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Frank Miller gave us the best Batman — and the worst

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced at the San Diego Comic-Con in the summer of 2013, director Zack Snyder introduced the film by bringing actor Harry Lennix to the stage to read a passage from Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 Batman story The Dark Knight Returns.

The passage in question was an internal monologue from the book’s final chapter, which revolves around a fight between Superman and an aging Batman; Batman delivers a pulverizing blow and thinks, "I want you to remember … the one man who beat you." Snyder was teasing an epic showdown between the two comic book heroes by referring to one of the most iconic scenes in comic history.

Batman v Superman is not even a loose adaptation of Miller’s book, but as Snyder said on the Comic-Con stage, "It is the thing that helps tell that story." Imagery and dialogue lifted directly from Miller’s graphic novel appear throughout the movie, and were prominent in its advertising as well. It is safe to say that without The Dark Knight Returns, Batman v Superman wouldn’t exist.

The influence of Miller’s Dark Knight, however, extends far beyond this one movie. The four-issue comic permanently redefined the character of Batman, and is arguably responsible for making him the pop culture sensation he is today. Today’s Batman, from Christopher Nolan’s austere Dark Knight to the gothic hero of Scott Snyder’s contemporary Batman comics, is inseparable from Miller’s vision of Batman and, in some sense, from Miller himself.

But in the years since Dark Knight, Miller has continued to work with both the character and the brooding sensibility, with increasingly unpleasant results. And in the process, he has squandered much of what made the original so great. Miller gave us the best Batman — and the worst one, too.

A Dark Knight is born

Miller wasn’t the first comic book creator to give Batman a dark sensibility. Some of the earliest incarnations of the character envisioned him as a creature of the shadows, a noir superhero who brought fear to the hearts of criminals on the street.

But Miller’s Batman was darker and grittier than any that had come before, with a grueling physicality that highlighted the brutality of the story’s violence. His Batman was older, with gray in his hair and an aging boxer’s cast to his face. In order to emphasize his age, Miller dwelled on the physical pain of fighting crime and how it multiplied the bodily ache of being old.

In one of the comic's key fight sequences, Batman fights the young, physically powerful leader of an upstart street gang, the Mutants, and the entire scene is built around how slow the older hero is in contrast. Batman constantly complains about his back, dresses his arm in a splint made from Robin’s cape, and leaves several of his battles visibly bloodied, his Batsuit stained in red.

This was a Batman who hurt and bled in a way we’d never seen before. Miller drove home the reality of the violence of Batman’s world, and in the process made the character seem both more human and more powerful — a frail and breakable man who was, at the same time, far more than just a man.

The world this Batman lives in is darker, too, by far. Gotham is decaying and dirty, with porn-theater killers and neo-Nazi street gangs; the cops and the criminals in the book swear constantly. The Mutant street punks are jaded teenage killers who casually contemplate the murder of a kidnapped child. After the Mutant leader is put in jail, he tears out the throat of Gotham’s mayor, one of the story’s many ineffectual social and political elites, using his file-sharpened teeth.

When the book was first published in 1986, everything about it felt R-rated — and that’s one of the reasons it stood out. In the mid-1980s, Batman still lived in the shadow of the BAM-POW-WAP camp portrayal from the 1960s TV show starring Adam West. Kids were being introduced to Batman via the gentle, collaborative character in the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends animated series.

The grim setting and explicit violence of Miller’s Dark Knight, in contrast, gave the story a social relevance as well as a narrative edge. The comic boasts a sense of genuine risk that simply wasn’t, and still isn’t, present in most portrayals of the character, where the goodhearted hero is always guaranteed to make it out alive.

Batman’s end

But Miller’s biggest — and most overlooked — triumph wasn’t the tone of his book. It was the story he told. The Dark Knight Returns is a true classic because it makes an argument about Batman’s essential nature, and because it does something that traditional superhero comics can almost never do: It brings Batman’s story to a fitting close.

The four-part story is structured as a villain tour, with Batman facing off against his long-time nemeses in order of importance. In the first part he fights Harvey Dent’s Two-Face, a stand-in for both the political corruption of Gotham and most of Batman’s rogue’s gallery of freakish villains. In the second part he fights off the Mutants, who represent Batman’s long conflict with street crime. And in the third part he encounters the Joker, in a delirious, drawn-out sequence that ends with Joker’s death.

This is where the form gets really interesting: The conventional understanding is that Joker is Batman’s arch-nemesis, his biggest rival and most potent threat — a villain who represents the opposite of everything that Batman stands for. But in The Dark Knight Returns, the final battle isn’t with the Joker. It’s with Superman, following Gotham’s descent into total chaos.

Miller positions Superman as Batman’s true rival, a polite water carrier for ineffectual elites and authority figures, a symbol of weakness and civil decline to which Batman provides the antidote. His Superman serves as a White House flunky for an unnamed president who looks suspiciously like Ronald Reagan, a subservient political henchman who projects American power abroad while cities decay at home.

With The Dark Knight Returns, then, Miller is staging a debate between Batman and Superman, the two most well-known characters in the DC Universe and probably in all of comics (at least at the time). And he is arguing that they exist in an essential tension with each other, and that in any honest final reckoning, they will always end up in conflict. The structure of Miller’s story takes a familiar comics fan thought experiment — who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? — and gives it meaning and finality.

Indeed, Miller suggests that Batman fighting Superman is the logical and inevitable endpoint of all superhero conflicts, and the friction between them and their competing worldviews is what defines all of comic book storytelling.

Working outside of comic book continuity, Miller gave Batman, and arguably the entire universe of superhero comics, something that the endless serial and soap opera format of ordinary comics, where characters almost never really die, could never otherwise permit — an ending. The Batman of The Dark Knight Returns was the best Batman, because he was the last.

