Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DC Comics, 2002. 224p. Grades 7-12. Graphic Novel.
Faced with rising crime in a ravaged Gotham City, middle-aged Bruce Wayne makes the decision once again to become the vigilante Batman and to attempt to save Gotham from itself. Widely considered one of the seminal works of the graphic novel format, The Dark Knight Returns follows Wayne as he faces old foes like Harvey Dent and the Joker and creates alliances with a new Robin and Superman.
Thoughts– I wanted to like this book so badly. I LOVE the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan movie versions of Batman, and I knew that much of their respective visions came from the Miller comics. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into it—for one thing, I was confused almost the entire time I was reading. I had such a difficult time figuring out who was speaking, what was happening in real time and what was in the past, and what exactly the storyline was that I almost gave up on reading it altogether. I did soldier through, however, and though I don’t necessarily feel like I was rewarded for this, I do feel like I gained some insight into the world of comics and why this series is considered to be such a landmark achievement.
In terms of just understanding the comic book world, I felt like I learned how to read the panels more effectively as I struggled through The Dark Knight Returns. In some ways, comics require a greater level of reader participation than traditional print formats because you have to look at the drawings, figure out which character is speaking in the captions (The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t really have dialogue bubbles like some comics), and synthesize the story all at the same time. My confusion about which character was which stemmed, I think, from my lack of overall knowledge about the genre in general. This book panders to no one; either you know who’s whom or you figure it out or you just don’t read any further. Prior knowledge is expected of the reader, and Miller plows along with his story, with or without you. I think this demanding quality as well as the high level of ambiguity present in The Dark Knight Returns is what makes this book such a seminal work in comics/graphic novels. Bruce Wayne/Batman’s ambivalence about his behavior and his situation, the fine line between heroism and vigilantism, the role of the government in “helping” citizens—these are much deeper themes than what the general public expects from a comic book. I can definitely see how Frank Miller paved the way for sophisticated narratives in graphic novels, like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series or Joss Whedon’s illustrated continuation of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” saga, and opened the eyes of many naysayers who just saw comics as “kid stuff.”
The Dark Knight Returns definitely has a teen audience, but I question how wide of a readership that audience actually is, primarily because I found this book to require so much background knowledge. Teens with a pre-existing interest in comics or graphic novels will really enjoy it, and it might work well in the classroom if you were doing a graphic novel unit or (even better) teaching a content-area elective on the graphic novel format.