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Back in the Day Café: The Dark Knight Returns
Column by David E. Miller
Posted August 4, 2005

It would be impossible to measure the rippling effect that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has had on the comic book industry. The four issue limited series came upon the industry during a renaissance that was a vibrant time for comic books. In 1986, the comic book market was thriving with innovation and ideas. This was when our ‘dot-com’ boom emerged in full swing. The dot-com era represents a time when independent publishers rose to challenge the establishment and allowed for an influx of talent to rise up and be heard. Success came quickly and almost randomly, and every lemonade glass became half full. After the party was over, the toilet was backed up, most of the lampshades were caked in puke, and it took many years to recover and get the industry back in order again.

The mid-eighties was a magical time to be a collector. 1984 ushered in the era of the independents with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose significance should never be underestimated. This series’ overnight success inspired an entire revolution of creators to put their ideas to page and publication. Publishing houses were created overnight and there were two or three new “hot” titles every week. Independents started having third and fourth printings and no one knew what constituted a hit anymore. The era gave us everything from The Crow to Albedo to the Radioactive Black-belt Hamsters and Miami Mice. It was fun to be twelve years old at the time and reading about all of these fresh characters that hadn't existed before and certainly weren’t drawn or written by creators anyone had ever heard of. Heck, my local comic shop owner even put out his own comic book (and had the nerve to call it a ‘hot book’ two weeks after it hit the shelf and charge $10 a copy)!

Ask any established comic book dealer about the 80s independence boom and you’ll see their eyes glaze back into a drug induced-like flashback as they tell their wild tales of yore. It really did happen, and no one had any idea how to make any sense out of it. But at the same time, the influx of creativity seemed to be a call to order to the industry standards to step up their game because a new era had arrived. It makes perfect logical sense then that this is the same era that gave us Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing, Miracleman, Miller’s run on Daredevil, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four run, The Man of Steel, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and McFarlane’s run on Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man. It’s easy to forget that before this era, a comic book storyline was influential for simply mentioning race or drugs as the central plot. Dialogue was mainly reactionary and content was fascinating more for the circumstances the characters were forced to deal with rather than their actual growth as a character and development from it. The 80s, more than anything, represented the era when substance actually entered the equation. Writers started writing for a more mature readership thus forgoing the necessity to pander to a less intellectual clientele.

I believe at the time that I had a pretty impressive collection of independents, quite disinterested in most of the mainstream titles, and completely disinterested in the old comics despite an obscure fascination with the Golden Age Captain America. Anything by Marvel or DC was lame to me because I thought that all of the cool books were independent. Additionally, I knew that I could make some quick cash buying and selling these low print run books during this Gold Rush period.

During this era, Frank Miller was absolutely in the zone. He was initially given a shot with Marvel as an artist, which led him to Daredevil. Apparently, when the collaborating writer was let go, Miller took the reigns and clearly never looked back. The Wolverine limited series, Elecktra: Assassin, and the Daredevil: Love and War trade all came out during this creative apex. Miller had previously done a very innovative series for DC called Ronin and after proving himself on Daredevil, they gave him a shot at reviving a character that desperately needed a revamp: Batman, better known as The Dark Knight. This was the first, in what would later be conceptualized as, an Elseworlds story – that being a story that would not be consistent with the ongoing storyline of the character and could take place in another time or era.

Being almost twelve years old at the time and an avid comic book enthusiast, I, like many others, remember exactly where I was when I first saw the first issue. I was at a small convention in suburban Philadelphia that was like a bi-monthly Christmas holiday for me. I remember there being quite a buzz over this Batman book by a “hot” artist that was supposedly a phenomenal read. At the time, number two had just hit the shelves so I was able to pick up a 1st print of that issue, but number one was going to cost me. Only one or two dealers actually had copies for sale since it had sold out so unexpectedly. I paid a whopping ten dollars for a copy and remember being struck by the cover. A flash of lighting giving just enough radiance to see the shadow of the Batman poised downward to strike on some unsuspecting, yet deserving criminal element. A flash of lightning signifying the brilliance of a new idea in how comics could and should be done from this day forward staking claim on the comic book and what its potential could be.

