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WTF Comics Club Reads: The Dark Knight Returns

Everything is awful. Good thing Bats is here to punch people.

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The WTF Comics Club is a monthly reading group for Women, Trans, and Femme-identified fans in Minneapolis. In its second year, the club is taking a look at some of the major comic book “must reads” and asking: Must we really read this?

Frank Miller’s much-lauded Batman miniseries, The Dark Knight Returns, shows an aging Bruce Wayne returning to vigilante antics after years in retirement. Because what’s more exciting than a rich white guy fighting crime? A middle-aged rich white guy beating up teenagers, apparently.

Since Batman’s retirement, Gotham City has become even more crime-infested and corrupt. The latest evil to terrorize the not-so-innocent civilians is a gang of juvenile delinquents known as The Mutants, whose hobbies include “doing crimes” and loitering at an abandoned arcade, and whose membership appears to include most of the teenagers in Gotham. When Batman defeats their leader, The Mutants scatter in search of new megalomaniacs to follow, and some decide to follow the Caped Crusader’s example, calling themselves the Sons of Batman and turning their violent impulses toward thwarting petty crime.

There are also subplots involving Two Face and The Joker, which are more or less comprehensible and neatly fulfill Miller’s obligation to include iconic supervillains, though the Joker storyline reads as a deliberate vilification of gender transgression—one of many examples in this book.

The major theme of The Dark Knight Returns is the public discussion around whether Batman’s crime fighting is a nuisance or a public service. Most of this discussion—and much of the story’s plot development—takes place via talking heads on television. The way Miller depicts the television debates is visually interesting but can be difficult to follow.

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In addition to using TV talking heads as a delivery system for information dumps, Miller also uses Gotham’s news and talk shows to paint details onto the bleak, vice-ridden hell that serves as the story’s setting. Politicians are unilaterally portrayed as useless and corrupt, and ordinary civilians appear confused, gullible, and hypocritical, emphasizing TDKR’s apparent thesis that all citizens of Gotham fit into one of two boxes: criminals for Batman to put down and idiots for Batman to save.

As one of the WTF readers pointed out, Miller “wanted to show how much he loved superheroes, and in the process, showed how much he hates everyone else. With violent overtones of misogyny, homophobia, anti-liberalism, and pretty much anti-everything, it’s easy to imagine Miller grumbling to himself as he writes and yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

The one almost-saving grace of The Dark Knight Returns is the introduction of Carrie Kelly, a thirteen-year-old girl who decides to become the new Robin and proceeds to kick ass. Like a little red-headed ray of sunshine, Carrie’s nerve and wit bring a desperately needed sense of humor to the grimdark world of The Bat, and she’s the only character in the story who appears to be doing things because she actually wants to do them. Seriously. The only one. Even Miller’s villains seem to act out of compulsion or because they’ve been given orders. Batman himself is bound by a sense of duty, as are the various law enforcers and officials littered around the narrative. No one in the story wants to be there, and engaging as she is, even Carrie Kelly isn’t enough to make the reader want to be there, either. The Dark Knight Returns is full of interesting ideas, fascinating commentaries on agency and duality, and examinations of the human struggle against aging into obscurity. The muted color palette is dynamic and lends a rich texture to art that otherwise falls inconsistently between passable and downright ugly. Unfortunately, everything good about Miller’s book is suffocated beneath his bleak, joyless, angry depiction of humanity and the nihilistic misanthropy masquerading as realism.

The rise in Batman’s popularity and the success of the various franchise installments that flooded the ’90s and ’00s are due at least in part to the financial and critical success of The Dark Knight Returns. Without it, we would not have 1989’s Batman and its contribution rise of Tim Burton. We owe it for the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series, which introduced many members of my generation to the world of Gotham City and gave the world the delightfully insane gift of Harley Quinn.

Of course, it’s also directly to blame for the recent hero vs. hero travesty that shall remain unnamed, so we have to weigh the cost-benefit pretty carefully, here.

Is The Dark Knight Returns an all-time must-read comic? The WTF readers are still undecided on whether it’s even worth reading.

Title: The Dark Knight Returns
Creator: Frank Miller
Publisher: DC Comics
Popular Rating:
WTF Rating: 🐒🐒
Must Read? Just watch the animated series.

The books for WTF Reads were determined by cross-referencing recommendation lists from four online publications: Forbidden Planet, Empire, BuzzFeed, and Complex . Titles were then selected based on a number of criteria, including popularity, importance, accessibility, and thematic continuity. Popular Ratings are on a five-star scale, averaged from ratings across Comixology, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. WTF Ratings are on a five-monkey scale, based on responses from club and community members. Only books that receive five monkeys will be preserved after the gender apocalypse.

(images via DC Comics)

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