Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 8

"Elektra Lives Again," page 37 (detail) (1990). Art by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

Already in this set of posts we’ve looked at Frank Miller’s career before The Dark Knight Returns (Parts 1 and 2), and performed close readings of that series’ respective four chapters (Parts 3, 4, 5, and 6). And the last time around, in Part 7, we examined the character of Batman both before and after Frank Miller had his distinctive way with him. And we could probably stop there, but I think there’s value in surveying Frank Miller’s own career after TDKR, with a special focus on his more recent—and much more controversial—work on Batman.

Which we will get to in Part 9. (Yes, there will be a Part 9!) But for now, let’s focus on the fourteen years or so immediately following the publication of TDKR: from 1986–1999. As we’ll see, there’s plenty there to interest. (Plus, we’ll need it to better understand what happened when Miller returned to the Dark Knight.)

For now, it’s 1986. And Frank Miller is already a star—as we saw in Part 1, it was his popular early ’80s run on Daredevil that enabled him to make the experimental comic Ronin (1983–4), and to insist on releasing both that book and TDKR in the then-novel “Prestige” format (sturdier covers, finer paper quality, better printing processes, higher price). But it was Dark Knight Returns that made him, arguably (I think certainly), the most famous North American comics writer-artist of the 1980s. The miniseries was mentioned in Rolling Stone (though I haven’t been able to find the article), and earned a review in the New York Times (even if it was an unfavorable one).

What happened after that? The short answer is that Miller used his success to become an independent comics artist, free to pursue whichever projects he liked…

…although that’s not what it must have looked like, not at the time. Instead, in the immediate wake of The Dark Knight Returns, it appeared that he had returned to superhero comics. As we noted in Part 7, Miller followed TDKR with another Batman limited series, the four-part Year One (1987). (The Dark Knight Returns related the end of Batman’s career, while Year One retold its beginning.)

And even while Miller was busy making TDKR, he had returned to writing Daredevil. Writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Ralph Macchio had fallen behind schedule, and Miller was asked to help them with some fill-in issues (Thompson 43). Luckily, he had been itching to realize a few story ideas he still had after quitting the series (49). Back on the title, he penned the standalone issue “Badlands” (#219), and then the popular “Born Again” storyline (issues #226–233), in which he stripped down and redefined the title character in a fashion not dissimilar to what he was doing with Batman. (Another point of continuity: the art was provided by his Year One collaborator David Mazzucchelli).

Daredevil #227, "Apocalypse," page 14 (detail) (February 1986).

(It’s worth noting that this Daredevil storyline was published at the exact same time as The Dark Knight Returns: February–August 1986; TDKR came out between February and June.)

One year later, Year One marked the end of Miller’s Batman work—for a while—but in the late 1980s it must have looked as though the man had returned from the experiment of Ronin to superheroes—more specifically, to Daredevil, the book that had launched his career. (Kim Thompson noted this, in her his 1985 Comics Journal interview with Miller: she he asked if, after Ronin, Miller’s making Batman and Daredevil comics wasn’t “in some ways a regression.” Miller replied, “Yeah, it is” (49). [Updated 25 August 2011]

Miller’s helping hand on Daredevil led to more work on with character (Thompson 44). At the same time that he was publishing “Born Again” and TDKR, he teamed up with one of Marvel’s most daring young artists, Bill Sienkiewicz, on a Daredevil-based project. Sienkiewicz was himself on the rise, having recently ended a run (August 1984–April 1986) on the X-Men spin-off The New Mutants:

The New Mutants #31, "Saturday Night Fight," page 7 (September 1985). Writing by Chris Claremont.

The two made an obvious pair. Sienkiewicz had gotten his start in comics around the same time as Miller, penciling Moon Knight, which was something of a Batman knock-off. And like Miller, Sienkiewicz was a huge Neal Adams fan who after six years found himself eager to test the boundaries of what could be done in a superhero comic. Together, they created the standalone Daredevil graphic novel Love and War (1986), which capably demonstrated what Sienkiewicz could accomplish when given more time and better quality printing:

"Daredevil: Love and War," page 3 (detail) (1986).