Soon after, I had the Graffiti Designs t-shirt of the second cover’s iconic image of the hunched over Dark Knight, much to the confusion of my ignorant classmates who clearly could not understand that a revolution was underway. I am sure that upon returning home with that days’ convention booty that I carefully absorbed the first two issues. I cannot accurately describe the fascination I had with the entire books’ design. Prestige format was a brand new concept. No adds in the book or the back cover – just a choice quote and image on the back alluding to what dark pleasures existed inside. The art tingled my brain in a previously dormant place, that, once opened, would lead me to visiting many of the greatest museums the world had to offer. Omitted were the hard character designs, replaced by flowing yet jittery drawings that evoked a modicum of emotions, sometimes even from a single panel. Each issue featured at least one entire page splash that was better than any prize I’d ever found in a Cracker Jack box. This was truly something to behold, and there were still two more issues to appear.

Having read the trade countless times since then, I was recently reminded that a significant amount of time passed between the publication of the third and fourth issues to the outright anger and dismay of the fans. It became a running joke for awhile, and it was a wound to fandom that took time to forgive Miller for. But for our troubles we were rewarded with posters, a hardcover, a signed/numbered limited edition hardcover (which topped $1200 at conventions), and countless printings of the softcover. Some fan even created a specialized corrugated slipcase to display the individual issues.

The story was confusing to my young mind unaccustomed to the complexities of this revolutionary brand of comic book art and storytelling. It didn’t matter to me though, because the art was so awesome to look at that I was content to simply get the basic storyline. Batman was old, there was a new Robin, she was female, and the Joker finally died. In the end, Batman kicked Superman’s ass, tricked him into believing his death, and then started an underground movement with his disciples. The end. Now go home and sell off all of your other old comic books because the revolution will not be televised – the revolution is here.

The original art for this series has reached mythological proportions with splashes being displayed on websites to gasps for breath and significant five figure offers. Tales of the lengths gone to to obtain these one of a kind works would turn any sane man crazy. Whispers and rumors profligate throughout the tight-knit original art collecting community about who has what, how they got it, and what they had to pay or trade for it. No mere mortals are able to finagle these treasures. This rarefied air is mostly populated by the wealthy. Either by professionals or shut-ins who got their hands on a few pages way back when, living in their parents’ basement while they hold a down payment on a house, they began to hoard them, refusing to ever let them go. A few Hollywood elite even own a sacred splash page or two. Apparently, Miller kept the pages to issues one and four and gave inker Klaus Janson issues two and three, who quickly sold them off for up to $1000 per page. A joke only the Joker could laugh at considering what even a ‘talking heads’ page with no major characters appearing goes for now. Legend has it that some kid bought the last page of issue three with Batman holding his stab wound as the Joker laughs away his own suicide directly from Janson, only to receive an unsuspecting phone call from a pleading Frank Miller. It was his favorite page – he had to have it – and how many pages from his other works would he need to give the kid to obtain that treasure. Once pages get sold, they get lost from the public domain. Urban legend has it that the cover to number two was delicately teased away from Miller and the current owner plans to prove that you can take it with you…by being buried with it. Those that do display their coveted pages field obscene offers daily but laugh them away. Money you can replace, but Miller only blessed one of each page.

Having been obsessed with this series since it’s creation, I cannot know how someone would react to reading The Dark Knight Returns for the first time now. It was such a watershed event. The art stood out because there was nothing else of that quality and the artist was at the apex of his artistic creativity and constructed a story to match it. I reread the story every few years and each time I find something new about it that I missed and the story gains more depth than I remember it having the last time I read it. Even more incredible now is to read the introduction written by Alan Moore from 1986. His introduction is so prescient that there can be no disputing that we all recognized its significance at the time. Everyone in the community knew what was occurring while it was going on much like the people involved in a movement know that they are part of something special and will be talking about its significance for generations to come. Even reading the book today, almost 20 years after its publication, you can still see topics that were raised that are still relevant today. Issues brought up in The Dark Knight Returns are just now being dealt with in the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel mini-series and the unbelievably phenomenal Justice League Unlimited cartoon. It is unfathomable to me how anyone could read this and not recognize it’s brilliance and significance to the hobby. Thanks to Frank Miller, the Dark Knight definitely did return.

David E. Miller (email) has been involved in the comic book industry for almost 20 years. He started out attending Serendipity Comic Book Conventions in Suburban Philly and befriending top independent creators like Reggie Byers(Shuriken for Comico). He parlayed his industry expertise into recruiting the Honorary Board for the New York City Comic Book Museum. His highest related achievement was sitting down with Stan Lee in his studio office for an hour talking history. His lowest was selling off most of his collection in High School.

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