The Dark Knight Returns is the comic that the Dark Knight Rises will almost certainly be most linked to. It’s one of the most important superhero comics ever made, and was published by DC Comics in 1986, written and drawn by Frank Miller and tells the story of an aged Batman returning to Gotham City when he feels needed.
Although I think it is a great comic, I do think it is overrated and that there are other, better, Batman comics out there. However, it does a great many things right and is hugely enjoyable. It was apparently written by Frank Miller as a reaction to the realisation that he had grown older than his boyhood hero (Batman) and gave us, at once, an ending to the Batman story and a Batman that has entered middle age in a world of much greater complexity.
He also created a sequel, called The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s a dreadful comic that did much to destroy his reputation and should be avoided. Let’s ignore that and try to pretend it never happened.
The main problem I have with the Dark Knight Returns is that the Batman would ever abandon a world that needs him. As much as his return makes the hairs on my neck stand up every single time I read it, I have a hard time reconciling it with my view of the character. This aside, the story is great and crams a lot into a relatively small space. Batman experiences his origin again, the echoes driving him almost insane and convincing him that he needs to return.
As he returns he is both the man he once was and aware that he never can be. We know that he can’t continue down this path indefinitely and also that the world he is in is not necessarily one that he is suited to. His former allies have grown old and deserted him, the world has moved on and his enemies changed and vanished. However, they soon reassert and return, as if drawn back by an interconnected web of dependent psychosis.
The comic has a lot of great moments. As much as I have problems with some of the underlying characterisation there are many great points that emotionally connect with me. And it shows that the Batman, with enough time and planning, can defeat anyone. Even Superman. Even the rigours of time.
The art is strong throughout, tending to an iconic level of abstraction that sells the mythic tone and makes everything readable. Miller was, and is, a master cartoonist who understands comics like few others. And this is one of the best examples of his art.