Exploring Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns"

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Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was a ground breaking publication for the comic book medium.  Several different aspects, stylistically and thematically, set aside this collection based around an aging Bruce Wayne returning to take on the role of Batman, and solidify its importance in the comic book canon.  There are many aspects that culminate together to make these particular four consecutive issues held in such high regard.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is considered favorably by several outlets of the mainstream press, making it one of the few exceptions in the world of comics.  Around the time of its publication, comics were often perceived in a negative light, and were largely written off as containing no literary merit.  Though The Dark Knight Returns may be the first original superhero work to be reviewed favorably, it defied the norm of what was standard during the time.  It touched upon several topics that weren’t prevalent in typical comics, and contained adult themes, and an overall dark nature.  The comic books in the volume were not intended for casual reading, but instead contained an intricate story that could captivate more mature readers.  The Dark Knight Returns was almost seemingly designed for the person that grew up reading comic books, but then stopped.  The plot centers on Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement and becoming Batman again, almost mirroring the comic’s unique aspect of pulling previous comic book readers out of their retirement, in order to revisit the life of Batman.  Along with the passing years, readers realize that Gotham City has changed into a much darker place; a place where they couldn’t have went as children.  The story is depicted through unique artwork and storytelling techniques, which put it in an entirely different league, and allowed it to gather respect amongst the mainstream.
In my opinion, the most definitive page in The Dark Knight Returns is the one that depicts Superman staring into the apparent corpse of Bruce Wayne, the destruction of Wayne Manor, and the ultimate death of Alfred.  Though Bruce Wayne is eventually revived, at this particular point in the story, one is to believe that he is dead.  This scene depicts what the embodiment of the narrative told in The Dark Knight, that the old way is doomed to end, the corruption of the world has led to the destruction of what was once considered good, and that the traditional superhero can no longer exist.  The visual of a beaten Superman holding the body of Bruce Wayne is symbolic of the Pietà, which is reinforced further through the resurrection of Bruce Wayne, depicted with his “apostles” on the very last page.  The Christian symbolism in the image echoes through the story; the old ways are forced to fade away, but the Christ figure (Bruce Wayne/Batman) brings forth a new era through different means. 
The image is also powerful, because the reader is witnessing the supposed death of one of the most beloved superhero icons of all time.  Since Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he has imbedded himself as one of the most beloved comic book superheroes.  Generations have absorbed themselves in the stories of Batman, through comic books, television, movies, and other forms of media, and seeing the hero dead is a shocking scene for the reader.  The older audience (the demographic that the comic is intended for) witnesses the death of an aspect of their childhood.  This is one of the aspects that differentiates The Dark Knight Returns from the standard superhero comic, bringing forth heavy doses of dark realism into a realm where the superhero usually triumphs over evil.

Social learning theory implemented through The Dark Knight Returns may be of concern to several, as a child who reads the superhero story may model behavior after some of the dark-natured material within the graphic novel.  The chances of this being an issue though, are not likely.  First, the story itself would most likely be difficult for a child in an impressionable age to understand.  Miller’s narrative is stylistically innovative, swapping from one event to another in consecutive panels, depicting news broadcasts throughout the pages, confusingly shifting scenes (many times completely randomly).  Due to the style the narrative is presented, it seems as if the average impressionable child wouldn’t necessarily be able to read and maintain the content presented in the work.  Also, the medium of graphic novel has historically been geared towards older age-ranges, avoiding the youthful readership in its lengthy composition. 
The most prevalent message within The Dark Knight Returns isn’t even one of absolute negativity, if an impressionable mind were to somehow be influenced.  Though the violence of Superman fighting Batman, the death of innocent people, the harsh language, etc. can all be perceived as negatives, an overall message of good is illuminated through the actions of Batman.  Though society rejects the good, accusing Batman’s vigilantism as criminal activity, claiming he was a murderer on several occasions, he still tries his best to fulfill his vision of restoring order back into the corrupt world.  Good still tries to triumph over evil, even though the corruption of the world will not allow the good to exist.
In the storyline, Bruce Wayne’s inner conflicts were never completely resolved.  The corruption of the world, and the internal obligation to revive Batman and bring justice to the dark forces reigning in Gotham City, were the troubles that Bruce Wayne faced.  Though there was conclusion to some internal conflict when Bruce Wayne realized that he was “A crime fighter whose time had passed”, the world still rejected the efforts of Batman, which led to Bruce Wayne’s demise, taking to hiding in order to try to cleanse the world through his followers.  Reconciliation existed within the death of the traditional Batman, but he only began training his “army” in hiding, gearing them up to try to reconcile his unfulfilled justice in Gotham.  His inner conflict still existed in the ongoing evil, yet his new methodology of possible purification set his mind at ease, as he suggests that his life is “good enough” in the last panel of the graphic novel.
Several elements were implemented in The Dark Knight Returns that contributed towards making it the respected graphic novel that it is.  The pacing of the story is one of the clear tools used in order to effectively display the narrative.  The slow pace of the story forces the reader to become more drawn in, creating tension and curiosity throughout the pages.  Instead of being hurdled into the action, the reader dwells on the different events, particular focus taking place on random occurrences within Gotham City in order to depict the corrupt nature.  In the second issue, the mutants try to take a child hostage.  Though this specific event isn’t the focal point of the story, this episode helps show the fallen state of Gotham City, thus adding depth to the story.

