Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

Part one of this series surveyed Miller’s comics work prior to his landmark 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns; part two summarized the innovations in printing technology that Miller and his colorist Lynn Varley helped introduce into comics in the mid-1980s. Now, in this and the following three or four posts, I’ll take a closer look at the series’ four individual chapters, starting with Book One, “The Dark Knight Returns.”

For the eternal children of my generation (I was born in 1803), the most enduring image of Batman arguably hails from Tim Burton’s 1989 adaptation. (No doubt the children of today will forever regard Batman as looking like Christian Bale.) Since Mr. Burton has a brand-new film out, I thought it only fitting to begin with this section of TDKR:

TDKR page 17 (detail).

Bruce Wayne proceeds to tumble down the rabbit bat hole. Let’s follow.

Two-Face channeling Alice in Arkham Asylum, page 102 (detail).

[Incidentally, this Batman/Alice connection would be developed in further detail by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean in their 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.]

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is set mostly in Gotham City in the mid-1980s (although we eventually learn that this is an alternate universe from our own—and, as it later would turn out, from the other Batman comics). At the start of Book One, Bruce Wayne is no longer Batman, having quit the role ten years earlier, following the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. (This predates DC’s decision to kill off Jason Todd in 1988; perversely, Miller would resurrect Todd in his 2001–2 sequel to TDKR, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.) [My mistake—I was mixing my Robins.]

However, as in Burton’s 2010 Alice sequel, Frank Miller envisions Bruce Wayne as someone who, having fallen once, is destined never to escape his childhood visit to Wonderland. The very first panel presents Wayne in a simultaneously unfamiliar yet very familiar fashion:

TDKR page 10 (detail)

He’s grown a mustache, sure, and he’s wearing a racing helmet, however all but Bruce Wayne’s lower face is concealed, just as when he once wore his Batman cowl. This drawing foreshadows not only Wayne’s inevitable return to the role of vigilante (the series is called “The Dark Knight Returns”), but also the more armored version of the Batman costume that he will wear at the series’ end.

The Batcave—and this above image—will play a prominent role in the series overall, but more on that when we reach the fourth and final chapter, “The Dark Knight Falls.” (Well, I guess the title gives some of it away already.)

Two Faces

Batman’s decade-long absence has left Gotham City crime-ridden, although most of its super-criminals seem safely locked away in Arkham Asylum. (I always imagined Batman making a last-ditch effort to round them all up before hanging up his cape.) (Miller, poking fun at political correctness, renames the former home “for the criminally insane” one “for the emotionally troubled.”)

Inside, we’re quickly reintroduced to Harvey Dent, Batman’s former enemy Two-Face. Dent, who was originally Wayne’s friend and Gotham City’s District Attorney, was driven to violent schizophrenia and villainy after a criminal scarred the left side of his face with acid (the sinister side, natch). Bruce Wayne has spent the past ten years funding Dent’s now seemingly-successful psychiatric and surgical treatment:

Page 15 (detail). (Note that you can click on this and the other images in this post for larger versions.)

Later in the chapter, Dent suffers a relapse, reclaiming his identity as Two-Face.

Most of my interest in Frank Miller’s work stems from his restless exploration of the comics form. His comics are both good examples of themselves (they’re good comics—good “romances,” as he prefers to call them), but also commentaries on the medium itself. In the above scene, for example, Miller cleverly splits Harvey Dent’s face (and self) with a formal device unique to the comics medium: the gutter, or the space between two panels. Gutters are most commonly a negative feature, an unremarkable space passed over without comment or notice: a gap that allows the artist to present two or more separate-but-related images, thereby creating the impression of sequential action:

Page 17 (detail).

(For more on this subject, see chapter three of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, “Blood in the Gutter.”)

Miller here “brings forward” this otherwise secondary characteristic, deploying it spatially, as well making a metatextual comment. (What is it that divides Harvey Dent? Why, the very medium itself.)

Miller then extends this commentary further, exploring ways that he can pass a formal element into “the content” inside a panel, then back “out” again, into the structure. Note that Bruce Wayne’s own face is itself bisected in the four-panel sequence above—and that his entire body is covered in a grid of shadows reminiscent of comics panels. This kind of form/content interplay can be noted throughout TDKR (and all of Miller’s comics work).

