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?
FRANK MILLER: I didn't say it would never happen. I said I wasn't interested in it for a very long time. Fifteen years passed. I came up with some ideas and got the itch to play with DC's toys. I wanted to play with the big old superhero characters. I've been away long enough that I'm not weary of them anymore. And seeing where things have gone in the past few years, I think some refurbishing and housecleaning is in order. Think of me
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.