The past year has seen Frank Miller return to the legendary “Dark Knight Returns” timeline with “Dark Knight III: The Master Race,” DC Comics‘ currently unfolding eight-issue miniseries co-written by Miller and Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson.
And Miller hasn’t stopped there: While “Dark Knight III” is a continuation of the first two “Dark Knight” miniseries, he’s also gone back in time for “Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade,” a 64-page prestige format one-shot co-written by Miller and Azzarello and illustrated by John Romita Jr. and Peter Steigerwald. The story takes place in the “Dark Knight” world, 10 years before the events of 1986’s seminal “The Dark Knight Returns,” and fills in the blanks as to what happened to Jason Todd, the tragic, former Robin — the event that led to Batman’s retirement.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Miller and Romita have worked together. The two collaborated at Marvel Comics in 1993 for “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear,” an acclaimed six-issue reimagining of Daredevil’s origin story. CBR spoke in-depth with both creators about re-teaming together after more than two decades, what makes Jason Todd a unique figure in the Batman mythos, and introducing Killer Croc and Poison Ivy into the “Dark Knight” timeline.
CBR News: Frank, John, let’s start with an obvious question, but one that begs to be asked — you’re working together again, more than 20 years after “Man With our Fear.” Was it easy for you to get back in the rhythm of collaborating?
Frank Miller: Actually, we’ve never liked each other. [Laughs]
John Romita Jr.: The amazing part, to me, was that when we were doing “Man Without Fear,” we were both five years old. [Laughs] We’ve only aged 20-something years since then — we’re still young men! I like it.
It was easy, to tell you the truth. Quality is quality. When you get something like this to work on, you do your job. I’m amazed at how consistent Frank is, and he showed it on this. It was absolute pleasure. It’s hard to quantify that, but an absolute pleasure to the 10th degree.
Miller: “Man Without Fear” was much more freeform. It was originally based on an overblown TV treatment that was completely unproducable, and it grew and grew in my hands — then John went completely berserk with it. It drove Marvel Comics crazy, because it kept growing in size. It went from being, I think, 48 pages to 160 or something like that. I think it was built to make the publisher crazy. This one is a much more organized mess.
How did this specific story came together? Frank, was it something that spun out of you and Brian working on “Dark Knight III,” or a story you’ve been wanting to tell for a long time?
Miller: It was hinted at in “Dark Knight [Returns]” — what happened to Jason was supposed to be the reason that Batman retired in the first place. How it happened was also hinted at — it was meant to be something haunting around the edges. It was just this further edge to the darkness of Batman. Never explained, and now it’s coming out.
Was the writing process for this similar for you and Brian as it has been for “Dark Knight III”?
Miller: Oh, sure, a lot of give and take. We get along very well, and seem to have similar twisted sensibilities.
John, what’s the approach on a book like this for you, as an artist? It takes place years before “Dark Knight Returns,” but is still consistent with that book, albeit clearly with your art and your style. How do you illustrate a world that’s so visually distinct, while also making it your own?
Romita: There’s no mystery to this for me, because I had to re-read and re-re-read the two “Dark Knights,” especially the first one. I’ve read it a couple of times. I actually read it on vacation — I’m sitting at a pool for a week, reading this graphic novel. People are giving me stares, and I wanted to tell them, I have a better book than what they have.
I read it, and then I read it again and got the flavor of it. When I got the plot, it was relatively easy to get into it, because I had read it back in 1988, and I was reading it again, and I felt like I was involved in it. Knowing Frank’s story from working with him, it was not a mystery — I actually wasn’t even intimidated, because what they gave me was easy to run with. There’s cinema involved in this. It made it easy for me to play with.
Also, the Joker, because of “Dark Knight Returns,” was set. I knew what I was doing with the Joker. A little bit of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a little bit of this and that — it wasn’t as difficult as one might expect. It was actually more pleasure than anything.
Let’s talk about the central figure in the story, Jason Todd. He’s an overlooked character in Batman history in some ways, and definitely a tragic figure, as this book makes clear. What do both of you find interesting about Jason Todd as a character, and his place in the Batman mythos?
Miller: He is, after all, known as the in-between Robin. When they [wrote out] Dick Grayson, they were left with a vacuum, so they had to bring in a new one. I really think it wasn’t the wisest thing to just bring in a perfect duplicate, because it made Batman seem pretty weird — that he would just go around looking for another kid. It was really what the market would bear at the time, and decisions were made, by a lot of people. They did more or less replicate the first one.
The thing they did right was, they gave Jason a massive inferiority complex. He really had to measure up to the previous Robin. That, I think, was very refreshing at the time. I wanted to break that when I brought Carrie [Kelley] in, by making her completely fearless, and not worried at all about measuring up to anything.
Romita: Robin is an established character, and he looks the way he looks. The Jason Todd part was fascinating. I’ve said “blood from a stone,” but that’s basically what it was. [Miller] took a little intricacy about the character, and turned it into this amazing story. “What happened to Jason Todd?” turned into a 57-page graphic novel. To me, this is all on Frank; the sad part of what happens to the character, and how it affected Batman. A little toe-hold that blows into a great story. That’s what writers are supposed to do, and that’s what Frank excels at. I stepped back and just drew the character the way it’s supposed to look. What Frank and Brian imbued to the character made it what it is.
