Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 1

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

These days, Frank Miller is arguably best-known as a filmmaker. He co-directed Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of his long-running comic Sin City (1991–present), which he followed with his own peculiar 2008 adaptation of Will Eisner’s classic comic series The Spirit (1942–52). In between, he executive-produced Zack Snyder’s hugely successful adaptation of his 1998 graphic novel 300. Hollywood’s current infatuation with super-heroics has served him well.

Most of Miller’s work, however, has been in comics, a medium he has helped revolutionize over the past twenty years. Since comics sadly remain an understudied and under-analyzed literary medium, I thought I’d take advantage of John Madera’s generosity—and your patience—to sketch out some thoughts about the form and importance of Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

First, some background. Frank Miller got his start in comics in the late 1970s. He arrived in New York City in 1976, where he found sporadic work illustrating Twilight Zone stories at Gold Key, and Weird War Tales at DC. From there he moved to Marvel Comics, where after some fill-in work he became the regular artist and writer of the series Daredevil. Miller revitalized that title (which was then not highly regarded), combining crime-comic elements with ninjas and Eastern mysticism, as well as creating fan-favorite character Elektra:

Daredevil #168, January 1981. (Note the misspelling, "Elecktra.")

(Throughout this series of posts, note that you can click on the embedded images for larger versions.)

From the start, Miller pursued more mature subject matter, increasingly trying to appeal to adult audiences. Speaking with the Comics Journal about Daredevil in 1981, he said:

Violence is actually the theme of the book. It probably is the most violent comic book being published, but it seems to be a character and a setting that calls for it. Part of Daredevil’s appeal for me is that he loses one fight out of every three. (Decker 21)

He added:

I think we’re overdue for some mass-market comic-book material for adults with better printing. (30)

This signaled the direction that Miller’s career would soon take.

Miller was from the start more ambitious than most of his colleagues, absorbing influences from advertising, fine art, film, and Japanese prints (16, 23). He also found inspiration in manga (Japanese comics), in particular Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub:

The Japanese comics are as violent as anything I’ve ever seen […] The violence in them is rather honest. They’re willing to be violent, and admit that that’s what they want in their fiction. I think that we are much more hypocritical about it. Violence in fiction has a stigma attached to it here. It’s obvious that people want it; it’s obvious that people get a certain degree of pleasure out of it; and it’s obvious that people feel guilty about it. I don’t see the guilt as necessary. (31)

(Miller later did covers and introductions for First Comics’s 1987 US reprints of Lone Wolf and Cub.)

Miller wrote and drew Daredevil for five years, making it one of Marvel’s best-selling titles with his grittier, expressionistic style. He also delighted in surprising his readers; in Daredevil #181 (April 1982), he killed Elektra, by then one of the most popular characters in superhero comics:

Note Miller's emphasis on strong graphic storytelling, as well as the more lyrical use of color.

Miller’s work on Daredevil (and elsewhere) was violent, to be sure, but to his credit he has often taken that violence seriously as a subject, addressing it directly in both interviews and in the comics themselves. For one example of many, see Alan David Doane’s analysis of Miller’s final issue of Daredevil (#191, February 1983).

Daredevil wasn’t Miller’s only major project at Marvel. In 1982 he drew a four-issue Wolverine miniseries, collaborating with writer Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men) to reinvent the character, drawing more on his samurai aspects:

The opening splash from Wolverine #2, pages 2–3.

However, by this time, Miller was losing his taste both for superheroes and for monthly, serialized work. In a 1985 interview with the Comics Journal, Miller said:

Superheroes have lost their human context. That’s precisely why the comics have gotten so weak, and the stories seem so pointless and irrelevant. […] Now, modern superhero comics have reached the point where there are so many damn superheroes and so damn much superpower flying around that there’s no room left for anything human, and the only way to make the genre seem interesting is to wildly escalate the powers, the numbers, the quantity of planets that can be demolished per panel. Just look at how many characters are being killed these days. It’s as if all that is left to them is the pathological thrill of a snuff film. (Thompson 34)

He added:

Right now, the comics audience obviously consists of children and adults who enjoy childlike entertainment. This limits what the talent is encouraged to do. (38)

And:

We’re in a state of what I hope is adolescence. Adolescence implies a coming maturity. But things are bound to be very confused. […] There are no guidelines. There’s no good work to look back on, really, beyond kids’ stuff. I mean, very little. There’s Robert Crumb, there’s Will Eisner, there’s Harvey Kurtzman, there’s a few others who have done extraordinary work […] (39)

Miller leveraged his popularity as the hottest writer/artist in comics to make Ronin (1983–1984), a six-issue limited series about a resurrected samurai, heavily influenced by Koike and Kojima:

Ronin #1, page 31.

