I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
In 1986, I was the prime target for bold, edgy comics. At the age of sixteen, I was supposed to have grown out of superhero comic books and moved on to more serious fare, perplexing at that notion might seem in this era in which we have truly moved into the Marvel Age of Movies. Back then, it was still greasy kid stuff, so the emergence of darker fare — widely termed “grim and gritty” — complimented the enduring fandom of people like me. Packed with adult themes and cynical sensibilities, how could anyone think these publications were meant for wee ones?
Few titles better represented the new creative tone — and therefore forecast the industrywide shift to self-consciously bleak stories — than Batman: The Dark Knight, written and drawn by Frank Miller. The creator made his name with a character-defining run on Marvel’s Daredevil a few years earlier, so it was considered a major coup that he was putting his talents to one of the signature heroes of the distinguished competition. Accentuating the momentous feel of the four part story, it was presented in the new prestige format, with heavy paper, no ads, and a hefty price tag. Three dollars per issue!
Batman: The Dark Knight (which eventually became known as The Dark Knight Returns, because that was the title that appeared on the cover of the first issue) was set in a near future, ten years after Bruce Wayne retired as the caped crusader. Without its chief guardian, Gotham City is in chaos, which Miller largely relays through an ongoing Greek chorus of television broadcasts.
In its look, structure, and interlacing of bombastic violence with thumping satire, Miller’s storytelling anticipated Peter Verhoeven’s RoboCop, released one year later. (Unsurprisingly, Miller was enlisted to work on the screenplays for the film’s two sequels.) In this instance, though, the caustic commentary was applied to some of the most iconic characters in all of comics, including the biggest of them all: Superman.
At the time, this approach to DC Comics heroes was still very novel. These were the shiny, safe, approachable characters, far more fanciful than the Marvel equivalents, which were couched in pop psychology and social commentary. In effect, Miller was bringing his own version of the Marvel approach to DC (as was fellow House of Ideas defector John Byrne), instilling flaws into gods. It felt revolutionary. The publisher that invented superheroes was finally catching up to their rivals and arguably surpassing them in urgent sophistication.
There was also a veneer of importance due to the sheer denseness of Miller’s pages. The panels pile up on top of each other, crowding for space. And the ongoing narration, delivered in captions, similarly competes with vast amounts of plentiful dialogue of terse language. The overwhelming impression is that Miller has an overabundance of ideas he’s desperate to share.
Batman: The Dark Knight was a sensation at the time, mentioned in conjunction with DC’s Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, as the future of comic book storytelling. Miller’s series hasn’t aged particularly well, but that’s in part because of how completely it did influence all that followed. Most clearly, the now persistent characterization of Batman as a haunted madman largely started here. The pessimism of the story is a river that runs just as long, as maybe even more wide, spreading to the majority of major superhero sagas in the decades since. For good or ill, nothing was quite the same after Miller’s first dance with Batman.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.