ONE MAN PANEL: Why is THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS the Greatest Batman Story?

In the next installment of this new editorial series, staypuffed uncovers just what makes Frank Miller's groundbreaking tale the classic it's considered to be - including the Joker's last laugh, the infamous climax and the immortal dialogue.

Many comic book fans say that Frank Miller is one of the greatest to ever grace the industry. Revolutionising Batman, twice, including the definitive expansion of the Caped Crusader’s origin, Batman: Year One, as well as the classics 300 and Sin City. His creditability has slid in recent years, but his 1986 mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, is considered his magnum opus - a bleak, violent and groundbreaking new look at Batman. It changed comics. It changed Batman. But what makes it the greatest Batman story of them all?

Batman was always a dark character. People forget that. Often, this dark “reinvention” is credited to Miller or even Christopher Nolan, but going all the way back to Bob Kane’s first stories, they were dark. They may seem campy now, but the early days were serious. He has always been a character with a tragic past, a grim present and a bleak future.

However, throughout the 50s and 60s, DC Comics was at a low. Poor sales, poor writing, poor art, and many saw working in or reading comics as an embarrassment. Many characters were treated bizarrely in that period, but Batman possibly got it the worst of them all. Gone were the mysterious stories of the Bob Kane days; he was a campy and colourful piece of children’s entertainment. The Dark Knight’s salvation shouldn’t be entirely credited to Miller, but to others who helped bring him back to his best in the 70s, including Danny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Despite this, though, sales hit an all-time low in 1985.

The Dark Knight Returns was a huge smash. It, essentially, brought comics back to life. It’s one of the best comic books ever made. But why? What makes it the finest Batman book? Is it even the finest? I’m going to run through everything that made it great, then offer my verdict on whether it is the definitive take on the World’s Greatest Detective.

One of the reasons it is considered to be the best is because of the writing. Frank Miller, in his heyday, was a genius. He dug deep, beneath the surface and shoveled out as much as he could. He captured Bruce Wayne. His Batman was different to anything we’d ever seen, but he got Bruce spot on. This Dark Knight was brutal, yet aging, but never weak. He was a soldier, dedicated to his mission. It reinvented the character because he’d never been portrayed in this way. I’ll be honest, the first time I read TDKR, I didn’t like it. But after maybe my fifth or six read through, every line grips me. I’m a sucker for emotional, meaningful lines. Ones that make powerful quotes. Nolan’s Batman trilogy had lots of those, but there’s an incredible amount of fantastic monologues here. Nobody can quite capture the way Frank Miller wrote.

Not only was Batman forever changed, but so too the stories. The four-issue storyline is incredible, and each chapter has its own feel and message. It’s a violent, bleak and dreary world. Batman is jolted back into crime-fighting because he can’t take it anymore. Gotham is out of control. Murder. Rape. Suicide. He can’t go on, watching the world wither away. He has to take action.
He has to return.

The Joker. One of the best villains in pop culture. A crazy clown, cackling away at his own terrible jokes and shooting anybody that doesn’t get it. Always a feared foe, but never quite like this... Miller took it to the next level. Obsessed with his darling Batman, the Crown Prince of Crime is portrayed as a mass killer, a psycho that gleefully murdering hundreds in one night.


For me, the third book, Hunt The Dark Knight, is the one with the most impact. After nearly 50 years of conflict, Batman ends the seemingly endless battle with the most unimaginable evil. There’s so many great lines in the battle at the fairgrounds. After the Joker murders dozens of children and hundreds of audience members, the Caped Crusader declares that “it ends tonight, Joker” and that “there’s nothing wrong with you... that I can’t fix... with my hands...” I always feel the way the conflict ends is one of the best few pages of comics you could ever read. After years and years of conflict, Batman snaps the Joker’s neck. Not quite killing him. But he hasn’t ended it. The Joker still wins. Snapping his own neck and framing Batman for murder... it’s the last straw that causes the President to call in a super solution.

The book’s famous conclusion is the devastating fight between DC’s biggest superheroes. Up until that point, Batman and Superman had been friends. They were the World’s Finest, proud members of the JLA. But Frank Miller believed they should not be friends. It’s a debate I often have with myself - are they friends or enemies? TDKR asks and answers the ultimate question, however: Batman vs. Superman - who’d win? It’s an incredible battle. Batman has strategically planned the whole thing, timing it perfectly to bring Superman to his knees. There are even more incredible lines. But the Dark Knight utters the immortal final words: “I want you to remember, Clark…in all the years to come… in your most private moments… I want you to remember… my hand… at your throat… I want…you to remember… the one man who beat you.”

And he has beaten him. That’s the incredible part. He has defeated Superman. At the time, he was the only one (Doomsday wouldn’t kill the Man of Steel for another few years). But the irony is another lose/lose situation. As he beats him, he dies. An incredible ending. It may seem like a cop-out, or an underwhelming final blow, but it’s an emotional moment. Even after all they’ve been through, Clark mourns Bruce.

Bruce Wayne is dead.
Batman lives on.
And his life will be good... good enough.

So now, I must conclude. The Dark Knight Returns is the best Batman story ever told. A dark, violent Caped Crusader, emerging from retirement to save Gotham from the rising evil. An incredible final showdown with his greatest enemy, the Joker, and a destructive last stand going up against Superman. But as good as it may be, it’s not the definitive Batman story. It’s Miller’s fantastic retooling of the World’s Greatest Detective. It’s a Dark Knight for the ages. And there’s no better way to experience it other than to read it yourself...

Join me next time for another ONE MAN PANEL! Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments, and feel free suggest future topics.

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