Another image from Ronin #1.

…but also by cyberpunk fiction:

(Ronin is actually set in the future, when the samurai is resurrected.) (For the source of the above image, and other examples, see this page.)

Miller initially proposed Ronin to Marvel, but was wooed away by DC editor Jenette Kahn:

Frank Miller was over at Marvel doing spectacular things with Daredevil. […] I asked him to lunch and said: ‘Tell me what it is that you would really like to do. I don’t care how offbeat it is or if it’s never been done before. Whatever it is, we’ll try to make it happen.’

And so it was that Frank proposed what was to become Ronin. (Contino)

Superheroes frustrated Miller, but so, too, did the time schedules that major studios like DC and Marvel employed:

[A]s far as ongoing comic-book series, I think the monthly frequency and the page count, if nothing else, prohibits the work that adults would want to read. Comic-book people, I think, generally produce about twice the material that’s wise to produce if you want to keep yourself fresh. I’ve done the monthly thing, and it really does encourage you to repeat yourself and to rely on weak solutions. Just recently, on two of my major projects, on the Elektra graphic novel and on the Batman series, because I allowed myself roughly twice the time that I would have before, I went into a great deal of rewriting. (Thompson 39–40)

After leaving Daredevil, Miller would never write and draw a regular monthly comic again. (Although much of his work since then has been serialized, he has produced only limited series or standalone projects.)

Furthermore, Miller despised the printing technology that he was forced to deal with:

You can use the state of production of American comics as an illustration of the problems faced creatively. For 50 years, comics have been written and drawn as quickly as humanly possible, artists doubling and tripling up on pages, assembly line style, writers encouraged to fill space as swiftly as they can type. This has also been true of how color separations have been prepared, how the books have been printed, the production departments busy with the next week’s books, too busy to supervise any stages beyond getting the comics out of the house. You have to understand that comic books began as collections of newspaper strips, and the newspaper mentality toward production has persisted, especially as cheap pulp paper has given way to cheaper, and metal plates have given way to plastic, making the books so fuzzy it takes the dedication of a child to read them. (44–5)

As an example of what Miller is talking about, here’s a panel from page 20 of Uncanny X-Men #212 (December 1986):

Anyone who read superhero comics in the 1980s will remember how blurry they looked. (Art by Rick Leonardi and Dan Green; colors by Glynis Oliver.)

Compare also the following:

Production image of Wolverine #2, pages 2–3.

…with the scan, above, of how Miller and his inker Joe Rubenstein’s art actually appeared when printed. (Resolution is lost, blacks are washed out, pages bleed through to their opposite sides, and there is a printing error in the lower right corner.)

Miller and his by now regular collaborator, colorist Lynn Varley, were interested in exploring what was then possible given the state of the art of commercial publishing. As Kahn recalls:

[W]hat he talked about was more than a story concept. He wanted this project to be on coated stock and hand-painted. Bob Rozakis worked with Frank to achieve both the paper and the sophisticated coloring, neither of which had ever been used by a major comic book company. Lynn Varley did the lush and subtle painting and the story flew beyond traditional comics conventions. (Contino)

After errors occurred with the printing of the second issue, DC paid for Miller and Varley to personally oversee the printing of the remaining four issues of Ronin, due to the challenges their work presented:

Our relationship with the people at Ronalds [Printing] evolved issue by issue, as they became more aware of what we wanted and we learned how to help them get it. […] Nobody involved had ever worked on a book like Ronin. (Thompson 45)

Some of Miller and Varley’s work on the series pushed the boundaries of what was then technologically possible:

[I]n the fourth issue, I drew a double-page spread that was almost entirely black. This, it was explained to me, represented a difficult situation. Due to the way that the paper feeds into the press, the spread would inevitably suffer from vertical streaks, cutting across the black. To fix this, Ronalds [Printing] added a fifth plate to the printing, at their own suggestion. Were it not for their effort, one of the most dramatic moments in the story would have been demolished. (46)

I’ll try to add a scan of that spread. In the meantime, here’s a later image that presumably presented a similar challenge:

Ronin #6, cover.

UPDATE 12 FEB 10: Here’s that two-page spread that Miller’s discussing. To put it in the proper context, I’m also including the preceding two-page spread.