It’s necessary here to take a moment to discuss TDKR‘s basic visual layout. The first page of the series introduces the 4×4 grid that Miller will employ on every single page of The Dark Knight Returns:

Page 10.

Having shown us the basic structure, Miller proceeds on the second page to suggest a minor variation on it:

Page 11.

Here, the first six panels have been combined to create an establishing shot of Gotham City. The underlying 4×4 panel structure remains palpable, however.

From this point onward, Miller begins exploring variations on his chosen “template,” fusing panels to create radically different layout options:

Page 18 (detail).

Page 35 (detail).

Of the forty-seven pages of Book One, ten of them are divided into exactly sixteen same-sized panels. The remaining pages consist of some mixture of different panel sizes, unique layouts chosen to control pacing and image detail:

Page 49.

Miller also at times follows his “fusing” to its ultimate conclusion, presenting full pages as single panels (“splash pages”). The first one arrives on page 26, fully revealing Batman’s return:

Page 34.

(Later, on page 52, we get a second splash page without any overlaid panels.)

As can be seen in several of the above examples, Miller presents some panels as “TV screens,” with their text placed above them. These form a running chorus, commenting on the action, as well as presenting exposition. They also enable transitions between scenes.

Television also plays an active role in the story’s development. Book One sees Bruce Wayne relapse into his Batman persona after he stumbles upon a late-night screening of The Mark of Zorro (1920), the film that he watched with his parents right before their fatal mugging. It’s worth noting that Miller references not the silent 1920 Douglas Fairbanks Mark of Zorro (which Bob Kane and Bill Finger claimed was one of their strongest influences in creating Batman), but Rouben Mamoulian’s 1940 sound remake:

Page 22 (detail).

Miller presumably does this to retcon Bruce Wayne to be in his mid-40s in 1986. (The last remake of The Mark of Zorro was in 1974 and made for television. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins retcons the franchise further by having the Waynes attend a production of Arrigo Boito’s 1868 opera Mefistofele.)

Viewing The Mark of Zorro triggers Wayne to flash back to the murder of his parents, Tom and Martha Wayne (presented silently and in a comics equivalent of slow motion). Once again, we see the great narrative variety Miller is capable of coaxing from his simple 4×4 template:

Page 23.

Bruce Wayne rapidly switches channels, only to be repeatedly assailed by news reports of violent crime. Miller uses this opportunity to explore another layout possibility, dividing four panels into eight:

Page 24 (detail).

The TV images here are presented not like the earlier (and later) “rounded square” images, but as images equal to Bruce Wayne. The televised world has fully intruded into Wayne’s manor, no longer able to be ignored.

Following this, Wayne rushes through his home, distraught (“emotionally troubled”). Over the following two pages (25–6), Miller further complicates our reading of the comics panels, once again crafting echoes between the overall form and the images themselves. He associates the panels variously with windows…

Page 25 (detail).

…the bars of a cage…

Page 26 (detail).

…and crosses…

Page 26 (detail).

The payoff to this semiotic overloading arrives, furred and winged, at the bottom of page 26 (below).

Now, according to the Batman mythos, Bruce Wayne decided to dress up as a bat because he needed a terrifying symbol capable of frightening criminals. As he sat pondering this problem, “as if in answer, a huge bat [flew] in the open window”:

Detective Comics #33, “The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible of Doom” (November 1939), page 2 (detail). Writing by Gardner Fox. Art by Bob Kane and Sheldon Meldoff.

Frank Miller returns to this origin to revise it slightly, but significantly. He closes the window:

Page 26 (detail).

Like the TV news reports, like the outside world, Batman cannot be locked out. The vigilante persona becomes in this single image both Bruce Wayne’s release and (re-)capturing. The comic-so-far is irrevocably shattered, even while it remains exactly the same. (Despite the metatextual punning of the bat crashing through the comics panels, the creature remains a two-dimensional drawing on the page.)