The novel focuses heavily on Daredevil’s nemesis Kingpin (seen in the above image), humanizing him and providing a backstory that helps explain his behavior in the “Born Again” storyline. Sienkiewicz’s watercolors were particularly unusual in US comics at the time, even as the story tended toward closing continuity gaps. But the comic only hinted as to what the pair was capable of. Much more surprising was the team’s next project: the wonderfully experimental eight-issue miniseries Elektra: Assassin (August 1986–March 1987).

Miller at the time regarded Sienkiweicz

as a talent who was a little too big for the material he was drawing [...]. I could see him illustrating internal drama. So when I wrote those Daredevil stories, I tried to play into that. I wrote a psychodrama.

It was like a dam breaking when Bill got to work; he immediately produced pages that Marvel couldn’t publish in a regular comic because they were so unfamiliar, so strange, by comparison. It became a graphic novel because the work needed to be published, and then the situation started escalating. [...]” (Thompson 43–4)

Thus began a back-and-forth collaborative process that lasted throughout 1985, and into 1986, with Sienkiewicz’s art provoking Miller to rewrite his initial scripts:

"Elektra: Assassin" #1, pages 6–7 (August 1986). Note that you can click on this image to get to a much larger version of it!

(There’s a reason why many consider 1986 the single greatest year in American comics. And we’ve barely even looked at Watchmen, or until now mentioned the fact that Art Spiegelman also published the first volume of Maus that year!)

This latter limited series was released through Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint, which ran from 1982–1996, and which allowed creators to own their own creations, and to produce more mature material. Twenty-five years later, Elektra: Assassin remains remarkably offbeat, quite different from most other comics of the time. As Miller claimed in 1985: “What Bill is doing right now might constitute a breakthrough in fully-painted art. [...] [He's] using color to the exclusion of line” (Thompson 47–8).

At the same time, Miller had begun writing and drawing (aided by his frequent collaborator, not to mention then-wife, Lynn Varley) the standalone graphic novel Elektra Lives Again:

"Elektra Lives Again," page 21 (1990). This might be my favorite single page that Miller has ever drawn.

In that June 1985 Comics Journal interview, he predicted that Elektra: Assassin would come out in late 1985 (it took a little longer), the Batman miniseries in 1986 (which it did). Regarding Elektra Lives Again, he said he “[had] no idea” in terms of schedule (Thomson 44). For some reason, it would not be published by Epic until 1990.

And so, despite this flurry of activity, these 1985–6 Daredevil comics would prove to be Miller’s final work on the Man Without Fear, and—for a long time to come—on superheroes in general. (With one exception: a few years later, in 1993, Marvel had John Romita, Jr. illustrate an unused Daredevil television treatment Miller had written. Over time, this project, The Man Without Fear, was expanded to a five issue series, and Miller did some rescripting of the story after Romita, Jr. finished penciling it [Brayshaw 76].)

We should further note that all of these Batman and Daredevil comics stood well outside what was then the comics mainstream. They were also—and this is an even more significant point—all limited series and standalone graphic novels. Today we might take it for granted that a comics artist can work when and where he or she chooses—there’s a vital independent comics market—but such a situation was mostly unprecedented in the 1980s, even the 1990s. At that time, it was also hard to imagine that a comics artist could survive, let alone thrive, without being tied to a regular monthly book—and yet Miller showed how a career could be built out of graphic novels, limited series, and one-shots. (His original early-’80s run on Daredevil remains his only monthly series work.) Even by 1985 he was wearying of the pressures and constraints of mainstream comics production:

Comic-books people, I think, generally produce about twice the material that’s wise to produce 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 [Elektra Lives Again] and on the Batman series [TDKR], because I allowed myself roughly twice the time that I would have before, II went back into a great deal of rewriting. The last 20 pages of the Elektra book were completely rewritten after the book was penciled. I had to throw out weeks of work, because a bad habit I had for a long time became evident to me. By removing it, I made it a better story. And with the Dark Knight, it was the same situation. It’s just too easy to rely on old tricks. The monthly thing is definitely a problem, especially for the writers, and really, there is so little good writing in comics that it’s amazing there’s so many pages written. (Thompson 40)

This conviction would only deepen over time. Speaking with Will Eisner in 2002, he railed against the monthly format:

