Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1980 to 1989)


From pulp vigilante and allied soldier to space explorer, tragically hip comedian and newly-revived hardboiled detective, Batman had just about seen it all…surviving his own history to become what many people thought a comic book hero couldn’t be…

A Legend.

After 40 years, the caped crusader’s adventures had become literary canon…and the character was now just as seminal, if not more so, than Zorro, the Shadow and all of the other legendary figures who had influenced Kane and Finger back in 1939.

But this was new territory.

Dark territory.

In a phrase…this was, simply put…

The 1980s.

With the installment of the Reagan Administration came a decade overtaken by excess.

Crime…Greed…Fame and Vanity.

The decade was overshadowed by the threat of nuclear holocaust…and plagued by a new health epidemic dubbed the AIDS virus.

It was MTV and serial killers…hyper-sexual liberation and cocaine.

The bubble society thought it safely resided in had been proverbially popped.

The world was now a threat.

A threat that could either be seen by DC Comics readers as something to improve on through the unbridled social order of Superman…or survive through the forced martial law of Batman.

Attempts in the early years of the decade were made to maintain the ’70s worldview of the books…such as the creation of villains like the Crime Doctor in “Detective Comics” #494 in 1980 and the Electrocutioner in “Batman” #331 in 1981.

But the dark and terrifying landscape of the ’80s settled upon Gotham City like a glove.

“Batman” #326 first introduced fans to the concept of Batman’s deadliest foes residing in Arkham Asylum upon apprehension.

1982 marked the 45th anniversary of “Detective Comics” with the return of Dr. Death, Batman’s first re-occurring villain from 1939.

The legend grew even more with the 1983 debut of Gotham Police Detective Harvey Bullock in the 361st issue of “Batman.”

“Batman” issue #357 that same year not only created a new adversary for Batman in the form of Killer Croc…but also introduced readers to Jason Todd, an acrobat like Dick Grayson who also witnessed the murders of his parents.

1984 saw the unthinkable, yet perhaps inevitable when…after 44 years of fighting alongside Batman…Dick Grayson abandoned the Robin mantle in “The New Teen Titans” #39.

But mid-way through the decade…everything changed.

Meant to wipe the DC Universe slate clean of ALL unnecessary baggage, DC Comics launched “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in April of 1985. Running as a giant 12-issue maxi-series, the epic odyssey affected every single character in DC’s books with the notion that multiple earths (dubbed Earth Prime, Earth-2, Earth-X among several others) existed parallel to the DC earth.

As a result, numerous alterations were made to establish brand new continuities for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others…continuities that didn’t retain the gimmicks and overall clutter of the ’50s and ’60s, specifically.

For Superman, that meant killing off Supergirl (though the character would prove far too popular to stay dead) and once more making him the sole survivor of Krypton’s demise.

The Silver age Flash, Barry Allen, was also sacrificed as Wally West assumed the role of the scarlet speedster.

As far as Batman was concerned, not too terribly much was ratified following Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adam’s remarkable ratification to the character in the 1970s…however, a few adjustments were made.

While the original continuity identified the mugger who killed Bruce’s parents as Joe Chill, the new interpretation of the origin would eventually come to keep the gunman nameless…a punk who Bruce never crosses paths with again after that night, despite numerous investigative attempts to track him down.

Several supporting characters like Kathy Kane, Bat-Mite and the Bat-Pets Ace and Mogo were all permanently abolished, while characters with either emotional connect or longevity…such as Commissioner Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, Leslie Thompkins, Lucius Fox, Robin, Batgirl and villains like the Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, Scarecrow, Riddler, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Ra’s Al Ghul were maintained.

As Batman continued his crusade…which was become more of a war…villains began to grow increasingly sinister.

Batman first battled failed cosmetics heir Roman Sionis…under his criminal alias Black Mask…in 1985’s “Batman” #386. The character then became quite the constant source of grief.

But even in the midst of a post-‘Crisis’ landscape, some industry heavy-hitters and up-and-comers felt more needed to be done to fully realize Batman for a bold new generation.

Chief among those architects was none other than writer/artist Frank Miller.

Miller, known for his notoriously gritty, morbidly witty and cinematic no-nonsense approach to storytelling had already enjoyed successful runs with Marvel characters like Spider-Man, The Punisher and Daredevil.

