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Dark Knight Returns!
12.15.2002 by Scott, every Thursday.

I went to my local comic shop earlier this week and saw that they had some old trade paperbacks on sale. I picked up a few Batman ones for dirt cheap, and read them through. One of them was a reprint of Frank Miller’s 1986 mini-series, “The Dark Knight Returns”.

I had read it before, but years ago. Years and years ago, as I must have just begun high-school, and I have to confess, I didn’t think much of it. It was faded and wordy and didn’t have the same appeal as “The New Mutants” did at that time. I passed it up for some lighter reading, with more pop.

Well, I read it again, sitting in my favorite bar, sucking back rum n’ cokes by the fireplace one afternoon last week. Straight through, spending a good 3 hours and 20 bucks there. It’s was a perfect way to kill a little time, read comics and drink. I highly recommend both the book, and the bar, Grumpy’s on Bishop in Montreal. So I decided to take a look at this one work in a little more detail (and at the same time hammer out a column before the TM people send the “Fixers” after me!), so here we go.

Released in March 1986, “The Dark Knight Returns” hit the shops a few moths before the other highly acclaimed comic series of that year, “The Watchmen”. Dark Knight was written and penciled by Miller, who had created a following for himself by working on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil as both a writer and a penciler, and then later in 1984 for providing the art for the successful “Wolverine” mini-series, which was written by “X-Men” scribe, Chris Claremont.

It’s important to note that in the mid eighties, comics were passing a serious phase in their transformation from campy funny books to a medium trying to appeal to an older, more intellectual audience. The changes had begun in other titles like Claremont’s “X-Men” and Miller’s own work on “Daredevil”, but the books that DC was publishing at that time had a harder time keeping up, and trailing at the back of the DC pack was Batman. Alan Moore, a contemporary of Miller’s, had this to say about the perception of Batman before the release of this book; “Whatever changes may have been wrought in the comics themselves, the image of Batman most permanently fixed in the minds of the populace is that of Adam West delivering outrageously straight-faced camp dialogue while walking up a wall thanks to the benefit of stupendous special effects and a camera turned on it’s side.” That image was hard to shake for the comic reader audience, and Batman’s own appearances in books like “Batman and the Outsiders” were not helping people to take him seriously.

So “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” is released, part one of four, 48 pages long and dramatically different than any book about Batman that had ever preceded it. The characters were all the same, boy billionaire Bruce Wayne, who had lost his parents in a mugging turned murder years ago, his faithful butler (or Gentleman’s gentleman, as he would put it) Alfred, the gritty but straight-shooting Commissioner Gordon, the cast of villains all there, all the same, but at the same time, all different. Bruce Wayne has aged, and is now in his late fifties, and Batman has not been heard from in ten years. Gordon is close to retirement, and Gotham is a darker, more fearful city than ever before.

Frank Miller broke the mold for Batman, and recreated it all himself. Every major Batman project has been heavily influenced by Dark Knight, from the monthly comics to the motion pictures released in the nineties to the animated series that ran from 1993 to 1998. The Batman’s attitude, environment and even his costume have ever been adjusted due to Miller’s work. He became colder, more distant, and more maladjusted.

I don’t want to give out too much about the plot, but if you really want to know what happened, you can find breakdowns of the story by plugging in a search into Google, or, by heading down to you local comic shop and ordering yourself a copy.

To summarise, this mini-series - now only collected in trade format - is one of the top ten best comic stories ever made, and the most influential comic in the past 40 years. If you ever wondered how comics went from being Adam West or Christopher Reeves to Tim Burton’s Batman or the recent X-Men film, it’s all in Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”, so go read it already.

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