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Holy Absolute Awesomeness Batman!

by Alan Rapp on July 17, 2008

in Comics, Theme Week

  • Title: The Dark Knight Returns – Absolute Edition
  • Comic Vine: link

“Every year they grow smaller.  Every year they hate us more.  We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.”

Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece.  Comic books get a bad rap in our society, but, as in any art form or genre, there are those pieces that perpetuate the mundane stereotypes, and then there are those that transcend.  Dark Knight is the later.

Forty years after the character’s introduction to pop culture, Frank Miller was able to craft something uniquely different, that would not only change the character forever, but begin a tidal wave movement of celebrating the legend of the hero while paradoxically showing the heroes themselves, as real people struggling in a real world.

Miller reminds us of the tortured young boy behind the mask, filled with a vengeful rage that has not yet, and perhaps never will be, quenched.  Batman, more than ever before, took his place as a legend, an icon, a super-man if you will.

By placing Batman in the not too distant, and eerily similar, real world of tomorrow, Miller has chosen to show how Batman would work in the real world, how his methods would be viewed by the populace and the media.  Is Batman a hero or criminal?  Miller finds him to be both at the same time, and makes Batman comfortable in that role. This isn’t Adam West telling you to drink your milk kiddos; it’s a darker, starker, grittier look at a man controlled by his own demons who puts on a Halloween costume and fights crime.  The great thing is this – Miller is able to strip down the character, joke about the sillier aspects, and yet celebrate him in a way that no other author has before or since.

Batman made Frank Miller and Frank Miller, more than any other man of the last twenty years, made Batman.  It’s hard to quantify and categorize the results of such a monumental piece of work like The Dark Knight Returns.  There was nothing like it before and, despite many failed attempts and poor knock-offs, the world has seen nothing like it sense.

Behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him

It’s an epic tale of legendary figures.  Superman and Batman.  The final showdown between DC’s two greatest heroes.  The last son of Krypton, a god among men, and the only man that can really piss him off.

Miller is at his best here.  As with Daredevil, he works from within by stripping the character to his core and then rebuilding him.  What are the impacts of such a process on the Bat-mythos?  It splintered the Batman/Superman relationship by showing two valid, but opposing, viewpoints to crime fighting.  It foreshadowed the death of Jason Todd.  And it returned Batman to the no nonsense kick-ass hero of his early years.  It gave Batman his balls back.

Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns showed us Gotham’s future.  In a world where the superheroes had been brushed aside and forgotten by those in power, Gotham had fallen under the weight of endless crime and corruption.  Batman himself was a distant memory or a myth.  Ten years after his retirement Bruce Wayne would don the mantle of the bat and take on the crime rampaging throughout Gotham.  This new Gotham though wasn’t so sure it was ready for him.  Battling old foes like Joker and Two-Face, former friends like Superman, and dealing with a new police commissioner and mayor who weren’t that keen on a vigilante hopping rooftops and breaking criminals’ bones, this ain’t your daddy’s Batman.  With a new Robin, Batman burst back into the collected consciousness and took his place, rightly, as DC’s number one hero.

Miller would return fifteen years later to write a follow-up.  The Dark Knight Strikes Again isn’t the original, and it doesn’t try to be.  The first was a re-imagining of the character of Batman and of our world given to the voter apathy and power of sound bytes, yes men, and talking heads.  More than just a Batman story, more than just a super-hero story, Dark Knight became a biting social commentary on our times.

It’s not unlike Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (another book that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, but that’s a whole other story).

As Miller writes in his introduction: “I saved the nastiest venom not for the Joker or Two-Face, but for the vapid, pandering talking heads who so poorly chronicled the gigantic conflicts of the time.  What would these people do if giants walked the Earth?  How would they regard a powerful, demanding, unrepentant hero?”

The later series contains all of these, but at its core is a celebration of the hero genre, bringing back the Silver Age heroes and restoring the glory of comic books that sadly is lacking in today’s titles.  I grew up in what comics refer to as the end of the Silver Age.  Miller makes me a kid again by bringing all my favorite characters back – Batman, Captain Marvel, the Barry Allen Flash, the Atom, and Earth’s greatest Green Lantern – Hal Jordan.  Joined by Wonder Woman, Superman, Plastic Man and so many others this is a tour de force of superhero celebration.

The Absolute Edition is a pricey commodity [retail price $99.99], but well worth the investment.  Like it’s predecessors, it’s an over-sized hardcover volume complete with a slip case and full of goodies including a new intro by Frank Miller, sketches and early work (including his original proposal for the project), early pencil and inkset work, covers for different editions of the books, a short look at the collectibles, the original story for “Dark Knight Falls,” and more.  Like Watchmen, Miler’s small frames, and large splash pages, lend themselves well to the over-sized format the gives new, brighter, and crisper detail to the work.

I’m not sure if my words have done justice to Miller’s work, so I’ll leave you with the opinion of the only other man who is in the discussion for writer of the best graphic novel of all time, Alan Moore.

”[Miller] has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic book fans that make up his audience and managed to dramaticially redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character’s mythology.  Everything is exactly the same, except it’s all totally different.  In his engrossing story of a great man’s final and greatest battle Miller has managed to create something radiant which should hopefully illuminate things for the rest of the comic book field.”

“For those of you who have already consumed Dark Knight rest assured that in your hands you hold one of the few genuine comic book landmarks worthy of a lavish and more durable presentation. For the rest of you, who are about to enter entirely new territory, I can only express my extreme envy.  You are about to encounter a new level of comic book storytelling.  A new world with new pleasures and new pains.  A new hero.”

For my money The Dark Knight Returns is the greatest Batman story ever told and perhaps, just perhaps, the greatest graphic novel of our time.  It deserves the wonderful treatment given here in DC’s absolute line.  It deserves all the praise and wonder I can muster.  It deserves it all, and more.

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