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The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller
In 1986, two seminal works of sequential art were published that would revolutionise the comics industry. One was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's "Watchmen". The other was Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and it was to have a lasting effect on the character of Batman and people's perception of the way comics were written.
The story in set sometime in the future. Batman has been retired for 10 years now and reduced to an urban myth. Gotham City has slid downwards into a bleak hell of corruption, gang violence and rampant crime and in the background, the Cold War threatens to erupt into a full-scale nuclear conflict. The police are ineffectual and all of the heroes, bar Superman, have been forced into retirement. There is no one else left who can save the city from itself. Can one man make a difference?
Miller's revamp of the Batman mythos was at once true to the original, yet controversial. The Joker's obsession with Batman is suggestive of a warped form of love, Two-Face's dual-personality is a result of an underlying psychological problem not his facial disfigurement, and in particular, Batman is portrayed as a sadist. The stark nature of Batman's character is contrasted with that of the purer 'Boy Scout' Superman and forms the climax of the book as Batman goes one-on-one with the only man he considers his rival.
The artwork is very stylish and certain parts hint at Miller's future work on the Daredevil graphic novel "Elektra Lives Again" and his re-telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, "300". Dynamic splash pages are interspersed with satirical 16 panel pages of news readers and chat show hosts discussing both main and background events. The layout and flow of art is highly reminiscent of a movie and the pacing is taut.
Miller's portrayal of Batman was to have a far-reaching effect that even Miller could not have foreseen. Following "The Dark Knight Returns", the entire history of Batman was re-written in an attempt to return the character to his roots as a lone vigilante. Batman: Year One, written by Miller and illustrated by David Mazzuchelli, is another of the truly great Batman stories and with this, Miller stamped his mark on the character for all time. In addition, events recounted in "The Dark Knight Returns" later occured in the main Batman comics, even though Miller's story was seen as taking place in an alternate reality. Needless to say, the inspiration behind Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" is plain to see.
There is not much else I can say that is worthy of this book, other than buy it and read it now. I would like to echo Rik's sentiment by saying that you will be missing out one on the greatest works of graphic story telling if you pass on this book because it is 'merely' a comic. It is a truly awesome book and one that has been unmatched for 15 years. However, Frank Miller has recently announced that he is working on a sequel to "The Dark Knight Returns". Expectations are high and even if he does not reach the pinnacle achieved by "The Dark Knight Returns", it is sure to be a spectacular read.