In every list of the greatest Batman stories ever written, this is always on top of the pile (rivaled once in a while by his other work, Year One, if not followed closely by Alan Moore's The Killing Joke). Naturally, I was excited to start reading this although I cheated on myself a little because I did watch its animation adaptation last year. But having the chance to read the source material myself, I started to understand why this was such an important work when it was released about the same time Watchmen was in the late eighties.
I was unfortunate enough to be born in the nineties so I wasn't there to see firsthand how Batman's narrative evolved in the comics and I was quite envious of those who were there to witness what Frank Miller accomplished when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns; considering how much of its impact still echoes in the modern interpretations of Batman and his villains to this very day.
Still, that also means that I can view this piece of literature objectively without being swept away by its legacy. I can honestly say that this was a challenging work visually. Klaus Janson's art is at times incomprehensible to look at. In the course of the story, that could either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how it was utilized by Miller's narrative. At its best, the art manages to haunt the pages, giving it a fragmented yet lingering imagery, all the while capturing both the dissonance and melancholy of the plot quite effectively. At its average, the art tends to confuse readers because it doesn't have the refinement most mainstream comics now possess. Some pages may come off as draft sketches of what the actual scene is supposed to look like in a more finished template.
I suppose that is Janson's artistic style and it mostly appealed to me in the course of my reading, but there were a few moments that I don't know what I'm looking at and I had to pay extra attention to the scenery in case I overlook or miss something very vital.
As for the writing, Miller has clearly created something meant to last even when you're only at the first ten pages or so. This may have been groundbreaking at its first publication, yes, but I believe that for someone in my era, this could still be appreciated casually even if you are not familiar of its historical importance. This is not the kind of Batman story where it's just another action-oriented adventure featuring theatrical villainy and clear-cut resolutions. The Dark Knight Returns stands out because it tried to break down what Batman is supposed to represent in our own fragile psyches and build up the suspense and drama from there. Miller's Batman is an old man who retired from vigilantism to give way for Gotham to thrive as a society; only to watch it fall apart to chaos when a new breed of juvenile delinquents pollute the streets. Probably the most interesting piece of narrative device Miller used in TDKR is the media coverage panels. It certainly feels like you are a part of the ordinary citizens of Gotham tuning in to your television screens and watching the violence and mayhem escalate right outside the comfort of your homes. I certainly felt like that.
Additionally, Batman is not a noble, sympathetic hero in this book--nor does he need to be. I believe that only the truest Batman loyalist understands that the Dark Knight earned his place in comics not because he is always a good little soldier but because Batman is the kind of warrior who is resilient and resourceful and always at his best when cornered by the worst; and who ultimately makes the right choices even if the results are not always going to be in his favor. That is the overall message I got from The Dark Knight Returns as someone who considered him as a childhood hero. I related strongly to the female Robin of this book, Carrie, who I believed recognized that the man she idolizes is not someone who always deserves such tenacious admiration but is still someone worthy of the good fight when push comes to shove. There are a couple of instances in TDKR that Batman truly repulsed me but Miller never forgets to make sure that readers can at least understand why he had committed such actions and that they may be the only course of action left to do in the grand scheme of things. Batman never hesitates to always walk into that abyss; to dare go where no sane, self-respective 'hero' would.
Another thing to discuss in this review is that significant moment that further made The Dark Knight Returns memorable; and that is the all-out battle between Batman and Superman which would make any fan of either or both heroes who have yet to read this pick it up if only for those scenes alone. It is certainly an intriguing take on the strained relationship between Superman and Batman who couldn't be more different and at odds with each other than in this book.
* Deftly written with a candor and appreciation that does not patronize nor belittle what Batman is all about, Miller and Janson incorporated some of the darkest yet still optimistic themes in this arguably the greatest Batman story ever written.