Frank Miller sent shockwaves through the art and commerce of comics with the release of his 1986 breakout hit The Dark Knight Returns. One of the first comic books to receive widespread attention from the mainstream media, Miller’s Dark Knight in tandem with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen became the standard by which superhero comics were measured in the eighties.
Dark Knight took superheroes in directions they’d never fully explored. Utilizing the characters as political metaphors and employing an arsenal of cinematic storytelling techniques, Miller commented on the media saturated environment of the Reagan Eighties.
Inside of comics, the results were mixed and the influence is still being felt. Dark Knight prompted some creators to move in idiosyncratic directions with their work, while others were inspired to cultivate the gritty, violent, and visceral superhero aesthetic that took hold in the late eighties and early nineties. While the results of Dark Knight are varied, its impact on the artform is indisputable.
Fifteen years later, Miller is returning to his best-known superhero work with a different approach. In the following interview, industry-watcher Charles Brownstein caught up with Miller to discuss the creative motivations, artistic goals, and thematic ground at the core of Dark Knight’s return.
Part 1: Revitalizing the Superhero
CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: What prompted you to return to Dark Knight? This is literally hell freezing over. What made this project that you said and the environment said would never happen actually happen?
as the weathered sheriff coming back into Dodge ’cause the youngsters are shooting up the church and scaring the horses and not doing right by the women.
CB: What is the working dynamic with DC on this project?
FM: I’m working with Bob Schreck. He’s my contact and he’s gonna be my happy warrior, should there be any trouble down the way. It’s been made clear that I’ll have a very free hand with this. They’ve got confidence that I can pull this off. I don’t think they’re worried that I’m gonna turn Superman into a child molester or anything. The doors are open is what they’ve told me. I’ve been given the pantheon to play with and a license to kill [laughs].
CB: Creatively what will keep this from being a step backwards?
FM: If it’s a step backwards, I’ll have to face that. At the very least, it’s not a repetition of the first Dark Knight. It uses the first one as a springboard to a new story. If Dark Knight was a ripping down-a deconstruction of the hero, as many said-which I don’t really believe it was -this is much more of a building up.
I’ve seen all these characters of my childhood fall into disarray. They’ve become neither fish nor fowl. Those of us who wanted to test the boundaries of what a superhero comic book could do, unfortunately broke those boundaries and the results have not all been very good. We pushed against the old walls, and they fell-but nothing much has been built to replace them. And now the roof is leaking and the sewer’s backing up. So I’m taking this romp through the material again and showing just how spiffy this stuff is. I’m doing it without cynicism and giving my best. I’m also having a very good time.
CB: Is this project a response to the wave of nostalgia that superhero comics have been swept up in for the last eight or so years?
FM: The wave of nostalgia spoke, I suspect, to a crying need from longtime fans wondering where the hell their heroes have gone. I am responding to that and I’m hoping to do new things with these characters. I’m not out to simply do a reprint of stuff from the sixties. What I want to bring back to superheroes with this project is a sense of play. Things have gotten so dreary. The heroes have gotten so ugly that even their muscles have muscles. The elegance of Gil Kane is gone. You don’t see the sheer joy of Green Lantern’s power ring. The magic of somebody like the Flash-somebody who’s able to move so fast that you can’t see him move-is gone. There’s no sense of the basic wish that any of these characters have.
“I’m not out to simply do a reprint of stuff from the sixties. What I want to bring back to superheroes with this project is a sense of play.”
– Frank Miller
I think anyone who’s working on a superhero comic should be obliged to write down in one sentence what the central wish is of the character. Every story has to play to that theme. “Adolescent power fantasies” isn’t just a tired cliché; it’s too broad, too crude. There’s more than that to these characters, the good ones, anyway. As it is, I don’t know who these characters are anymore. I don’t know why they do what they do. Why Green Lantern became a drunk driver when he can fly always loses me. And I’m told they turned him into a mass murderer as well. The fun’s gone out of it. I want to try my hand at bringing it back. Perhaps there is a touch of nostalgia in this, and if so, I’m not ashamed about it. That isn’t the course of my career. We all can have our little sin now and again; our occasional indulgence in the toys of our childhood.
CB: What kinds of techniques do you anticipate using to recreate the atmosphere of awe and luster that you see lacking in superheroes?
FM: Most if it’s in the head. My head, in this case. Simply looking at what a character can do and finding a new way to show that and showing it in its best aspect. When doing a character like the Atom, for instance, you find there’s a million things that have never been done with him. For instance, nobody’s ever actually told a story from his perspective; where, from the viewer’s eye, rather than him getting tiny, the world gets bigger. When you do that, you start seeing all the surreal details that exist in something as simple as the bottom of a shoe. That’s just one example. I’ve been playing around with a number of them and ways I can portray them.
