The Dark Knight Returns: A ComiConversation

Sam McCoy Sam McCoy
March 31st, 2016

The Dark Knight Returns: A ComiConversation

This month's topic is The Dark Knight Returns. Mitch Nissen and Sam McCoy have been friends since the late nineties when they used to work in the cornfields together. Reading comics and watching movies were the foundation of their friendship that has lasted all these years despite the fact they haven’t lived near one another for years. Mitch was a Marvel guy through and through when Sam came along with his Batman and the rest of the Justice League. Over the years they’ve shared some of their favorite stories with one another.

Sam’s History with Batman and The Dark Knight Returns:

Batman is my favorite comic book hero of all-time. It all goes back to 1989, when I’m four years old and I see the ads for this movie that just captured my imagination. My first memory is my mom NOT taking me to the first Tim Burton Batman movie because she heard it was for “big kids”.

Yes, I still remind her to this day about it.

Batman and Superman (and to a lesser degree the X-Men) are why I got into reading comics. Those properties are also what I was reading when I picked up my first titles. I’m not sure of my exact age, but I know I first read Dark Knight Returns when I was in middle school in the late 90’s, I’m guessing 1998 or 1999. The internet was fairly new to me and I remember reading a “Top Comics of All-Time” kind of list whereDark Knight Returns was number two, right below Watchmen. So I went with my detasselling money and picked both of them up. I remember always seeing them at the comic store but remember once again hearing those were more for “grown-ups.”

It absolutely blew me away when I read it for the first time. First and foremost, it made The New Adventures of Batman episode Legends of the Dark Knight make way more sense. That episode was relatively new at the time. It was exciting to see this “final” story of the character, something that really appealed to me, as in the Kingdom Come story arc.

Now, for Dark Knight Strikes Again I was picking it up as it came out. I’ve always felt that the first issue was a pretty solid start, but that the story in general veered off after 9-11. The United States did for sure, but in particular the comics industry had such a reactionary take on 9-11, that it definitely derailed some good comics and DK2 was just one of a few.

Dark Knight Returns

Credit: DC Comics

Mitch’s History with Batman and The Dark Knight Returns:

I’m a Marvel man. Always have been. That being said, I love Batman. My love for the character is due in no small part to the 1989 film Batman and Batman: The Animated Series, which ran through the early 1990’s. Those are still my favorite interpretations of the character. I have remained a Batman fan all these years and have been a regular reader of Batman since 2002 with issue #608.

My favorite Batman stories are Hush, Battle for the Cowl, Gotham by Gaslight, and more recently The Court of Owls. I also have an undying love for Batman vs Predator.

Noticed that The Dark Knight Returns is not the list, did you?

That’s because I’ve never read it.

Everyone I’ve met who has read the book speaks of The Dark Knight Returns in high regard.

So why haven’t I read it? No particular reason. I guess it’s the same reason why everybody hasn’t seen Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Yes, we all know they’re legendary films. They’ve been highly vaunted and widely hailed, so much so that what’s one more voice in the crowd going to do?

What can one say about this story, either positively or negatively, that hasn’t already been said before?

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Mitch’s Initial Thoughts:

I enjoyed it!

The first realization I had upon finishing reading, which in retrospect shouldn’t have been surprising at all, was how many other Batman stories have been influenced by this one. Before finishing it, I already felt familiar with many of the plotlines and ideas. The first part that jumped out at me while reading was the name Corto Maltese. My mind instantly raced back to Tim Burton’s Batman. Now I get it. It only took me 25 years, but now I finally get it!

Sam McCoy: Let's start with Book 1 of Dark Knight Returns. What did you think of the world that Miller had crafted in this future Gotham?

Mitch Nissen: It felt like a mix of a noir 70’s true crime detective story and a classic western. The old sheriff returns to right the wrongs despite his contemporaries’ feelings to the contrary. Especially at the end when Batman and his army ride in on horses to save the day. It was like Batman was Wyatt Earp and Gotham was Tombstone set in 1985.

Dark Knight Returns

Credit: DC Comics

I know some have compared it to the Dirty Harry movies too and I felt that as well. The “Rights of the Criminals” versus the “Rights of the Victim” angle felt very much in the vein of Dirty Harry.

Sam: Speaking of outlaws and bad guys in Book 1 we see what is hoped by Bruce to be a rehabilitated Harvey Dent have his final decline into villainy?

What were your thoughts on this part of the story?

What did you think of Harvey's costume at one point?

Mitch: Very Hush-like.

