Although he was already a comics legend in the making before tackling Batman, The Dark Knight Returns made Frank Miller practically a celestial being. Released in the same year as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s seminal Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns helped to move the comic book medium irrevocably to a darker, more sophisticated, and – dare we say – more literary level, leaving its mark in a way few titles have either before or since.

It’s not surprising, then, that the book has managed to remain relevant in the ever-changing pop culture zeitgeist. If anything, in fact, Dark Knight has recently gone on to become even more dominant; as if forming the main influence behind director Zack Synder’s upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t enough, DC Comics is today releasing the third installment of the Dark Knight saga, Dark Knight III: The Master Race.

But the sequels to (and big-screen adaptations of) the original series are only part of the story. As the years have gone on and Miller has had the opportunity to continue his Bat-work beyond the umbrella of The Dark Knight, he has fleshed out a character and a loose narrative that may or may not fit in with DC’s ever-changing continuity but which, in his mind, is all part of the same telling.

In this way, Miller has managed to do what no Bat-scribe has ever had the chance to do before: cover Bruce Wayne across the entirety of his life, from his earliest days as a crime-fighting vigilante to his retirement and beyond. Fans call this the “Dark Knight Universe,” and DC even managed to formally tip its editorial hat to the writer by adding it for a time as one of the 52 parallel universes that run through the DCU (it was Earth-31, for all those playing along at home).

Eager to pick up what may very well prove to be one of the last chapters in this alternate history of the Bat? Just curious for a quick primer before Zack Snyder’s version of the material arrives in movie theaters next spring? Come on along as we delve into The Complete Guide to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight.

Batman: Year One

batman year one the complete guide to frank miller dark knight Batman: The Complete Guide to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight

Year published: 1987
Number of issues: Four
Format: Story arc within the main Batman monthly series

With some five decades of continuity piling up and making a general mess of timelines – not to mention undermining reader accessibility – DC Comics famously decided to clean house in its 1985 mega-event Crisis on Infinite Earths (which has since gone on to inspire more company-wide crossovers and relaunches in recent years). With a clean slate on hand, it was decided that Batman needed a new origin story to accompany it, particularly since his origins hadn’t been (substantially) addressed since his first appearance back in 1939 – a time when the Caped Crusader had no aversion to gunning down his Dick Tracy-esque villains.

With the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight Returns from just the year before, tasking Frank Miller with such a momentous endeavor was a no-brainer. The results were even better than Miller’s first outing with the Dark Knight Detective; Year One is largely considered to be the very best Batman story to this day, nearly 30 years later, and it went on to be the definitive version of the Bat-origin until 2013, when the editorial board reluctantly concluded that references to the Vietnam War and Catwoman’s rendition as a sassy prostitute were no longer in keeping with the current iteration of the Batman mythos.

So what’s the story? A painfully young Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after a 12-year international sojourn to perfect the various skills that he’ll need to become the Batman. Once back in the city, he finds a kindred spirit in another recent transplant, Lieutenant James Gordon – who’s just been reassigned from Chicago – and begins the long quest to take down Carmine “The Roman” Falcone. If the setup (mostly) sounds familiar, that’s because it’s gone on to be one of the prime influencers behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (and the rest of his Dark Knight trilogy, as well, of course). And Warner Bros. Animation even released a direct-to-video adaptation of the story in 2011, featuring Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon.

All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder

all star batman and robin the complete guide to frank miller dark knight Batman: The Complete Guide to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight

Years published: 2005-2008
Number of issues: 10
Format: Miniseries (incomplete)

This is where, chronologically speaking, the mainstream DC Universe and Miller’s personal Dark Knight timeline irrevocably split off.

