Wednesday (11/25/15) the first issue of Dark Knight III: The Master Race was released in comic book stores and digitally so you’ve probably seen a flood of articles and podcasts talking about Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. This has left me at an impasse, on one hand The Dark Knight Returns is something that has been covered hundreds of times by others more eloquently than myself. However, the Dark Knight Returns is not only my favorite comic, but also my favorite book of all time so I don’t really want to let the release of it’s newest installment pass without saying something.
I don’t want to recap the story and plot of The Dark Knight Returns. It is extremely accessible to get the trade paperback, digital, and even as an animated film. It’s been around since 1986 so if you haven’t read the story already, it’s on you at this point. So what I would like to do is to break down three of my favorite scenes and themes from the story and try to explain why I like it so much.
That the tragedy of Bruce’s parents dying being the driving force for him to become the Batman is not a new concept. However, its generally seen as an active driving force in that Batman is actively fighting crime. Since the threat is current and active we can still assume if things cleaned up in Gotham that Batman could quit. The Dark Knight Returns shows just how much Bruce needs to be Batman by showing how empty his life is without it. Bruce has been retired for 10 years and could not be more miserable. The opening pages has Bruce thrill-seeking at a Formula 1 race contemplating ending it all right then and there. Bruce hasn’t found anyone to settle down with or tried to start a new life in retirement, he’s isolated himself and allowed himself to stew in his anger at not being Batman. The biggest reoccurring themes in this story is Bruce looking for a good death. You get the feeling that he had always intended to die in the line of duty and that retirement was never in his plans. He is the ultimate career soldier. He has lived every day of his life since his parents died preparing and being the Batman so when he was forced to give that up there was nothing left for him to go back to.
The inner dialogue in the Dark Knight Returns is one of my favorite aspects of the book. When Batman fights the Mutant leader (the second time) it looks like a normal brawl brawl on the outside. But hearing Batman’s thoughts you see just how much planning and thought is put into every action he performs. Every punch is strategic and executed with surgical precision. Having the fight in the mud pit, luring the leader out in front of his followers, cutting his forehead right above the eyes. Every action has a purpose and every contingency is accounted for. This is Batman at his most Batman. We love the character because he has plan for everything and back up plans for his back up plans. The Dark Knight Returns showcases his skills in a way that is smart, entertaining, and practical which set the standard for the character.
I can’t think of another character that has had a rougher treatment than Jason Todd. A lot of backlash came when Kyle Rainer found his girlfriend’s dead body chopped up and left in a refrigerator, but it pales in comparison to DC Comics setting up a 1-900 call in number to decided the life/death of Jason Todd. The Dark Knight Returns turned a publicity stunt from DC Comics into one of the defining events of Batman’s life. My single favorite moment in the story is when Batman is alone in the Batcave looking at Jason’s costume and says never again. It doesn’t explicitly say what happened but it is able to convoy all the emotion and meaning with a minimal words and a few panels. It’s hard to say that for certain that the impact of Jason’s death in The Dark Knight Returns was the reason that Jason Todd stayed dead in the comics for as long as he did, but I like to think they are connected.
If you still haven’t read The Dark Knight Returns Comixology is having a sale and you can get it now for as little as $3.96 (each of the individual issues for $0.99) or collected for $6.99 right now so there are no excuses. I also highly recommend the DC Comics Original Animated Film. It is as faithful to the source as humanly possible and more or less uses the comic pages as story boards. You don’t get the inner dialogue as you would with the comic but it is still a fantastic film.