But by 1984, Frank had several reservations about Batman.

His biggest?

After nearly 50 years of continuous publication, there Batman stood…still young…still handsome.

Through suspension of disbelief, Bruce Wayne had remained perpetually in his late 20s. He’s never aged…and on the eve of his own 30th birthday, the thought of being numerically older than his childhood hero was just plain unacceptable to Frank.

After several meetings with DC president Janette Khan, Frank Miller set out to age the war horse…catapulting Batman into a nightmarish future Gotham and chronicling his final case.

The bold invention led to 1986’s high-profile mega-hit “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.”

For the first time in his history, Batman…now a retired, grizzled 50-year-old veteran of his war on crime…was a full-on renegade.

An outlaw vigilante faced with old foes, a relentless police force and his own mortality, the dark knight had been transformed into a brutal, savage crime-fighting force of nature…fighting not only against evil but also corruption.

This wasn’t the bright, well to do Gotham City of the ’40s or the ’60s.

This city was a hellish urban cesspool plagued by graft, political subterfuge, lustful vanity and hyperbolic gang violence…perfectly imitating the ’80s landscape outside Frank Miller’s Manhattan window.

By creating a threatening Gotham, Miller created a world in which Batman’s extremist methods not only fit…but were necessary for his mission to succeed on any surmountable level.

“The Dark Knight Returns” was also revolutionary in interpreting Batman’s relationship with Superman.

During the ’50s and ’60s, the two had been the best of friends…a pair of earnest do-gooders fighting side by side as the World’s Finest.

But in Miller’s hands, Batman had become a borderline sociopathic symbol of vicious vigilante justice…while Superman became a political pawn manipulated by Ronald Reagan into waging one-man wars to decimate foreign principalities and keep other countries in line.

Superman was a right-wing demi-god while Batman became a progenitor of the left…and putting them at odds made for one of the most dynamic character relationships in comics to date.

With its hot-button stance on everything from nuclear devastation and rampant street crime to the explosive absurdity of commercialized criminal pop psychology and the media, “The Dark Knight Returns” became one of the most socially-relevant and well-received Batman stories of all time.

And more than that, it inspired a new method of telling Batman stories…one that treated psychological angst and character development with the same sense of priority as dynamic action and comic book dazzle.

This attempt led to a string of high-profile story arcs and one-shots that not only defined Batman for the foreseeable future…but brought to the table ramifications that continue to influence the comics today.

First, there was 1987’s “Batman: Year One,” collected in “Batman” issues #404 through #407.

Written by Frank Miller with art by “Daredevil: Born Again” artist David Mazzuchelli, the story chronicled Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City following his time of training abroad. As he studies the extent of crime and corruption dominating his streets…despite the efforts of former Chicago homicide detective turned Gotham lieutenant Jim Gordon…Bruce waits for a symbol.

And when it arrives in the form of a lone bat crashing through the window of his father’s study, Wayne’s life and destiny are forever changed.

The story continues to remain the prime reference fans make to the best comic handling of Batman’s origin as it displayed the beginnings of Bruce’s crusade in a more grounded, logical manner…by once again making Batman not a first time hero…but a vigilante.

Instead of colorful super villains, Batman was depicted tackling organized crime in the form of Carmine Falcone…and a police department so compromised by murder, corruption and graft that it made Batman’s presence in Gotham City in an outright necessity in order to give justice any sort of fighting chance. “Year One” very much plays as a great bookend to “Dark Knight Returns.” Its approach to Batman’s first months of crime-fighting worked due to how accurate it was in showing what Batman…if he were real and starting in contemporary times…would actually be faced with. He wouldn’t be accepted so quickly. No…he’d be speculated over, dismissed as an urban myth, confronted by police brutality figuring him to be nothing more than a maniac…he’d question the validity of his mission and learn from his mistakes, developing and growing as a character. This all made for a story that was fueled not by super-heroism…but by raw emotion and humanity.

Following the success of “Year One,” the continuity of the comics became inspired.

With both Batman and his writers feeling that he was still in need of a Robin following Dick Grayson’s departure (Grayson had been allowed to grow up…assuming the mantle of Nightwing in 1984), Jason Todd was re-introduced in “Batman” #408…only this time not as an orphaned acrobat.