How long are we going to be controlled by the fact that a long time ago an old guy folded a newspaper in half, twice, and gave us an ugly format that we’ve been stuck with? [...] The pamphlet stinks so much. The periodical nature of comics is so wrong. It’s not just that it’s bad for commerce, it’s terrible for the art, too. People have to make the stuff too dense to make it worth $2.50, but at ten cents it made sense. Now it costs over two bucks to get, and it’s only twenty pages of story, and [artists] have to put nine panels on a page. [...] It makes no sense. It’s only tradition that keeps it alive. (Brownstein 13–4)

What’s more, despite the existence of imprints like Epic, Miller had grown increasingly disillusioned with working for companies like DC and Marvel. For one thing, Epic was struggling financially, not having received the financial support that Miller felt it needed (Thompson 39). Miller was also a staunch advocate of creators’ rights, and resentful of how slowly the major publishers were moving to grant artists royalties and ownership of their own material.

But the biggest challenge came in 1986. Perversely, the success of more mature titles like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, as well as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, made many within the comics industry nervous. As these comics received more and more outside attention (and criticism), people feared a second coming of Frederic Wertham, should kids begin reading them. (For more on Wertham’s influence on 1950s comics, and the resultant creation Comics Code Authority, see Part 7.)

In November 1986, Miller learned from Jenette Khan that DC was considering implementing a ratings system. He soon came to believe that Marvel was “close to making the same decision” (Groth 53) and subsequently spearheaded a protest, rallying numerous writers and artists to his side, and publishing a petition in The Comics Buyer’s Guide. In time, after several meetings between DC’s editors and Miller and other writers and artists, the proposed system was dropped. (Six years later, DC created the Vertigo imprint, adding the line “For Mature Readers” on the covers [later amended to "Suggested for Mature Readers"].)

In a 1987 Comics Journal interview with Gary Groth, Miller primarily lamented the amount of time he lost due to this fighting, but explained why he felt it was necessary:

My biggest fear about the whole thing was not that Marvel and DC would impose a ratings system on their comics. That would be an easy problem to address. It would simply mean absolutely not working for either company ever again. The biggest danger was that since distributors had been pushing for an identical system, and with Marvel and DC obeying them, those distributors could enforce the system on all other publishers. The distributors who would want to suppress certain kinds of comics could do so. It wouldn’t really take that much pressure to hurt Fantagraphics or Kitchen Sink financially very quickly and very hard. [...] So the pressure would be, if the system existed, and had DC and Marvel fallen in line, and gotten it, smaller publishers would have been much more vulnerable, and I would have lost any kind of independence that I have. If I wanted to work in this market. And I had thought that over. Alan [Moore] and I had talked about it a great deal, and both of us had come to the same conclusion: that if worst came to worst we’d simply leave the field. Find another way to do comics elsewhere. [...] That’s what I was afraid of happening. (Groth 57–8)

Cover art from "Busted," the newsletter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (1998). Art by Frank Miller, who has always been a staunch opponent of the Comics Code Authority.

In short, Miller was seeking at the time a freedom of expression, and a creative control over his work, that the Big Two publishers weren’t quite ready to provide. His weariness over these struggles helps explain why he actually quit comics around the end of 1986. He had already left New York for LA, where he spent the next two years trying to break into Hollywood. While there, he claims didn’t draw at all for two years (Brayshaw 81), instead devoting his time to writing the screenplay for Robocop 2 (1990), which eventually became the basis for both that film and its sequel, Robocop 3 (1993).

His work in Hollywood didn’t pan out: Miller later claimed that most of what he wrote was excised from the finished films. (His screenplays were eventually adapted to comic form as Frank Miller’s RoboCop, a limited series published by Avatar Press between 2003 and 2006.) His dissatisfaction with that experience led him to claim he wanted nothing more to do with Hollywood—a decision he would not reverse until the 2000s.

1990 saw Miller’s public return to comics. Uninterested in superheroes, and unwilling to consider working for Marvel or DC, he instead found a far more suitable working environment at Dark Horse Comics, an Oregon-based independent publisher founded in 1986 by Mike Richardson. (Outside of comics, Richardson might be best known for co-writing the screenplay for the 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Timecop.) There, he was given ownership of his concepts and characters, total creative freedom, and the power to produce comics at his own more methodical pace.

Miller took immediate advantage of the situation. Ever since TDKR, he had been discussing a collaboration with Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbons. Noting Gibbons’s love for Americana (the man is British), Miller decided to “do a real American hero [...] like a modern Captain America” (Brayshaw 78). The result was the four-issue limited series Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty (1990):

Marth Washington: Give Me Liberty #1, "Homes & Gardens," page 3 (detail) (1990).