This story shouts 1985. Ronald Reagan. The Cold War tensions. It felt like Mr. Miller’s personal “State of the Union” address. This was the most politically charged comic book story I’ve read. The story relies heavily on text rather than on visuals. The frequent 16 panel pages lend themselves to function rather than art or style. It felt more like a book at times rather than a comic book. While I’m not overly fond of politics it was interesting seeing it play out here.

Sam: During this time period was really the first time such political discourse had ever really been in comics such as DKR and even more so in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. Some things had been brought up in early times, particularly some of the ground breaking work by Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams in Green Arrow/Green Lantern.  Politics had never been so directly addressed in superhero comics before this time period, with the exception of course being when all the heroes were doing their part in the war effort during World War II.

Mitch: The psychoanalysis of Batman and super heroes in general was interesting. The criminals that Batman fights are only there because Batman is there. The character of Dr. Wolper and his theory in the book comes across as psycho-analytical nonsense at first but then changes with the return of the Joker. Dr. Wolper was proven right when the Joker killed him.

Sam: It's one of the great jokes in the book in my opinion.Now in Book 2 we see the mutant leader. I often consider Book 2 my least favorite of the four books of Dark Knight Returns. I've never been a fan of the mutant slang. But I do love the stuff with the Bat-Tank which of course heavily influenced the Chris Nolan movies.

Dark Knight Returns

Credit: DC Comics

Mitch: The Bat-Tank was interesting. I’ll confess it seemed a little much. I do prefer the slimmed down version in the Nolan movies.

The mutant leader wasn't all that impressive. I didn't mind the future slang as it gave the world a little more authenticity and sci-fi feel. The character design of the mutant leader was lacking in my opinion as it felt uninspired.

Sam: Those are pretty much my thoughts. Had it been done later, I would not have been surprised to have Bane in that role. Killer Croc would have debuted only about 3 years before at the time as he could fit into that too.

Now up to this point we haven't talked about one of the great additions Miller added to the Batman mythos being Carrie Kelley as Robin.

What were your thoughts on her?

Mitch: Let me ask a question before I answer that.

What’s the deal with DC and under-aged kids?

There are many parallels between this story and the previous story you assigned me, Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow, and this similarity stood out.

Carrie Kelley and Mia Dearden are 13 and 15 years old and play big supporting roles in very R-rated stories. Carrie being so young, only 13 years old, was kind of uncomfortable to watch, especially now that I am a parent.

I thought it was a strange parallel between the two stories. Frank Miller has a running commentary about this in The Dark Knight Returns but never really comes to a stand on the issue.

Sam: I mean it's all about going back to the idea of Dick Grayson as the teen sidekick. Keep in mind Marvel did the same stuff with Bucky, only making him older in a retcon as he frequently called a "young boy" in early Cap and Young Allies books. Also, Miles Morales is what 13-14 in his first stuff as Spider-Man.

In the classic New Teen Titans story The Judas Contract it is implied to that Deathstroke is having a sexual relationship with Tara who appears to be about 15.

Teen Titans

Credit: DC Comics

I've also always looked at this as if Batman truly is leading his war on crime, that war affects everyone. Even children get involved in the war effort to do their part.

Mitch: There is that classic line in Dark Knight Returns, "Wars are fought by children."

Sam: ... and they are, sent by old men.

Mitch: That places Batman in a curious light, within the confines of the story.

Sam: I've always thought that - to Bruce - the mission and the goal is worth more than anyone, including himself.

Mitch: Is he inadvertently becoming like those he's fighting against?

Sam: Absolutely. Bruce realizes he’s always been a criminal.

Mitch: Miller touches on that in Dr. Wolper's analysis. It's interesting to think about.

Sam: They’re all authoritarian be it villain or hero in superhero comics. Even Ollie, the hippy superhero.

Mitch: As far as the art goes the style was rough yet cartoony set to an R-rated realistic narrative, which I thought was a strange dichotomy. Then there is the general bulky look to the characters. Batman looked beefier than the Hulk at times.

The first book in the series of four had an almost faded white, washed out look like the pages had been sitting in the sunlight for years. It had a very drab, old, and ugly appearance the whole way through which was fitting for the story and Bruce’s character at that point in his life. It felt like I was watching a grainy quality dub of a dub bootleg VHS tape which I thought was cool. It was as if I was seeing something the rest of the world didn’t want me to see. There was a purity about it. It wasn’t overly processed and media washed to be appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Dark Knight Returns

Credit: DC Comics

Sam: I’ve always felt that the visual aesthetic was done in direct opposition to the 60s TV show.

Mitch: Which was the most shocking aspect of the book. Before this Batman was fairly mild by comparison. Seeing him bleeding, cursing, stabbed, necks being snapped and people dying around him must have been strange for readers in 1985 especially longtime fans.