I’m also exploring the simple notion that superheroes should be heroes. Now we have ugly people fighting uglier people and the guy with the most guns wins. The fundament of a superhero is the guy in tights saving innocent people from bad things. It’s amazing how infrequently that seems to happen in superhero comics these days.
Allow me a disclaimer: I’m talking about the overall direction I see superhero comics going, not damning each and every title out there. I’m sure there’s some good stuff going on that I just haven’t seen. But the trend is depressing, and dumb.
There are so many possibilities, The superhero makes a great metaphor for all kinds of things about society. I’ve planned Dark Knight Strikes Back so that you will see various political fronts and points of view and forces of society represented by these superheroes.
CB: To expand on that, The Dark Knight Returns was a reflection of the 80s political climate, using superheroes as metaphors to comment on Reagan America. Will you be using superheroes as political metaphors again with this book?
FM: Yes I will. That was one of the hardest things to put together because this is a very strange era and one that’s hard to put a finger on. As I work on it, and remember that this is satire, what I want to show is a sort of, “kinder, gentler fascism.” All the news is good and everything’s fine and there’s no crime. We’ve thrown away our civil rights, but life’s good. At least that’s the way it’s portrayed in the media in the context of this Dark Knight. The perfect way of playing into that idea is that all the superheroes have vanished and no one knows where they are. That’s Batman’s case. He’s trained all his troops underground and is finally reemerging to bring back the glory boys to save the day.
On this project, I have the opportunity to show heroism from different points of view, politically and otherwise. With Ollie Queen I have a left-wing radical. With Bruce Wayne, if anything, he’s a bit of an idealistic anarchist. I’m gonna use The Question, and it’s gonna be Steve Ditko’s Question. No Denny O’Neil/Alan Moore- I’ll-use-this-guy’s-own-creation-against-him approach here. I want to have Ditko’s Ayn Randian point of view as part of my story. Meanwhile, on the Establishment side, I’ll have Superman who’s in a very compromised position, to say the least. You’ll finally understand why he was playing along all that time in the first Dark Knight.
CB: There’s a thematic arc that runs through your work with That Yellow Bastard and 300 in which you explore in concrete terms what a hero is. Now that you’re putting the cape back on, how will you be taking the lessons of those stories into the thematic core of this one?
FM: Leonidas and Hartigan really had me focus on what makes a hero and what doesn’t. When I was doing the first Dark Knight, Bruce was a very self destructive, tortured man. He was endlessly angry. When this story begins, three years have passed and he will look younger than he did in the first series. He will be strangely happy and at peace. He will be a much more powerful figure and he will be tested. Every hero has to be tested, that’s how they’re defined.
“When this story begins, three years have passed and he will look younger than he did in the first series. He will be strangely happy and at peace.”
– Frank Miller
It all comes down to “what is a hero?” For all the flash and glamour of superheroes and their funky costumes and their powers, they hardly have to be heroic. I’m really sick of the hero being the guy who wins and gets the medal at the end. It always makes me a little ill because it gets to the heart of the corrupt premise “Crime does not pay.” That’s not the reason not to commit crimes. Of course they pay! “Crime is wrong,” should be the message.
CB: How can you make these points about the heroic ideal without being didactic?
FM: By example, that’s always the best way to tell a story. Show, not tell. A hero is what he does, not what he says. The judgments they make at the time and their actions are much more important than anything they say. The stuff they say can be fun, but you won’t be seeing speeches out of my guys. Not unless they all start sounding off. Characters do tend to write themselves, when the job’s going well.
CB: How are you going to maintain the balance of exploring your themes and retaining the excitement of Batman, of that superhero archetype?
FM: By putting it in context. Think of Robin Hood, which is a deeply political story, but also a wonderfully heroic story. It’s a simplistic political story, but it’s nonetheless political. So is The Three Musketeers. The reason I need this context to do these heroes is because heroes are silly in a world that does not need them. If the world were the wonderful place that it was portrayed as in the fifties, then who would need a Batman? He’d be a clown! They even deputized him, for Christ’s sake. It’s a matter of defining what the overwhelming evil force is – in this story, a well-packaged, poll-tested global dictatorship – and then defining the heroes as they oppose it, and each other.
CB: What’s the outcome you’re hoping to accomplish with this work? What are you hoping to take away from creating it, what are you hoping the reader will take away from reading it?
FM: I don’t mean to go “aw, shucks,” on you, but I really mainly want people to get a really good yarn. I will throw all my best efforts into it, my thoughts and political observations, but ultimately I want to create a narrative that keeps you turning the pages and leaves you with a sense that this thing has a reason for being there. As any heroic story is, this is an affirmation.