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
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
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.
Year published: 1994
Number of issues: 1
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?
The Dark Knight Returns
Year published: 1986
Number of issues: 4
When Frank Miller was on the cusp of turning 30, something terrible happened: he realized that he was about to become older than Bruce Wayne. It was, needless to say, a fact that needed to be rectified.
In that instant, the entire premise for The Dark Knight Returns came tumbling out: 55-year-old Bruce Wayne has been forced into retirement (thanks to old age) for the past decade, but the crumbling condition of his city and his internal restlessness combine to force him back into the vigilante spotlight. His bursting back onto the scene has profound ramifications in the dystopian cityscape, attracting a new ally in the form of young Carrie Kelly, who becomes the first female Robin, and a new nemesis in the form of Superman, who has become a witless government lackey – the first of what would ultimately prove to be many superhero sellouts.
The resulting, to-the-death (almost literally) showdown between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent has become the stuff of legend, forming the basis of Batman V Superman and indelibly establishing Frank Miller’s Batman as the lone, crazed, incorruptible force for good in the world, even if he has to destroy half of it in the process. Between the sweeping nature of the narrative, the now-classic rendition of the Bat rogues’ gallery, and the nearly perfect art, it’s easy to see why The Dark Knight Returns still largely ranks as the second-best Batman story of the past 76 years.
And then, of course, there’s Zack Snyder’s 2016 film, which looks to be, for all intents and purposes, a blockbuster adaptation of the title: everything from Ben Affleck’s hulking, larger-than-life Batsuit to the white-eyed Bat-battle armor that he dons for the titular brawl with the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill) to the big showdown itself all come nearly image-for-image from the comic. But if viewers can’t wait until next year – or if they want a 100% faithful adaptation – there’s also the two-part direct-to-video animated version, which released in 2012 and 2013.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Years published: 2001-2002
Number of issues: 3
Fifteen years after doing the first Dark Knight, Frank Miller finally decided to give in to the demands for him to return to his seminal work and see what had become of Bruce Wayne after being publicly outed and having faked his own death.
The results were nothing short of polarizing. Set three years after the original series, Batman lives underground, finishing the training of his new army of young Bat-soldiers and his new lieutenant, Catgirl (Carrie Kelly, who used to be Robin). They finally decide to strike against a military dictatorship that is several orders of magnitude beyond what was seen in Dark Knight Returns: it has not only created a virtual president to be the face of its never-ending martial-law rule, it has also imprisoned, compromised, or banned the rest of DC’s superhero pantheon. One by one, the heroes return to the Bat-fold, leading a new revolution that sees the “tights” return as a political, social, and fashion force (“Superhero chic – how far will it go?”).
By the end, Batman topples the fascistic government that is secretly controlled by Lex Luthor and Brainiac, leaving a newly liberated Superman and his family (Wonder Woman, who is his lover, and Lara, his protected-in-hiding daughter) in control of the planet Earth. It’s a story that, in contrast to his earlier Bat-outings, is a black-and-white revenge tale with no emotional nuance, a story that spends more time in societal satire than in character development. When combined with the drastic change in art style, which exchanged the dark and somber tones of the original for a colorful and simplified cartoony look, it produced a shock that is still being felt through the industry; whereas Dark Knight Returns has maintained its seat atop the charts, Dark Knight Strikes Again has earned almost universal scorn.
This is the one installment of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight portfolio that everyone outside of DC Comics seems keen to shove in the back corner of the closet and pretend never existed – not even Warner Bros. Animation has expressed a desire to mine it for a future home video release. The extreme dystopian nature of the premise – contrasting with the flamboyant, almost silly art – make it a hard fit for any of the Bat-mediums, particularly the darker-than-dark DC Extended Universe.
Needless to say, Dark Knight III will be one of the most-watched releases in Batman’s history. Should it manage to erase the bad taste from everyone’s mouth, don’t be surprised to see elements of both the second and third chapters find their way – slowly – to the silver screen. Until then, however, The Dark Knight Strikes Again can only be enjoyed in its native format, and audiences should perhaps be thankful for that.
Dark Knight III: The Master Race, written by Brian Azzarello with Frank Miller’s blessing and guidance, hits stands today. It is an eight-issue miniseries, featuring a mini-comic in each installment that tells the story of what other superheroes are doing in the futuristic post-apocalyptic landscape that the DC Universe has become.
Have you read the story? Are you planning on skipping this one out? Have any other observations about the progression of Miller’s timeline and the (d)evolution of his Bat-characterization? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below.