Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 7

Batman #404 (“Year One, Part 1″) (February 1987), page 23 (detail). Written by Frank Miller, art by David Mazzucchelli.

Seventeen years have passed since my last installment in this series, so let’s at last sit down and write some kind of conclusion. But first, a recap:

  • Part 1 and Part 2 provided background for Frank Miller’s groundbreaking four-issue comics miniseries—namely, I described what he’d been up to prior to that, as well as what North American comics were like at that time;
  • Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 offered close readings of the respective four books in the series;
  • Part 8 (now up) examines the impact TDKR had on Miller’s subsequent career.

Now, in these final entries, I’ll outline what became of Batman, Frank Miller, and comics themselves after the Dark Knight returned…

…which won’t be exhaustive, of course. It can’t be: the culture is too vast. It’s impossible to trace out every last influence that TDKR has had (and is even now still having). But I think that we can say a few things with some certainty.

Let’s start with Batman. However, in order to understand the effect that TDKR had on that character, it’s important to know a little more about where he was beforehand.

Batman before TDKR

Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, in Detective Comics #27; those two men were trying to replicate the success that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel had had one year earlier with Superman. And their vengeful detective was popular from start. (He was also, as I noted earlier in this series, a pretty violent character at the outset, demonstrating a strong pulp influence.) (And see this post for more on other influences on Batman.)

But the ten years immediately following WWII saw a marked decline in interest in superhero comics, as readers migrated to horror, romance, and Western titles. Batman fared better than many other books—mainly due to frequent team-ups with Superman—but suffered another blow in 1954 when Frederic Wertham singled it out for criticism in his landmark book The Seduction of the Innocent. In particular, Wertham accused the Batman comics of being “psychologically homosexual”:

Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend Robin. (189–90)

Batman #84 (June 1954), page 24. Art by Win Mortimer.

Wertham’s attacks—which weren’t just on Batman, but on numerous other comics and publishers as well—led directly to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a “voluntary” form of self-censorship akin to the Motion Picture Association of America:

Comics Code Authority brochure, year unknown.

A key paragraph from the above:

The Code […] completely banned all “horror” and “terror” comics and all material which may in any manner be immoral, objectionable or in poor taste. It fosters respect for parents, for police, judges and other governmental officials. It forbids profanity, obscenity, vulgarity; it requires that females be drawn realistically “without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” Advertising for the sale of knives, or realistic gun facsimiles, is prohibited, as is all questionable merchandise. Each of the 41 provisions is a bulwark against the inclusion in comic books of any material which may be undesirable for exposure to youthful readers.

(You can read the full text of the actual Code here.)

Comics could still, in theory, be published without CCA approval, but the major publishers declined to do so, and most distributors and sales venues refused to carry such books.

DC responded by toning Batman down. Batman and Robin stopped sharing a bed, Batman stopped shooting villains, and overall the books became more patronizingly juvenile. (This also made a certain financial sense, since there were, at that time, a lot of kids; see also Bradford Wright’s analysis of how the low-paying production methods of 1940s comics discouraged writers and artists from taking aesthetic chances.) In addition, DC introduced female characters like Batwoman and Bat-Girl in an attempt to draw attention away from the Batman-Robin partnership:

Detective Comics #233 (July 1956). Cover art by Sheldon Moldoff.

Batman #139 (April 1961). Cover art by Sheldon Moldoff and Ira Schnapp.

The 1950s also saw the Bat-books playing catch-up to a few of that decade’s fads, such as heroic dogs…

Batman #92 (June 1955). Art by Win Mortimer.

…and the increased mainstream popularity of science-fiction:

Detective Comics #267 (May 1959). Cover art by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye. Bat-Mite was also an attempt to duplicate in Batman the success of Superman’s extra-dimensional foe Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Detective Comics #270 (August 1959). Cover art by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye. Also in that issue: “The Hunted Martian.”

