“It’s Batman against a lighting bolt — how cool is that?”
Writer/artist Frank Miller’s enthusiastic response to a question about his iconic cover for “The Dark Knight Returns” at a recent book signing at Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles’ The Grove shopping center proved the celebrated creator hasn’t lost his affinity for Batman after all these years. And neither have his fans, who gathered to hear the comics legend expound on the 30th anniversary of the seminal work.
The cover in question — the aged crimefighter silhouetted against a stark electric-white bolt of lightning — has lost none of its visceral power in the three decades since its debut. The groundbreaking four-issue miniseries published in DC Comics’ then-nascent, high-quality Prestige Format, which he crafted following his red-hot stints on Marvel’s “Daredevil” and his own creation, “Ronin,” hasn’t lost any of its luster either.
To mark the books 30th anniversary, Miller — who also co-writes the current sequel, “Dark Knight III: The Master Race” — was joined on stage by DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan Didio for a Q&A. The assembled bookstore crowd included DC’s other Co-Publisher and Miller’s “All-Star Batman and Robin” collaborator Jim Lee, and a guest whose appearance surprised most of the attendees, Miller included: Marvel legend Stan Lee, who asked his own question from the audience: “I have an important question for an important guy: in a fight, who would win: Batman or Captain America?”
After mock-calling for security, Miller replied, “To answer Stan’s question, who would win in that combat? Robin.” Meaning specifically his Robin, “The Dark Knight Returns'” Carrie Kelly. “See if you can convince him to come back to Marvel,” Lee suggested as he exited following a warm embrace with Miller.
Miller entertained questions from both the audience and Didio as he reflected back on the project, which he followed with a staggering run of projects that would also become pop cultural touchstones beyond the world of comics, including “Batman: Year One,” “Sin City” and “300.” Prior to taking the stage, Miller also spoke with CBR News about his initial ideas for “The Dark Knight Returns,” whether he ever expected to be talking about (or working on its sequel) all these years later, and if Batman still gets his creative juices flowing.
On an unexpected source of inspiration:
Frank Miller: I got mugged. I’d always wanted to visit Batman and see what I could bring to him. But living in Manhattan and getting mugged once or twice gave me a much better view of the character. It made me, at least for a little while, as angry as he was.
On the more practical origins of the project:
[Then-DC editor] Len Wein approached me to about doing Batman. I’d always wanted to do Batman, but I didn’t feel I was ready to do him. I was kind of spooked by Batman because he was such a big deal as a character, and all I’d done at that point was “Daredevil.” But while I was doing “Ronin,” I got over my fear and I decided that I’d jump in and do it. And I got ready, I did a lot of research, and when I came up with the idea of making him older than me, I was sold.
On what he thinks of Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight-inspired Bat-armor in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”:
He looks pretty damn spiffy. He looks good in a big metal suit. And they designed a real nice one.
On why he established a tense relationship between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel:
My feeling was they’d never be that good of friends anyway. They’d kind of disagree on certain fundamental things. Superman can afford to be as nice about crime as he is, because he can fly, and he can do anything. He can beat up God if he wants to. But Batman has trained to fight a much tougher battle, and to me they were natural antagonists. But also, the main reason for doing anything; It made a good story.
On the aftereffects of the project’s success:
I just know what it meant in my career and my life, and it was one of the turning points in both. I changed the way I looked at comics, the way I looked at where my career could go. It’s just a wonderful thing to celebrate, and so I’m enjoying the hell out of this.
CBR News: Happy anniversary.
Frank Miller: Thank you. First time I’ve heard that!
I’m guessing you couldn’t have imagined anything close to the staying power this project was going to have.
No. When I started, I was just hoping we’d get published. I had no idea it would turn into something people would keep talking about for so long.
When did you realize that it really was something that people were going to be talking about for decades to come? Was there a moment where you thought, “We’ve created something bigger than I ever expected”?
It was an ongoing set of surprises. You go up to bat and you take your best shot. This one turned out to be a homer. But I didn’t expect it to keep on rewarding like this. Now, it’s become apparent that it’s going to be something that we can enjoy revisiting again in the future.
Why was the character of Batman such a perfect creative vehicle for you and your kind of storytelling, especially what you did with this particular project?
These heroes are all based on wishes. They’re dreams. With Superman, the wish is very easy to figure out what it is. Who doesn’t want to fly? With Batman, it’s a little more complex. It has to do with, who doesn’t want somebody to show up and make the bullies leave me alone? Batman’s the big guy who shows up and makes it safe to walk the street, and gets rid of the bad guys.
The reason Superman had to be part of this story — and has to be a part of any big Batman story — is that the two are naturally bound together. They’re Apollo and Dionysus. The guy who plays it rough with the crooks, and the flying guy who might as well be wearing a badge. They need each other.
