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.

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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.

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What the hell’s a GRAPHIC NOVEL? I read COMICS.

Comic creator Will Eisner’s 1985 analysis of his own medium, Comics & Sequential Art, was an important step in freeing a long marginalized and ancient medium. The need for the cumbersome term “sequential art” shows the cultural baggage that the term “comics” carries with it. The earlier tendency of 1970’s underground comic artists to spell their medium “comix” was a similar gesture. In his book, Eisner considers comics not in terms of film or literature, but as its own medium, with its own considerations. He created a teaching tool to free the panels and dialogue bubbles of the comics page.

Almost a decade later, Scott McCloud surveyed comics and made prescriptions concerning the medium, presenting his ideas, appropriately, as comics themselves. His book Understanding Comics studies the capabilities and obstacles inherent to comics. He investigates the medium as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing did painting and poetry in “Laocoon.”

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