Nonetheless, by 1964, sales of Batman and Detective Comics had hit at an all-time low—and this at the same time that one of their competitors, Atlas Comics, had found great success by rebranding itself as Marvel Comics, and launching new superhero titles such as Fantastic Four (November 1961), The Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), and X-Men (September 1963), among many others. DC, saddled with superhero characters that were over twenty years old, supposedly contemplated getting rid off Batman. (Although note that some disagree that the situation ever got that dire. For a fairly detailed analysis of this particular period, including some actual sales data for the respective Batbooks, see this excellent series of blog posts.)

DC editor Julius Schwartz was tasked with redesigning the book. He, along with artist Carmine Infantino, had spent the past eight years revamping superhero comics, beginning with Showcase #4, which successfully introduced a new version of The Flash. Indeed, their innovations on that title began to revitalize public interest in superheroes, launching what comics historians now call the Silver Age of comics [1956–c.1970], and providing some of the ground for Marvel’s success.

Schwartz and Infantino stripped the Batman comics of Ace the Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, and Martians, along with many of the other wackier elements. They also introduced the title character’s “New Look,” slimming Batman down and making him lither and more agile, as well as adding the yellow disc behind the bat insignia on his chest:

Batman #166, “Two Way Death Trap” (September 1964), page 11. By John Broome, Sheldon Moldoff, and Joe Giella.

Above all, they tried to return the character to his original crime-fighting ways. (“DC,” after all, stands for “Detective Comics.”)

And they might have been successful, had it not been for the premiere, in 1966, of the Batman TV series:

That Batman show didn’t last terribly long—three seasons, 120 episodes—but, like its near-exact contemporary Star Trek, it established a lasting influence. By 1969, Batman was sillier than ever, a kooky concept remembered (when thought of at all) in terms of “Bam! Pow!” and Adam West’s tongue-in-cheek performance. (Mind you, I’m not knocking the show—the Batman movie it produced in 1966 is probably my favorite Batman movie.)

This camp image persisted despite concentrated efforts by subsequent comics creative teams to make Batman more serious. The end of the decade (and of the Silver Age) found writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams attempting steer the Batman books back in a darker, more Gothic direction:

Batman #227 (December 1970). Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano; story by Dennis O’Neil.

Detective Comics #408 (February 1971). Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano; story by Len Wein and Marv Wolfman.

Batman #244 (September 1972). Art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano; story by Dennis O’Neil.

Adams retained the yellow elements of Schwartz and Infantino’s New Look, but made many significant changes, such as slimming Batman down even further, and elongating both his cape and his cowl’s ears. (Click here to see the cover of every issue of Batman that he drew [1968–1974], and here for every issue of Detective Comics [1967–1976].)

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss Neal Adams, who has always been something of an artist’s artist. Before working on Batman, he was given Uncanny X-Men, which by the late ’60s was itself selling rather poorly. Adams penciled eight issues, in 1969–70, producing strikingly refined and dynamic art that was extremely innovative for the time:

Uncanny X-Men #58 (July 1969), pages 2 and 3. Art by Neal Adams and Tom Palmer (inks). I very strongly recommend that you click on this one, to see a larger version.

Adams’s famed “photorealist” style became a hallmark of the Bronze Age of Comics (c.1970–c.1985). But sales of X-Men didn’t improve, and for the next five years (1970–5, issues 67–93), that book went into reprints. (It wouldn’t be until 1975, when Chris Claremont inherited the title—and began introducing new characters like Storm and Wolverine—that X-Men began recover, then dominate the comics landscape.)

All this while, thanks to the counterculture, the Comics Code Authority’s actual authority was slipping. Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil took full advantage of its decline:

Green Lantern vol. 2 #85 (August–September 1971) (cover). Written by Dennis O’Neil, art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano (inks). This may be the single most famous issue of the Bronze Age.

Their comics—including their grimmer, more brooding revamp of Batman—proved popular with fans, but not with the general public. Sales continued to drop, hitting an all-time low in 1985.

This, then, was the Batman that Frank Miller inherited.

Miller was intimately familiar with Neal Adams’s work on the character; Adams had served as the younger man’s mentor upon his arrival in Manhattan at the end of the 1970s:

When I first trotted my works around New York City, back in the Seventies, I naturally sought out the top Master of comics art at the time: Neal Adams. […]

And every damn time Neal Adams looked at my stuff, he’d give with an impatient chunk of advice, sometimes even throwing a sheet of tracing paper over my tortured sheets of Bristol, showing me fundaments [sic] of composition, showing me, with no sign of effort on his part, how to make any scene roar with drama.