The Miller sensibility

Except he wasn’t the last. Miller returned to Batman in 1987 with Year One, a sparse, character-driven retelling of Batman's origin story that matched The Dark Knight Returns in tone and sensibility. And though it wasn't technically part of the Dark Knight Returns continuity, it became just as influential — a beginning to match the end. It was his last truly great Batman story.

Miller wandered back to the Dark Knight continuity again in 2001 and 2002 with an awkward follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and starting in 2005 he dabbled with the character as a writer in a separate, standalone series, All-Star Batman & Robin. And even when Miller wasn’t working directly on Batman stories, he was working in the same grim-and-gritty mode — and slowly letting it grow into something that resembled a parody of itself.

The grim tone and stylistic tics that Miller applied to Batman in Dark Knight were mostly new to Batman. But they weren’t new for Miller. The same sensibility defined his run on Marvel’s Daredevil in the years before he set his sights on Batman. That run, which was in its own way just as revolutionary as Miller’s later work on Batman, transformed Daredevil from an underpowered Spider-Man clone into a pulp superhero patrolling the streets of a gloomy, crime-infested New York. It wasn’t quite as explicit as Dark Knight, but it helped set the tone and establish Miller’s sensibility.

As in Dark Knight, Miller drew and eventually wrote the series, and he emphasized the physical impacts of Daredevil’s fights. When Daredevil fights Bullseye in Daredevil No. 169, the second issue Miller scripted himself, the narrator describes how "Daredevil can only feel a sickening mixture of blood and dirt — and feel his ribs smash inward as a boot smashes into his chest." The lines sound a lot like Batman complaining about his body in Dark Knight.

That issue also opens with a page depicting a TV talk show that foreshadows the media-saturated sensibility of Dark Knight Returns, and the rest of his run generally serves as a preview of most of Miller’s big ideas. In the introduction to Daredevil Visionaries Volume 3, which collects Miller’s run on the series, inker and frequent artistic collaborator Klaus Janson says he believes Miller would agree that "within these pages lies our artistic DNA."

You don’t have to squint too hard to see the same Batman/Daredevil DNA in Miller’s 1982 riff (along with writer Chris Claremont) on Wolverine, whom Miller cast as — what else? — a grim and gritty anti-hero. It's also present in his gruesome '90s noir series Sin City, which is built around an entire world of crudely exaggerated pulp characters who constantly wax on about blood and dirt and the various bodily specific pains they feel and are causing to others.

You can see these impulses grow stronger and more dominant in Miller's later work: Sin City is bloodier and uglier than any of his previous comics, and not grounded in the sort of character legacy that helped guide and restrain his takes on Daredevil and Batman. It takes place in a hyper-stylized world in which brooding men and hyper-sexualized women enact exaggerated pulp fantasies. (Miller’s female characters, with few exceptions, are laughably flat, and tend to exist to suffer abuse at the hands of men.)

In The Dark Knight Returns, this sensibility is an element that shades the character. By the time Miller gets to All Star Batman & Robin, he’s got Batman growling, "I’m the goddamn Batman," a cringeworthy line more appropriate to a pathetic street thug dressed up in a bat costume. Which, under Miller’s watch, is what Batman eventually becomes.

The worst Batman

Miller’s worst moment came in 2011, with the publication of Holy Terror, a comic in which a masked superhero decides to fight Muslim terrorists. The book can only be described as an artistic, moral, and political travesty. The art and writing are crude and shoddy, the violence is beyond gratuitous, and the depiction of Muslims is callous in the extreme. The book ends with its masked hero shooting his way into a mosque and blowing it up with a rocket launcher.

The comic is undisguised propaganda, a celebration of vigilante authoritarianism, and its politics function in the opposite way The Dark Knight’s did: Instead of using political and media satire to comment on superheroes, Miller uses superheroes to make a political point. Indeed, he made no attempt to hide the fact that the book represented his own feelings and that his goal was to enrage, telling a Comic-Con panel in 2011, "I hope this book really pisses people off." (Mission accomplished!)

And it started out as a Batman book. The original title was Holy Terror, Batman! Somewhere during the production process, the book was converted into a generic, non-Batman title. But for all practical purposes, not much changed. There are still characters who clearly stand in for Batman, Catwoman, and Jim Gordon. It’s not a Batman book, officially speaking. But it’s a Batman book — a Frank Miller Batman book, one that gives you a sense of how he came to think about the character he shaped for so many readers.

These days, Miller can't leave Batman well enough alone

Ultimately, this is the secret to understanding Miller: All of his male protagonists are, in some sense, Batman — fitting the same violent noir archetype and uttering the same pulpy lines. He only really has the one character, the one idea.

And over the years, it is an idea that has grown increasingly exaggerated and ugly. Miller has allowed his personal obsessions and predilections to overwhelm what made them work in the first place. He’s stopped telling strong stories, stopped redefining characters, and become lost in a self-parodying version of his own grim sensibility, allowing it to become even more cartoonish and absurd.

And he’s refused to let his great, perfect ending to the Batman story stand as the finale it should be. Recently, he took a co-writing credit, with Brian Azzarello, on another follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns, DKIII: The Master Race. And in November, he announced that he’d be writing yet another sequel on his own.

Yet Miller’s Dark Knight Returns remains the best way to understand Batman, and much of the broader pop culture landscape, with its endless parade of iconic antiheroes and grim-and-gritty reboots. Miller helped us all understand who Batman is. It’s too bad he’s spent the second half of his career forgetting everything he taught us.

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