Sunday, February 03, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

It's more important than ever nowadays to keep your Dark Knights straight so here's a way to help you remember. This is the original and this is the best. No other comic book, let alone any movie, touches it. You don't have to think about anything else but this. When you have finished it, go ahead and try some of the others. If you start to feel confused again, return immediately to this one. It's really as simple as that. All those post-'60s-TV-show attempts to salvage Batman from the insipid pop culture mainstream that catapulted him to exactly the wrong renown (such attempts usually signaled by a heavy-handed insistence on the definite article, e.g. "Looks like trouble, we'd better get the Batman") came to naught—as worthy as they were, notably when Neal Adams started illustrating them—until Miller definitively reimagined the strangely enduring figure as a washed-up, middle-aged, has-been alcoholic, suffering the aches and pains of too many late-night fistfights, too many bone-crushing falls of failed acrobatics, and way too much boozing. The Robin in this adventure is a punk-rock chick with various problems. The Joker is a stone-cold psychopath. Superman is a contemptible do-gooder. And our old friend Bruce Wayne is slow, angry, thickened up in the middle, and not always thinking straight. At a stroke, Miller returned the Batman to everything people used to claim he should be. I was skeptical going in, I had heard this before, but this graphic novel is practically guaranteed to change the way people think, and it worked for me. Miller followed this up with Batman: Year One, which reimagined the origin story with equal potency and locked in the modern conception of our favorite superhero with no superpowers. Everybody since then has just been trying to keep up, whether that's Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan in the movies, or the rafts of writers and artists for the comic book and its rejuvenated potential for spinoffs. In this conception, likely best known now from the Nolan movie adaptations, Batman has become more of a psychopath himself, albeit one ostensibly for our side, a loner and vigilante who never recovered from the trauma of seeing his parents killed in a street stick-up, who comes most alive at night attacking prowlers and other bad guys. He's not fun, but he's often impressive, awe-inspiring even, which can get to be just about as good as fun. Miller's story and art (with inks by Klaus Janson, his future partner on the Daredevil franchise for Marvel) are never less than compelling, with their bleak, unified, and nearly perfectly realized vision of a media-saturated Gotham City in decline, and the scary grizzled drunk in cape and cowl who has appointed himself judge and jury of the place after nightfall.

In case it's not at the library.

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