The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Dark knight returns.jpg
The Dark Knight Returns #1 (Feb. 1986).
Cover art by penciler-inker Frank Miller and colorist Lynn Varley.
Publication information
Publisher DC Comics
Schedule Monthly
Format Limited series
Publication date February – June 1986
Number of issues 4
Main character(s) Batman
Creative team
Writer(s) Frank Miller
Penciller(s) Frank Miller
Inker(s) Klaus Janson
Letterer(s) John Costanza
Colorist(s) Lynn Varley
Editor(s) Dick Giordano,
Dennis O'Neil
Collected editions
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns ISBN 1563893428
Absolute Dark Knight ISBN 1401210791

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a four-issue comic book limited series written and drawn by Frank Miller, originally published by DC Comics under the title Batman: The Dark Knight in 1986. When the issues were released in a collected edition later that year, the story title for the first issue was applied to the series as a whole. The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of a middle-aged Batman who comes out of retirement to fight crime, only to face opposition from the Gotham City police force and the United States government.

A sequel (made again by Miller), The Dark Knight Strikes Again, was published in 2001.



The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dystopian near-future version of Gotham City. A year is never specified, though it has been a full decade since the last reported sighting of Batman, the current American President appears to be Ronald Reagan or someone using his image, and the Cold War is still ongoing. Virtually all superheroes, with the exception of Superman, have been forced into retirement or otherwise driven away by a distrusting populace. Bruce Wayne has voluntarily retired from crime fighting following the death (under unspecified circumstances[1]) of Jason Todd, the second Robin. In the absence of superheroes, criminals run amok, and a gang called the Mutants terrorizes Gotham City.

The return of an old enemy prompts a now 55-year-old Wayne to don the Batman costume once again. Despite Wayne's funding his rehabilitation, including plastic surgery to restore his half-disfigured face, Harvey "Two-Face" Dent has seemingly returned to crime. Batman apprehends Dent, but the populace debates whether Batman's brand of vigilantism has any place in society. The media plays a large role in DKR, with the narrative broken up by news reports and "talking head" editorials debating events in the story as they unfold.

After Batman saves her from a Mutant attack, 13-year-old Carrie Kelly buys herself a knock-off Robin costume, and searches for Batman to aid him. She finds Batman at the city dump, where he is fighting the Mutants. The Mutants' leader defeats Batman in combat, but Kelly distracts him and pulls Batman into the tank-like Batmobile. Kelly attends to Batman’s wounds as the vehicle drives toward the Batcave. Once home, Batman takes Carrie on as the new Robin despite his butler, Alfred's, objections. With the help of retiring Commissioner James Gordon, the Mutants' leader is allowed to escape from jail, and Batman beats him in a mud fight in front of the assembled gang, which then disbands as a result of his humiliation. Some former Mutants create a new gang, the "Sons of the Batman," using extremely violent methods (up to and including murder) to "purge" Gotham of its criminal element in what they see as emulation of Batman's methods.

Meanwhile, the return of Batman has caused one of his oldest and deadliest foes, The Joker, to awaken from a years-long catatonic state at Arkham Asylum. The Joker convinces his psychiatrist, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, that he is sane and regrets his misdeeds. Seeking to discredit Batman, whom he has crusaded against in the media, Wolper appears with the Joker on a late-night show (hosted by a David Letterman-like character). While the police, now led by the anti-vigilante Commissioner Ellen Yindel, attack Batman, the Joker murders everyone in the television studio (including Wolper) and escapes. He finds Selina Kyle, and after finding out what he wants from her gags her, beats her, dresses her in a Wonder Woman costume, and binds her with a gold-covered rope. Batman and Robin free her, and track the Joker to a county fair, where he has already murdered many people. Batman defeats Joker in a violent showdown but stops short of killing him; however, the Joker twists his own broken neck, seemingly with the intent that the police will charge Batman with murder. Batman escapes, but not before another confrontation with the Gotham police, and a citywide manhunt is now on for the Caped Crusader.

After Superman diverts a Russian nuclear warhead which then detonates in a desert, millions of tons of dust and debris fill the atmosphere, and Gotham descends into chaos during the resulting blackout. Batman and Robin train former Mutants and the brutal Sons of the Batman in non-lethal fighting to stop looting and ensure the flow of needed supplies. In the midst of nuclear winter conditions, Gotham becomes the safest city in America; the U.S. government, seeing this as a credibility-undermining embarrassment, orders Superman to take Batman down. Having been warned of the government's plans by Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, Batman confronts Superman. Symbolically, their duel takes place in Crime Alley, where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered decades earlier. Batman defeats Superman (with the help of Green Arrow and a kryptonite-tipped arrow), but dies from a heart attack immediately afterward. Alfred destroys the Batcave and Wayne Manor and suffers a fatal stroke.

After Bruce's funeral, it is revealed that his death was staged as an elaborate ruse; Clark Kent (Superman) attends the funeral and gives Robin a knowing wink after hearing Bruce's heartbeat as he leaves the grave site, suggesting his silent approval of what will happen next. Some time afterward, Batman leads Robin, Green Arrow, and the rest of his followers into the caverns beyond the Batcave and prepares to continue his fight. His plan, which will take years of training and studying, is to build an army, and to bring sense to a world plagued by something "worse than thieves and murderers". He decides that this will be a "good life – good enough."


