces of Batman

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) features Frank Miller’s iconoclast foray into Batman’s interpretive mythos. Batman: Dark Knight Returns established several precedents in that Miller’s stark re-interpretation of Batman changed the way superhero comics (and Batman’s identity) would be represented in the medium. In Batman Unauthorized, Geoff Klock averred that Miller’s take on Batman in DKR, “revolutionized the comic book industry — it created a radical and definitive version of Batman for the new adult demographic and proved once and for all that superhero comic books, though originally created for children, could tell stories rich and complex enough to rival any novel.” (p. 35)

This story also marked one of the first defining moments of comic book publication in that the eventual collecting and redistributing of DKR as a “graphic novel” kick-started a revolutionary way of marketing comic books to new readers. The eventual titling of the “graphic novel” brought a new sense of literary legitimacy to comics. “[Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns] created a new canonical center for Baman, around which Batman history organized itself. Pre-Miller or post-Miller, every story for the character before and after lived in the shadow of Miller’s bat” (Klock, 2008, p. 35).

Batman called in to do a little “emergency surgery”.

DKR is fascinating in that it dares to posit the fantasy future not as utopian or protected as the traditional superhero narrative would lead [Golden/Silver Age] readers to believe, but instead Miller’s world is a bleak, hopeless dystopian setting. Ironically, Miller’s DKR registers as such a critical and commercial success that many critics now view DKR as the peak creative moment in Frank Miller’s career; that is to say, his early Bronze Age success has led to a grim and gritty dystopian relationship to the comic book community [see fan reaction to Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002) and All-Star Batman & Robin: The Boy Wonder (2004), or even The Spirit (2008) as evidence.]

Discussion Questions:

1.) Although the classroom readings have covered a short sampling of comic books thus far, the onus tone of DKR is a bleak breakaway from the traditional form. Based on your various forms of exposure to Batman (Adam West 60s camp, the Tim Burton films, Schumacher’s bat-nipples, the Nolan era, and the multiple animated takes on the caped crusader), how has Miller’s dark psychological interpretation of Batman cast a shadow on subsequent translations? Is Miller’s vision positive or  negative to the long-term success and continuation of Batman as a superhero myth, commodity, etc.?

2.) In chapter one, Jewett and Lawrence (2002) defined their American Monomyth in the following excerpt: “a community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by an evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.” (p. 6)

Where does the DKR succeed in aligning with Lawrence and Jewett’s American Monomyth? Where does the book descend into new territory? What do the similarities and differences between Miller’s vision of a darker superhero universe say about the function of superhero myths over time (consider even the interpretations given by Coogan and Reynolds as well)? How does the blatant employment of blood splatter contradict Jewett and Lawrence’ vision of sanitized redemptive violence?

3.) In class last week, we talked about the three Fantasy Themes: character(s), setting, and action. Do the citizens of Gotham in DKR facilitate the idea of spectator democracy? How is it problematic for the “town” to not begin in an Edenic state, but rather with a “heat wave [that] sparked many acts of civil violence in Gotham City…marked by the ten-year anniversary of the last recorded sighting of the Batman.” (Miller, p. 11)? What characters and action are necessitated by this dystopian scene?

4.) How does the interjection of Miller’s projected [social/emotional] cynicism function to bring a sense of gravitas to the graphic novel? Or does the “grim and gritty” tone teeter on self-parody? How is Miller’s employment of a female Robin significant, and what kind of cultural implications might be embedded here? How else is this Robin different?



  1. A blended approach: To the success of DKR impact on Batman’s interpreation, Tim Burton’s dark noir Batman (1989) was born. Out of Burton’s shadow, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm found inspiration for their beloved and Emmy-winning “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992). Batman: TAS encore episodes were ordered several years after the initial show ended, due to the current success of spinoff series “Superman: The Animated Series” (1995) (which was combined with Batman: TAS episodes and re-named “The Superman/Batman Adventures” (1997) block hour for the Kids WB). Anyway, the 22 new episodes of Batman were more of a contemporary playground for Timm & co., so one episode in particular featured three distinctly different animated interpretations of Batman through the years…this clip is part of one of those three segments and may appear somewhat familiar to fans of DKR:

  2. To add to Garret’s critical probes, Miller’s DARK KNIGHT in many ways challenges the benign and benevolent superhero that Reynolds and Coogan defend. Contrast, for example, how the more optimistic Superman is portrayed within Miller’s darkly cynical universe (and I do contend that this apocalyptic fantasy scene is ‘cynical’ rather than ‘realistic’, which raises interesting mythic questions about the dystopian worldview being naturalized to justify Miller’s ‘heroic’ brutality).

    Miller also redefines Batman as the dominant persona, a revision that’s had lasting impact upon subsequent interpretations. Does Batman sometimes teeter on the edge of a revenge-obsessed psychotic whose pro-social mission is an accidental side effect of a personal crusade or vendetta? That is, are some depictions like Miller’s that of a vigilante “SuperAntihero” who strains our notions of benevolent heroism? As Lawrence & Jewett suggest, what is the “dark side” of our superhero worship of violent vigilantes and crusading saviors? Yet how does the new Robin, Carrie Kelly, become a brightly-colored symbol of hope in this bleak tale?

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