As this project came together in your head, did you start with a juicy Batman plot, or did you have the social critique and satire in mind and you were able to marry it to a Batman plot?
The only way to approach this is to approach it first and foremost as a study of the character in conflict with whatever era he’s in. Then, setting up the opponents to the character as being representative of the time he’s in. So who is the Joker in our time? Since they’ve always had a rather grouchy relationship, who is Superman? What forces does he represent? It’s all a matter of finding pieces, then with as much drama, and especially as much wit as possible, examining the time that we’re in.
When you see how influential your original take on Batman was, and the kinds of things that stuck forever: the way you did narrative dialogue captions over thought balloons, a lot of the approaches to the character. And now we’re seeing things like “Batman v Superman,” where we’re seeing a lot of imagery that comes directly from your pencil. What has that come to mean to you over the years? You’ve seen just how much people embraced what you did, sometimes swiped what you did?
I mean, I’ve learned a lot since doing the first “Dark Knight.” I learned a lot about life too. Instead of resenting, as I first did, when they would take some of the stuff in the movies — I resented and I thought, “Oh I’m being ripped off!” — I’ve come to realize that what I did was a piece of an overall collective work that’s evolving and changing as time goes by. I didn’t make up Batman, I just contributed to the myth. And now they’re using some of my stuff to take it in their own direction. God bless them as well.
Were you shocked at how prescient your take on the media in the original “Dark Knight Returns” was and how it’s turned out to be exactly what the media is now?
Yeah. It was pretty freaky. I mean, I didn’t even own a computer when I did it. So I couldn’t have imagined what the Internet was going to be like. My little TV screens were like a crude form of web surfing.
When you look back at the Frank Miller who created this piece of work what do you think of him when you think of yourself at that age?
He’s a pretty angry young man. But he loves his heroes. He still does.
Now that you’re a little closer to the age of Batman in that story, how do you approach life and how do you feel about things today?
Well, I don’t wear tights very often. I do it only at night and my weapons are all my own. [Laughs] How do I feel? I’m in love with heroes, always will be. I feel that heroes are, partly they’re dream characters, but partly they’re meant to be there to remind us of basic principals of right and wrong. So as long as there is a right and there is a wrong, there’s a place for these characters.
Creatively, what still keeps the fire in your belly? What are you looking forward to doing as an artist, as a creator, as a writer?
Well, I came to tell stories about moral conflicts, about good versus evil, to set them in exotic locales and dress the characters up as dramatically as possible. I’ve got a bit of a life-long obsession with World War II, I hope to do a new “Sin City” that’s set during the war. Mainly, my work is entirely focused on the hero and trying to define him. Whether it’s with my own “Sin City” characters, with Martha Washington, or with DC and Marvel’s wonderful toys, it’s all the same story over and over again.
How much fun was it to see Klaus Janson’s inks on your work again, creating brand new stuff together?
Working with Klaus has been one of the unexpected joys of the whole thing. He and I have, since our initial working together on “Daredevil” and on “Dark Knight,” we’ve both progressed to the point where we can each do each other’s job. So for us to come together and collaborate again, we’ve both reached so many more tools to the job that it’s wonderful. Instead of being redundant all over each other, we’re just enjoying it.
Tell me about collaborating with Brian Azzarello. If anybody is an heir apparent to your style of writing for comics, it’s him.
It was an absolute kick, but don’t be so sure that he’s an heir apparent. Brian’s his own man and he’s quite a smart writer.
What’s been fun, or even challenging, about working with him?
He’s quick. He’s really quick. He comes with a whole lot of ideas. He adapts very quickly when new ideas are thrown at him. He keeps you on your toes. He’s a very, very good writer.
What was it like for you to have that experience of being a media darling as the result of “The Dark Knight Returns?” You enjoyed plenty of great creative opportunities but you also had a stint in the spotlight. What did you learn from that experience?
“Don’t let it go to your head, kid.”
It had to have been weird because, other than Stan Lee, there wasn’t anybody to talk to about that kind of thing at that time.
Not really. Not really. It was kind of a brave new world, getting that much media attention. It was kind of spooky. I’m not going to whine about it, it was one of the best things that ever happened in my life.
Is there more Batman in your future do you feel?
Sure. Sure. There’s life in it. It’s been enough time now, and you could look forward to revisiting.
As you think about him now and think about modern times, what kind of new ideas about the character and how he relates to what we’re dealing with today, what’s sort of percolating in your head?
Lots of stray notions. But they’re going to take a while to sort out. I’ll see you in the funny pages.
“Dark Knight III: The Master Race” #3 is on sale now from DC Comics.