Few comic books are as universal in their influence as writer-artist Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the four-issue prestige-format series that not only made Batman the most popular superhero in the world, but heralded a new era of adult-oriented graphic literature. The book celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a second sequel series The Dark Knight III: The Master Race (co-written by Miller and Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Andy Kubert), the third issue of which has just landed in comic book stores. I recently chatted with Miller about the creation of Dark Knight, as well as its legacy and influence. He also told me about the genesis of one of his other most popular characters—Elektra—who arrives on TV next month in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil…
Nerdist: How did The Dark Knight Returns come to be?
Frank Miller: I always wanted to get my hands on Batman, for years on end. It was one of the big things that lured me over to work at DC Comics in the first place. But I put it off and put it off, because Batman always seemed to be too big a problem for me to try to solve. I just didn’t know what I could do to refresh him, after all the different versions of the character that I’d seen growing up.
Then a really strange thing happened to me. All of the sudden I realized I was about to turn 29 years old, Batman’s age. Then I realized I was one year away from turning older than Batman. The more this year went on the more it bothered me that I might be older than him. So finally I [decided] to fix that, and make him older than me once and for all. So I conceived of a story where Batman was at the impossibly old age of 50.
The biggest influence was the comic books themselves. I grew up as a comic book [lover], and Dark Knight was a quote-unquote fan making all his dreams come true.
N: What was your initial response to the overwhelming media coverage of the book in 1986? It may have been the first graphic novel covered by TV news everywhere.
FM: I was thrilled that people reacted the way they did. It certainly jump-started my career in a major way. And it gave me an amount of creative freedom that I’ve enjoyed ever since. So it was a winner for everybody involved. The publisher was happy, I was happy, and the audiences and retailers were happy. It was about as good a [response] as it could have had.
N: Why do you think The Dark Knight Returns has remained timeless?
FM: Well, I think it’s because the character’s timeless. He just needs to be updated. Who doesn’t need Zorro? Who doesn’t need a guy who’s tougher than the bad guys to rescue us when we’re in danger? The desire for a strong father figure, to go after the bad guys who are stronger than we we are, is irresistible, and always will be. And best of all, he can’t fly. He needs a car. So he’s easy to relate to.
There’s a lot of reasons. What kid hasn’t run around and played in the shadows and made sure nobody can see him? And also, what kid hasn’t grown up and been bullied once or two, and wished there was somebody who could help him out, or wished that he was strong enough to take care of the bullies himself? And what person, whether from the city or the country, hasn’t suffered at the hands of some form of social injustice and wished that there was someone big enough and smart enough and strong enough to take care of it? The appeal is broad-based and its eternal.
N: One of the most groundbreaking characters you’ve created was created for The Dark Knight Returns: Carrie Kelley. Was it difficult to get DC to agree to a female Robin at that point in time?
FM: I’d love to tell you it was a terrible problem. I’d love to tell you that we fought every inch of the way. But no, they loved her from the get-go. That was one of the ideas that they loved the most. Everything about her fit. The costume actually looks better on a girl her age, and the character is a little sprite. It was just a whole new change of atmosphere for the character. I think ultimately it helps restore Robin to his or her proper position, which is to be the light to his darkness. A grim Robin never really fit.
N: Almost as significant a work was Batman: Year One. Did you conceive of that project at the same time as Dark Knight Returns?
FM: Actually when I was finishing up Dark Knight I pulled out all of the notes I had put together before I started Dark Knight. Which were just where I wrote Batman’s origin down for myself, just to figure out who he was and how he came to be, and also to set up why he retired. Those notes became the basis for Batman: Year One.
N: Which Batman artists most influenced your work on the character? I believe you’ve mentioned Neal Adams in past interviews.
FM: At first. As a comic book reader certainly. As a professional, I was actually studying the much earlier versions, particularly Dick Sprang’s, which had a terrific effect on how I drew Batman. He drew a stockier, lantern-jawed, squarer version of Batman that I favored.
N: Both Dark Knight and Batman: Year One have influenced a ton of creators in comics and in film. Of the many screen productions inspired by your Batman work, you’ve often said that Bruce Timm’s work came the closest to capturing its spirit.
FM: Yeah. It’s certainly closest to my interpretation of it. I love what Bruce did.
N: Do you have any favorite comic creators from among the many your work’s inspired? Dark Knight III: The Master Race writer Brian Azzarello would appear to be one.
FM: Yeah. Just for the sake of having one of the best arguments of my life, I loved what Alan Moore did with The Killing Joke. Because I disagreed with everything he did. And he and I had a wonderful two-day argument about it. But it’s really hard to name all the people who’ve done a good job with the character. There have been so many. I can’t ignore what Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams did on the character. Certainly. That influenced me a great deal coming in.
But by and large, beyond people I’ve already mentioned, there are a host of them. I would say Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson did some of the best Batman work in their Manhunter series. The list could go on for the rest of the week.
N: Another of your most iconic creations is making her live-action TV debut next month—Elektra, in Netflix’s Daredevil, where she’ll no doubt be discovered by a new generation of fans. You’ve spoken before of the importance of Will Eisner’s work on your own. Was Elektra inspired by the femme fatales he created for The Spirit?
FM: Inspired? I ripped the man off! He did a wonderful story called “Sand Saref.” If you read it, those eight pages contain a beautiful little love story about the first love in the Spirit’s life. I took that story and turned it into a much more arch story about Matt Murdock and the first love of his life, which was a gal named Elektra. In the case of Will Eisner’s story, which is much sweeter and more innocent, the girl went on to become a jewel thief. Elektra of course went on to become a ninja assassin who murdered people right and left. So the result was very different. But the way of getting there… I did what every other writer would have, I ripped off the best.
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Images: DC, Marvel