This image of breaking glass will recur throughout the remainder of Book One, repeating whenever Batman appears:

Page 28 (detail).

Page 29 (detail).

Page 36 (detail).

…and, most significantly, in Batman’s final confrontation with Two-Face:

Page 54 (detail).

Recalling the opening panel, the very last panel of the last page of Book One completes this motif, and Batman’s full return:

Page 55 (detail).

The broken window almost suggests the TV screen panels, itself bounded by a squarer panel.

Miller also returns at the end of Book One to the question of his principal characters’ identities, when Batman finally confronts Two-Face:

Page 55 (detail).

The end of Book One sees the Dark Knight returned; like Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne has been wholly subsumed by his Batman alter-ego. From this point forward, “Bruce Wayne” barely appears. (Frank Miller’s redefinition of Batman as the dominant persona has had a lasting influence on the Batman comics, starting with Tim Burton’s film adaptation.)

The Joker

Harvey Dent is the main villain of Book One, but not of the miniseries. Batman’s return triggers the return of his arch-nemesis, the Joker. More specifically, and as was the case with Bruce Wayne, television reporting (of Batman’s return) causes the Joker to relapse:

Page 41 (detail).

Miller was not the first to point this out, but the metatextual comment remains valid: it is Batman’s existence that wills his enemies into existence. (Once one invents a superhero, one needs super-villains for him to fight.)

At the exact moment of his return, the Joker’s face is, like Harvey Dent’s and Bruce Wayne’s, bisected by a panel gutter; he is temporally and spatially split. He becomes a comics character. Even more cleverly, Miller uses the first four panels in this scene to “zoom in” on the Joker’s distinguishing feature, his smile.

Comics have always relied heavily on caricature. As Scott McCloud has noted:

The father of the modern comic in many ways is Rudolphe Töpffer, whose light satiric picture stories, starting in the mid-1800s, employed cartooning and panel borders, and featured the first interdependent combination of words and pictures seen in Europe. [...] British caricature magazines kept the traditions alive, and as the 20th century drew near, the comics we call comics began to appear and eventually to thrive [...] (17–8)

Miller’s comics, despite their “grittier” take on their subject matter (TDKR was hailed upon its release as a breakthrough in comics realism), are similarly rooted in caricature: later chapters feature appearances  by cartoon versions of David Letterman, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Ronald Reagan. And as with his panel layouts, Miller explores various ways of depicting his Dark Knight, ranging from the more conventionally proportional and realistic…

Page 12 (detail).

Page 14 (detail).

Page 52 (detail).

…to the more cartoonish and abstract:

Page 50 (detail).

Page 55 (detail).

Page 24 (detail).

That last image is, I think, one of the more interesting panels in the entire miniseries, signaling as it does Miller’s later, extremely cartoonish style:

The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001) (detail).

In later chapters of TDKR, we’ll see even greater disparities between the series’ “comics realist” and cartoonish styles. (And more!)

Until then—happy reading!

Works Cited

  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
  • Miller, Frank, et al. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. 1986. Absolute Dark Knight Edition. New York: DC Comics, 2006.

Note: My TDKR scans in this post come from the 2006 Absolute Dark Knight edition; the pages of which are 8 pages “ahead” of the original comics and the 1986 graphic novel collection. They are also (unlike in those versions) numbered sequentially throughout (rather than resetting with each issue). I’ve chosen to use these page numbers since they match the scans, and because that edition is the easiest version to find today.

16 thoughts on “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 3

  1. Hi Adam, I like your observations about how Miller uses the form to suggest something about the content…

    Re: the ‘gutters’

    “Miller here ‘brings forward’ this otherwise secondary characteristic, deploying it spatially, as well making a metatextual comment. (What is it that divides Harvey Dent? Why, the very medium itself.)”

    It’s impressive how many different graphic methods and devices Miller uses. It’s like watching an animated film.

    • Thanks, Edward. One of the more striking things about Miller is how many different backgrounds he’s drawing on in his 80s work. Japanese fine art, manga, mainstream superhero comics, EC horror comics, independent comics (like Eisner’s), detective fiction, science fiction, and commercial advertising—they’re all apparent influences, alongside others.

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