The two would go on to produce several more Martha Washington miniseries and one-shots:

  • 1994: Martha Washington Goes to War (5 issues)
  • 1995: Happy Birthday, Martha Washington (1 issue)
  • 1995: Martha Washington Stranded in Space (1 issue)
  • 1997: Martha Washington Saves the World (3 issues)
  • 2007: Martha Washington Dies (1 issue)

Miller also met and befriended the artist Geoff Darrow, which resulted in the ultra-violent, Philip K. Dick-inspired Hard Boiled (3 issues, 1990–2):

Hard Boiled #3, page 29 (detail) (March 1992). Writing by Frank Miller, art by Geoff Darrow.

That series was a critical and underground hit, winning the 1991 Eisner Award for for Best Writer/Artist. Fans included the Wachowski Brothers, who thought highly enough of the book to tap Geoff Darrow as a conceptual designer on The Matrix.

Hard Boiled #1, page 18 (detail) (September 1990). Darrow, as you might suspect, did a lot to influence the insectoid look of that trilogy's robots.

Hard Boiled was also optioned by Hollywood, and has been since then in various stages of development. Roughly a decade ago it was attached to David Fincher and Nicolas Cage, and as recently as three years ago, Miller claimed that he himself was going to direct the project. (The subsequent critical and commercial failure of his Spirit adaptation may have put the kibosh on that plan.)

In 1995, Miller and Darrow collaborated again on the two-part—and far less R-rated (though still violent)—Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot:

Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot #1, page 8.

…which was adapted into a 26-episode cartoon series that aired on Fox Kids between 1999–2001:

But Miller’s most successful ’90s work, of course, was the crime comic Sin City. While this may have seemed something of a departure at the time, it was in fact a return to his roots. Miller had arrived in New York in the late 1970s eager to write and draw crime comics, only to find that, due to the Comics Code Authority, no one was interested in publishing them. And so Miller turned to the superheroes—Daredevil and Batman—that best allowed him to tell crime stories (Brayshaw 80–1).

Miller had also long entertained the dream of working in black and white. As he told Kim Thompson in 1985:

I’ve often thought what a delight it would be to do a graphic novel, maybe a hundred pages long, in black-and-white. [...] There’s … a real resistance in the heads of the publishers because of an assumed resistance from the audience to black-and-white. Makes it harder to sell or something like that. (Thompson 46–7)

No doubt the desire to prove that assumption wrong appealed to him. He also admitted: “The main appeal to me of working in black-and-white is probably the sheer egomania of it, the total control” (47).

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Miller, having at last secured the freedom to do whatever it was he wanted to do, did a black and white crime comic—in actuality a steady run of limited series published by Dark Horse throughout the 1990s:

  • 1991–2: The Hard Goodbye (13 issues, originally published in the anthology comic Dark Horse Presents)
  • 1993–4: A Dame to Kill For (6 issues)
  • 1994–5: The Big Fat Kill (5 issues)
  • 1996: That Yellow Bastard (6 issues)
  • 1997: Family Values (a standalone graphic novel)
  • 1998: Booze, Broads, & Bullets (a collection of one-shots)
  • 1999–2000: Hell and Back (9 issues)

Dark Horse Presents #56, "Sin City: The Hard Goodbye," part 7, page 3 (November 1991).

Later in the decade, he also did 300 (1998), a five-part miniseries:

300 #01, "Honor," pages 26–7 (1998). Writing and art by Frank Miller, colors by Lynn Varley. Note once again that you can click on these images to see larger versions!

Both Sin City and 300 would eventually lead Miller back to mainstream recognition, and to Hollywood.

But in the late 1980s, it was a curious thing: at the very height of commercial success, Frank Miller, from the point of view of the common comics fan, practically disappeared. (I know that it felt that way to my ten-year-old self. I read The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, as soon as it came out in trade paperback—I still have that same copy. But when I looked for more work by Miller, all I could find, well into the mid-1990s, was Ronin.)

We might argue that Marvel/DC fans of the time were not the most adventurous readers. Independent comics publishers then to fight very hard to receive any mainstream attention—look at the uphill struggle that even the star-heavy Image Comics faced, upon its founding in 1992. Few readers—and very few younger readers—followed Miller to Dark Horse.

