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Foreword: As promised, I am dedicating this post to discussing how Frank Miller re-envisioned the character of Batman in “The Dark Knight Returns.” With that said, I have decided to move away from the more general/overview model of my last post, and venture back to a close reading/textual analysis model that I used in an earlier one.

Background Info: In the original story of Batman, Bruce Wayne was a playboy millionaire who disguised himself as Batman when he donned a costume and fought crime. In other words, Batman is just a character that Bruce Wayne plays to strike fear into the hearts of the criminals that he attacks, as well as to hide his identity from the public. In “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller turns the original story on its head by shifting the central focus from Bruce Wayne to Batman, and by portraying these two characters as radically different entities— both physically and mentally—that inhabit the same body.

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Analysis: In the beginning of “The Dark Knight Returns,” the reader learns that Batman has not been spotted in ten years, and that the citizens of Gotham suspect that he is either dead or retired. The reader soon discovers that Bruce Wayne has been deliberately repressing Batman for the last ten years, ever since he took a vow to never let Batman take control of their shared body again. Although the voice of Batman is never directly heard at this point in the story, Bruce Wayne makes it clear that he must exercise an extraordinary amount of self-control to keep him at bay, as he explains that Batman “struggles relentlessly, [and] hatefully, to be free” (Miller 19). In fact, Bruce Wayne highlights the hardships he must endure as he explains that Batman preys on him when he is most vulnerable, by bringing him to the bat-cave “when the night is long and [his] will is weak” (Miller 19). Although faced with unimaginable temptation by Batman, Bruce Wayne stays firm and reassures himself of the control his possess as he thinks, “I will not let him [break free]. I gave my word” (Miller 19).

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Although Bruce Wayne’s self-control is strong, Batman’s desire for escape is also strong. This becomes apparent to the reader about halfway through the first book of “The Dark Knight Returns,” when the voice of Batman is heard for the first time, signaling a shift in the battle for control over their shared body. Batman attempts to assert his dominance over Bruce Wayne in three separate yet intertwined ways: 1. By belittling him—Batman tells Bruce Wayne, “you are puny [and] you are small” 2. By relegating him to the position of a mere vessel—Batman tells him, “you are nothing [but] a hollow shell” 3. And by declaring his unstoppable power—Batman tells him, “you cannot stop me—not with wine or vows or the weight of age” (Miller 25).

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Despite being inescapable and unstoppable, Batman still remains trapped inside the body that is currently controlled by Bruce Wayne. In fact, Frank Miller likens Batman’s captivity to that of a person trapped inside a prison cell, by visually representing his symbolic struggle throughout page twenty six. In the first panel, the windowpanes cast a shadow—that resembles prison bars—over the physically and mentally broken body—ruled by Bruce Wayne—who leans over a table for support[1]. This striking symbolism continues in the fourth panel, where the reader is shown the view from inside “the prison.” It is worth noting this perspective is much darker then the aforementioned panel, both literally, in the sense that the panel is almost entirely black and devoid of color, and metaphorically, in the sense that there seems to be no possibility of escape for Batman. However, this perspective is lightening in panel seven, both literally, in the sense that the panel itself is brighter, and metaphorically, in the sense that the flying bat offers a possibility for escape. Throughout the page, the warring perspectives of Bruce Wayne (the dark panels) and Batman (the light panels) continue in their battle for control over the single body that they share. In the end, the possibility of escape is realized in the final panel of the page in which the flying bat crashes through the window, representing the symbolic freedom that Batman has finally attained[2].

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Although it is alluded to throughout the next several pages of the graphic novel as criminals are violently assaulted, and innocent civilians are saved by a mysterious force, it becomes explicitly clear on page thirty-four that Batman has indeed come out of retirement. Here, for the first time in “The Dark Knight Returns,” the massive physical differences between the characters of Batman and Bruce Wayne start to become clear—Bruce Wayne is fifty-five years old and has fallen victim to the weight of age, while Batman is a man of twenty or thirty years who is in excellent physical condition[3]. Additionally, the reader can also begin to see the vast mental differences between the two characters—Bruce Wayne is peaceful, complacent, and has a bit of a drinking problem, while Batman is violent and frequently acts impulsively[4].


[1] Here I think it is important to recognize Frank Miller’s homage to the genre of noir in his use of shadow to evoke imagery of both the prison cell and captivity.  Here are some visual examples of the noir style shadow from the film Double Indemnity: http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng3940h/files/2010/02/double-indemnity-legacy-series-edition-20060830022522077_640w.jpg and http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng3940h/files/2010/02/CM-Capture-5.png.

[2] Here it is important to note that even though Batman is shown without his costume several times throughout the rest of the graphic novel, he is NOT Bruce Wayne; Batman and Bruce Wayne are distinguished from each other by their mental attitudes, physical abilities, and various other characteristics, not by their clothing.

[3] While this is the first example of the contrast between Batman’s physical prowess and Bruce Wayne’s physical weakness, it is certainly not the only one. In fact, I think this aforementioned difference become much more apparent during Batman’s battles with the mutant leader later on in the story.

[4] It should be noted that these examples have not been drawn from a single panel, but rather they have been gathered from various pages throughout the story, and have been synthesized here for the sake of simplicity.

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