Frank Miller’s Return To Batman Comics

Batman The Dark Knight Returns
Batman:The Dark Knight Returns
Frank Miller, Klaus Janson & Lynne Varley
DC Comics, 1986

Frank Miller is one of the most influential writers in comic book history. His influence on the medium began in the 1980’s and is still being felt to this day. Along with other writers of the period such as Denny O’Neil, Paul Dini, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Miller helped usher in an age of mature storytelling in superhero comics. Miller’s work was crucial in demonstrating super hero comics could be an avenue for more adult stories. He helped to redefine Marvel’s Daredevil and brought gritty noir to life with Sin City stories. His greatest achievement however, was helping to bring back Batman to his dark and gritty roots with the dystopian tale The Dark Knight Returns.

This graphic novel told the narrative of an aging Bruce Wayne who returns to his costumed duties to combat a Gotham with crime on the rise. This story not only set the standard for Batman comics, it paved the way for other adaptions such as Tim Burton’s 1989 film and the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series by Bruce Timm. It helped redefine superheroes much in the same vein as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with the backdrop of the Cold War to bring these characters further into reality. Frank Miller has obviously had a great deal of influence on popular culture. So why has news of his returning to do another sequel to his classic storyline been met with so much controversy among fans and critics? Here, we shall be taking a look at what we may expect from Miller’s return to Batman.

Miller’s work has been adapted into a feature length animated film.

The Positive Influence

Before we can discuss what we may come to expect from Miller’s return to this character, we must first take a look at how much influence Miller had in more detail. Miller’s distinctive style is heavily entrenched in noir style atmosphere. He established early with Daredevil. One example of this is in how Miller would use actual sketch work based on the detail of New York skyscrapers. This included the gritty details taking place on the roof tops of the city. The reader would view pipes, chimneys and water towers among the backdrop of these costumed battles. Miller’s art style also included a great deal of shading and dark edges reminiscent of German Expressionism. This was also reflective in his writing, which explored religious inner turmoil of the hero and economic class struggles. Not only did this lead Daredevil to become a more fleshed out character, the storylines themselves would prove to be darker and more mature than most super hero comics of the period.

In addition, Miller was able in incorporate other styles into his work. The graphic novel Ronin was heavily influence on manga and would go on to influence such shows as Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network some fifteen years later. His noir based Sin City Stories as well as the ultra- violent epic 300 were later adapted into successful films in the 2000’s. This helped to expand to concept to the public that comics could explore mediums outside of the standard super hero narrative. However, his most important influence overall was with The Dark Knight Returns.

The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns

 Importance of The Dark Knight Returns

It is essential to understand how dramatic the impact of this graphic novel was on the character as a whole. In The Dark Knight Returns, we see a side to the character that had only been touched on in previous incarnations. Batman at his core is a dark character, but he was only gradually returning to his roots. This futuristic version took the character to a logical conclusion point. Bruce Wayne is portrayed as an aged man who has taken off his mask in an attempt to retire. However, he is restless. We learn that he cannot escape his calling and is shown as a man obsessed and consumed by his mission. It also helped define villains such as Two-Face and the Joker as more complicated individuals.

Harvey Dent was given an interpretation of obsessive compulsive disorder as a driving force for his gimmicks. This would later be expanded on as being rooted in abuse in his early child years. The Joker was shown for the first time as having a distinctive attachment to Batman. Awakened from a lengthy coma only when Batman returned to fight crime, Joker appeared to be connected to the Caped Crusader by a mystical force. This nod to the legendary rivalry has been expanded on in other classics such as The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween and Hush. Much of this can be attributed to Miller’s version of Bruce Wayne. It also helped to recreate the relationship between Batman and Superman.

Previously, the two were very good friends with few ideological differences. Here, Miller chose to focus on the logical differences between them and how their methods may come to bring them into conflict. The graphic novel also tackled political and social commentary of the Cold War Era, proving comics could be used to comment on real life situations. Batman was brought under scrutiny by the media for his vigilante behavior. Contrastingly, Superman was used as a puppet by the United States government to keep the threat of nuclear devastation. Though these two heroes were brought to their logical extremes, it would cause many writers to explore the flaws and attributes of the two in more realistic terms.

The Joker in his last moments
The Joker here is a representation of the extreme violence often found in Miller’s work.

