You wake up. The night is dark. A soft pitter-patter of rain cascades down your window. You wipe away the grime of sleep and sit up on your dingy bed. You look out the window and sigh to yourself. Another night in Gotham city. The rain starts to fade away, rivulets running ever thinner down the glass. Perhaps it would be nice to stretch the legs; go for a walk.
As you trudge through the dirty and muddy street, you begin to question your own wisdom. Why did I go on a walk with all this filth everywhere? You pass by an alley and you see skin-headed men gaze back, sharpening and idly playing with switchblades as they watch. Without even thinking about it, your pace begins to quicken. As you stride you think of your family, your daughter, your lover. And you can't help but sob quietly as you hear catcalls and yells behind you. They are coming and, almost unnoticed, the rain starts up again. A coarse and strong hand grasps your shoulder roughly, forcing you to your knees, to the wet grime of the pavement beneath you. You turn, to try to make a final plea for mercy. And then you see it.
A shape detaches itself from the skies. Its glide is ancient and graceful. Black crescents of steel flash forth as if to herald the arrival of Gotham's guardian. Most of your assailants fall to the ground, writhing and screaming. It lands before you and them, growling as if a monster possessed. A peal of thunder strikes in the sky, and a flash of light reveals features, if only for an instant. It is horned and black, a cape wreathed around it like an armor of smoke. What happens next is almost too fast to tell. Within moments, the rest are down and a powerful gauntleted arm is pulling you to your feet. You babble thanks, but in seconds the being is gone. You look up into the clouds, their tears falling upon your cheeks. Was that the Batman? Has he returned at last?
A Dark World
The Dark Knight Returns is a What if scenario: what if Batman retired? In the comic, this is explained by one of his old friends talking him out of it. But its effects are numerous and, generally, awful. In a Gotham without Batman, the city has slowly degenerated into a grimy criminal nest. Assaults, murders, and thefts are rampant. Most people have lost hope in making a difference; despair is everywhere. At the time of the comic, Batman has been retired for about twenty years. Bruce Wayne is an old man, his own spirit close to broken. He is happy that he has held true to his vows to remain retired, but he sees the death and criminality around him and questions whether it was worth it. He doubts himself, and is incredibly conflicted. One parts of him wants the quiet life. But the other part gnaws and chews at him relentlessly. It challenges to come forth as Batman yet again. It gives his every movement as Bruce Wayne an undercurrent of futility and despair. The choice lies before him. Does he return as Batman, despite his advanced age (about sixty)? Does he put on the cowl one last time to rescue Gotham from itself?
The title of the comic gives away the answer to that question, and it is an answer that is glorious. Much like the scene that I described at the beginning of this post, to the average man or woman, Batman is a legend given form. To most people before Batman's return, his very existence seems a myth; a story told to kids much like that of Robin Hood or Zorro. When he finally does come forth once again, it is with such timing and valor that you can't help but cheer him on. He is alternately the embodiment of the people's will to resist, the symbol of justice in a land without hope, and a man out for obsessive vengeance against the very idea of crime. More than any other Batman comic I've encountered, The Dark Knight Returns captures the essence of what makes Batman so awesome and inspiring.
The Moral Fog
Not one to shy from divisive issues, The Dark Knight Returns brings forth just about every question or controversy that one can think of with regard to Batman and how he works. A prominent one among them is Batman's sanity. To take on a such an immense persona at sixty years old... it is clear that Bruce Wayne's desire to embrace the cowl once more is one that is, perhaps, based on the desire to make one final difference before the end, to pour himself endlessly and obsessively into fixing the unfixable; the soul of an entire city. In his every action it makes one wonder. Are we witnessing the biggest mid-life crisis ever seen? Are we seeing Batman's last stand; are we seeing one last flare of energy before he is snuffed out by the impossibility of his goals? Another question raised and dwelled upon in length throughout the comic is whether Batman's actions are right. For someone dedicated to good, Batman certainly has an odd way of working toward it. He actively works around the law and his only moral principle is to not kill those he fights. Brutal injuries? No problem. Questions like these are a significant part of what makes The Dark Knight Returns memorable and timeless.
We see these questions featured through one of the more interesting storytelling methods I've ever seen. Throughout the comic, the flow of the story transitions effortlessly between dozens of different points of view. We see the thoughts and actions of Commissioner Gordon. We see Alfred, the Joker, Robin, Superman, and many more. Perhaps most interesting of them all is the many segueways into the broadcasts of a news studio; we see reporters comment and debate over Batman's actions, victories and extremes. Through this we hear, to a certain extent, the voice of the people of the story with regard to Batman. We witness arguments over the morality of Batman's ways, his sanity, and whether the means of Batman are worth the ends. It helps add to the immensity of the comic book's world. The multiple facets and viewpoints help make Batman's victories and defeats all the more compelling, whether you agree with the methods or no.
This is easily the best Batman comic I've ever read, and just as easily one of the best comics I've ever read. Seeing a sixty-year old Batman fight valiantly against crime and the law that wans to rein in his vigilante ways is breathtaking. A big contributor is the intensity of his cause; he is a man who has snapped and then reconstructed himself in the only way he knows how, and it is both reassuring and disturbing to watch. The present tense of his wording is another huge influence on how the story flows. In the end, the writing, events, and art all combine to make the most engrossing Batman depiction ever created. It is very easy to fall into the story and follow Batman's ups and downs every step of the way.
This is Batman at his most brilliant, and worthy of high recommendations. My only cautionary comment would be to note that this comic does not shy from very mature material and concepts. Batman is not a nice person, and his enemies are even worse. This comic looks at the dark side of the human spirit and, though in the end it comes out triumphant, the process is very dark and makes for an incredibly intense story. So long as you are okay with that, you will see one of the most enthralling and intellectually stimulating comics ever created.