The Dark Knight Returns
This story is amongst the most influential stories in comics.
One of Frank Miller's greatest works, The Dark Knight Returns is a re-imagining of an iconic character more in line with the times, taking it to a much more deep and visceral level.
About the story
The Dark Knight Returns is a four-part graphic novel featuring an older Bruce Wayne. The story was written, as well as drawn by Frank Miller. Miller was coming off of high praise of his work on Daredevil, where he managed to managed to revive the character and made it into Marvel's most successful characters. One of the major reasons was because of him taking a much darker take on the character.
Miller was further supported and encouraged by legendery artist/editor Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano. O'Neal was actually editor at Marvel during Miller's Daredevil days, and had fired Roger McKenzie to allow Miller to write Daredevil, which proved to be a phenomenal call. Now at DC, O'Neal wanted to Miller to do the same with Batman, as comic sales for the character were falling and it needed a fresh jolt of life.
The story opens with Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne reminicing about the old days. The conversation heavily implies that Gordon knew that Bruce Wayne was Batman all along. It is also stated that Bruce hasn't been in touch with Dick Grayson after the death of Jason Todd (the second robin). Bruce Wayne has been feeling incomplete ever since he retired as Batman ten years ago.
Crime in Gotham is rising, and Bruce hears the inner monologue of Batman tormenting him more and more, urging Bruce to bring out Batman again. Batman is finally out there in Gotham again, initially roughing up petty criminals, which was enough to cause chatter in the city of him returning. Harvey Dent has his full face restored and is thought by the public to be normal again. However, he has still not recovered, and holds the city ransom for five million dollars, or else he will blow the twin towers of Gotham up. Batman manages to subdue him, and finds out for sure that even though Harvey's face is fixed, his mind is still a monster inside.
Deep down inside, Bruce realises that it is somewhat of the same situation with him. Batman retired and stayed out of action for ten years, but his mind would never rid himself of the Batman. He will always be there.
Gordon gets attacked by a young member of the Mutant Gang, and is promptly handled and killed in the process by Gordon. The leader of the mutant gang vows revenge on him, as well as on Batman. There is talk on who will replace Gordon once he retires soon. Meanwhile, a group (the council of mothers) asked the city to arrest Batman - citing him as a bad influence on young children, while another group (the victim's rights task force) asked the city to sanction Batman's activities. Meanwhile, Batman saves a teenage girl called Carrie Kelly, who later buys a robin costume and begins training as Robin on her own, in secret.
It is announced that Ellen Yindel, a woman half of Gordon's age, and a cop from Chicago, would be brought to Gotham City to replace Gordon as commisioner of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Batman makes it to the leader of the Mutant gang (robin following him secretly). Batman intimidates the gang with his Bat-mobile, but steps out of the vehicle to fight the mutant gang leader hand-to-hand, as a means of testing himself. He decisively gets beaten by the mutant, and is helped out at the last moment by Carrie Kelly and Batman escapes.
Superman by now is a tool of the U.S. Government, with all the other superheroes returning to their places of origins, or retiring altogether. It seemed like Batman had too, until now - In the White House, the president of the United States (modelled after the erstwhile president Ronald Reagan), asks Superman to issue a warning to Batman to stop his activities. It's assume that the president knows that Batman can never be controlled by him the same way Superman has been, so it is essential to get rid of him.
The Joker has been dormant for a decade (ever since Batman retired). Now that Batman is active again, he returns from comatosis, and has a renewed sense of purpose, plans to return to his psychotic ways. He tries to manipulate people into bringing him on a TV show. Meanwhile, the mayor of Gotham decided to negotiate with the leader of the mutant gang. The mutant ends up murdering him brutally.
Bruce, much to the chagrin of Alfred, is very enthusiastic about Carrie Kelly being the next Gotham. Alfred reminds him of Jason Todd's death, but Bruce is unwilling to change his mind. Batman asks Gordon to help him out one last time before he retires, by allowing Batman to help the mutant gang leader escape. When he does, Batman engages with him in a fight in a mudpit.
