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Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Comic Analysis

Updated on June 27, 2012
Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns hardcover version.
Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns hardcover version. | Source

In Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne is at an age where crime fighting is difficult; his health is not on his side and the public’s support for his work is diminishing. He constantly states that “this wouldn’t be a bad death.” With the help of a thirteen year-old, female Robin, Batman is able to still fight crime, but barely lives through each battle.

Miller uses juxtaposed panels of Batman’s storyline and interjections from the television. He allows us an inside view into the world of Gotham television. Because of the four-year writer’s strike, normal programming is substituted with free speech. The criminals, doctors, newscasters, police, civilians, etc. all speak through the television. On page 69, we become attached to a female character on the subway train. The very last panel is a newscaster, emotionless, saying, “Woman explodes in subway station—film at eleven” (69). The media attempts to sell us ideas, breaks panel structure and storyline to interject with what we should be watching later. Miller strategically places these TV panels throughout his novel to show the media’s behavior and also allude to Batman’s storyline.

On page 116, Gordon is giving a speech about the new, female commissioner. She is half his age and qualified. Miller juxtaposes these statements with images of Batman with Robin. If we weren’t matching text to image, we may assume that the text is referring to Robin. On 129, Robin makes up for Batman’s old age. She saves him with grace, alluding to the fact that she will be his predecessor. Miller uses the media in a similar way when he places Batman in a triumphant stance on page 118 while the TV talks about the president.

Miller also asks his reader an important question: is it right for Batman to do the same things the Joker does, but for good? The television debates this question throughout the whole novel. Bruce Wayne says, “we must believe that our private demons can be defeated” (17). Here, he is talking about Harvey Dent (Two Face) and the psychological help Wayne funded to help him become a better person.

Unfortunately, Wayne needs to defeat his own demons. He commits crimes to prevent larger crimes, yet his inspiration comes from his parents’ murders. When he descends into the rabbit hole on page 17, he sees the bat for the first time. In this panel and later panels throughout the novel, Miller shows us a demonized-looking bat. This bat is Bruce Wayne’s demon, and he comes to only defeat it with his (fake) death.

The question of right or wrong comes again when Superman enters the plotline. Batman can see that Superman has done the superhero equivalent of “selling out.” Superman is a tool for the government to use, whereas Batman is a mortal and cannot sell out. Because Superman works for the government, he has no guilt or demons to overcome. Batman wants to do good, but the media’s attention and public backlash is too much at such an old age. He decides to fake his death, so he can help the world without recognition. (In my opinion, the best kind of help.)


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    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 5 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      A great review. The Dark Knight Returns has been a favorite of mine since it was released in 1986. Unfortunately, I found the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, to be a disappointment.

    • scentualhealing profile image

      scentualhealing 5 years ago from Georgia

      great book and great article, thank you

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you for reading, Deirdre. What you said is very true. I think that Wayne's age had a huge impact on how this story was told. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Have a wonderful day.

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      Derdriu 5 years ago

      Brittany, What an informative, insightful, intelligent analysis of the graphic novel about the return of the dark knight! It's important to know when to get out, particularly when things just aren't working the way they need to for personal happiness and professional success. In a way, the continued existence of Batman discourages Gotham City hopes and ingenuity since there's always Batman and his mission.

      Thank you for sharing, etc.,


    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Rob, Thank you for commenting. I loved this comic (and now, graphic novel). This one and Watchmen really broke the mold when they came out. Their social commentaries are so important to the time they were written. I think the Dark Knight (movie) was not based on the Dark Knight Returns...I also think I heard that they were making one in the future. Thanks again for commenting, reading and sharing your thoughts.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Brittany; I remember the huge buzz about this when it first came out in the 80s and everyone was raving about it. It came out at around the same time as "Watchmen" and the one-two punch of both of them changed comcs forever. Comics have never been the same since. They're much darker now.

      I liked the Dark Knight comic much more than the film of the same name, (which was totally different, of course) and Miller did a great job. I love the way he paralleled certain scenes. Miller portrayed Batman as someone moral but really screwed up in many ways.

      Great article,


    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      HSB, the movie that came out is different than this graphic novel. I believe the movie was just called, "The Dark Knight." This novel explores the psychological battles that Bruce Wayne goes through later on in life when he is older and cannot do the things he used to. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • homesteadbound profile image

      Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

      I agree with you brittany, that is the best kind of help. I haven't seen the movie or read the book, but it sounds like a complicated but good one to read.