Nearly thirty years ago, Frank Miller introduces us to an older, far more wizened Batman late in his career. But the newest Dark Knight project, Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade, will take us back to over ten years before this classic work, when Batman was still actively fighting crime with his previous Robin, Jason Todd, at his side, revealing the previously untold story of how Jason met his end in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight universe and featuring the first appearance of Miller’s Joker since his death in The Dark Knight Returns.
Co-written by the DARK KNIGHT III duo of Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello, Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade will be a 64-page prestige format one-shot drawn by legendary artist John Romita, Jr., who agreed to speak exclusively with us about this exciting new comic.
Take us back to the beginning of this new Dark Knight chapter. How did this come together, and how did you get involved?
I have always said that I wanted to work with Frank Miller again. I’d just begun working on Superman, and DC mentioned to me that there was going to be an opportunity to work on Dark Knight III. A bunch of us went over to Frank’s house and we were discussing what had at that point been worked on.
I can’t say much, but I can say this book’s a prequel to Dark Knight Returns and it’s got a lot to do with Jason Todd and what happens to him at the hands of the Joker. All this was only touched on in Dark Knight Returns. We know Jason Todd met his end, but this is going to tell the story of how he met his end and what transpires up to that point.
You’ve been drawing Superman for us for a little while now. Were you excited for a chance to draw Batman? And how cool is it that this is the project?
Very. The only Batman project I’d worked on prior to this was the Batman/Punisher crossover back in the mid-90s, but of course it didn’t get as deep into the character as this is going to. Every comic artist has always wanted to draw Batman. There’s something physically and visually amazing about drawing the character. Of course, the character himself is pretty special, but what Frank has done with his version of it—everyone knows his Dark Knight. So this is more exciting than you can imagine. The chance to finally work with Frank again and also to work with Brian Azzarello—I haven’t worked with him before—that’s damn exciting. I’m just really looking forward to this.
The thought that comes into my mind is really, “Oh god, don’t let me screw this up!” I’m getting handed this amazing script from Azzarello based on Brian and Frank’s plot, and that’s what’s coming to mind.
Obviously, you’ve been drawing comics for many years and have worked with some of the most popular writers in comics. But I have to ask, is there any nervousness about this particular project?
Of course! It’s not nervous like standing-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff nervous. It’s nervous anticipation. When I play softball, I’m a very good softball player, but I still get out on the field and I still get a little nervous. Until the first ball gets hit to you, you get some nervous anticipation. It’s like that. I’m not scared of any of this, but I’m anticipating it. I’m nervously excited.
Do you remember the first time you read The Dark Knight Returns? How important of a book is it to you?
You’re going to laugh. The first time I read it was about a month and a half ago. In 1986, when it came out, I looked at the artwork. I love Frank’s work. But I never really paid attention to the dialog. With as many comics as I have lying around, I often don’t read the dialog. I’m a fan of the artists. I was not looking to read Dark Knight Returns, I wanted to see the artwork and follow it storywise.
Looking and marveling at it back then, I didn’t feel the need to read the whole thing through. I knew what was going on. Now here we are all this time later, and I get a chance to read it all the way through and I’m laughing at myself for thinking that Dick Grayson was the Mutant Leader. For some reason I thought that he was, and I felt pretty stupid when it occurred to me that he wasn’t! There you are. I should have read it all along.
But again, some of the greatest works in comics history, I’ve only looked at. When I was a young kid, I would read Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four and my father’s Spider-Man. But as I got older, I started looking at the artists. I was comparing myself and marveling at Frank and Klaus’s work. Anything that Frank put out, I was looking at and enjoying the artwork.
So yeah, I read it just under two months ago and I’ve been enjoying every bit of it again. It’s all a revelation to me.
John Romita, Jr.'s retail variant cover for DARK KNIGHT III: THE MASTER RACE #1.
So having just read it, what was your response to it? I mean, other than finding out the truth about the Mutant Leader!
