Batman - "The Dark Night Returns" (1986)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns issues 1-4. Writer and Artist: Frank Miller, Inker: Klaus Janson, Colorist: Lynn Varley. Published by DC Comics, 1986.
The Dark Knight Returns is a hallmark achievement in the history of comicdom. In 1986, Frank Miller decided to tackle Batman with one objective in mind: to make Bruce Wayne older than Frank Miller. Comic characters generally don't age after awhile, they are generally permanently in their early 30's. It's a requirement needed to keep the stories continuing for decades, to preserve today's heroes for tomorrow's generations. But it didn't sit well with Miller that he was now older than Batman, the hero of his youth. So when Miller was approached by DC Comics to hopefully improve Batman's lagging sales, he pitched his idea about the Dark Knight's final adventure.
The story begins with a 55 year old Bruce Wayne uncomfortably living his life, 10 years past retiring as the Batman. In his absence, Gotham City has become a cesspool of crime, overrun by a gang known as The Mutants, who are terrorising the city on a crime spree, calling for the death of soon-to-be-retired Commissioner James Gordon. Wayne battles with his inner demons which drive him towards vengeance, until succumbing to his alter ego, and once again dons the mantle of the bat.
However, the world has changed since Batman last protected Gotham. The world's heroes have been forced into retirement or hiding, facing a hostile public, media, and government. Batman's greatest supporter, Commissioner Gordon, can no longer protect him as he retires, and the his replacement issues warrants for the Batman's arrest. As Batman faces graver threats in the form of the Mutants, a recently "reformed" Harvey Dent (whose Two-Face provides the perfect mirror for Bruce Wayne's own dual identity/obsession as Batman), and the Joker (recently awoken from a catatonic state in response to Batman's re-appearance), he must also deal with Gotham's police and the U.S. government's special enforcer, Clark Kent.
The alternate reality created by Miller is inventive and exciting (it is inaccurate to state that this is a future telling of Batman, as the story seems to take place in the 1980's, just a parallel 1980's where Batman aged and retired). It is a story about the Return of a hero, but the emphasis for the story is on Dark. Gotham is relentlessly hopeless. Batman is painted as an obsessed vigilante that is merely a different breed of criminal than those with whom he does battle. Superman, once the beacon of hope in comics and pop culture, is merely a tool for the U.S.'s quasi-fascist regime. The media is a series a brainless talking heads, and the world is inching toward nuclear holocaust. Sounds fun, huh?
Fun may not be the right world, but it's certainly exciting. Miller's portrayal of Batman as a single-minded crime-fighter who long ago forgot how to be Bruce Wayne set the standard for how the character would be portrayed in the years since. He did more than bring the character back to his darker roots; Miller established new roots from which to build, breathing life into a character that was popular in name, but not in book sales. The main-stream attention the graphic novels achieved affected the entire industry, ushering in a grittier, darker era of comic book stories (for better or worse). This book, along with Alan Moore's 1986 epic Watchmen, shook the industry to its core, showing the world that the medium could produce stories as sophisticated and gripping as any other medium, and it could do so in a fashion unique to the medium.
Having said that, the series is far from flawless. Miller's attempts at creating slang for his young characters don't work that well, bogging down the second book focusing on the Mutants. His commentaries on the media culture and the Cold War are admirable, albeit a little heavy-handed at times. The Cold War sentiments themselves date the book, and his psychotic portrayal of The Joker, while intense and chilling, misses the comedic elements of the character.
But, these are small complaints in the face of the superlative genius that is the book. For every fake slang term that makes me wince, an incredibly cool moment makes up for it. For my money, there may not be a greater moment in the history of comics than the face off between Batman and Superman in book four. While The Joker may be a little off in his characterisation, his story is still fantastic. The story is a page turner, upping the ante as it progresses to its climax. That the book feels dated doesn't detract from my enjoyment of it, instead it serves as an example of the time and place in which it was created. This wasn't business as usual superhero storytelling. Miller had multiple agendas to pursue, and used the story of a superhero to pursue them.
That's why, despite its flaws, DKR is still a 5 star comic. It is a watershed moment for the character and comics, doing more for the character of Batman than anything that preceded it, or anything that has followed. It's not my favourite Batman comic of all-time (that would be Miller's other Batman story from 1987, "Year One"), but it is the most important Batman story of all-time.
Batman - "The Dark Knight Returns" (twistedyouth's review)
Batman - "Year One"