I read and teach a lot of comics; that goes without saying, but, at times, I wonder if I’m reading “the right” comics. I know tastes in media are subjective, but could I properly teach a film class if I had not seen Citizen Kane? Yes, the answer is yes. But I would not be as connected to the glorious history of film if I did not. With that said, I have decided to dedicate some of this summer to reading the classic comics that serve as the Citizen Kane/Pulp Fiction(s) of comics if you will. Since I will be teaching a full-blown graphic novel/comics class in the fall, I feel it necessary for me to bone up on a few of the classics that I have not read. Now, as these reviews come out, please do not judge me that I have not read these titles. I know many of you are long time comic fans, but I also know that I read a lot of non-hero books that you may not…we all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to comics’ study, just as we do film, so back off. My first class is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
If you do not know much about the American writer/artist Frank Miller, don’t worry. While much of his later work came under some massive scrutiny, Miller developed a few of the most iconic comics of all time including 300, Sin City, and the subject of this blog review, The Dark Knight Returns.
The basic premise is interesting: Batman, now 55-years-old, having been retired for the past ten years, decides to come out of retirement to eliminate a massive gang that is basically destroying Gotham City and its inhabitants…but it’s not that simple when you toss in world/national politics, the media, and Superman. The book is an interesting stew of concepts.
There are reasons that I do not read a lot of hero books: I find many of them hokey, many simplistic, and contrived. But! I still give them a chance because there are some gems out there, and while I do not care for the last couple pages of this book, I can see why it has been met with a ton of praise.
When you open the book to the first few pages, you are overwhelmed with the amount of images and text; this book takes concentration and focus. Not that other hero books do not, but pick this thing up and flip through it…you’ll see what I mean. Tackling this book from beginning to end is indeed a sort of a chore, not in the bad way, but in the way in which you know, when it’s done, you might feel as if you have done some work. For example, besides being inundated with images and words at a much higher frequency than most other graphic novels and comics, the vocabulary in this book is exceptional. I learned a few new words, and I know that if I taught this, it would be a great opportunity to sharpen the vocab skills of my students as well.
I must say that in the face of a lot of the amazing art that has hit the scene over the past thirty years (about how long it’s been since this book came out), the art in this book is good, but as a fan of art in books (and I know a lot of you don’t really care about art over story), I’d have to say that the simplistic and sometimes confusing images had me lost at times; it took me out of the story and forced me to re-read more than I would have liked to make sure I was grasping what was going on. If you are looking for ridiculously amazing art, you might not be floored by this book, but I will say…there are some great large images to round out the smaller, less detailed ones.
Art aside, the story in this book is solid. And thematically, you can’t go wrong. Miller has a lot to say about the media, politics, right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, complacency, conviction, etc. If you do end up teaching this book, you can be sure that some interesting conversations will arise. Strong thematic works are always great for this. If you can get past some of the silly of it all, especially a lot of the Joker stuff, there is some deep thought happening here. Except the ending.
I have to say, the last two pages of this book do not do the first 197 any justice. I was greatly disappointed in the ending. I will not spoil it for you, but I will say that it’s simple, Hollywood, and forced compared to most of the story. I’m interested in what you think about it.
I’m reminded of a story I heard once that the Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn movie Dodgeball had the Average Joe’s team losing the end match and was supposed to go right into the credits rolling. That would have been terrible! Not because I wanted them to win (although I did), but the tone and story are fun, and that ending would have flipped the entire film and would have made no sense. The Dark Knight Returns has the Dodgeball ending that they did not go with; it does not match the tone of the rest of the piece.
Do readers need Hollywood endings every time? Writers, challenge your readers! It’s OK. We will survive if we have to think about an ending. I’m not a Game of Thrones fan, but I do know that they kill major characters every week, and people keep coming back. If anything, people love when you toss a story on its head. Not in a “this makes no sense” way though. My wife has a love/hate relationship with Game of Thrones because of the way they kill off major characters, however, she admits that the deaths in the show make sense in the scheme of the story, so it’s acceptable and even respectable. Hero book writers can take note of that.
Anyway, this was fun, and I hope you go check this book out if you have not read it, and let me know what you think. It’s not a beach read. Get ready to work your brain…but that’s not a bad thing.
Happy reading, everyone!