Considered by many as one of the greatest, add at the very least groundbreaking, comics of all time, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” was first published in 1986. A four-part mini-series that took Batman into modernity by transforming him into a 55-year old man who had given up the mantle, but quickly found himself compelled to don the cape and mask once more and be the hero that Gotham needed to the end. Dark and gritty are words often associated with it, but it was also thought-provoking and was part of a movement of maturation in the content of comics. The series has been collected many times over, but my new favorite might be the black & white version, “Batman Noir: The Dark Knight Returns”.
Collecting the entire series, this time they are presented only with their inks. Lynn Varley gave the book its original color job, a signature aesthetic that was equally responsible for the moodiness of the comic as was the art and story. With only the inks, we get a stripped-down version that is naked of colors, and shows the strengths of Klaus Janson’s inking that ultimately gave the artwork the power it needed to effectively tell its story.
If you have seen any of the pencils that Miller supplied Janson for this book, which can be found in other versions of this TPB, you would have seen the voluminous roughs that took some serious translating to get to where they were. Janson’s style took those drawings, and added a line quality that made the art look like a gesture drawing of super heroes. This is the anti-Rob Liefeld, where less lines are more, and mass is created through negative space and the thickness of a line. While other artists would rely on cross-hatching and deep rendering, the art in “The Dark Knight Returns” was formed through the essentials of the image. There are often heavy blacks to evoke a certain feeling, but seeing them in black and white also shows us how much of the white space of the paper was used, and even without color it still remains striking.
Readers always think about how dark the book was, but when you see it with just the inks, you would be surprised how bright it actually was due to the use of the white of the paper. It’s bizarre to see how “dark” the book is even without the use of heavy blacks, but that is a testament to the skill of Janson’s inking. Some of my favorite pages include Batman’s fight with the Mutant Leader, the splash page where Superman is lifting a tank over his head, and frankly, the entire third book of the series. If I had to choose just one of the books to analyze, it would be that one, where Batman takes on the Joker in their final confrontation. It’s a very dense section with a lot going on, and the art reflects the chaos in that story as well as Carrie Kelly’s dealing with Gotham PD. Every panel is different with daring perspectives and points of view, and is really worth re-reading if you have not checked it out in awhile.
You can order “Batman Noir: The Dark Knight Returns” on Amazon.com for around $25. For any serious comic enthusiasts who want to get into the business, this is a must-have version of this story. With so many gallery editions and artist editions of books coming out these days that show us the original artwork, this is a more cost-effective version that is a great textbook for how to ink. While Miller & Janson’s style might not be for everyone, this is the kind of work that has a lot of soul in it and demonstrates how to pick and choose what is really important in a panel, as well as how it works laid out on an entire page. It’s time to revisit “The Dark Knight Returns” as we prepare for the upcoming “Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice” movie, and this might be the best way to do it.