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This review is from: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Paperback)
One of the problems with writing about a genre classic nearly fifteen years after its original release is that so many will have tried to surpass it since then (mostly unsuccessfully). Such is the case with Miller's Dark Knight Returns. In the wake of superior product like Alan Moore's The Killing Joke and From Hell, inferior product like McFarlane's insipid Spawn series, and middling product like Miller's own Sin City limiteds, it's hard to understand what a splash was made by The Dark Knight Returns on its original release. Even in light of Miller's work on classics like Ronin, Elektra: Assassin, and the great Wolverine limited series, Dark Knight was something special, something so dark and twisted and mature, it all but demanded that the rest of the genre mature toward its standard, and almost literally forced establishment critics to take the genre seriously at last. No small feat, especially when considering the character Miller chose to work with -- after all, Batman to most people meant Adam West hitting Cesar Romero with a resounding POW! Not exactly the best way to reenergize a medium, right?
Except Miller did it -- boy, did he ever. Dark Knight was and is one of the most powerful pieces of comic art it's ever been my privelege to own. From the Miller/Janson team's gritty illustrative style, expertly suited to the material, to Lynn Varley's exquisite sense of color and mood, to Miller's expertly-written story, Dark Knight is everything a graphic novel should be.
Take as just one for-instance the story: It's a brilliant reimagining and reinterpretation of the entire Batman mythos, bridging the gap between every era of the Masked Manhunter's long career, from the dark noir of the early days, through the "Boy Scout" period of the forties and fifties, and even a little of the "science fiction" and tv-era Batman (though thankfully not much of either), and on to the modern Darknight Detective period. Miller takes Bruce Wayne into his mid-fifties, retired but still troubled in his heart, and sets up a chain of circumstances which force Batman's emergence from that retirement, even as Jim Gordon is being forced out of his job, Two-Face is supposedly "cured" by self-aggrandizing doctors, and the deadly Mutant gang, a "purer breed" of criminal, practically owns the streets of Gotham. Miller ties all of these disparate elements together in unique ways, and weaves from them a story so enthralling, and so full of mythical echoes, that few have been able to equal it, even today.
As one example of the mythical resonances in Dark Knight, have a look at Miller's dramatic depiction of Batman's old pal Superman. Here the "big blue schoolboy" (as one of the characters hilariously describes him) is shown as Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster always meant him to be: an earthbound god among mortals. One panel in particular is key to this image: Superman holding the tank up over his head (with the memorable caption, "We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth."), a very dramatic (and very deliberate) redrawing of the cover of Action Comics #1. The panel is meant to remind us of the basic difference between DC's two primary exponents: Batman is a mere costumed crimefighter, but Superman is, well, Super, man! From Part 3 on, the conflict between the two characters seems inevitable, and promises to be spectacular.
Then there is the Batman himself -- and here Miller has done something so astounding it beggars description. For example, consider Bruce Wayne's intensely-rendered flashback to his parents' murder, done in a series of still-frame-like panels, with no dialogue, narration or sound effects, just the horrifying images: a finger tightening on a trigger, Thomas Wayne's huge hand falling away from his shocked son, the strand of pearls splitting apart as the gun is fired again -- this is a dark sort of visual poetry, so immediate and visceral it makes you understand at last just why Bruce Wayne was so damaged in those fleeting, horrifying moments. Similarly, the HUGE bat crashing through Bruce's window (symbolizing the futility of resisting destiny, the second coming of Batman, the spirit of "the finest warrior, the purest survivor" and about a half-dozen other things), takes Bob Kane's original idea and expands it once more into the realm of myth -- this is not just a bat but a Bat, the soul and spirit of someting bigger than Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, or even Superman himself. This is the stuff, as Alan Moore once noted, of legend.
There's so much else in this rich tale, from brilliant caricatures of David Letterman, Ronald Reagan, and Dr. Ruth (not to mention a totally undeserved slam at Harlan Ellison -- "eating our babies for breakfast," indeed!), to Miller's brilliant reimagining of Robin (no longer a boy wonder but a girl wonder!), that 1000 words simply can't shower Dark Knight with enough praise. If you're a Bat-fan, this volume should definitely be in your collection. If not, it will make you see what you've been missing. In any event, what are you sitting around reading this for? You could be reading Dark Knight instead! Waste no more time!