The Seeds of Controversy

Despite his influence and popularity earlier in his career, more recent works have been more often received with controversy and a generally percieved lack of quality. Some of the earliest examples of this come from Miller’s experience in screenwriting. He penned the narratives for two sequels to the classic action film Robocop. The second film was heavily criticized for a perceived lack of humanity, such as using a foul mouthed child as a violent criminal. This same child would also be brutally murdered on screen. The third film dialed back the violence but was even less successful at the box office. However, this may be attributed to studio interference. More recent works have been brought under scrutiny as well. Though his Sin City graphic novels have been praised for their noir style, they have experienced some controversy as well. Particularly under scrutiny were the portrayal of most women as being overly sexualized.

Generally, most of these characters were prostitutes of some variety. Miller has also been perceived as being anti-Islamic. Specific examplesEhave been stated in the film version of his historical epic 300. Here, the villains hail from the Persian empire and are portrayed as demonic savages. The film has also been perceived as spouting fascist ideologies such as the extermination of those with disabilities. Such individuals would have tainted the ideal perfection of the Spartan society. Most damning of all perhaps is Miller’s most recent graphic novel, Holy Terror. Originally planned as a Batman story, this narrative follows a man known as the Fixer, who goes on a murderous rampage of Islamic terrorists following an attack on Gotham City. It’s understandable why this was prevented as being associated with Batman, but the portrayal of the villains has been described as pure propaganda meant to offend virtually everyone. This could been seen as proof of Miller’s writing style being somewhat unrestrained. To understand the reservations of fans more clearly, it is necessary to explore Miller’s natural evolution of writing Batman.

"Holy Terror"
Frank Miller’s “Holy Terror” could have starred Batman

Recent Portrayals of Batman

Miller’s most recent attempts to write Batman have been met with much controversy from fans and critics alike. These two graphic novels are All Star Batman and Robin and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The former retells the origin of Batman recruiting Robin while the latter is a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. In the former, many disliked the portrayal of Batman as being gleefully sadistic. He seemed to revel in causing pain to both criminals and innocents. This version even verbally and physically abused Dick Grayson as the boy grieves for his parents deaths. This action is radically different than most versions of the character. He would follow this by starving the boy and even scolding his butler Alfred for showing sympathy. Perhaps the most infamous moment within is when Wayne introduced himself as “The God Damn Batman”. The statement has been used to indicate the outrageous portrayal of the character and has even reached meme status on the Internet. A stronger indicator of Miller’s unrestrained take on the character is seen in The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

In his follow up to the influential graphic novel, Miller has extended his gritty view of this dystopia to members of the Justice League and such villains as Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Fans have scrutinized his versions of Superman and Wonder Woman, particularly of their romantic involvment with each other. The exploitative nature of the media and government was updated to include the Bush administration but with less focus than the original. Most notable is the fact that the story is barely even a Batman tale. Bruce Wayne himself is barely present in the narrative. This is attributed to his age and the recruitment of other heroes to battle evil. Still, the natural progression of the story suggests that a follow up to this graphic novel may have even less involvement from the title character. This could be seen as being an even greater crime then upping the violence and insanity of Batman.

Batman challenging Superman
Can fans hope for a rematch between Batman and Superman?

The Future

While it is possible that Frank Miller may be able to provide his audience with a more balanced take on the character again, recent decades suggest he is too unrestrained to recreate the classic stories of his prime. Where once his darker take on comic book character ushered in a new age of mature storytelling, now he seems to focus more on the exploitative nature of his style rather than big ideas or relevant themes. His work has become noisy without much substance in recent years. In addition, his recent portrayals of Batman seem more designed to incite rage among the fan base than to tell compelling stories. Hopefully, Miller will reclaim his title as an influential writer for Batman and comics in general. For the moment however, fans will just have to wait and see.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jeff MacLeod

    Miller’s work is impressive, I look forward to his next project.

  2. Eugene Welker

    I wish Miller all the best, but he’s not the writer he used to be.

    • ApeX

      I hate to lean on a writer’s “golden years” but I share your opinion. I don’t know if he could ever achieve the same level of impact that he had in the ’80’s, and fear that he will always be caught competing with that permanent image of his younger self.

  3. Bergman

    The original work by Miller was garbage — a pity it’s being used as a premise for an entire motion picture. I suppose when the movie tanks, people will get the hint that this guy is no genius.