To prevent his origin from being seen as a rip-off of Dick Grayson’s, Dennis O’Neil…now the lead Batman editor for DC…and his writing staff turned Jason into a homeless punk, living on the streets of Crime Alley.

Taken in by Bruce, Jason officially adopted the role of the second Robin and fought alongside the dark knight.

Together, this new dynamic duo battled a host of bizarre new adversaries…such as the Ventriloquist and Scarface in “Detective Comics” #583, the maniacal Ratcatcher in “Detective” issue #585 and psychotic cannibal Cornelius Stirk in issue #592 all in 1988.

But just as Batman gained an ally with a new Robin…he would forever be traumatized with the loss of his original Batgirl.

Under the pens of legendary “Watchmen” writer Alan Moore and fan-favorite artist Brian Bolland, the Joker got his due with the 1988 one-shot “The Killing Joke.”

Often heralded as the single greatest story in mainstream super hero comics, “The Killing Joke” takes an almost uncomfortable look into the psychology and worldview of the murderous Clown Prince of Crime…detailing a possible origin scenario and analyzing the subtext of his demented relationship with Batman.

“How can two people hate so much without knowing anything about each other?”

In a plan to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, the Joker shoots his daughter Barbara point-blank.

The shot severed Barbara’s spinal cord…rendering her paralyzed from the waste down and forever condemning her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Moore’s wit and intelligence not only left an everlasting impression on the Joker as a character…but the impact of the story was great enough to allow “The Killing Joke” to become an official component of the continuity.

However, tragedy was about to bestow Batman yet again.

December 1988’s “Batman” #426 began a storyline known…as “A Death in the Family.”

Despite both his training and Bruce’s efforts, Jason Todd was no Dick Grayson. Impulsive, rash and headstrong, Jason inadvertently became obnoxious…a snot in the eyes of readers.

In a stunt meant to experiment with reader interaction, the “Death in the Family” storyline was conceived.

In it, Jason discovers that his birth mother is still alive. Indentifying her as a relief doctor named Sheila Haywood, he tracks her down to a village in Ethiopia…where she is secretly in league with the Joker.

While Batman attempts to stop the Joker’s henchmen from hijacking medical supplies and dispersing toxic pharmaceuticals in their place, the Joker captures both Jason and his mother in a warehouse.

The Joker then proceeds to beat Jason Todd to near death with a crow bar…and leaves the mother and son in the warehouse; rigged to explode…thus ended issue #427.

With it came two phone numbers…and a single question.

“Should Robin survive?”

While one number granted Jason his life…another ended it.

And with a 72 vote lead, the verdict…was death.

In “Batman” #428, Batman came face to face with his single greatest defeat as he salvaged the broken corpse of his fallen boy wonder from the rubble.

The story, written by Jim Starlin with art by prominent Batman artist Jim Aparo, became embroiled in controversy over what it…and namely what the readers…had done to Robin (most non-comic readers didn’t care to pay attention to the fact that it wasn’t Dick Grayson, the Robin they’d all grown up with)…even making the rounds in several news outlets including Newsweek, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine.

By 1989, with other amazing stories such as Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” the dark knight had indeed returned to an unprecedented standard of gothic, foreboding excellence…just in time for his 50th anniversary and for the highly anticipated release of director Tim Burton’s blockbuster motion picture…which was heavily influenced by several of the aesthetics from the comics of the day.

As more supporting characters made their debuts…including fellow vigilante the Huntress and an earnest youth named Timothy Drake in “Batman” #436, the character also received a new title with “Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight;” the first solo Batman comic since the debut of “Batman” in the spring of 1940.

A haunted loner consumed and driven by the loss of his parents once more, the ’80s brought Batman to the forefront of comic book glory…solidifying the claims of fans that he was truly the industry’s most popular character.

And while new and even more monumental obstacles were about the challenge him…it was clear that Batman was ready to take them all on; now as an endearing…even mythic…symbol of power and justice.


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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    cool article on the 80s batman.

  2. annielicious14 #

    That was epic when Robin died! AWESOME ARTICLE!!!!