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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 56: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1

Every day this month, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to a single artist. This week: Frank Miller! Today’s page is from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1, which was published by DC and is cover dated February 1986. Enjoy!

Oh, Bruce, you tough guy, you!

The famous first page of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns shows more of his evolution from his early days at Marvel. Klaus Janson is back on inks (Miller inked some of the series himself, so who knows who did this page, although is does look more Janson-esque) and Lynn Varley is on colors, and the three of them took advantage of the technological advances in comics in the 1980s and the freedom to use those advances that DC gave them to turn this page, and the book in general, into a visual feast. Miller establishes the four-by-four grid that he uses, with slight variations, throughout the entire book (don’t believe me? pull out your copy and give it a look!) as he shows us Bruce Wayne, older and grumpier, in a fiery car crash that almost kills him.

We notice some interesting things about this first page that points the way toward future Miller projects. First, the writing. Miller uses first-person narration without thought balloons, a trend that began around this time (Alan Moore, of course, famously eschewed thought balloons), and the narration is clipped and hard-boiled, something Miller would hone in the succeeding years. Bruce’s narration is pure tough guy, and we can imagine someone like Dwight or Hartigan from Sin City saying it. It does give us a very good sense of who Bruce is in his sunset years, and the final panel hints at the seriousness of the world’s situation with the first mention of the heat wave gripping the city. It’s a nice, frenetic way to start the comic.

By restricting himself to a 4X4 grid, Miller does a couple of things: he packs a lot of visual information onto each page, and when he does keep it at 16 panels, he does quite a lot with them. The top row establishes the scene well – Miller keeps the “camera” back far enough that we see Bruce’s head clearly, but in the second row, he begins to shift the “camera” so that we don’t see everything, which adds to the chaos of the page. In the third panel we get a close-up of Bruce’s mouth, and in the fourth panel we get the car skidding. The third row is all chaos, as Bruce’s car begins to roll. This progression from statis to chaos is an important visual motif in the comic, as the characters go through it to one degree or another as Batman moves through their lives. Miller’s pencil work becomes more abstract over the course of the page, and Janson and Varley become more predominant, until the third row is almost incoherent black lines and fire. Then we get the final three panels, with the television screens providing narrative information. This isn’t the first time Miller used this technique (he did it in Daredevil), but in DKR he uses it to such powerful effect it’s almost become synonymous with this work. We can also see another example of how his work is beginning to move to the abstract with the newscaster, who is composed of basic blocks – a triangle (her hair, as we see on the next page, is a triangle), an oval, two rectangles (her earrings), and the inverted triangle of her dress/shirt balancing the triangle of hair. This is an extremely detailed work, but even so, we can see how Miller is slowly moving away from this detailed style and more into brutally blunt storytelling. This will, of course, become evident in Sin City (which I’m not going to feature this week) and in some other later works, which I will feature.

The Dark Knight Returns is a remarkably rich work visually, and this page shows some of the reasons why. That Miller was allowed to experiment so much with one of DC’s flagship characters is astonishing, but one suspects that the PTB at DC didn’t really “get” what Miller was doing. Maybe they figured readers wouldn’t care, either – as long as Batman fought the Joker, it’s all good! Luckily for us, DC let Miller go nuts, and we get a classic comic.

Next: Back to Marvel and back to his most famous creation! To whet your appetite, I would suggest taking a gander at the archives. I’ll wait for you!

15 Comments

I love Miller’s Daredevil, but his most famous creation? The most-read thing he’s written has to be Year One, right? And 300 is probably better-known than that, given the popularity of the movie.

Elpie: It’s not Daredevil. He didn’t create Daredevil!

Did Miller create at Marvel any character other than Elecktra that stuck? So I would guess that Greg will study Elektra Lives Again.

Elpie – I presume Greg means that Electra the character is Frank Miller’s most famous creation.

Elektra Lives Again is probably FM’s second best work next to “300” in terms of graphic storytelling.

It’ll be Elektra from Daredevil #168

As I understand it, Miller started taking over more of the inking as it went on (predominantly with #3 and #4) but book one is mostly inked by Janson.

Tangential note about Frank Miller the writer, since Alan Moore’s name is mentioned in comparison:

I sometimes think the reason why Miller was praised so much in the 1980s and has declined so drastically as a writer since is I feel due to both of them making huge splashes in American comics at the same time, Moore & Miller was so often mentioned in the same breath that Miller felt as a writer he had to compete with Moore, so as well as obvious stylistic choices as seen here like eschewing thought balloons, his work in the 1980s was often dealing on the same themes of much of Moore’s superhero work; Ambivalence about the fascistic appeal of the superhero mentality, a deconstructionist approach to the story, and a full awareness of using subtext to better his writing.

When he came back from his experiences in Hollywood for Robocop 2, he seemed to jettison all that in favour of just presenting the monotonous tough guy braggadocio with the only interesting evolution happening as an artist instead of a writer. A shame, that.

I forgot to add it seems like since he no longer felt he had to compete with Moore, he didn’t keep up to a certain level of craft as a writer.

Wow. Bruce looks like Tom Selleck. Honestly never noticed that before.

@ I.Wells: you might be right, but I think Burgas has been going from the beginning to current in FM’s career.
Daredevil # 168 would have been before Ronin. Elektra Lives Again was the last time FM drew this character. As far as I know.

Tom I’d put Elektra Lives Again above 300.
It’s Miller’s best art, though I’ve always detected the helping hand of Geoff Darrow. It’s also the best coloring job I’ve ever seen in a comic.
I also think Miller inks himself better than anyone else including Janson. The panels that he inked, in DKR as revealed in the Absolute addition, are some of the best and have long been my favorites.

It’s nice to talk about Miller the artist.

So glad you posted this so I could dig out my old weather TPB and remember that despite the decades of imitation and how overused grim and gritty has become, DKR is still badass!

This is, of course, awesome. Good point about the 4×4 grid. It was utilized so well that when it WAS broken, it had more impact. Also, I’d wager a guess that this is partly why it was so big in the mainstream. Paired with the big marketing push/mainstream buzz, of course, but having a regular, readable grid probably plays a role in allowing non-comics readers to dive into a comic without being overly confused. Watchmen utilizes the 3×3 grid. I can’t remember for sure, but I’d be willing to bet Maus or Persopolis (2 fairly big in the mainstream books) use a fairly regular grid. I think it’s part of the reason that people can’t “read” comics now, the artists don’t rely on grids (underlying if not as overt) as much as these comics.

Also, I don’t know how much Janson did or didn’t ink, but I’m willing to bet that he inked the audience in the David Endochrine sequence. The faces are pure Janson.

Although I’ve never heard it mentioned as a direct influence, Howard Chaykin was a couple of years ahead of Miller in using the rapid-fire, channel-changing and talking head exposition in AMERICAN FLAGG.

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