Thursday, September 2, 2010

Frank Miller's Calling Card – The Dark Knight Returns

How do you pick a classic from a man who has become a classic in and of himself, Frank Miller? Darts on a board? Offer up a vote? Contact the man to make the decision for you? Nah, just man up and realize that there is one book that personifies all you really need to know about this industry legend who is far more often judged for his perception than his actual work. It’s a hard choice but hit the jump and you’ll see just why I made it.

There have been many comics from Frank Miller that are touted as classics. Some have aged really well but some seem to garner more backlash counter-criticism in the wake of Miller constantly coming forth with a barrage of what seems to possibly be sexist or racist statements (see his All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder run or his ideas for a Batman vs. Al-Qaeda story, Holy Terror!) that sometimes I feel many have forgotten just what Miller did for the medium in his day. He was a revolutionary, there is no doubt, and I think we should remember the good times.

When Miller took over Daredevil the comic was pretty close to cancellation. Readers didn’t care about the character anymore and apparently neither did the editorial team so they didn’t mind giving over the reins to the very young Miller. He was able to work in pretty much isolation and in this serenity he created a depth to the Murdock story that drew in ninjas, the Hand, Elektra, and he brought the title back. Daredevil became popular once more and Miller crafted an epic tale. But this is not his seminal work, nor do I believe Daredevil: Born Again is either. You’ll get a good understanding of Miller through Born Again but I feel that there’s better.

Miller also managed to revolutionize the Batman origin story in his masterful Year One story. He went back to the roots of Bruce Wayne and strangely enough focused strongly on Commissioner Jim Gordon, and though this might just be his best work it’s not my pick for his calling card. The only other work that I think would come close would be the Sin City spectacle that he created for Dark Horse. A world of violence and intensity by way of the cartoon id of Miller. It’s certainly quite an achievement but to truly understand where Miller comes from as a creator there can really only be one choice.

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns is a tour de force in someone taking a character they love and then dialing that up to 11. As much as Miller dominated on Daredevil, you can’t help but walk away from DKR and know that Miller was meant to be with his man in the cowl. The story shows us a future where Bruce Wayne thought he could stop being the Batman. The world has taken a turn for the worse and eventually he comes out of retirement to stamp down some authority in Gotham. It’s most likely not a perfect comic, and it is of its time, but you can’t deny the pure energy of it. I like that people say Miller made this tale canon by pure force of will. He wrote the Batman he wanted, the one he knew deep inside him, and he made everyone else believe. That’s the power of Miller’s work when he’s firing just right. That’s his presence on the page, and behind it.

There’s a raw brutality to this comic that is so often not found in superhero tales. It’s massive, Batman fights Superman, but it’s also got a sharp tooth to the intellect behind the set up. Miller brings character into each fight, each move, and that’s what far too many writers forget. They think we’ll be happy with the fight but we really want it to actually mean something. Miller’s vision is complete world building brilliance and he adds a darkness to his tale that helped create a new genre in comics, and whether you like it or not it’s still amazing to note that the entire medium was swayed by the vision of one man.

DKR brings up so many iconic and classic moments and there are certain concepts and elements that stick with you to this day. You can go off and read a stack of other Batman tales but DKR is almost guaranteed to stick with you, there’ll be parts you just won’t forget, and certainly wouldn’t want to.

If you read this trade you’ll see Frank Miller’s storytelling style at its most pure. He’s harsh and dark and he was both before it was cool to be so. He propels the story well and his voices are great. From here you’ll know that Miller is a violent writer, and a visceral one, and he’s damn entertaining.


I enjoyed DKR and I think that if someone needs to understand Miller they don’t need to jump straight into his more overtly ostentatious works, things like 300 or Sin City, but they need to know that he’ll take their world and shake it like a snow globe if he needs a different view. And as you stand with everything you know littering down around you, you’ll see the art. And you’ll love it.

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Ivan said...

Sadly I haven't read Miller's Daredevil run yet, but I don't think it would top this as the first comic I think when Frank Miller comes to mind.