Miller’s use of artwork in the comic is also important to the narrative.  The style of illustration plays a vital role, fusing the standard comic-style cartoon with horrific grittiness.  This nods back to the traditional illustration of the medium, yet modernizes it to correlate with the serious nature of the story.  In book two, when the Joker is shown at the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled, he is depicted in one panel, drawn in a simplistic fashion.  The following panel zooms close to his face, and the chiseled wrinkles, dark circles under his eyes, and realistic facial features make him look somewhat grotesque, while maintaining a cartoon fashion.  These contrasting panels are effective in the telling of the narrative, combining the traditional comic, representative of Batman pre-retirement, with a unique style illustration, representative of Batman leaving retirement.  The images are both innocent and horrendous; a blend of the old and new.
Several visual motifs decorate the pages of The Dark Knight Returns, most notably being the use of the media throughout the pages.  Different televised events concerning Gotham City, America, and the world are scattered throughout the comic.  The reoccurring images of someone speaking in a television screen, helps give a sense of the media, displaying different social commentary.  The speaker may take up several panels with their dialogue, but their expressions hardly change.  Dr. Bartholomew Wolper’s face is consistent for the most part in three consecutive panels (page 113).  This example exists through most who speak on television, usually maintaining expressionless facial features.  This could be a commentary on the lack of concern or care given from popular media.  When the Cold Bringer unleashes the environmental effects of nuclear war, the media personality makes a joke about her wardrobe (page 185).  This once again shows the insincerity of the media, using the reoccurring visual motif of the television screen.
The Dark Knight Returns deconstructs as well as revitalizes the comic book superhero.  It follows the pattern of classic comics when it clearly defines the hero and the villain(s).  Bruce Wayne is shown being deeply affected by the crimes being presented on the news (page 24), which establishes him as the hero.  The Joker reeks havoc on innocent people enjoying a day at the county fair, killing people in the process, solidifying him as a villain.  The elements of hero and villain are portrayed in an obvious fashion for the reader (in this specific instance), which is similar to the methods used in classic comics. 
Miller used several techniques which also revitalized the superhero.   Bruce Wayne is given a very deep personality, wrestling with trying to return as Batman in his old age.  This example displays the superheroes revitalization, first by giving the hero a level of introspection that didn’t exist in the classic comics.  The self-meditative nature and level of personal struggle wasn’t as prevalent, as such deep issues were often ignored in order to focus more on the action.  Also, the aging of Bruce Wayne is revitalization for the superhero.  In classic comics, the hero would typically stay around the same youthful age, not having to worry about growing old and weak.  This humanizes the hero, allowing the reader to relate more.  Batman went through problems, and things didn’t end perfect for him.  His body failed him, society eventually failed him, and good failed him.  The less-than-perfect ending also revitalized the hero.  Everything didn’t conclude as it was supposed to.  Problems still existed for Bruce Wayne in the end.
The Dark Knight Returns changed the superhero comic genre, displaying the possibilities that could exist.  Miller’s unique take on Batman should always be held as important in the comic book world, for showing that the usual conventions don’t always have to be followed.  A comic book can be much more than a quick read; it can be something powerful, intriguing, and moving in the heart of the reader.