  • Batman: Bruce Wayne, 55, gave up the Batman identity ten years prior to the beginning of the story. When he sees violence running rampant and his personal demons can no longer be denied, he is forced to return.
  • Alfred Pennyworth: Wayne's trusty butler, medic, and confidant, now in his eighties.
  • Carrie Kelly/Robin: A 13-year-old girl who becomes Batman's newest sidekick. During the creation of the series, fellow comics writer/artist John Byrne told Miller "Robin must be a girl", and Miller complied. Comics historian Les Daniels commented, "In retrospect the imperative seems less than inevitable, perhaps no more than trendy gender bending or possibly just a response to the homophobia inspired by Fredric Wertham more than thirty years earlier."[2]
  • James Gordon: The Commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department for 26 years – a police officer for 50 years – who finally retires on his 70th birthday. He is aware of the dual identity of Batman and is supportive of the Caped Crusader.
  • Two-Face: Now middle-aged, Harvey Dent's face has been repaired with plastic surgery and his doctor gives him a clean bill of mental health. He is still Two-Face in his mind, and terrorizes the city with his face swathed in bandages.
  • The Joker: Batman's archenemy, who awakens from a catatonic state upon learning of Batman's re-emergence. Joker's obsession with Batman is stretched to the extreme, bordering on obsessive attraction (when Batman returns to the spotlight, Joker's first word out of catatonia is "Darling..."). His brutal return to crime sets in motion a final confrontation with Batman.
  • The Mutant Leader, head of the Mutants. He is a strong, savage brute who puts a hit on Gordon, brutally beats Batman in their first encounter, goes to jail, kills the Mayor (while still in jail), escapes, and is beaten by Batman.
  • Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, Two-Face and the Joker's psychiatrist and staunch opponent of Batman's "fascist" vigilantism. Wolper is convinced that the Joker and Two-Face are both really the victims of Batman's crusades – claiming that Batman drives them to become criminals by assuming an ideological image that they feel compelled to counter – but his attempts to treat Two-Face meet with failure, and he ends up murdered by the Joker along with the entire audience of a late night talk show when he is manipulated into bringing the Joker out in public as an example of Batman's 'victims'.
  • Ellen Yindel, James Gordon's successor as Commissioner. A captain in the Gotham City Police Department, she starts off as Batman's fiercest critic, but doubts herself after the Joker debacle (part 3, see plot above) and comes to terms with his involvement, realizing that he is 'too big' for her to judge.
  • Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen. After the outlawing of all superheroes, he undertakes a clandestine career of terrorism against government oppression, including the sinking of a nuclear submarine. He lost his left arm years ago and blames Superman for that. He is still a formidable marksman, using his teeth to grip the nocks of his arrows.
  • Superman, aka Clark Kent, is now simply a pawn for the US government. His internal monologues show that he detests having to be a government weapon but sees it as the only way to be able to do some good.

Background and creation

In the early 1980s, DC Comics promoted Dick Giordano from his position as Batman group editor to editorial director for the company.[3] In Giordano's words, his chief contribution in this position was "getting people to work for DC who could do the work a little better". This resulted in the recruitment of writer-artist Frank Miller to create The Dark Knight Returns. Giordano said he worked on the story's plot with Miller, he commented, "The version that was finally done was about his fourth or fifth draft. The basic storyline was the same but there were a lot of detours along the way."[4]

Giordano dropped out of the project halfway through due to disagreements over production deadlines. Giordano said, "Frank wanted to take the time that was needed to get the job done". Comics historian Les Daniels comments that Miller's idea of ignoring deadlines was "the culmination of the quest towards artistic independence". DC published the issues of The Dark Knight Returns in packaging that included extra pages, square binding, and glossy paper to highlight the watercolor coloring by colorist Lynn Varley.[5]

Miller has claimed in interviews that inspiration for the plot came from Dirty Harry, perhaps specifically the 1983 film Sudden Impact, which like DKR focuses on an older Dirty Harry returning to fight crime after a lengthy convalescence. Miller also cites his increasing age as a factor in the plot.[6]


Priced at $2.95 an issue, DC Comics promoted The Dark Knight Returns as a "thought-provoking action story". At the time, Time saw the series' depiction of a "semi-retired Batman [who] is unsure about his crime-fighting abilities" as an example of trying to appeal to "today's skeptical readers".[7] Despite the then high cost of the single-issue packaging, The Dark Knight Returns sold well.[5]

The New York Times gave the 1987 collected release of the series a negative review. Mordecai Richler felt that The Dark Knight Returns was not as imaginative as the work of Batman creator Bob Kane. Richler commented, "The stories are convoluted, difficult to follow and crammed with far too much text. The drawings offer a grotesquely muscle-bound Batman and Superman, not the lovable champions of old." He concluded, "If this book is meant for kids, I doubt that they will be pleased. If it is aimed at adults, they are not the sort I want to drink with."[8]

IGN Comics ranked The Dark Knight Returns #2 on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels, second only to Batman: Year One,[9] another Frank Miller work on the character. The website called The Dark Knight Returns "a true masterpiece of storytelling" with "scene after unforgettable scene."[10]

In 2005, Time chose the collected four-issues as one of the 10 best English language, graphic novels ever written.

