Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

It’s difficult to review works as seminal as this. So much of what this comic introduced has become ingrained not just in Batman stories, but the genre itself (to the point where a film taking many cues from it, “The Dark Knight”, would itself be something of a seminal work many blockbusters would draw from). This is an incredibly influential work.

Thankfully, even now after it’s influence has waxed and waned for decades, it holds up as a very good story in its own right. It’s a dark, even dystopic take on Batman, embracing many unpleasant parts of the character (his fascist nature, unsettling brutality, and fundamentally broken psyche) and treating him seriously in a psychological sense. Might seem normal today, but before comics like Watchmen and this (among others), it wasn’t.

The characterisation is strong. The focus is primarily on the Batman, of course, with some excellent dream and vision sequences displaying the bizarre and broken mind behind the cowl, but other characters also shine – the charming Carrie Kelley, the tragic figure Harvey Dent, the Superman who is examined from a complex political viewpoint here.

The only real gripe I have with the story is I feel it gets thematically clouded near the end, with more focus on plot rather than characterisation. Is a certain character resuming their “work” after an extremely opportune moment to finally stop it indicative of their continued madness and inability to learn, and thus ultimately tragic? Perhaps, but that doesn’t feel quite right tonally. Does the ending instead signify that character has finally shed the conflict in their soul, and committed wholesale to one side? And is that better read as a triumphant or tragic moment in their arc? I don’t feel like the ending was meant to be ambiguous in this sense, and the endings of the earlier sections were all so neat thematically, that the very ending not being so bothers me.

Still, I would consider the comic a triumph. Even if it had just succeeded in transforming the genre I’d consider it a triumph in that sense, but it’s also a damn good story in its own right.

I give it three batarangs, and a nuclear warhead.

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