What with it being Batman's 75th anniversary this year, and since it looks very much like the upcoming Batman v Superman film is going to be taking its cues from Frank Miller's seminal comic book, I thought I'd take a look at it and see how it holds up. And I have to say, it doesn't hold up well at all in my opinion. I understand that it was hugely influential in redefining who Batman is for the modern age, even if its dark, gritty reaction to the Adam West show stops just short of outright begging to be taken seriously, but it just doesn't work as a story.
My main problem is the depiction of Batman himself. He's almost unrecognisable compared to what we expect him to be: sure, especially in this post-Nolan world we expect him to be the Dark Knight, but the Batman of this comic is little more than a thug. This is a Batman who uses guns and kills people, and if you know the first thing about Batman, you know that's a problem.
He's a hypocrite as well, which makes it even worse. There's a panel in issue #4 where he breaks a gun in half and declares it the weapon of the enemy, and that's great stuff. He calls a gun "a coward's weapon. A liar's weapon", and that's exactly how a man whose parents were murdered with guns ought to act. Trouble is, it follows on from him chasing after Two-Face while carrying a sniper rifle, straight up shooting one of the Mutant Gang in the face, and mowing down the rest of the gang with the Bat-tank's "rubber bullets. Honest."
It's at its worst in the third issue though, where the Joker breaks out of Arkham again, goes on a rampage, and Batman spends most of the issue debating whether or not it's morally justifiable to kill him. This is after the aforementioned shooting a guy in the face, by the way. In the end, he snaps the Joker's neck, but he somehow does it so precisely that he just paralyses him. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Funny how everyone (rightly) cried foul at Superman breaking Zod's neck in Man of Steel, but no one ever comments on this.
I have other problems with the book, too. There really isn't any plot to speak of, for one thing: Batman just comes back out of retirement because Gotham is a wretched hive of scum and villainy - you know, just like always - and eventually ends up punching Superman in an alley because Frank Miller couldn't figure out how else to finish the story. It's very disjointed and episodic; in the four issues, he fights Two-Face, the Mutant Gang, the Joker and Superman, each for one issue. Maybe it read better as single issues back in 1986, but as one story it doesn't flow at all.
I know there are people who like Miller's art, but I find it so unpleasant to look at that it took me about three tries to even get past the first issue. It's not the problem I have with Scott Pilgrim where the style just clashes with my sensibilities, I just think the art in DKR is ugly. Batman's showdown with the Joker looks like a DC Comics-themed sumo fight, there's a panel in the last issue where Superman is winking but looks more like he's having a stroke, and the cover of issue #2 (see above) is one of these big iconic images that I find utterly hideous. Plus, when the number of panels on the page is routinely in double figures - sometimes as many as 16! - it's time to dial it back a bit.
Which brings us to the characterisation of Superman, which is somehow even worse than that of Batman. I love Superman. He's one of the most noble, wonderful ideas in all fiction: a man who could conquer the world is his lunch hour and rule it with an iron fist, but who chooses not to because of his unshakeable sense of right and wrong. His powers aren't what make him Superman, it's the fact that he invariably uses them to do good and help people. In his own words, "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman."
Miller writes him as a minion of the US government who obeys the President's order to go to Gotham and punch Batman to death.
The Dark Knight Returns depicts a version of Batman and Superman, the World's Finest Superheroes, that I just don't want to read. Batman is an angry, psychotic thug, and Superman is a mindless government drone. They're unlikeable, they aren't heroic, and I don't want to read stories about these versions of the characters. It pains me that this book altered their relationship so much, changing them from close friends and allies to antagonistic, incompatible people who just happen to have similar goals.
If you can convince me I'm wrong, by all means do. I want to see what everyone else sees in The Dark Knight Returns, but it doesn't work for me. For the record, Frank Miller's other Batman opus, Year One, is a book I think more highly of every time I read it, and though post-Sin City Miller is a raving lunatic, he did a lot of genuinely great work in the '80s. I don't think DKR is a good comic, though, and I'm dreading the influence it's going to have on the already pretty grimdark DC movie universe.