In 2001 and 2002, DC Comics published The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller's sequel to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The sequel, which differs drastically in style from the original, received mixed reviews but was one of DC's biggest selling titles at the time.

Forbidden Planet placed the collected issue on top of their "50 Best Of The Best Graphic Novels" list.[11]

In April 2010, Nicolas Layton from Comics Bulletin ranked The Dark Knight Returns 2nd in their Tuesday Top Ten feature's Top 10 Overrated Comic Books, just behind Watchmen. "There is no central plot to the comic, leaving only a forced fight scene between Superman and Batman as an out of place climax to the story." "Gone are the traits that define Batman," also citing "misuse of the central character."[12]

Writer Matthew K. Manning in the "1980s" chapter of DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle (2010) calls the series "arguably the best Batman story of all time."[13]

DC Multiverse

In the current DC Multiverse, the events of The Dark Knight Returns and its associated titles are designated to occur on Earth-31.

In other media


  • Some mutant gang member was shown throwing tomatos at an elderly Beast Boy in a cage in the season 2 episode of Teen Titans, entitled "How Long Is Forever?".
  • The Batman has used many inspirations. The name and personalities of one of the characters "Ellen Yin" is a clear nod to Ellen Yindel, Police Commissioner of Gotham City in Frank Miller's classic "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns." In "Artifacts", it is hinted that Yin becomes the new Commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department in the year 2027. Also in the season 4 episode "Artifacts", a thousand years into the possible future, the citizens of new Gotham must uncover the history of Batman in order to stop a new-and-improved Mr. Freeze. This episode is based on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.
  • The Dark Knight Returns Batman was shown in the season 1 episode 19 Batman: The Brave and the Bold, entitled "Legends of the Dark Mite!" where Bat-Mite was switching between Batman's costume and when he got to the DKR costume he calls it "too psycho".


  • At the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, Zack Snyder, director of the screen adaptations of the equally celebrated Watchmen by Alan Moore, and Miller's 300, expressed his love for The Dark Knight Returns, in response to a question about the more mature direction of comic book adaptations. Later, Miller told Snyder: “You can do it anytime you want to, Zack.” Batman film franchise producer Michael Uslan also expressed interest in a possible adaptation.[14]


To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the graphic novel, in 1996, DC Direct released a limited edition statue of Robin aiming her slingshot with the guidance of Batman.[17]

A series of action figures based on The Dark Knight Returns was released by DC Direct in 2004. Featuring Batman, Robin, Superman, and The Joker, each has a sidewalk display base that connects to the others to form a street corner. Later, a Batman and Joker Gift Set was released including both characters with new paint schemes to reflect earlier points in the story, as well as a 48-page prestige format reprint of The Dark Knight Returns #1.

Video games

The Batsuit of The Dark Knight Returns is available as a DLC Skin for the Rocksteady game Batman: Arkham City.



  1. ^ When this series was first published, the canonical story depicting Todd's death had yet to be written.
  2. ^ Daniels, p. 151
  3. ^ Daniels, p. 146
  4. ^ Daniels, p. 147
  5. ^ a b Daniels, p. 149
  6. ^ Strike, Joe (July 15, 2008). "Frank Miller's 'Dark Knight' brought Batman back to life". Daily News (New York). 
  7. ^ Henry, Gordon M.; Forbis, Deborah. "Bang!". Time. October 6, 1986. Retrieved on August 17, 2009.
  8. ^ Richler, Mordecai (May 3, 1987). "Paperbacks; Batman at Midlife: Or the Funnies Grow Up". The New York Times. Retrieved August 18, 2009. 
  9. ^ The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels, Hilary Goldstein, IGN, June 13, 2005
  10. ^ Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Review, IGN, June 17, 2005
  11. ^ 50 Best Of The Best Graphic Novels,
  12. ^ Top 10 Overrated Comic Books, Comics Bulletin, April 27, 2010
  13. ^ Manning, Matthew K.; Dolan, Hannah, ed. (2010). "1980s". DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle. Dorling Kindersley. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-7566-6742-9. "It is arguably the best Batman story of all time. Written and drawn by Frank Miller (with inspired inking by Klaus Janson and beautiful watercolors by Lynn Varley), Batman: The Dark Knight revolutionized the entire genre of the super hero." 
  14. ^ Zack Snyder Interested in The Dark Knight Returns Movie?, July 26, 2008. Retrieved on November 24, 2009.
  15. ^ Brendon Connelly (April 14, 2011). "Movie Version Of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns In The Works". Retrieved 2011-04-16. 
  16. ^ - July 23, 2011
  17. ^ 1996 Dark Knight Returns statue Under the Giant Penny (August 8, 2010). Retrieved 4-17-11.

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