The year was 1986.
Having enjoyed a popular, if not significantly campy, television show in the 60s, and many light-hearted, if not occasionally silly, adventures in comics and cartoons in the 70s and into the 80s, Batman was a meaningful American cultural presence. He was a pretty good example of what people meant when they used the term “hero.” Batman was a crimefighter, a good guy, kid-friendly and mother-approved. Noticing that he would soon turn 30, which would make him older than Batman, writer-artist Frank Miller delivered The Dark Knight Returns, a story about an aged Bruce Wayne who, having hung up his cape ten years prior, now haunted Gotham City like a ghost refusing to take its rest. The violent threat to civic safety in the form of a young gang called The Mutants ends up giving Bruce that ol’ familiar feeling, and before you knew it, criminals were popping up in all manner of disrepair. We got to witness a seasoned Batman face a new, youthful menace, we got cameos from some familiar villains, a brand new Robin, a retiring Commissioner Gordon, and a World’s Finest tete-a-tete to top it all off.
When the four-issue miniseries was released in 1986, it represented a much different Batman than the larger viewing public had come to know. Their cuddly, smiling Caped Crusader was now a grim and grumpy Dark Knight. In this story, there were some lines in battle that Batman was ready to cross; keeping Gotham safe just might mean that he had to get a little muddy. This was a darker tone for Batman in particular, and for comics in general (Watchmen also debuted in 1986), and many other titles began to skew toward a grittier, more realistic depiction of crime-fighting and its ramifications. And here we are, thirty years later, still feeling the influence of The Dark Knight Returns and its decidedly heavier and grimier perspective.
I tend to attribute this staying power to a story that draws readers in with lots of conflict that we want to see resolved. There are quite a few battles going on that drive the drama here, but there are three battles that I think comprise the heart and soul of what makes this such a landmark story.
The first is Bruce Wayne versus age. Even when you’ve trained your body to the absolute peak of human athletic performance, there comes a day when all of us won’t be able to do what we used to do, and Bruce is no different. Throughout the book, we get to listen to the Batman scold himself as blows don’t land as hard or as fast as they once did, or as his body doesn’t quite absorb blows like it used to. For a character who had trained himself to be as close to indestructible as humanly possible, witnessing him go through this struggle against his own relative frailty is fascinating.
Another interesting battle is Batman versus public opinion. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen several times with several different superheroes, where we ask if the vigilante is a hero or a menace, but here the question is illustrated by a pair of newscast pundits (not to mention in the conversation surrounding Gordon’s retirement and impending replacement), and it is amplified as the story builds. At first, we’re discussing the legality of crime-fighting; then, as Batman squares off against The Mutants, we start talking about copycats and scope of accountability; finally, we have to deal with where Batman fits into government oversight. It’s a complex discussion to have, and the many layers of thought all have a chance to play out. It was fun to feel my own viewpoint shift more than once as the story progressed.
Of course, one of the greatest battles in the book is Batman versus Superman, and I think I can stop right there. The fact that we’re staring down the barrel of a movie blockbuster based largely on the battle as it is written and drawn in this book is a testament to this novel’s continued relevance, even decades after its original publication. The circumstances for the face-off point back to the public opinion battle I mentioned earlier, and the execution of the combat points back to the battle against age, so you get to see how the conflicts in the story finally converge. In any case, watching these two titans go toe to toe is thrilling; absolute classic stuff. It’s what you look for in a graphic novel that makes you want to read it again every now and then, even after thirty years.