All-Star Batman and Robin was the first All-Star title in DC’s effort to retell famous stories from the past for a modern audience. Set just one year after Year One, a still-very-young Batman ends up recruiting a grieving Dick Grayson, whose parents have also just been murdered, into his never-ending war on corruption, transforming him – oftentimes brutally – into the costumed crime-fighter Robin. Conscripting a minor finally catches the notice of the Justice League, and they dispatch Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) to try and bring Bruce Wayne to heel before he upsets the fragile balance between the world powers and the superheroes.

The comic has gone on to generate its own legacy, though for far more dubious reasons than did The Dark Knight Returns. First and foremost, the book was beset by constant delays, stretching what should have been a bi-monthly publishing schedule into an interminable three years. Indeed, the final six issues still have yet to be released, though both Frank Miller and artist Jim Lee have vowed to do so at some point in the future (under the revamped name of Dark Knight: Boy Wonder, since the All-Star imprint has long been dead).

Then there’s Miller’s handling of Batman, which, before the arrival of Dark Knight III, was his last foray with the character. With each successive project, Miller’s version becomes more and more extreme, to the point where the Bruce Wayne who populates All-Star Batman and Robin is almost a caricature of himself, more a terrorist-esque anti-hero than anything approximating the standard definition of Batman – or any superhero, for that matter. “I’m the goddamn Batman!” indeed.

Being only seven years old – and given the nearly universal criticism the series has received from journalists and fans the world over – tracing All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder’s influence upon the wider Bat-media empire is a bit tricky. Given this Batman’s relation to Miller’s previous portrayals, it’s probable that shadings of the standoffish, larger-than-life character will pop up in the fledgling DC Extended Universe (Suicide Squad would seem a no-brainer here, given its subject and tone both), and the lavish artwork by Lee (a continuation of the style he started with Batman: Hush a few years earlier) has already become the de-facto visual version of the character for most appearances in other media.

Spawn/Batman

spawn batman the complete guide to frank miller dark knight Batman: The Complete Guide to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight

Year published: 1994
Number of issues: 1
Format: One-shot

In the heyday of the 1990s, when Image Comics was new and Spawn was the single hottest character in the industry, it was decided between the Bat-office and Todd McFarlane, the creator/writer/artist of Spawn, that a crossover would be in the best interest of both their respective fan bases and their bottom lines. In an unusual move, two versions of the project were released: Batman/Spawn, published by DC, saw Spawn coming to Gotham City, while Spawn/Batman, released by Image, had Batman arriving in New York, Spawn’s home turf.

Being competitive almost to a fault, McFarlane saw the arrangement as a contest and, as such, decided to recruit the best talent he possibly could; while the traditional Bat-scribes would handle the DC version, none other than Frank Miller would write his. Even better, Miller decided to make this a sister publication to Dark Knight Returns, which would conveniently sidestep any current Bat-continuity while also making his own personal take on the character into an actual (alternate) timeline.

The story finds Bruce Wayne at the height of his tenure as the Batman, looking into killer cyborgs that are popping up suddenly in Gotham and which are powered by the severed heads of homeless men, who just so happen to be Spawn’s only friends after his death and resurrection. Batman follows the trail back to New York, where he spends most of the story trying to get the upper hand in his constant fisticuffs with Spawn.

If the narrative sounds cartoony, that’s because it is, and not just because of its setting in a world where the Devil is actively attempting to mount an army of Hellspawn; this would mark the turning point in Miller’s characterization of Bruce Wayne, transforming him from The Dark Knight Returns’s obsessive-compulsive curmudgeon to The Dark Knight Strikes Again’s extremist hardliner.

The hi-tech weaponry that Batman employs to fight the equally futuristic cyborgs may initially seem out of place, but they actually foretold of the general trend that has since settled on both the comics and the various animated versions of the character. One need look no further than Under the Red Hood, the 2010 direct-to-video release, for confirmation of this: the film opens with both Batman and Nightwing, the former Robin, tackling a series of robots that feature Superman-esque powers. It seems only a matter of time before this new Bat-reality is reflected on the big screen – perhaps for the upcoming Ben Affleck-directed solo movie?

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