What follows is a slightly edited post I made on a message board three days ago, regarding Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, after myself and others had been criticizing his writing. I wrote this to sort of discuss some things that he actually did really well in this comic, which is possibly his greatest work.
“Frank Miller is a troublesome writer and like others here, I do have my issues with him. That said, I do think The Dark Knight Returns and Year One are better than [some posters] give them credit for. At this young point in his career, many of the issues that would plague Miller’s writer don’t really make much of a presence in these two works. I’ll focus on The Dark Knight Returns. Heavy spoilers. These are just some things I really admire about the comic. Also, I didn’t proof read anything. Expect mumbling, tangents, stuff that may not make sense, etc.
The Dark Knight Returns opens rather claustrophobic-ly, with rows and columns of symmetrical boxed panels, a layout which mostly lasts throughout, only occasionally being tossed aside to present its iconic images with a larger frame. It is sort of a “classic” paneling layout in comics; most American comics before the 1980s did not deviate from the standard paneling. It is not like that what came before, though; and certainly not like what came after. Each panel demands your attention, forcing your eyes to pay attention to both visual and text. This is not a comic that welcomes its readers with open arms. It’s aggressive in every possible way, as it throws its reader until a universe never quite seen in comics before; a scary and bleak world that only gets worse as the story progresses. The comic wants to make you uncomfortable, in that it succeeds. Miller is an artist who for better and for worse, pours himself into very line of his work. As an artist, what’s wonderful about him is how well he expresses himself through his text and images. The comic is his outlet of unleashing all his demons, and telling us every little thing that’s so fucked up about the world. This is a story that’s angry at the Left and the Right, pointing out the hypocrisy and disgusting truths in society.
Television news broadcasting is a recurring motif throughout the comic, interspersed among the multiple overlapping narratives. They give us a look at how the events of the story are being portrayed through media outlets, as the story is unfolding; which adds yet another disturbing layer onto the comic; the back handed scape goating of the media being more relevant now than ever. The TV broadcasts also shows us something that the comic does extraordinarily well; presenting well rounded arguments for the moral grays of every issue discussed, primarily Batman himself. The reader will tend to get on the side of pro-Batman Lana Lang, although not as enthusiastically, as we have the benefit of knowing what’s going on in Batman’s mind, as well as getting a close up look at his actions. Also note that Lana’s arguments don’t seem to be as strong as those on the anti-Batman side. The Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest portraits of the moral ambiguity of The Batman that has been depicted in any medium. And Miller’s Batman is not an easy one to side with. He is more disturbed, angry and violent than the Batmans that have come before, and many of the Batmans that have come after. Those wearing the anti-Batman shirts would call him psychotic. As for his negative influence on Gotham, look no further than his return actually bringing Joker out of his catatonic state, eventually leading to the death of hundreds more citizens at the Joker’s hands. The Joker is the sort of character that every writer makes his own. Just as this was the darkest interpretation of Gotham and the darkest interpretation of Batman people were exposed to at the time of publication, the same could be said about the Joker. More vicious previously seen, this is a mad man primarily concerned with raising the body count than being the jokester of years past. He’s not above mind games, of course. In his confrontation with Batman at the end of Book 3 (easily the most memorable scene in the comic, and one of the greatest written Batman/Joker sequences), he taunts Batman for never being able to kill him after all these years, in turn letting more and more people die. Batman, at his most angry, and out-of-body, appears to consider finally killing him, at long last breaking his code. The Joker fucks him over one last time, though. The writing and art make it a little ambiguous (I like that), but it suggests the Joker strangles himself in his final moments, not giving Batman the satisfaction of finally doing him in; and also, by means of death by strangulation, it will be pinned as murder – turning Batman into a murderer by the media.
The one thing I cannot and would not try to defend, of course, is The Female Situation in Miller’s works. It Dark Knight Returns and Year One, it is there, and it is a little sad to see. It doesn’t significantly bring down either work, though, as the female voice is not a vocal one in either. I think [one poster] mentioned the feeling of misogyny sort of loomed over the entire comic. I see that, yes. But not just misogyny. Also corruption and decay and social indifference. Gotham City has gone to hell, its sewage of ugliness contaminating everything. It is a difficult comic to stomach, which I’m sure was intentional on Miller’s part. Miller writes all of his political and personal views into his comics. Some of his views are impossible to defend, and speak poorly of him as a person. With an artist, you take and good as well as the bad. Fortunately, the good outweighs the bad by a lot in these earlier comics [of his].”