And, for all these hard-to-take lessons, he never asked me for a damn thing in return.

I kept coming back, with new pages. That much, he grudgingly respected.

Astute readers will recall, from Part 2, that Adams’s and O’Neil’s frequent collaborator Dick Giordano was the initial editor on Dark Knight Returns. I think it’s easy today to view Miller’s ’80s comics, from Daredevil through TDKR, as attempts to continue the revolutionary work that Adams, O’Neil, and Giordano started. Miller nods a couple of times in their direction throughout the miniseries:

1. When Batman returns, he is Neal Adams’s version of the character…

Book 1, page 34

…which Miller then revises toward an even darker, more practical costume:

Book 4, page 172.

2. He includes Green Arrow as a supporting character—one of Batman’s few remaining allies—in Book 4:

Book 4, page 186 (detail).

And where Schwartz, Infantino, O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano failed to reinvent Batman (even as their work often succeeded artistically), Miller prevailed.

Batman after TDKR

The Dark Knight Returns was, put simply, a smash hit. As Time Magazine noted:

The proliferation of new wonderfigures is impressive: some 250 different comic-book titles, largely in the heroic vein, will be sold in the U.S. this year, up from about 190 in 1985. With a combined circulation of roughly 150 million, the comics are more popular than at any other time since the early ’50s.

TDKR was by no means solely responsible for that rejuvenation—the Time article points out how comics had recently become available at a wider variety of vendors, including mall stores like Waldenbooks (where I bought my own copy of TDKR, in fact, in 1989). But TDKR fits the magazine’s description of comics’ “sophisticated product innovation,” as well as the industry’s growing tendency to target older audiences; Time of course cites TDKR as a leading example of both trends. (Two decades later, the magazine named TDKR one of the best graphic novels of the 20th century, an addendum of sorts to their list of the “100 best English-Language novels” published between 1923 and 2005.) Three years later, the graphic novel reprint of the miniseries (published in 1989) garnered a review in The New York Timesa negative review, to be sure, but still a sign that Miller’s Batman comic was being taken seriously as literature.

Despite this, DC did kill Batman off in 1986, after a fashion. That year saw the company implement their Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, the primary consequence of which was to purge its decades-old characters of their complicated back stories. Popular creators were then hired to relaunch the titles. John Byrne, fresh from a very successful run on Uncanny X-Men, was handed Superman. Dick Giordano and Dennis O’Neil tapped Frank Miller to reinvent Batman.

Which he did, in Batman #404–7, in a limited story entitled “Year One.” There, Miller, assisted by artist David Mazzucchelli, extended his vision of Batman as a more urban, street-level vigilante. As comics historian Les Daniels describes it:

His principal change was one of tone. Less of a playground for colorful psychotics than before, Miller’s Gotham City is a bleak site colored by corruption: cops, criminals, and even high society are all part of the pattern. Bruce Wayne (accompanied from childhood by the faithful butler Alfred) seems to be the only honest citizen around, but a newly arrived policeman named James Gordon exhibits similar ideals, and the key to the story is the development of a relationship between Wayne and Gordon that enables both of them to survive. (157)

Year One, Book 1, page 17 (detail).

Like its predecessor, “Year One” was extremely well received by audiences and critics, and eventually published as a standalone graphic novel. And, like TDKR, it went a long way toward reestablishing the commercial viability of Batman.

1989 saw Tim Burton’s first film adaptation, and 1992 his second. Miller’s comics played a key influence. (I recall numerous news stories at the time cautioning mainstream filmgoers not to expect a campy, Adam West-style Batman.)

See also 5:30–6:50 in this video:

Besides the darker, more violent tone, Burton makes subtle references to Miller’s work. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, for instance, arrives in Gotham City after taking photos in war-town Corto Maltese; see Part 5 of this series for the origin of that island nation.