Sam: I think that's unfair to say as Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams were doing groundbreaking stuff in the 70's with Ra's Al Ghul and a great one shot with Batman tracking a Nazi war criminal.

Mitch: What I mean to say is that he was never this R rated.

Sam: Ok. So let's get to Book 3 which includes the return of the Clown Prince of Crime.

Mitch: Was his face modeled off of Jack Palance?

Sam: Not to my knowledge. I always thought the visual basis was more David Bowie.

Mitch: That makes sense given the era. There were moments especially near his demise where I was seeing Palance in his expression.

Sam: Not going to lie, I've never seen that before. Now as much of this as a love and oh do I love it, it also has my least favorite part of this entire book, the stupid talking flying robots.

Mitch: I felt that was very much in keeping with classic Joker stories as well as the gags of comics from the past. I didn't mind them so much as at first I wasn't sure if they were actual robots or people.

Sam: I just have to ask what Joker stories are you talking about?

Mitch: You know, goofy gadgets in general that show up often in comics. I was thinking of gags from the animated series like the robot planes with his face plastered on them that he employs in Mask of the Phantasm. It doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch from a toy flower in one’s lapel the squirts acid either. Or a gun shooting out a flag that reads “bang” instead of a bullet. The laughing fish from Detective Comics #475 is a particular classic. The concept of killer dolls has been around for a long time.

Sam: That was just not generally a big thing for him in the comics. I do think that I wish the creator of the robots would have been the Superman villain Toyman.

Mitch: Toyman would’ve been a good fit.

Sam: So thoughts on the tunnel of love sequence?

Mitch: I have the impression that Joker broke his own neck to frame Batman. That's twisted.

Dark Knight Returns

Credit: DC Comics

Sam: That's no impression. That's what he did do I love that Batman has such distaste for him that his final goodbye to Joker is to spit on him and incinerate his body.

Now onto the finale, Book 4. Thoughts on the battle with Superman? Or anything in Book 4 for that matter.

Mitch: The battle with Superman didn't leave much of an impression with me. The Superman sequences in Strikes Again I thought were more effective. I thought Batman and his army riding in on horses was right out of a western.

Sam: Interesting. Since you brought it up, what were your thoughts on Strikes Again?

Mitch: The Dark Knight Strikes Again was… interesting. I understand that Mr. Miller was making a statement with the art and the plot. I’d liken it to watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre followed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II. The tonal shift is so jarring that I could see how if one loved the first story that they’d be more than a little put off by the sequel. But taking both stories by themselves and not as a continuous narrative one can appreciate the different approaches employed.

In regards to Strikes Again, My favorite part was Superman. Doing the right thing was ultimately the wrong thing. I never imagined that Superman’s unfailing ability to do the right thing could be his downfall. I thought both Supes and his daughter Lara were awesome. Dick Grayson becoming the next Joker was a bit strange though. I really enjoyed the handling of the Flash and the Atom.

Sam: His handling of the Justice League members that weren't in DKR were actually my favorite parts of DK2 and I can say that they are a definite highlight in the currently being released DK3

Mitch: I was most impressed with his writing of Superman. I really liked that portion. In DKR it seemed like the confrontation with Superman kept building and building but it all ended quickly and rather anti-climactically.

Sam: I'm of the opposite position on that.

To me this really is one of the great superhero battles in the medium. It attempts to show what it would take for a man to take down the Man of Tomorrow, with a helping dose of nuclear weapons beforehand to weaken him.

It’s not a long fight but what fights really are?

I think what would be more your style is how it was portrayed in the fantastic DC Animated adaptation that Warner Brothers put out 3 years ago. It is simply fantastic, one of the best Batman movies you will ever see.

Dark Knight Returns

Credit: DC Comics

Mitch: I've heard good things about those animated movies and they are on my list.

Sam: Any last thoughts on the Dark Knight books by Frank Miller?

Mitch: I can’t imagine what people were thinking when reading this in 1985. Shocking. Disgusting. Dirty Harry in a comic book. The initial reactions were probably as varied as the readers. Now it is looked upon with reverence and respect.

The story felt very much in the same vein as the previous story you had me read, Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow. There was street level vigilantism, gritty graphic violence, and Oliver Queen and Batman teaming up. I can see why you like both stories.

Sam: At the time it was pretty well loved from the get-go from what I understand, and I could be wrong about that, but it was a huge success. And coming out at the same time as Watchmen certainly made it a great time to be a comic fan.


And be on the lookout next month for another ComiConverse from Sam and Mitch.


Sam McCoy and Mitch Nissen are regular Contributors to ComiConverse. 

Follow Sam on Twitter: @RealCactusSam

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