The comic book industry was changing. After decades of kid-friendly fun comics were seen, at best as just a child’s distraction. At worst: the degradation of a generation. Sales were dropping. Marvel and DC were at a crossroads. Either change or die. DC started making the change by bringing Neal Adams to Batman but things started to turn back into the same old, same old. Marvel, on the other hand, had just hired a lanky, young fill-in artist that would soon change the world of comics forever.
Frank Miller rose through the ranks at Marvel and eventually became a name associated with the new, dark DareDevil. All eyes were on Miller now. Especially those of DC publisher and president Jenette Kahn. After several discussions with Kahn, Miller was offered whatever he wanted to come to the other side (DC). What he wanted was freedom, and that’s what he got.
Hot off the heels of his major DC original- Ronin, Frank Miller was offered a once in a lifetime opportunity: to take on an icon. The Batman. What do you say to an offer that big? For Miller, it was obviously yes. And so the Dark Knight was reborn.
There it was. The gritty thriller. The superhero beatdown. The political commentary. The Dark Knight Returns. It is still shocking, still relevant, and still incredible. The four part series was half love letter to the World’s Greatest Detective and half slap in the face. Not a slap to be disrespectful, but to wake up.
This book has everything a Batman story could ever have. The character is defined by who he encounters. Batman takes on all of his greatest foes and one of his closest allies in ways we had never seen before. There’s a brand new female Robin, Carrie Kelly. She serves as a reminder that this is definitely a veteran Batman. He is old and proving that he is no longer irrelevant. He can make a difference.
The iconography of this series is unmatched. From the lightning strike behind a resurgent Batman, to THAT punch to Superman, The Dark Knight Returns remains the ultimate visual guide to the Caped Crusader. It is now wholly ingrained in Batman’s DNA.
Fifteen years have passed in our world, but only three have passed for Bruce Wayne. In 2001’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Batman is forced to return once more to face off against Lex Luthor and Brainiac.
This time, the world is uglier, but also more colorful. Miller approached this entry as a warped political cartoonist. The art is blocky and sometimes very two-dimensional. Occasionally, it is sometimes hard to look at, but to each their own.
This book is seen by fans as either an underrated masterpiece or an abomination. The political commentary of the original comes into play here, but it is almost the entirety of the book. The characters are dragged down to unbelievable depths. Batman is not as much of the focus of this book. When he’s there, he’s even more cruel and cynical of the world around him. This is more about what happened to the Justice League. And is what introduces a dividing line. The treatment of Wonder Woman and Catgirl.
“Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?” she says to Superman. They are lovers, which makes sense. What doesn’t, is this insinuation that Wonder Woman, the feminist icon, was a trophy for a strong man to take. Carrie Kelly, now Catgirl, is shown in her new skin tight suit in a variety of awkward poses. One of Carrie’s first acts in the book is putting the Atom in her mouth and gagging. I’ll let you read into what you want there.
If you’re familiar with Miller’s other work he very often walks the line between awesome, female furies and extremely sexist interpretations. He fell head first into one side here.
The final chapter in the saga comes nearly thirty years after the classic, but only three years have passed since The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In The Master Race, Batman finds himself on opposite ends of a Kryptonian cult unleashed upon the Earth by Superman‘s daughter.
Sounds cool right? That’s because it is.
This time, Miller is joined by Brian Azzarello and Andy Kubert. Both are legends in their own right. (See Azzarello’s Wonder Woman and Kubert’s Flashpoint). Though one may jump to conclusions about freedom being taken from Miller, Miller has gone on record saying this is not the case.
This entry is a lot like a modern day soft reboot in a film franchise. It has references to everything you love and is technically a sequel. Though it reaches for that masterwork spot of the first one, it doesn’t quite make it. Which is perfectly fine. That is a tough goal to make.
The finale brings some great endings for each character involved. No spoilers, but for characters seemingly bound for death, this book breathes into them a good life.