Burton’s two films definitively returned Batman to mainstream popularity, where he’s more or less remained to this day—minus, of course, the stretch between 1997 and 2005 when Joel Schumacher drove the film franchise off the rails. But even then, the character lived on in animated series like Superman (1996–2000), The New Batman Adventures (1997–1999), Batman Beyond (1999–2001), and Birds of Prey (2002–2003). (Those last two shows focused less on Bruce Wayne and more on alternate Bat-men and -women, arguably due to fallout from Schumacher’s failed attempt to return the Batman camp to, well, camp.) It’s obvious in hindsight that, despite the hiatus of their Bat-movies, DC’s parent company, Time Warner, was busily priming a whole new generation of young fans to embrace a darker, more serious version of the Dark Knight.

Which came in 2005, when Christopher Nolan successfully rebooted the film franchise with Batman Begins, followed in 2008 by the even more successful The Dark Knight. As that sequel’s title suggests, Nolan’s vision of the character is heavily influenced by Miller’s:

Batman #407 (“Year One, Part 4″), page 25 (detail).

Batman Begins of course borrowed that ending, as well as other elements from throughout that story: the inclusion of villains such as Carmine Falcone, Commissioner Loeb, and Detective Flass; as well as (at one point in the story) Batman’s use of a high-frequency device to summon bats to create a diversion. (So I suppose Frank Miller is indirectly responsible for Inception. Thanks a lot, Frank.) Nolan also cribbed heavily from Miller’s own influences: the chief villain in Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul, was the creation of Adams and O’Neil. (That’s who’s towering over Batman on the cover of Batman #244, above.)

Liam Neeson (right) as Ra’s al Ghul (2005).

(Not to mention, years before Nolan inherited the franchise, Darren Aronofsky toyed, between 2000 and 2002, with directly adapting “Year One.”)

Twenty-five years after The Dark Knight Returns, our dominant vision of Batman remains that of a violent, brooding, psychologically-unstable urban warrior. As we can see, Frank Miller didn’t invent that take on the character single-handed, but he arguably did more than any other one person to cement it in the public consciousness.

Interestingly, Miller himself has worked to escape this formulation in his sporadic Batman work since TDKR—but more on that in the next post! Until then, happy reading…

Update: Jeremy M. Davies, who knows more about DC animated series than I ever will (I never watched any of them), wrote to inform me:

You seem to have left out Batman: The Animated Series (1992–5) from your list of cartoons. It was arguably more influential on the rehabilitation of Batman for the mainstream TV-watcher: it used the theme music from Burton’s movies, and used the “grim, unstable” archetype, contrasting it with the more colorful sci-fi superheroes when they arrived in the Justice League cartoons, in much the same way Miller would (albeit in a more friendly manner, of course). And it was in the last years of BTAS—which they retitled The New Batman Adventures (1997)—that they did that episode with three (?) different versions of Batman, each imagined by a different kid, including the brief adaptation of the Mutants battle from TDKR.

I was looking more here at post-Schumacher cartoons, but BTAS deserves mention. Thanks, Jeremy!

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11 thoughts on “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 7

  1. You really ought to watch Batman: the Animated Series–many folks view it as the ideal distillation of Batman from all those decades of comics, shows, and movies. (I should note that if you end up watching BTAS, the first DVD set has several crappy episodes, due to the inadequacies of their first story editor, who was wisely jettisoned later on.)

    The DKR adaptation Davies speaks of can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoZLPwRCjcQ
    And that episode is an example of a post-Schumacher cartoon–though not seen in the clip, the episode features a Schumacher stand-in. Miller himself was delighted by the episode.

    Bruce Timm, the producer/artist behind BTAS, now directs DC’s animation department, which has released several direct-to-DVD film adaptations of DC properties. Their version of Miller’s Year One will be released in October (http://www.worldsfinestonline.com/news.php/news.php?action=fullnews&id=1079). I saw it screened at ComiCon and it’s pretty slavish in its fidelity to Miller. A similarly faithful adaptation of TDKR will be released next year.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. I spent the 2000s avoiding TV, but have recently become curious about it again. Having heard many good things about Timm’s work, and DC’s animated series in general, I’ll eventually have to check all of it out. Cheers, Adam

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