  4. He hasn’t written a decent Batman story since the ’80s. An emphatic no thanks on this one.

  5. Frank Miller + Zack Snyder is like the equivalent of a boy band for 13 year boys. After Man of Steel and 300 (both movies), I don’t think I can take it anymore. Dreading Batman v. Superman…

  6. Aaron Hatch

    Awesome article. It is really good how you focussed one Millers best moments in With The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil, and also how he feel from grace with his more recent works. Personally, I stopped taking him seriously after All-Star Batman and Robin. Batman making Robin eat bats! Really!?

  7. dhananandini

    The article is really written well. I am sure children will love it.

  8. Frank Miller is a typical writer! They all quibble over tiny character and story elements, and they never really have an appreciation for visual aesthetic and mastery.

  9. Luna Lo

    I love The Dark Knight Returns. Its probably my favorite comic book (though the art is VERY hit or miss). But I think Frank Millers perception on Batman, and how every story should have a Batman like how he envisioned is a little ridiculous.

  10. Frank Miller has had his day. His film version of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” was a tragic waste of a good character, and his sequel to ’Sin City” was too long in coming and too much of a pale repetition of ideas that had a short shelf life to begin with.

  11. GerryPate

    The Dark Knight = genuinely astonishing.
    The Dark Knight Strikes Again = terrible.

  12. His books have ranged from a letdown to just god awful (Holy Terror, WTF?) for the last 10 years or so (and he seems to take so long to put them out). Hopefully he returns to form with this, but I’m not optimistic.

    • Britain

      I know little about comic books, but by the sounds of it this guy’s a bit of a one-hit wonder?

  13. Frank Millers work (especially on Batman) is bull$@%#. I’ll take Dini and Timm’s work any day.

  14. Valenti

    Frank Millers an awesome writer but the guy hasnt done anything spectacular in what.. 20 yrs….

  15. I wish Frank Miller would direct a Dark Knight Returns Movie starring Michael Keaton! That would be KICK ASS!

    • as cool as that would be I wouldnt want to see Millers version of the joker…. to girly for me lol

  16. I have my own idea on how Batman should be, and although Nolan’s Dark Knight was better that the first set, it left a lot to be desired. the first (Batman Begins) was the better, but I think the villains in the other two had too much control ( not diminishing Heath Ledgers great performance), like in the first set of movies, the villains had way too much control of the movies.

  17. Miller’s portrayal for provocative and thought evoking in the 80s, it allowed for a new lens when juxtaposing Batman and Superman, and the superhero vigilante within a state. But Miller’s take is no longer provocative, except insofar as it is blatantly exploitative of the character’s gender and ethnicity. It just feels like he’s echoing the super-exploitative nature of slasher films, except that he expects the reader to live some kind of fantasy through the intermission of a sadistic vigilante. But do we really need that kind of hero to relate to anymore?

  18. Frank Miller has no great writing talents , he doesnt understand any of the characters or their motivations its just a gritty angsty over the top comic like all his previous work which people hail like the second coming of christ for some reason. Has anyone read DK2? And lets not forget Holy terror which he intented to be a batman story aswell… oh and the art was the quivalent of a 5 year old.

  19. Well done with this topic! Personally, I’m not a fan of Miller (His portrayal of Batman and women in particular drives me mad) but I do understand his influence on the industry as a whole. It’s nice to see someone mention his good and bad aspects.

  20. Ryan Walsh

    Ever since 9/11 and writing Sin City for so long….I don’t think so. His run on All-Star Batman and Robin is also proof of that where Batman is portrayed as a violent lunatic who kidnapped Dick Grayson, gleefully killed criminals, and goads on about how he’s so much better than others just because he doesn’t have super powers. The series is pretty much Frank Miller acting like an arrogant spoiled Batman fan. Doesn’t help that he tries to connect that story to the Dark Knight Returns where aside the time differences, in his good story, Batman has respect for Commissioner Gordon like he always does. In ASBAR, they’re practically enemies for no really good reason. So would Frank Miller return to his former glory? Not as long as the “God Damn Batman” meme exists thanks to the book.

  21. Frank is a huge inspiration of mine. I don’t always agree with his portrayals of certain characters but he obviously has a ton of talent

  22. He wrote some exceptional Batman stories, but so have other writers.

  23. Grindrod

    I have reservations about Frank Miller’s work since Sin City. I just re-read DK2 and it is as horrible as I recalled it to be. He may have once been a pioneer, visionary and rebel for the North American comic book industry but presently, his work is anything but. I hope this new project allows him to shine once more.

  24. I wish him all the best writing it – hopefully it turns out great! I’m a bit hesitant to be excited, though. While I absolutely loved The Dark Knight Returns, I really didn’t like The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It didn’t seem to overall be very well-received, either.