The fascination is how the dialog applies to the storytelling, and vice versa. That’s what I was marveling at. How Frank would have thought things through. Also, the buildup to the Superman appearance—that is about as good of storytelling as you get without the dialog. For a full page, you don’t see anything of Superman, but the ground is shaking and the wind goes by and people’s paperwork goes flying. That’s storytelling at its best.
I joke about the fact that I didn’t really read the dialog. I did read some of it, just not that intently. Obviously, there are balloons to look at and I looked at some of the dialog, but again, I was really concentrating on Frank’s art. Now, looking at it and connecting the two of them, it’s nothing that I didn’t expect it to be. I worked with Frank on Man Without Fear, and I knew what to expect from him. To see this and enjoy it for what it really was—it’s a work of art with words. I don’t regret not reading it in 1986, but I enjoyed rereading it that much more now. The excitement of working with him again is palpable.
Is the style of Frank’s art in Dark Knight Returns informing your art in The Last Crusade? Are you adopting some of Frank’s stylistic traits?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m capable of altering what I can do without fear of messing things up. But I’m going to apply what I can to what is asked of me in the script. If Frank and Brian say they’d like rapid-fire inset panels, there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as it flows beautifully, I’m looking forward to it. I’ll do what I can to make it my stuff, and if they want me to allude to what Frank did on the Dark Knight series, so be it. We’ll find a happy medium.
You’re telling the earliest story in the Dark Knight universe to date. That’s kind of an interesting area to play around in. How much thought have given to the look and feel of the Dark Knight world at that time?
I actually had to ask our editor about that, and he said that it’s going to be up to our interpretation. But I asked for as much reference as humanly possible that I can base it on. For instance, things like Arkham Asylum. How many interior shots are there that I could use? What Frank did in Dark Knight Returns was to use very simplified images of Arkham Asylum. So I asked them to send me The Killing Joke and I’ll base it somewhat on that. Even though this will be my interpretation of what Frank and Brian are asking for, I’ll still need some reference that I can bounce off of.
But it’s exciting because I can take some license with stuff as long as I stay within the parameters that have been established. The feel of what Frank did with Klaus all so long ago is so exciting that I don’t want to completely depart from it, and yet I don’t want to eliminate what I can add to it. It’s going to be really interesting to find that happy medium over the pages we work on. To go back to what I was saying about softball—I can’t wait for my first ground ball here. I can’t wait for my first hit.
Expanding on that, how much have you thought about how this take on Jason Todd is going to look? Have you started working on some designs for him?
Yes, I have. Since he’s still Robin at that point, I told our editor that I’d like to make it slightly distinct or at least different from the Dick Grayson version. But at the same time, it’s can’t be too different. And we also have to keep his look different from Carrie Kelley’s. But once we establish the year that it is, maybe his hairstyle will be distinct to what it is at that time. Bruce Wayne can’t have all grey, but he has some. He’s not an older guy, he’s middle aged. But being Batman for all those years, it’ll wear on you. You beat the body up. So there are little those considerations that I like to take into effect. With Jason, he’ll be in a Robin costume, but it’ll be a little different.
Between The Last Crusade, Dark Knight III and the Dark Knight mini-comics, the world of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is really expanding. Is there a part of that universe that you’re particularly excited to see?
Not any one in particular. When I first heard they were going to do a third Dark Knight, my first question was whether Frank was going to be involved because he said he didn’t want to do it. Of course, time changes everything. I just want to feel Frank’s influence on this. The thought of working on Brian’s script is equally as exciting. The man is amazing. So the two of them—I can’t wait.
The mood excites me. When I did Man Without Fear, that’s about as close as I came to full-out mood and dramatic mood in the story. So I can see that happening. I’m excited for that—a lot of dark, noirish scene. I’m just a huge fan of film noir. It’s something I’ve always wanted to get back into with my art. So I guess if I had to pick something, that would be it—the cinematic, film noir-like feel of this.
DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: THE LAST CRUSADE #1 by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello and John Romita, Jr. will be in stores on February 17, 2016.
Looking for even more excitement from the world of Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? Click here to read about DC Collectibles’ two just-announced new Dark Knight collectibles!