This time Batman engages in a different strategy to defeat the gang leader. Previously, he was trying to match him in strength and agility, which Batman was no match for. This time, he took his time, timed and placed with attacks with surgical precision, and defeated him handily. He wanted to do this in front of all the gan leaders, in order to humiliate them and break their spirit.
Gordon retires, and replacement Ellen Yindel becomes the new GCPD Police Commisioner. Her first directive is to issue an arrest warrant for Batman, and the police start searching for him. Meanwhile the Joker goes on the tv show, gasses the entire set, killing everyone there. Next he forces Selina Kyle to ask an escort to kill a congressman. Batman questions her, and selina tells her about Joker's plan to murder at the county fair, and another plan to kill the governor. Ellen Yindel follows him, but Batman escapes, but asks Yindel to save the governor, as his life is in danger.
Batman follows Joker to the county fair (where joker has already murdered close to twenty people), and after a chase, a close struggle ensues. As a final play, the Joker twists his own neck in order to implicate Batman for his death. Meanwhile a nuclear bomb is headed for the United States and Superman goes and changes it's course - saving millions, but the resulting debris and dust results in a nuclear winter over the country. Batman and Robin start to train the mutant gang and the group known as the Sons of Batman to help out Gotham City with managing the crisis, helping out with logistics and bringing essential supplies. Batman's work is increasingly becoming a source of embarrasment to the government (reflecting its own ineffectiveness Vs Batman's). Superman is sent to stop him, but he's not up to his usual strength as the nuclear winter has interfered with his access to sunlight (his source of power).
Superman asks Bruce where they should meet. Bruce, knowing that he could die, chooses Crime Alley (where his parents died). Green Arrow has previously warned him that Superman would come for him, and that when that happens, Arrow would like a small shot at him (it is implied that Superman chased him out of the US and was responsible for his lost arm). When Superman and Batman meet at Crime Alley, he hits Superman with a sonic blast, giving Superman a nose bleed. Batman had also planned to use the entire city's power supply to use against Superman, and uses that to beat him. Nevertheless, Superman removes Batman's helmet and exposes his head, and beats him, breaking a few ribs.
Batman distracts Superman for a bit, in time for Green Arrow to shoot a kryptonite laced arrow to Superman, which weakens Superman severely. Bruce then beats him more, reminding him that remember the moment that Bruce beat him, the only man to do so. Bruce then seems to have a heat attacks, and collapses. Meanwhile, Alfred at the same time has a heart attacks, and his last thought was how utterly proper it was to happen at that time. Despite the fight they had, and Bruce appearing dead, Superman orders people not to touch him - signifying his conflict in the situation (doing the proper thing from his perspective, versus his frienship with Bruce). At the funeral, Clark Kent notices a faint hear beat from the casket, and winks at Carrie Kelly implying that he's figured out that Bruce is alive and is happy for it. The story ends with Bruce in an undergound cave with Carrie Kelly, Green Arrow, the mutant gang and the 'sons of Batman' gang, with Bruce training them on further missions.
The end establishes that instead of burying the Batman side of his persona into retirement, he will fully embrace it and spend the rest of his life fighting for a better Gotham.
About the Artwork and story
The artwork done by Frank Miller for the story is generally in a 16 panel layout. Generally, one has to be very careful in such a layotu structure, but if done well, as Miller did, it can lead to good results. In this case, Miller regularly used the panel structure to break down a characters movements into small pieces, and show them with greater emphasis.
The story might be classic, but the artwork definitely shows its age and the time period in which it was drawn. Miller heavily used TV reports in his stories as a form of exposition. Those panels were generally in the shape of a classic CRT television, and the hairstyles and glasses all define the typical 80s fashion.
In fact, one criticism some have levelled on Miller is that he relied too much on the TV reports as exposition, instead of the actual characters, for moving the story foreword. I personally agree too, even though I think the TV reports themselves were a great addition to the narrative, but I just think that at times, it was a tad overdone. A lot of readers have also complained that the artwork sometimes confused them as to what dialogue to read first.