  25. I feel like he’s been downhill for a while. His previous dark knight book was garbage, and was just fanservice of Batman being angry and paranoid for over a hundred pages. I doubt he’ll pull it together for a new one.

  26. I loved Batman Year One. I came late to DKR (bought the 15th anniversary edition) and, while I could understand why it was considered such a great work, it wasn’t my kind of story. I tried DKSA and was turned off by the art, the characterization, and ultimately, by the fate of Dick Grayson. ASBAR wasn’t as bad, but the long delays between issues led to me dropping it after 2 issues. Recently, I’ve gotten into Daredevil and I will agree that his work on that title was absolutely stellar. Unfortunately, I find his more recent works do not show that same calibre. I’d probably pass up any of his future work, barring recommendations from people I trust.

  27. Interesting take on Miller & Batman. A little more attention could be paid to how we read comics. This might ground the claim that it is “essential to understand how dramatic the impact of this graphic novel was on the character as a whole” (…this sentence also reads a little awkwardly). For an engaging analysis of comics and literacy, Dale Jacob’s GRAPHIC ENCOUNTERS is the standard.

  28. Long time Batman reader, however have never got around to Miller’s rendition in TDKR. However, I do like the fact that he has tried to break new ground with the character. Batman’s history is so dark, and so complex it offers new creators the opportunity to put their own spin or perspective on the character. There are hundreds of Batman titles, all unique in their own sense, while still saying true to at least the basis of the character – he has a dark past, and uses his pain as fuel to bring forth justice and hope.

  29. I never really got the hype for Dark Knight Returns….

  30. I think many comic fans who actually know criminals, cops and a darker side of America are more forgiving of Frank Miller’s portrayal of Robin’s training.

    He was trading the boy for war. He wasn’t trying to raise a son, though he was looking for a successor to some degree.

  31. Long since given up any interest in Miller, but can’t help feel a nervous twinge of excitement for his insanely titled The Dark Knight III: The Master Race.

    Although at least it sounds as like DC has assembled a crack creative team to keep him slightly under control.

  32. justinius23

    i’m sad to say that miller should just hang it up. some of his work will rightly be treasured but that… won’t happen with anything new he creates.

  33. LOL. Goddamn Batman.

  34. The cynic in me thinks Frank Miller’s recent health issues might be prompting either cooperativeness in Miller, or a desperate attempt by other creators to get something, anything out of him that is bankable.

    His Occupy Wallstreet diatribe did him no favors in allowing anyone to think he is a reasonable man, and his recent works underscore his growing paranoia and hostility. To say that he is unrestrained is perhaps a bit of an understatement; even a few pages into “Holy Terror” should tell anyone that Miller is more unhinged than unrestrained.

    I am always puzzled by the types that espouse violence and advocate for war yet never themselves put on a uniform or make any effort to enact their beliefs. Frank Miller is one of those types. His work shouts a lot, often crudely, and his personal life is littered with challenges for others to join the military while he sits in safety. He tries to glorify the nastiness of violence and war without ever participating in it. I am prior enlisted and I cannot stand this type of person.

    His work has suffered, and most certainly his mind.

  35. This is a great article and an interesting subject. Frank Miller’s Batman: Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest comic stories in history. Miller will always be judged and compared to by that piece. However, I think the dislike for Millers work lately, is more of a political one. Comics today have become more and more left leaning in propaganda–no arguments against that here. However, it is rare to pick up a comic today that is not saturated with left leaning propaganda. The author is swimming against the river’s current. After 9/11, Muslim villains disappeared in comics, but Miller went against the mainstream in Holy Terror which was originally intended to be a Batman story. One thing about Millers work it almost always goes against the contemporary political correctness. And this depending on what side of politics a critic is standing on can annoy some people, hence the emotionally charged opinions against Miller.

  36. Dark Knight Returns was the same to DC as Civil War was to Marvel; it boosted their sales by bitching to major characters against each other in a battle of ideologies.

  37. Frank Miller definitely isn’t the writer he was, but I still remain cautiously optimistic because of the other writers that are apparently helping out.

  38. FantasticMrMac

    Though Frank Miller has gone from a sensational writer to essentially a parody and husk of what he used to be, I am looking forward to Dark Knight III, if only because I love Batman and I love the original TDKR.

    Frank Miller really took Batman from the blue, gray and yellow to that classic grey and black, big bat. Honestly, I can’t wait to get back into that world.

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