Frank Miller’s Batman classic The Dark Knight Returns is still considered one of the seminal works of comic book fiction, even some 30 years after it was first published. The story of an aged and battered Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement as the Batman to save Gotham City one last time is filled with multiple layers, and showcases a comic book storytelling structure that was decades ahead of its time. Along with Watchmen, it remains one of DC’s best selling and most influential titles of all time.
It’s also been an incredibly hard act for Frank Miller to follow. In 2001, some 16 years after The Dark Knight Returns came out, DC Comics and Miller put out the long awaited sequel, Dark Knight 2. The response to the the second chapter of his saga was… less enthusiastic. Let’s put it this way: Fans were hoping for an Empire Strikes Back, and they got a Phantom Menace. Frank Miller’s next chapter in his Dark Knight saga was All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, which was an over-the-top adventure of Batman and Dick Grayson’s first adventure, which showed Batman as an unforgiving jerk who forces a nine-year-old Robin to eat a rat the day his parents were killed to “toughen him up,” and who described himself as “the goddamn Batman.” It quickly became an online joke.
Next, we got Miller’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which came out last year and is—four issues in—okay. Such leads to the question: Should Miller’s Dark Knight Returns just never have been sequelized or continued?
Which brings us to today. As it turns out, this week’s 57-page one-shot Dark Knight Returns prequel, The Last Crusade—which is co-written by DKIII author Brian Azzarello, and for the first time in a solo Batman story, has John Romita Jr. on art duties—might be the first Dark Knight Returns-related story that really lives up to the original.
Set 10 years or so before the events of the original Dark Knight Returns, this story finds Bruce Wayne older, but still the Batman we all know and love. Together with Robin—Jason Todd in this incarnation—Batman has just brought the Joker into Arkham Asylum for the umpteenth time. While talking heads on TV praise Batman for taking in the Joker, they also debate the morality of taking a kid out to fight crime. Now, fans of the original The Dark Knight Returns know that Robin is scheduled to bite the big one—DKR gives Bruce Wayne’s reason for retiring his Batman persona as the death of Robin II—but we never knew how that went down exactly, until now. Ultimately, The Last Crusade is the story of the event that finally drove Bruce Wayne to put down the cape and cowl for a decade.
This story is also about the Joker’s ultimate revenge on Batman. It’s a long, sick game the Joker is playing in this particular story, and we all know how it ends, but it’s about how we get there that make is so compelling. Miller’s Joker is pure evil, but is also a manipulative genius of the Hannibal Lecter variety.
This comic is also filled with small parts for such important Batman characters such as Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and Selina Kyle, although not her Catwoman persona. She’s given it up by this point, and is trying her best to convince Bruce to do the same, for his own good. But as we know, it’s not Selina that convinces Bruce to quit. A good prequel should use our knowledge of how everything turns out to its advantage, instead of just ticking off boxes of things we know will happen. And this has all the hallmarks of a superior prequel story.
In Brian Azzarello, Frank Miller has found the perfect writing partner to keep him from indulging in his worse instincts as a writer. Batman feels like a real human being here again, for the first time in a Miller story since the original DKR. We see a man slowing down, whose body can’t keep up with what he needs to do anymore. He wants Jason to take over as Batman one for him one day, but recognizes that the kid is colder and more reckless than he ever was. We see Batman realizing that he maybe, just maybe, made a mistake with his second Robin—a mistake that might cost a kid his life.
This is also maybe John Romita Jr.’s best art in something like a decade. It’s hist first real Batman story, and he’s captured the essence of the big, larger-than-life version of Batman that Miller first introduced to the world 30 years ago. But he also adds his own design elements to the table that are uniquely his—for example, the Joker’s henchmen, as redesigned by Romita, are the most terrifying Joker cronies maybe of all time. His work on this one-shot is a perfect homage to the work of Frank Miller in DKR, while still maintaining its own distinct artistic voice. I’d really love to see more Batman work from him in the near future (and luckily, I believe we will).
There are more plot details I won’t get into (got to leave something as a surprise) but if you loved Miller’s original The Dark Knight Returns, then consider Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade. The new entry is more akin to the original than anything Miller has concocted in his three subsequent decades of writing Batman, and you can probably thank Brian Azzarello for that. Despite knowing how it ends, it’s about the journey that gets you there, and this is definitely a journey worth taking for most Batman fans.
RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – The Last Crusade is available at comic book stores now.
Images: DC Comics