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Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 2

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

Frank Miller released the sixth and last issue of Ronin in August 1984. Not everyone was sure what to make of the limited series, but Miller and his colorist, Lynn Varley, emerged from the project emboldened. As Miller put it to the Comics Journal in 1985, “[W]e’re scaring the horses. They need scaring” (Thompson 37).

Their next opportunity to startle their editors, peers, and fans would be much higher profile: DC editor Dick Giordano offered Miller the chance to reinvent Batman, whose books at the time were suffering declining sales. (Indeed, by 1985 Batman’s sales had reached such a low point that some at DC had suggested killing off the character.) Could Miller pull with Batman the same trick he’d managed with Daredevil?

Batman was pretty violent in the beginning. Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," page 6 (detail). By Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

Miller’s interest in superheroes was by that time waning, but he saw in Batman a prime opportunity to create a comic book for adults—to return what had become the campy Caped Crusader to his original pulp roots: The Dark Knight. (The series’ title, The Dark Knight Returns, is a pun.) He immediately pitched to Giordano a much more violent version of the character:

One thing that had to be done right away was that his methods had to become a lot harsher and he had to become a lot smarter. The ‘Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot’ line had to go out the window. He has to be a very, very potent, scary figure in order to even function in that world, let along overpower it.

To Miller’s delight and surprise, Giordano agreed (36).

As with Ronin, Miller designed the project as a limited series for which he’d have more preparation time than was the industry norm. (Giordano eventually quit the project due to conflicts with Miller over deadlines). Also as with Ronin, Miller insisted upon using heavier, glossier paper stock with sturdier covers, square bindings, more pages, and no ads. DC used the series to standardize this finer and more expensive format as their “prestige format.” DC editor Jenette Kahn later said of the project:

Dark Knight signaled a seismic shift. All the extraordinary books that have come after it, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, The Sandman, Preacher, Planetary, The Authority, 100 Bullets (and great books from other publishers, too, like American Flagg) owe a debt to it. Dark Knight turned comics on its head. And it ushered in a new era of formats. With paper of the highest quality and perfect binding, Dark Knight was more book than comic. Unlike magazines and other supposedly disposable ephemera Dark Knight and the comics it made possible could take their place on the library shelf. (Contino)


In his classic graphic novel textbook Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes how from the 1930s until the 1980s, comics were colored using a streamlined four-color process in which cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes were applied to black inks at pre-determined ratios (100%, 50%, 20%): “The look of these colors, held by bold, simple outlines, and reproduced on cheap newsprint eventually became the look of comics in America” (187). Faced with diminished color possibilities, artists relied on bold, bright color palettes: “While comics colors were less than expressionistic, they were fixed with a new iconic power. Because costume colors remained exactly the same, panel after panel, they came to symbolize characters in the mind of the reader” (188). Unsurprisingly, the medium eventually became dominated by the subject matter its technology could best present: superhero adventures.

In Europe, however, superior printing technology allowed artists to use painted colors, and thereby employ more subtle effects—as well as tell a wider range of stories (190). Miller, of course, wanted in:

[C]omic-book coloring has never even been much of an issue in the past 50 years; it’s pretty much been a matter of ‘Make him red, so we know he’s the Human Torch.’ (Thompson 45)

Compare the following panels from a 1963 issue of Tintin with a 1967 issue of X-Men (later Uncanny X-Men):

Tintin: "Les bijoux de la castafiore" (1963). Page 1 (detail). Art by Hergé. Colors by Josette Vaujot.
Same issue, another detail from page 1.
X-Men #31 (April 1967): "We Must Destroy the Cobalt Man!" Page 3 (detail). Art by Werner Roth and John Tartaglione. (Tellingly, no colorist is credited on this issue.)
Same issue, page 13 (detail). Note the multiple coloring errors.

Miller’s final issue of Daredevil (#191) marked his first collaboration with Lynn Varley, for which she used the industry standard Dr. Martin’s dyes. (To see some of that art, check out this very good analysis of that issue, which includes some discussion of Varley’s unusual approach to using those dyes.)

However, Varley, who hailed from a fine art and commercial art background (Schutz 107), agreed with Miller that comics were capable of much more. …But first, in order to bring us back to the mid-1980s, here’s the opening splash page from Uncanny X-Men #201 (January 1986). Its coloring is typical of mainstream US comics of the period:

Art by Rick Leonardi and Whilce Portacio. Colors by Glynis Oliver. Note that Madelyne Pryor's ear (center left) isn't properly colored.