Having said that, there are some pieces of artwork, especially in the first half, which simply are gorgeous on its own.
Another great thing Miller does is show a series of panels showing something happening in continuity, but in between show something else in one panel (generally a different shot) to show something critical. This worked absolutely brilliantly to show Harvey Dent's hysteria, and juxtapose it with his own demons.
The panels showing characters where they are not in action (Bruce in the begenning of the story, when he hasn't revived Batman yet), or Joker in the comatose state, or even Jim Gordon for most of the story (as he is retiring, and not coming to action anymore) - are shown in a very light, almost monochrome color palette. It's almost to show that the joy or color in their life is not there. Later, when Bruce revives Batman, his panels become colorful, and the same with Joker's panels when he starts killing. Gordon's panels, for the most part, remain devoid of much color as he has no intention of continuing his term.
Personally, I think the story's art could be grouped into two halves. The first half had really nice art, whereas the second part felt a bit rushed and dirty. Fortunately, the story in the second half was such that the dirty and sloppy artwork felt a bit natural, but some pieces felt unintentionally ugly.
One great thing about the story is that it gives Batman a lot of seriously badass moments. One of the most memorable lines from the story is when Batman is beating up the leader of the mutant gang, and says the following:
Then there is the moment where joker dies.
Then of course, the final confrontation with Superman.
One cause of irritation for me though, is the fact that this moment gave way to a bunch of fans saying things like Batman can always defeat Superman. I don't think thats always the case, and in most situations, even with preparation time in favor of Batman, Superman would eventually win. Batman can only slow down or temporarily halt Superman in my personal opinion, not permanently beat him in a physical fight. If Batman were to permanently beat him, he would be smart enough to employ social, emotional and other forms of manipulation. Of course, this is all my personal opinion.
As it is, it is way more enjoyable to think of the moments which exemplify their bond of friendship rather than enimity. To be fair to Miller, even in this story, you could see how much affection Clark has towards Bruce. You could see that despite their idealogical differences, they still have a deep affection towards each other, and still consider each other friends.
How influential was it?
To truly think of how infleuntial this book was, we need to put it in context of what the character of Batman was thought of by the general public (not comic book geeks, but just the public in general). They thought of him like the following:
The Dark Knight Returns made Batman seem like
This story simply took the character and elevated it to mainstream respect. It was a huge step upwards not just for the character of Batman, but for comic books in general. Together with graphic novels like Watchmen, this changed the way people looked at comic books. No longer were they just cheap, light fiction for children - they had gravitas; a depth and complexity which could be appreciated by all fans of good literature.
These stories were made for adults, and had complex themes. This ushered what is now sometimes called the Modern Age of comics, where characters and the world around them, were written more seriously. Together with another Miller story - Year One (Which in my opinion is Miller's Best Batman work), it changed the way Batman was to be perceived by people. It influenced almost all future writers of the character, in terms of the tone they needed to write the character with. The noir style also influenced the further stories which further analyzed the psychosis of Bruce Wayne, and his inner thoughts and demons as Batman. His inner voice as Batman is now part of almost every major Batman story, you can't even think of a good modern Batman story without it.
Not everyone is a fan of the story and art though, for valid reasons. The art in the second half feels rushed, and definitely could have been drawn better. The story of Superman being a total government lackey is also criticized in some quarters as a forced pigeonholing of an iconic character, just for the sake of having more drama by having Batman beating him. The story could have been even richer had Superman been given a more compelling reason to go after Bruce. The over-reliance on the TV news based exposition also irked some people.
I think what The Dark Knight Returns should be remembered for, and what it had he most impact on, was not the actual story (some consider it an Elseworld's tale as it is), but rather the tone by which the story of Bruce and indeed Gotham was to be written. Miller ushered in a time where artwork in comics began to be more cinematic, and writers could be allowed to go deep into the psyche of the characters they wrote about.
This story was also made into an animated movie of the same name, with Ben McKenzie voicing Bruce Wayne, and Bryan Cranston voicing Gordon.
Perhaps, the following quote says it best.