Hey, here's an idea: how about if you also pick the author's worst work? It doesn't have to be a full feature, it probably wouldn't work that way because it would be a very negative thing to read, but what if it was a little blurb inside the "Calling Card" features? Just to remind us those guys are human after all. :P

brandon said...

Tough choice. Year One is my favorite Batman story and Sin City is what I think of when I hear Miller's name but Dark Knight Returns launched a very different era for Batman and is probably the first thing mentioned in a future obit for Miller.

He has a concise and amazing resume that's for sure.

Marc said...

I would agree that this is probably Miller's most identifiable work, but I'm not gonna lie - I don't like it. On first read, it seems like Miller is doing something interesting by writing an older, grizzled Batman who's angrier and more violent than the version we're familiar with. But after reading All-Star Batman and seeing the character written the exact same way in the modern day, something else becomes apparent: that Miller was never trying to do something radical (as far as characterization goes) in DKR, he just has a fundamental misunderstanding of who Batman is.

The other thing I dislike about DKR is that it ushered in the whole "grim and gritty" trend in the '90s, which I think few would say was a good thing for the medium. It also began the trend of portraying Batman as a total dick, something that would take DC over a decade to fix.

Colin said...

When I hear Frank Miller his Daredevil run is immediately what comes to mind. I haven't read into DC much, though, so I haven't checked out his Batman stories... yet.

Wostry Ferenc said...

I think DKR is probably the best graphic novel/comic by an american writer, thus Miller's best work. It's much, much better than his later stuff, Sin City, for example.

Bill said...

Good call. Born Again is great, Year One is the better Batman book, but DKR is the most significant and Miller-ish of his works.

E. Wilson said...

I enjoy the first two parts of DKR, but as the socio-political commentary takes over the story, it starts to go downhill.

ASB&R is my favorite Miller work, in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fashion. It's so bad that it's good.

Anonymous said...

I flat out don't enjoy DKR. Batman isn't Batman there. It has some interesting ideas, but it just feels like fan fiction. His Dardevil, Born Again, and Man Without Fear are much better, as if Batman:Year One and if his Batman showed up in Sin City it would have fit much better.

Lucho said...

This IS Millers best work. I agree with you 100%

Fenris said...

As much as I love TDKR, for me Born Again will always be THE Frank Miller work. It's more intimate, has better art, a better story, more spinetingling moments (Kingpin realizing Murdock has escaped the cab, Daredevil facing Nuke), a superb quiet reveal (Matt's mother), and the greatest lines ever written in a mainstream superhero comic book: "There is no corpse. There is no corpse. There is no corpse." and "And I have shown him... that a man without hope is a man without fear."

Novaguy said...

@Ivan - Miller's worst work? "What, are you DENSE? Are you RETARDED or something? Who the hell do you THINK I am? I'm the goddamn BATMAN!"

That's some quality writing right there.

Mike El said...

I was going to buy this trade for years, because I loved it as a teen and I must have read it twenty times. Finally my wife bought it for me, and admittedly, it doesn't hold my attention like it used to.

But whenever I want to write it off, I see some derivative moment in a random Batman comic and remeber that Miller did it first, and did it better. I remember that this is the comic that made me love comics as a medium, and Batman in particular. And I remember all the times I accomplished something I didn't think I was capable of, while thinking to myself "the world only makes sense when you force it to."

Crap, this wasn't just a story I enjoyed, it was an influential element of my life. How could I not own it?

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Hey, I really worried about this one but it looks like I might have actually got it right...maybe...nice.

I prefer plenty of Miller stories over this one but this one is the one that feels so essentially Miller that if I got someone to read it they'd then know exactly what they were getting in for by reading more Miller.

Dan Enders said...

The Dark Knight Returns was my first real foray into the world of comic books, and to this day holds its place in my favorites.

Sure, it's not flawless. Yes, it's dated in some parts. Even worse, it helped usher in some of the more negative aspects of comics in the 80s.

But it's Miller at his best and I absolutely love it.

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