Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

I loved collecting comic books -- until my mom put an end to it a dozen years back. Luckily, three things happened since then: (1) great cartoons like X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series sustained my interest; (2) I held on to my comic book collection; and (3) I now earn my own salary.

A few weeks ago, I set foot in a comic-book store for the first time in more than a decade. I was like a kid in a comic-book store. I spent an hour in the highly-rated HiJinx Comics (San Jose, CA) shooting the breeze with a very helpful clerk. I can't describe how much more exhilarating the experience was compared to setting foot in a germ-free Barnes & Noble.

When I was in the store, a young kid came into the store with his mom. Both were equally out of their element. The mom had no idea what any of the comic books were about and was in a hurry for her son to just pick something and leave. The boy, now under pressure to hurry, was equally unsure of where to begin. And naturally, he gravitated toward the handful of comic book heroes he'd seen on TV. It hit me not only that I was the same way when I was his age, but that -- having been away from comic books for so long -- that most of the story lines I enjoy reflect what I had seen on TV too. I'm not sure why, but this made me curiously aware of my age.

I asked the clerk to give me the names of some well-regarded graphic novels/trade paperbacks in the last few decades. Some of the common ones came up, including "The Dark Knight Returns" (TDKR), which I had already ordered. He also recommended Alan Moore's "Watchmen" (which I am currently halfway through and loving). But given my bent towards the much darker, more cerebral, literary style, he highly recommended the "Sandman" series. I'm deliberating whether to buy it.

The only reason I recount my visit to HiJinx is because that scene will always remind me of the first time I read Frank Miller's TDKR, which incidentally I was able to buy using a gift certificate, a great coupon, and with free shipping online for just over 25 bucks. I bought this beautifully illustrated "Absolute Dark Knight" hard-cover edition.

I'm not going to go too much into the storyline, except to say that it was a pleasure to read. It is not only beautifully illustrated, it was also an engaging experience to consume the equivalent of a full-length feature film in a format I'm no longer used to. Every night before bed for about a week, I'd pick up the action right where I left off. And having focused lately on 20th century classics, this graphic novel forced me to use a different part of my brain to experience the story being told. It was a breath of fresh air.

Reading TDKR also made me aware of my age. Obviously this has something to do with the fact that Miller chronicles The Batman's return from a decade-long retirement following the death of Jason Todd. But the entire structure and tone of the work -- and how I approached the story -- is so different than what I imagined.

The publication of TDKR in 1986 was a watershed event. It redefined The Batman for a generation -- for my generation. TDKR represents a marked transformation from the campy, crime-solver to the grim, psychologically-deranged crusader. This Batman is personally tortured, vengeful, and aware of his own mortality. This Batman has a depth I yet to experience on the screen.

When I was younger, I was much more interested in piecing together the story lines like a soap opera. But TDKR is a fantastic stand-alone work; it uses the characters as a vehicle to tell us a tale and tell us much more about the author. Put simply, TDKR has made me much more aware of the mythology of The Batman. And as time goes on, new artists, be it writers, cartoonists, or film directors, have been able to put their own marks on one of the most successful franchises of all time (a big part of me wishes this was done for the Star Wars franchise, you know, so it stops sucking).

Christopher Nolan's latest Batman film is due to be released in a few weeks. I was a bit mad when they decided to do the Joker again because Jack Nicholson absolutely nailed that role in Tim Burton's film awhile back. But since then, and since reading TDKR, I'm much more cognizant of the way each generation creates its own Batman folklore. Now I am even more interested to see the late Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker.


Term Papers said...

An impressive cinematic renaissance for DC Comics' Dark Knight, and a blockbuster with more intelligence than most.

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