What’s more, many of Miller’s post-TDKR comics—even the ones he made for Marvel—were difficult to come by. His Epic releases, for one thing, not being subject to the Comics Code Authority, received rather limited distribution. And even his Dark Horse comics, being much of a much more mature nature, were not always easily purchased by younger readers. (I didn’t come across many of his later comics until I was much, much older—which was probably for the best…)

In a 1998 Comics Journal interview, Christopher Brayshaw observed that he’d seen the then-new 300 advertised as “Miller’s Return.” Replied: Miller: “Oh, really? [Laughter.] Where’d I go?” (69).

All of this will help explain, I think, why Miller’s eventual return to superhero comics turned out to not be what most fans wanted. More about which…another time. Until then—

Works Cited

  • Brayshaw, Christopher. “Interview Four.” Frank Miller: The Interviews: 1981–2003. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2003. 64–87. Print.
  • Brownstein, Charles, ed. Eisner/Miller. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books, 2005.
  • Groth, Gary. “Interview Three.” Frank Miller: The Interviews: 1981–2003. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2003. 50–63. Print.
  • Thompson, Kim. “Interview Two.” Frank Miller: The Interviews: 1981–2003. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2003. 32–49. Print.
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24 thoughts on “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 8

  1. Great post, Adam, and a great series examining the graphic story, its creator and the impact both before and after. I’m very curious to see what you say about Miller’s “return” to superhero comics (as well as his “return” to film, a la The Spirit). Lots of my hardcore, comic book friends despise Miller now or completely dismiss him as a lunatic who couldn’t somehow reclaim his earlier glory. To be frank, the first (infamous) issue of All-Star Batman and Robin and my first viewing of The Spirit gave me little evidence (at the time) to the contrary. In truth, though, this series has been eye-opening, and upon re-watching The Spirit and catching some of his hard to come by ’90s work (like Martha Washington [Give Me Liberty is brilliant in my opinion]) I’m starting to see his current artist work in a new light. I figure if anyone is going to support his work on TDKSA, it will be you :-)

    • Thanks, Peter! And I intend to eventually conduct deeper analyses of Miller’s later Batman work. (It took me a while, but I’ve come to like both The Dark Knight Strikes Again and—yes!—All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Possibly something is wrong with my brain. Or, at the very least, I think it’s possible to define critical positions from which those works can be admired. But I don’t know how deep I’ll go in the next post, which will be the last one for this little series; I’ll probably just sketch out an overview for the time being, then start a new series, eventually, where I perform a more thorough reading.

      I saw The Spirit only once, and it disappointed me at the time (I didn’t find it all that remarkable), but it’s since grown somewhat in my memory (though only somewhat!). I plan to revisit it at some point. I do think it makes a lot of sense in terms of Miller’s work over the past two decades, though…

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  11. What an amazing series of posts. Certainly one of the best critical analysis of a graphic novel I have ever read. I look forward to reading your take on Dark Knight Strikes Again… any word on when part 9 will be ready?

    BTW, have you ever considered penning a career retrospective on Frank Miller? I know I’d buy a copy. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much, Hanzo T.R.! Truth be told, I haven’t really been working on Part 9, due to grad school, and now I feel as though I’ve lost the momentum. I mainly wanted to talk about how The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder differs from The Knight Returns. Perhaps someday I’ll write some analyses of those later comics.

      I don’t know if I’m the person to write a career retrospective for Mr. Miller. But I definitely think his later work is not that well understood, and too frequently dismissed. He’s a fascinating artist—one of the greatest ever to come out of comics, I think—and everything he does, despite how ridiculous as it can be, is, I think, worth examining.

      But what I really want to do is write a detailed analysis of Dave Sim and Gerhard’s Cerebus.

      Thanks again, for reading and leaving the comment!
      Adam

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  15. Having finished watching Part 2 of The Dark Knight Returns, it piqued my interest again in the graphic novel and the impact it had on comics at the time and beyond, which brought me here.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this informative and insightful set of posts on TDKR and Miler. Learned a fair bit, and will now seek out the Understanding Comics book too as I loved you delving deep into the form, and how Miller, and indeed Gibbons in Watchmen to a lesser extent, used the constraints of their panel layout and then subverted it to great effect.

    Excellent work, really enjoyed reading.

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