When it comes to Batman, many swear by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy which for them gave a whole new dimension to the Caped Crusader. Well, one of the inspirations for that amazing film series was Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns graphic novel (well, we used to call them comic books) that was actually released in 1986. The Dark Knight Returns comprises four titles – The Dark Knight Returns, Hunt The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Triumphant and The Dark Knight Falls.
Even at that time when comic book fever was at its peak (the Internet was nowhere near becoming the phenomenon it is right now), the series was considered revolutionary because it totally turned the concept of Batman, who had until then been basically a classic superhero with a heart of gold and muscles of steel and the hero of all that’s good, on its head. It is still considered to be the greatest Batman story ever told. And yes, we think it is definitely worth reading even now.
Miller turns the Batman into a brooding over-fifty Bruce Wayne in a Gotham City of the future. A city which has not seen the Batman for a very long time, so long that many do not even remember him, and where the administration does not look too kindly towards vigilantes. Robin is dead. The Joker is in prison, Two-Face had reformed after plastic surgery had restored his face, and well, the threat in town is a gang of youngsters called The Mutants. The streets are not really safe, the administration is corrupt, the police largely ineffective except for a few good men (Jim Gordon is there). And Bruce Wayne does not seem to care on the surface. Only he does. And a bat crashing into his room brings the Batman back to Gotham.
It is an older Batman, though, and Miller does not try to sugarcoat that. The Batman here is not the crazy strong gadget freak seen in many comic books, but an older man, carefully trying to conserve his energy and make the most of his surroundings. He does not always succeed and one of the most stirring passages of the book is when he is beaten to near death by an enemy he underestimates. Alfred is there to patch him up and also offer some very dry, dark wit. In time, a new Robin emerges, and it is a girl! The Joker and Two-Face come back to haunt the city, a new commissioner of police takes over from Gordon (and makes arresting Batman a priority), and before you ask, yes, there is a famous Batman-Superman battle as well – and yes, it inspired the Batman vs Superman film as well.
The storyline is deep, the dialogues excellent, and the illustrations very different from the sort of colourful, comic book perfection one is generally used to seeing in superhero comics. Gotham is a grim, gritty place and Miller sketches it superbly. There is no riot of colour but lots of shades of grey, and you can sometimes even smell the trash on the streets, or taste the blood that is spilled there. The Dark Knight Returns is not for those who want a feel good book with a happy ending. Neither is it for those looking for a typical superhero read in which the hero is simply too good for the dastardly villains.
No, this is the kind of book that is almost like a film in book form. It will leave you exhausted not just when you finish reading it, but even mid-way through it. It is not all laughter and sunshine, but is intense, brooding and brilliant.
Just like Batman.