Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Review: The Dark Knight Returns

Mainstream audiences know the name Frank Miller from the movie world. He co-directed the "Sin City" films and produced "300." Before "Sin City" was a movie franchise, it was a graphic novel. That's where Frank Miller got his start; in the comic book industry. One of his best known works is the 1986 classic 4-comic series "The Dark Knight Returns."

One of the cliche terms I can throw out to describe this graphic novel is "gritty." Visually, emotionally, metaphorically, this has a gritty feel to it. A "film noir" essence. "The Dark Knight" is set in the future. Batman is in his 50's and has stopped fighting crime. Commissioner Jim Gordon is approaching 70 and being forced into retirement. 

So, we have a Gotham City that hasn't had a Batman in 10 years. And soon there will no longer be a Jim Gordon. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you can expect, a whole lot goes wrong. And it turns out the world still needs Batman to clean up the streets. But, at his advanced age, is he still any good? If some of this sounds loosely like plot points from the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale movies, it's because a lot of Frank Miller's work helped influence the tone of that trilogy.

I like a good internal struggle; strife. I'm not a fan of needless fight scenes and stuff blowing up for the sake of blowing up. My favorite thing about another great graphic novel, "The Killing Joke" is that the fight scene between Batman and The Joker ends with a conversation between the two. It's more mental than physical. Anybody can throw a punch, but not just anybody can get deep and analyze a situation.

What I especially like about "The Dark Knight Returns" is that a lot of the plot is told through talking heads. Something bad will start to happen, then it will cut away to newscasters talking about it and discussing why the crime rate is going up, what's going on with Gordon's retirement, the rumors of Batman coming back, whether or not he is a hero or villain, etc. We're not following the plot by directly seeing it, we're watching it on the news. It helps the viewer stay somewhat clueless, wondering what's going to happen next.

In real life, there isn't a set hero or villain. Everything is a shade of gray. That's the case in "The Dark Knight Returns." People are initially unsure what side of the law Batman is on. The new commissioner calls for his arrest while others are saying that it's a mistake.

In a somewhat convoluted backstory that isn't fully fleshed out here, but is known by comic fans, superheroes are outlawed but Superman works for the President. The caricature of Ronald Reagan forces Superman to take out this menace to society.

The flashes of gray here are interesting in the fact that America is saying Batman is the bad guy and sending Superman, the good guy, after after him. But, really, there's an underhanded tone to this and the President is using Superman. So, who is the real bad guy?

I love the way it makes you think. Superman is being a faithful employee, even though he disagrees with his actions. Is that right? What is Batman doing that's wrong?

With all of those positives, there were a few issues I had.

My main issue is that a couple of plot points were rushed. The graphic novel was originally four comics, so maybe had this been five or six, maybe more, this wouldn't have been too big of a flaw. The premise in the beginning is "Imagine a world without Batman!" The problem is that he's really only gone for the first few pages. He comes back a little too quickly for my taste. I would have preferred more internal struggle and angst than we wound up getting.

"The Dark Knight" introduces a new Robin as the sidekick. Long-time fans know that there have been a few. The original grew up and became Nightwing. The second one was killed by The Joker. The third one had the longest sustained career in the comic book universe.

In this version, a 13-year-old girl named Carrie Kelley becomes Robin. She is saved by Batman and becomes infatuated with the superhero world. This causes her to dress like Robin and follow Batman around, eventually saving him during a confrontation.

So, some girl who is barely a teenager shows up and wants to be your sidekick... You should take more time to think that over before just allowing her to fight crime alongside you. I mean, I like the dynamic that they have. A few times, he tells her not to do something, and of course Kelley does it. Only, it works out and Batman is impressed. But we got to that point too quickly.

Another issues with "The Dark Knight" is that two classic Batman villains - Two-Face and The Joker - are introduced and eliminated so quickly, it's almost like they're filler. Granted, Two-Face does help move along the plot in a substantial way. The Joker, not so much. It's more like they needed a bad guy in the middle somewhere to do some stuff. At the time, The Joker wasn't the revered character that people hold up to mythical imagery today; he's now treated with much more respect and importance by writers. But, he's just sort of a throw-away antagonist here.

"The Dark Knight" came with a lot of hype. So many critics and reviews call it the greatest Batman story every written. I don't know if that's the case. It is one of the more interesting premises. I like the idea of the dystopian future that Batman tries to fix. Those pacing issues really mess with my enjoyment, though.

It is a really good piece of work. If you like great storytelling and imagery, check it out. There's a sequel, "The Dark Knight Strikes Again," released in 2001 and "The Dark Knight III: The Master Race," which is actually coming out right now as a series of comic books to later be packaged as a graphic novel.

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