Miller and Varley, meanwhile, were eager to emulate the painted art they’d seen in European comics. The superior paper and printing processes used for both Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns allowed Varley to use gouache, employing a far subtler color palette than that seen in any other mainstream American comic at the time (ibid):

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Book Three: "Hunt the Dark Knight." Page 47 (detail).

Varley also employed a wide range of colors throughout the series:

Book One: "The Dark Knight Returns." Page 4 (detail).
Book One, page 13 (detail).
Book Two: "The Dark Knight Triumphant." Page 22.
Book Three, page 14.
Book Four: "The Dark Knight Falls." Page 30.

At times, Varley juxtaposed wildly different color palettes, creating striking effects:

Book Three, page 13 (detail).
Book Four, page 24 (detail).
Book Four, page 25.

Several of the above examples further show how Miller and Varley employed the whole page as their canvas. Drawing upon the lessons they’d learned from Ronin, they were able to use “bleeds” throughout the series (i.e., they could extend images and coloring all the way to the edges of the page). This was unprecedented in mid-1980s American comics. Compare the above images with any page in Watchmen, itself a strikingly-colored and innovative comic miniseries published by DC in the same year:

Watchmen, Chapter 1, page 1. Art by Dave Gibbons. Color by John Higgins. Despite being a bloody (and bloody good) story, there are no bleeds anywhere in Watchmen.

(The creators of Watchmen, being more confined in their means than Miller and Varley, innovated by moving in a different direction. While they colored their comic using the four-color dye process, they pushed this technology to extreme limits, creating bizarre optical effects that comment upon the limited and often garish coloring of superhero comics.)

Flipping through The Dark Knight Returns (either the single issues or the graphic novel) is illuminating; one never can predict the next page’s coloring scheme. And yet Miller and Varley show great restraint throughout, consistently employing color to strengthen the clarity of the story. For instance, Miller regularly cuts back and forth between simultaneous plotlines, each of which employs its own color scheme:

Book Two, page 30. The Joker and his doctors are rendered in lighter tones, with browns and blacks reserved for Batman and Carrie's trip to the Batcave.
Book Two, page 40. Commissioner Gordon and Captain Yindel are presented in black and white and blue-gray, with brighter colors reserved for Carrie and the Mutant gang members.

And despite the subtleties that their tools afforded them, Miller and Varley remained aware of the iconic power of bright, simple, conventionally superheroic color schemes:

Book Two, page 14.
Book Three, page 26.

The effect of these (usually full-page) images is startling, contrasting powerfully with the pages of art that precede them.

The total result is a comic that continually engages and reengages the reader’s eye, relentlessly exploring multiple possibilities afforded by such a wide range of colors. The Dark Knight Returns signals an adamant refusal to be constrained by outmoded printing technologies.


Another collaborator who deserves special attention is Klaus Janson, who inked the comic. (Miller also did some of his own inking.) Miller had worked with Janson at Marvel, where Janson was his finisher on Daredevil. (Janson took over as penciler on that series when Miller left.)

Superior printing technology allowed Miller and Janson to explore finer degrees of line, knowing that their work would reproduce faithfully:

Book One, page 39 (detail).

As with the project’s coloring, this finer control allowed Miller and Janson to employ ink for a wider variety of effects. For instance, consider the range of textures in the following images:

Book Three, page 22 (detail).
Book Three, page 42 (detail).
Book Two, page 46. Note how the "scribblier" inking at the top of the page delineates the battle in the mud from the cleaner lines of the TV images at the bottom.

Again, flipping through the comic displays the wide range of styles that Miller and his collaborators were able—and eager—to employ.

In the next few posts in this series, I’ll proceed to read each individual book more closely, examining how the coloring, inking, and other techniques were combined with other formal strategies to create the innovative work of art that is The Dark Knight Returns.

Until then, happy (comics) reading!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

20 thoughts on “Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 2

  1. This post is freaking great. And it made me go back and read pt. 1, which I’d apparently missed. I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  2. good stuff–this series made me hate superman now and forever. i worked in a comic store and was paid in comics and breathed the comic book air and sealed everything even myself in the plastic preservation bags

  3. This is a fantastic analysis of some of the real nuts and bolts stuff Miller, Varley and Janson did for the miniseries. My comics classes are reading TDKR this term, and having already finished McCloud’s book, this post should be particularly helpful. Thanks.

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