Ronin #4, pages 18–19.

Ronin #4, pages 20–21. This isn't the highest-quality scan, but you can see how successfully reproducing this image would have been problematic.

You can easily see the higher printing quality and greater subtlety of color that Ronin presented, even in scans:

…and especially when compared with other comics from the time period (and cf. again the respective images above):

Uncanny X-Men #212 again, page 10 (detail). See also the page presenting the death of Elektra, above.

Miller and Varley completed Ronin even more emboldened:

[T]he format definitely went over well with whoever saw it. Mostly the reaction I got from people outside the industry was they wanted to see the entire thing collected together, because they liked reading it at once (38).

(Although graphic novels are common today, in 1983 they were a new form: Will Eisner had published what is widely considered the first graphic novel, A Contract with God, in 1978. DC would later collect Ronin as a single volume in 1987, then again as Absolute Ronin in 2008.)

(For more regarding Will Eisner and his importance, see John Dermot Woods’s recent post.)

By 1985, Miller was the most popular writer-artist in comics, powerful enough to demand that DC and Marvel provide him with more time, better production, and near-absolute creative control. He would next channel those accomplishments into one of the most influential comics of the 1980s: the reinvention of Batman.

31 thoughts on “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 1

  1. I wanted to add that be sure to check out Jennifer M. Contino’s excellent interview with Jenette Kahn at Sequential Tart:

    http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/may01/kahn.shtml

    Not only does Kahn mention having worked with John Holt (!) and Kenneth Koch (!!), but she also claims:

    “From the beginning we encouraged both our editors and writers to take risks. It was a DC maxim (and I hope still is) that if you weren’t writing off a certain amount of material each year as unusable, then you weren’t doing your job. If everything you did was publishable, you weren’t taking enough chances.”

    I hope this is still true, too.

  2. Me generous? This is such a fantastic post! It conjures up so many memories for me like my weekly romps to a flea market in Queens where I would purchase comics. I still have the Elektra mini-series that Miller did with the equally accomplished Bill Sienkiewicz. I also remember going to a gallery where much of Sienkiewicz’s original artwork was displayed. It was amazing to see these massive canvases that I originally had seen as covers to comics.

    I can’t wait to see your post on the Dark Knight series (I still have those in mylar bags in a box somewhere). I think I have the Ronin series, too. I’ll have to check.

  3. Thanks for writing this Adam. I really knew very little about Miller (except for some of his weird politics of late). I’ve read Dark Knight, but that’s about it. And I always find printing talk fascinating – really amazing how he helped push mass market comics out of the crappy paper dark ages. Looking forward to your discussion of the formal aspects.

    • If anyone knows of any better sources for discussion of the technical state of comics publishing in the 1980s (or any time period, really), I’d love to hear about them!

      One thing I really enjoy about comics interviews is how much time gets dedicated to discussion of craft, and to the nature of the medium itself: the materials used, as well as how comics are mediated by various technical concerns. (I wish discussions of fiction and poetry acknowledged these things more.)

      Frank Miller talks quite openly about how frustrating he found the comics format in the 1980s, and how it limited what he was trying to achieve. If you go back to 1981, you find him saying, “We should be doing X and not Y,” spelling out in broad terms precisely what he’d spend the next decade doing. And a lot of people gave him grief for that at the time. But I think that, when all is said and done, the printing advancements that he helped foster will rank among his more impressive contributions to the medium.

      There’s a really interesting section in the Thompson interview (I think), where Miller argues that if comics were printed on better paper, then artists would be able to use painted color, and then they wouldn’t be able to do Jack Kirby-style comics art, because that doesn’t hold up with painted color—or something to that effect. (I’ll find the exact quote for the next part of this, where I’ll talk about Lynn Varley’s color work in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.) In other words, Miller proposes that improving the medium technologically will improve its content. He was wrong about the improvement part, but otherwise he was right: the majors still churn out superhero comics today, but their look has changed a great deal—the artwork has become a lot less cartoony. (I’m not arguing that this is a good thing, mind you.) See for example:

      Personally, I think that such material looks even sillier due to the paper it’s printed on, and for all the computer coloring used. Miller himself has gone in exactly the opposite direction for his superhero comics:

      and

      I always find myself wondering whether Miller has read Marshall McLuhan. (He does seem to have read a lot of Ayn Rand—but I won’t get into his politics, except to say that’s time he could have spent reading McLuhan!!!!)

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