It’s a simple costume. It’s the original Robin costume. I really had the easy part. A couple of furrowed brows, and that’s about it.
Well, the brows look great. Let’s talk Batman himself. This story finds the character in an interesting spot. He’s not as old as he is in “Dark Knight Returns” — and beyond — but he’s a Batman that has been around for a long time and seen a lot at this point. He’s little older than typical Batman stories. What did both of you enjoy about telling a Batman story in this spot in his life?
Miller: I think every hero has to go through passages that transform them. This is certainly a formative one — he’s actually realizing the human cost of what he’s doing. He’s becoming aware of the physical cost on himself. But to actually have that cost be the life of someone who is in his charge — that’s just a whole ‘nother consequence of being a hero.
Romita: Frank and I both know the aging process, so this is easy. [Laughs] We’re well aware of it.
I can only say this so many times until people believe me: I was sitting back and driving this great car, and it was easy. All I had to do was fill in the dots. It’s not that simple, but the story is there, the history is there. I would smile while I was working, and that doesn’t always happen. Especially if its’ 4 o’clock in the morning.
Reading the book before this, and reading up on the character, it made it so simple to do, where I could concentrate on the cinematic part of it and the storytelling part of it, without having to worry about any little ins and outs. It was all there for me. I’ve got the plot under lock and key, because it’s an example of what should be done with plots/scripts. I had an easy time of it, to tell you the truth, and I loved every second of it.
Miller: I think more than anything, it demonstrates how absolutely driven of a character Batman is.
Romita: The short part was easy, but you don’t need a lot of words. Frank’s an artist, first, and he became an artist-writer. He knows what to put down and what not to put down. Brian knows this craft; they know what to leave out. It is up to me to expand on it, but if there’s the right amount written there, you get five pages from three lines, or you get two pages from one sheet. It really depends on what’s written. They gave me enough leeway to put some of my own little nuances in, and then they ran with it. It was a nice collaboration between the three of us.
Miller: John, you’re being amazingly modest. There are a lot of people who do a lot less with a lot more.
Romita: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. But it’s hard to describe, to anybody who hasn’t done this, that with the right words, you can expand and run with it. That’s what I did with “Man Without Fear,” and that’s what I did with this. Just loving every second of it. And probably could have gone even further — we probably could have added more pages to it, quite simply.
Miller: There he goes again!
Romita: Frank’s remembers the point where he added an addendum in “Man Without Fear.” It was between page 17 and 18. The addendum ended up being 80 pages. [Laughs]
Miller: We both were going crazy at that point.
Romita: And there was no email! He was in Texas working on a movie, so he couldn’t get back to me immediately. I was able to play with it before he screamed — although I did hear screams from Texas, I think.
Miller: I think you heard them from Marvel!
In “Last Crusade,” we see a couple of big Batman characters that we haven’t seen in the Dark Knight world before — Killer Croc and Poison Ivy. What motivated incorporating these two villains into this story?
Miller: Batman’s always been notoriously known for having the sexiest female villains around, from Catwoman on. Poison Ivy was inevitable to make her way into the Dark Knight world.
Killer Croc — I know that one came from Brian. He’s had a thing for Killer Croc for a long time.
John, what inspired your take on Killer Croc? He’s not as Croc-like, and more human.
Romita: Brian sent me some reference on his version that he had worked on [in the “Joker” graphic novel, illustrated by Lee Bermejo]. The size and the skin problems were just about it. It was less about the likeness to the Croc than it was about the size.
I love gigantic characters; I love when [characters are] getting bounced around like a tennis ball. It connects to the fact that Batman has lost it in his own mind. He’s losing it, and it leads to his decision to retire. The character was fun. That’s like driving around in fancy car, you just put it into the next gear and you go. It’s fun to play with gigantic characters, and you love beating up the hero.
John, it occurs to me that it’s been about two years now that you’ve been at DC. You’ve drawn a whole bunch of Superman, and now Batman, both in this story and coming up on “All Star Batman” written by Scott Snyder. Those are two big characters, certainly — what’s left on the wish list?
Romita: The wish list, I have no idea. These were the two guys I wanted to do, although I never imagined myself doing Superman. I call these the suicide characters, because if you do these two characters, you generally follow the greatest artists in the business and the greatest creators in the business. So you can’t beat them, you have to try and just stay with them. It’s not climbing the greased pole — staying on the greased pole, I’m happy with.
These two characters are daunting because of the people that have worked on them before me. There’s an old line about carrying a football as you’re coming onto the goal line — “Oh god, please don’t let me f this up.” That was pretty much what I was thinking about doing Batman. Superman before it, yes, but Batman, because I think it’s a better quality character, if I don’t irritate a whole bunch of Superman fans. I always wanted to work on Batman. Anybody that’s an artist in the business always wants to work on Batman, and I got the chance, so I’m very happy. But you keep your feet on the ground when you know there’s 75 years of history before you. You’re not going to beat everybody. You’re going to just get yourself in the middle of the pack, and hopefully you have a lot of relatives that buy your book.
Frank, there is quite a bit of “Dark Knight III left to go, but you’ve already made comments about wanting to do a Dark Knight IV. Matt,is there an update on that?
Miller: Not really, no. No update at all. Just still want to do it — we’ll see what happens.
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