By Carter Glace
Growing up in the 2000’s, most of Marvel and DC comic’s greatest stories were presented as lost legends of a better era. And one such story, maybe one of the biggest, was The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller’s 1986 revision of Batman saw the hero turn from a children’s character to an aging, brooding maniac fighting against the US government. Released along side Alan Moore’s Watchman, a new era of comics was born. Super heroes could now be dark, gritty, and mature, and discussion of comic books being an art form had really taken shape. DKR’s impact was unavoidable.
And all of that legacy is coming back into the spotlight this Fall with The Dark Knight Returns III: The Master Race. With Miller supervising, the blockbuster release looks to bring his grim vision of superheroes back into the limelight. But, after almost three decades, I have to ask something. Why?
Before I really dive into that, let me ask another: what is Batman? Dark, brooding intense. That wasn’t Batman, or at least it wasn’t always. To really dive into the troubling aspects of returning to the DKR universe, it is important to understand how truly landmark it was to comic books. Like I said, the series was a revisionist piece turning campy, child-friendly heroes into a violent, perverted epic, much like Watchman did. But Watchman was being ironic, placing Silver Age heroes into a nightmarish reality to show why super heroes shouldn’t be “real” or “dark.” But Returns played it completely straight faced. As a result, the general media story became that comics were for “adults” now. But that had always been the case, but now all of those adults who had grown up reading in the 60’s and 70’s could vocalize their love without fear of being embarrassing for reading “children’s” books. And seeing this potential gold mine, comic companies began trying to capture this same dark tone and adult content everywhere. Aquaman lost his arm, Spider-man got an all black suit and became violent, Batgirl was paralyzed by the Joker. And as sales skyrocketed, high profile stunts like The Death of Superman took over the industry. The “Dark Age” had arrived.
And that’s to say nothing of the series’ effect on Batman and Frank Miller. Batman would once again become the world’s most popular hero, and the release of Tim Burton’s gothic, lurid Batman film’s, the vision of Batman as a dark, damaged man was cemented. What’s more, DKR became an entire revisionist history of the character: that Batman had always been dark and mature, and Frank Miller had saved the character from his Adam West neutering. Anyone whose seen a Silver Age comic knows this isn’t the case, Batman was a little more grounded than his counter parts, but had the same silly, often campy adventures. But for that moment in time, and especially in the wake of the campy Joel Schumacher films failing, it is easy to see this as the only version of Batman. And as we’ll discus next week, that vision would change comics for better and worse.
Carter Glace is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at email@example.com