Cheesy to gritty: the turning point for Batman’s character

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is the book that fundamentally defined the famous hero

Image courtesy of DC Comics

By: Saif Nayani

In February 1986, DC Comics began publishing Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue comic mini-series by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. By the 1980s, people were used to seeing Batman as a source of cheesy one-liners and an overall campy atmosphere, thanks in large part to the character’s 1960s Adam West TV incarnation. But the Dark Knight Returns iteration of Batman wasn’t that . . . at all.

     The Dark Knight Returns centres around an almost 60-year-old Batman who has been retired for the past decade. Gotham City is a crime-filled dystopia suffering from one of the worst heatwaves in its history. A gang called the Mutants is rapidly gaining power through fear in the city, and villains like Two-Face are resurfacing to get in on the action. All of this helps set the stage for a triumphant and much-needed return for Batman.

This is by far my favourite Batman comic book ever written. Miller’s writing and artwork perfectly convey the bleak and dark tone of Batman’s world — a tone which, although synonymous with the franchise now, was revolutionary at the time. Every character, from minor to significant, earns emotional real estate in the reader’s psyche, making each action, event, and twist that much more impactful.

     The book is split into four issues, or acts, and while there is one overall story arc spanning the entire book, every issue contains its own storyline, each spilling into the next. Structuring a series like this is nothing new in the comics world, but I have never seen it done so brilliantly and fluidly as it is in The Dark Knight Returns. This is what keeps the reader in suspense, and forces them to keep turning the pages.

     The Dark Knight Returns’ publication quite literally signalled a return to form for the Dark Knight. If you have ever loved a Batman comic, movie, TV show, or game because of its gritty realism and dark atmosphere, chances are you have Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to thank. Do yourself a huge favour and give it a read.