Top 10 DC Comics: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

This is the fourth of 10 articles that we’ll be posting to celebrate DC comics in all their weird and wonderful entertainment! #7 is a dark and gritty miniseries featuring the biggest star of DC…

What is there to say about “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” that hasn’t been said already? Considered to be one of the best Batman comics to ever be published, and helping spark the modern age of comic book stories, this series is a must-read for hardcore DC fans and casual comic enjoyers alike.

Set in a future Gotham where the Batman has disappeared and crime has run amok, a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne still fights with the trauma of his parents’ death, and the more recent death of his former Robin, Jason Todd. This comic characterizes Bruce’s Batman persona as an almost separate entity, a monstrous force fighting for Bruce to let it free. This theme of trauma and repression is cleverly mirrored in the villain of the first issue: Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face. In the time since Batman was patrolling the streets, Harvey received therapy and plastic surgery, sponsored by billionaire Bruce Wayne. And yet, once he’s released into the world, Two-Face completely takes over, not only returning to a life of crime but also completely shedding Harvey Dent in the process, symbolized by his dollar coin defaced on both sides. The trauma of his disfigurement was far more than skin deep, and it’s also implied that Batman’s return contributed to his total break.

Even before his return to criminality, the media questions whether Harvey should be trusted, and whether Batman should be in turn. The morality of vigilante justice is put under scrutiny, especially considering Batman’s unusual and violent methods. Truly, how different is Batman to Dent? Batman fights those whom he deems criminals for his own personal sense of justice, and Dent lashes out against a world that he perceives to have wronged him. These themes are discussed in a sort of meta-commentary within the comic, through live news reports and debates. “The Dark Knight Returns” does not seek to answer many of the questions, instead choosing to pose them to the reader.

This older, grizzled Bruce is gorgeously rendered in inks and watercolor by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. Experiencing the desolate mood conveyed by the dark blacks and muted colors leaves no question as to why this comic has been so influential, not only to Batman but to comics as a whole. All four covers in this miniseries are striking, but the first is downright iconic, featuring a silhouetted Batman soaring in front of a white-hot bolt of lightning. If you’ve consumed any Batman content in the last thirty years, it’s likely that this comic had at least some influence on the story and character of Batman. This is a must-have series for any good comic book collection.

Written by Kai Newquist, Comics Research Associate