Frank Miller, soft-spoken yet brutally intense in the pages of the comic books he writes, draws and directs, has sparked a legacy of profound grittiness and raw emotion in his groundbreaking stewardship of DC Comics' iconic Batman.
His reenvisioning and reinvigoration of Bruce Wayne through a series of stories and books forever transformed the nature of the caped crusader from a costumed crimefighter into a creature who lurks in the dark, bringing dire justice to a city riven by insanity, crime and uncertainty.
His work on THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in 1986, its sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN and his famed YEAR ONE story that ran in Batman #404-407, has stood not just the test of time, but also public perception and taste.
Miller’s stern, noirish reimagining cemented Wayne, Batman, Gotham and the Joker into the bedrock of comic book greatness and the forefront of popular culture, setting the stage for the character’s cinematic legacy. It was a return to the roots of Bob Kane and Bill Finger's creation, a costumed vigilante who fought crime by instilling fear into those who would do wrong, who would prey on the innocent and unfortunate. It was both an homage to the Batman of the 1970s that returned the detective to the darker side of crime fighting and original creation, and an advancing of Batman beyond the confines of every incarnation that had come before.
The Dark Knight Returns was unlike anything ever seen. Not just for Batman, but for DC and the comics medium, heralding the arrival of comics as something that could be embraced by all, regardless of age and sophistication.
Miller made Batman the old man with the short temper and no patience for those who couldn't keep up with him. He was the solitary, bitter figure, alarmed at the way the world had changed so fast and without any way for him to make it slow down, much less come to a stop.
This drastically different take on Batman reflected contemporary society run amok, helpless and flailing amid unchecked crime and apathy. His first “Dark Knight” was part of a DC vanguard that year, a one-two punch of game-changing titles that ushered in the so-called Iron Age of comics, boasting unprecedented realism and deep emotional heft, connecting DC to its readers in ways that no one else could.
Miller wrote and penciled the evocatively illustrated four-issue mini-series that came out from February to June 1986. Almost immediately it drew critical raves, with its bold story, new Robin—a 13-year-old girl named Carrie Kelley—and a Bruce Wayne drawn out of a 10-year forced retirement by his own instinctive desire for justice and righting wrongs.
Inside its pages, the dystopian Gotham was laid bare, a festering wound bedeviled by the Mutants criminal gang, the Joker and Harvey Dent's Two-Face. Across each panel, Miller's story dragged readers down into the muck and ooze of a city at war with itself and laid low by apathy and lack of concern.
Since the first edition came out in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns has been published and republished innumerable times: as a hardcover, a softcover and a deluxe oversized slipcase with detailed notes about the script, the production process and more. The collected edition of the series has never gone out of print and is routinely among the most sought after and purchased graphic novels in bookstores and online.
However, The Dark Knight Returns is only one part of Miller's sizable DC Comics legacy. Miller’s first DC foray after initially earning critical acclaim for his work on Marvel’s Daredevil (a character he also redefined and instilled with renewed importance) was the sci-fi miniseries RONIN, a six-issue story that set a reincarnated Japanese ronin into a future New York not unlike the seedy 1980s.
But it was his follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns that augmented his position within the upper echelon of Batman scribes and artists. The four-issue Batman: Year One was published in 1987 and initially ran within the pages of Batman’s ongoing series. Like The Dark Knight Returns before it, Year One garnered critical and popular acclaim and the collected edition has remained in print in a variety of forms.
That book was prescient, given Bruce Wayne spends 12 years abroad learning science, martial arts and investigative techniques. After a confrontation with police that leaves him injured, he returns home and, in the course of a fateful evening, receives an omen when a bat breaks through a window of his manor, alighting on a bust of his father, Thomas.
It wasn't the last time Miller returned to the cape and cowl of Batman. In 1994, he teamed with Todd McFarlane for the out-of-continuity one-shot Spawn/Batman then again with 2001-2002’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the sequel to The Dark Knight Returns which detailed Bruce Wayne's actions in hiding after the events of the earlier story, using his feigned death as a cover to train an army of crimefighters with Carrie Kelley. Set in a world where heroes are outlawed, the book seethed with paranoia, fear and despair yet, throughout, Miller offered flashes of hope that through total domination by Batman and his allies, crime and corruption could not just be contended with, but crushed so as to renew society.
Miller's vision for Batman is by no means done. The purity of vision he set forth in 1986 is still to this day unrivaled. Every creator who has followed in his footsteps still operates on the template he created, and the Batman he envisioned still casts his shadow over all who spend time in Gotham today.
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