Sunday, 12 May 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

I’ve tried to like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But I can’t. There’s something about it that stops me from doing so. It could be that it’s grim near-future setting had become played out by the time I came to read it. Which is a little unfair because when DKR was written the theme wasn’t as overplayed as it is now. It’s one of the titles that helped to make it popular.

Another problem could be the artwork. Frank Miller (who wrote the script and drew the book) is a talented artist but the panels here are too cramped and tightly packed. At times it’s hard to decipher what’s supposed to be going on and in what order you’re supposed to track the panels across the page. While that does add (deliberately I would hope) to the book’s sense of claustrophobia it makes enjoyment difficult to come by.

It’s that sense of claustrophobia that the book is often praised for. This near-future setting is a dystopia in which superheroics have been outlawed, replaced on the streets by brutal regiments of riot gear-swaddled police. The last cape standing is, predictably, Superman. He now works for the government (or “the man”, if you prefer) while a bitter (and aged) Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne has retired.

Bruce’s decision to return to fighting the good fight is the story of Dark Knight Returns. You probably could have guessed that from the title. As the tale begins The Batman hasn’t been seen in Gotham City for a decade, crime levels are rising and Wayne is finding inaction increasingly difficult. Deciding to ignore the injury that caused him to retire in the first place he returns to the streets as ‘The Caped Crusader’ and quickly finds himself in a conflict with Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent.

Surprisingly few DC regulars crop up during the lengthy story. Superman and Green Arrow are the only heroes besides Batman with a presence, the latter feeling an odd choice because, nowadays at least, he’s a pretty low profile player. Joker appears as a patient-slash-prisoner at Arkham Asylum, and Catwoman crops up as the owner of an escort business. It’s that sort of a book.

That minimalistic approach is actually one of the book’s best attributes. Were it written today it would likely be a summer crossover event designed to find a place for even the most minor of characters. That Miller was given the freedom to use as many or as few characters as he deemed necessary is pleasing. It also ensures the book has enough time to develop what characters it does use, allowing us insight into what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing. There’s little of that in the crossover approach.

Miller is at his best when creating dystopic nightmares. That’s what he’s given us with The Dark Knight Returns. It’s a world without hope and at least one of the points of the story appears to be that the world will always need Batman, which I think readers are supposed to take as the standard “fight for what you believe in” jazz.

It’s no wonder it was cited as a big inspiration the Nolan Bat trilogy: all three films, though particularly the final entry, owe a large debt to the depressing world Miller gives us here.

And yet I still can’t enjoy it, because of that artwork and Miller’s refusal to enliven the pace. The book drags for much of its page count. When it does get going it’s an enjoyable read and one of the best interpretations of Batman there’s ever been. Sadly those points don’t come frequently enough and there isn’t enough else in the book to help carry things when the plot lags.

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