I don’t usually recommend graphic novels about superheroes to people who didn’t grow up reading comic books about spandex clad vigilantes, since most writers of this genre rely heavily on a seventy year history of esoterica that would be totally lost on the uninitiated reader. I do, however, have two exceptions to this rule, both of which were released by DC Comics in 1986, and have fortunately remained available in trade paperback form ever since. The first is Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which features brand new characters in a decidedly un-comic book-like world, presenting very little obstacle to superhero neophytes. The second, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller (with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley) uses the exact opposite approach to bridge the superhero gap by utilizing iconic figures so large that even people who have never picked up a comic book in their lives will be familiar with the characters and setting.*
The story is an “imaginary” one, meaning that it is not considered part of Batman’s true history. It takes place in the near future, ten years after the Batman vanished without a trace from the streets and rooftops of Gotham. Now a fifty-year-old Bruce Wayne lives in a world even more violent than the one he once knew, and watches as a new, less human breed of criminals terrorizes the citizens he once swore to protect. Eventually, his inner demons demand to be freed, and he dons the cape and cowl again to civilize a now savage city.
This book (originally a four issue mini series) was the first to delve into the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne, who, as a young boy, stood by helplessly as his parents were gunned down in front of him. It paints a disturbing portrait of a man so overwrought with guilt and overpowered by a need for vengeance that it would drive him to the rather insane decision to fight a life long one man war against crime. It was also the first time the brutal consequences of that war were examined. Determined never to take a life, Batman has honed his body into a powerful weapon, and uses it to send scores of criminals to the hospital with broken bones, internal bleeding and a host of other injuries. Even the police are considered legitimate targets when they get in the Dark Knight’s way. Although not groundbreaking in this regard, another major theme of the book is the relationship between Batman and some of his more flamboyant arch nemeses, like Two-Face and the Joker; specifically the way in which their respective obsessions with good and evil seem to feed one another.
But Batman is not the only pop culture icon who appears in this story. Superman, the Light to Batman’s Dark, also plays a crucial role. The friendly rivalry between these two caped crusaders heats up as the Man of Steel seeks to interfere in Batman’s affairs. Bruce Wayne resents the arrogant elitism and naïve idealism of the last boy scout from Krypton, whose near omnipotence makes it deceptively easy for him to condemn his former comrade’s violent excesses. Rather than cheapening them, by examining the flawed humanity of both these more than human characters, Frank Miller only adds to their mythic status and makes their unwavering commitment to justice even more impressive.
This is simply the greatest story ever written about two of the greatest fictional heroes ever created. If every superhero story were of this caliber, the idea of reading comic books wouldn’t seem so funny to most people.
* There is some background that may be useful for those not overly familiar with the comic book history of Batman, or rather, of his youthful sidekick Robin. As a young adult, the first Robin, Dick Grayson, left Batman over professional differences and began a solo crime-fighting career as Nightwing. Soon afterwards, Batman took in a new Robin, Jason Todd, who was eventually killed by the Joker (Dark Knight was written before the “real” Batman adopted his third and current Robin, Tim Drake). Another figure who probably won’t be familiar to most non-comics readers is Oliver, the balding, white bearded revolutionary who makes his appearance near the end of the book. He was once the crime-fighting archer known as Green Arrow.