30 Years Ago: The Dark Knight Changes Comics Forever

DC Comics
DC Comics / DC Comics

Every time Frank Miller ran into Dick Giordano, the executive editor and vice president of DC Comics, he heard the same thing: "Do something with Batman. You have to work on Batman."

Miller got the pitch in bars, restaurants, and hotels. At comic conventions. In DC’s offices in Manhattan. While playing volleyball in Greenwich Village. Come do Batman. The writer and artist was already a comic book celebrity, having taken Marvel’s Daredevil title from an afterthought to a hard-boiled critical and commercial success. And DC had managed to pry his Ronin, a limited series about a reincarnated samurai, from the competition. Eager to continue a working relationship, they offered Miller almost complete creative freedom to rescue Batman—at the time, a character still hung over from the effects of Adam West’s campy 1960s TV series that was selling a paltry 20,000 copies a month—and reinvent him for a modern audience.

Miller shrugged it off. He wasn’t sure he had anything to say.

That changed in 1985, when the artist began nearing his 30th birthday. He perceived Batman as being perpetually 29. Growing older than his boyhood hero seemed wrong. He pitched Giordano on turning the clock forward, dropping in on a Batman in his fifties, about to tackle one final case.

Miller’s intention was to restore Batman to a position of seniority, even if it was only in his own head. However, when The Dark Knight Returns debuted on February 25, 1986, Miller had managed to introduce a superhero for the modern age—one that cast off the juvenile attachments of the previous 50 years. Miller’s comic, square-bound and printed on expensive paper, didn’t even look like a comic: At $2.95, it was three times as expensive as one. Mainstream media like Rolling Stone and Spin took notice; Stephen King proclaimed it to be “probably the finest piece of comic art ever to be published.”  

In order to garner that level of attention and respect, Miller had to do more than just deliver a great story. Both he and DC had to redefine what a comic book could be.

"Frank coming in wasn’t just an accelerant," Richard Bruning, the company’s design director at the time, tells mental_floss. "It was a nuclear explosion."

At the beginning of the 1980s, Batman’s role in popular culture had dwindled to cartoon appearances and Underoos endorsements. His widest exposure to date had come as a result of the Batman series starring Adam West, a purposeful spoof of comic book archetypes. Even though writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams had returned the character to his noir roots in the 1970s, it was a tough sell getting anyone to see him as anything other than a relic. 

“For years, DC tried to ignore the core of the character,” O’Neil tells mental_floss. “Here’s someone who saw his mom and dad gunned down in the streets. That’s about as traumatic as you can get.”

At the time, there was no particular hierarchy in DC’s comics pages. While Superman was perceived as the most recognizable (and bankable) of their library, no other characters received special attention. Batman had just two titles—his own and the long-running Detective Comics that introduced him back in 1939—and disappointing sales. Giordano, however, was encouraged by reader polls, which would perpetually rank the hero as their favorite. The message seemed to be that readers loved Batman, but not the kinds of stories DC was peddling.

Both Giordano and higher-ups like publisher Paul Levitz and president Jenette Kahn were enamored with Miller, a young illustrator from Vermont who had migrated to New York in the 1970s and used his lean years to fuel work on Daredevil and his stylized view of Hell’s Kitchen. When Miller finally bit after months after DC's courtship, he was bursting with ideas. Taking a cue from a later Dirty Harry movie and a sneering Clint Eastwood pulled back into action, his Batman would be older, grizzled, and no longer retired after a new surge of mutant adversaries threatened Gotham. Superman would be one of the antagonists, a superweapon handled by Ronald Reagan; Robin would be a teenage girl, Dick Grayson having been murdered at the hands of the Joker years prior. There would be blood and broken bones and the kind of hard-boiled narration Miller would later adopt for Sin City.

It was extreme, but the publisher was ready for whatever Miller wanted. “Everyone at DC loved him,” Bruning says. “They were willing to bet the farm on Frank.”

At a time comics cost 75 cents each and were printed on flimsy paper barely thicker than Kleenex, Miller petitioned for a “prestige” format that would have squared-off (not stapled) edges and heavy cardstock covers. He refused to have any ads in the book, and he petitioned for printing processes that would allow for his art and the work of inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley to shine. It was an approach that was undertaken on Ronin as a kind of dry run; the stakes and investment on a Batman title would be much higher. 

“Integrating an art director at that point had hardly ever been done in comics,” Bruning says. When he and Miller began planning the cover of the first issue—a stark, spare image of Batman in silhouette without any of the typical trappings, including a DC logo—editors flinched. “I think they were thrown by it. It was such a non-Batman approach," Bruning says. "You don’t see Batman, or the Bat-signal, or the logo. For 1985, this was a big deal.”

The detailed scripts Miller delivered for the first two issues soon gave way to loose outlines that he’d fill in as he worked. The demands of putting out a 200-page comic book in four installments was monumental—a task Bruning describes as a “marathon”—and Miller needed to make frequent stops to collect his breath. Once, assistant editor Bob Greenberger called Miller (who worked outside DC’s offices) and gently inquired about a deadline that had passed.

“Whatever I said seemed to bother him,” Greenberger tells mental_floss. “And a day later, Dick [Giordano] told me I was off the project, the unsaid being that Frank didn't like being called and told he was late.”

Lured away from Marvel, where he had worked with Miller on various projects, O’Neil became editor of the Batman titles midway through The Dark Knight’s production. He chuckles when asked about Miller’s delinquent habits. “Life gets in the way of successful people," he says. "I don’t remember this in connection with Frank. But if I did, I wouldn’t want to talk about it. Everything has glitches.”

Miller’s meticulous approach was shared by Varley, who gave the title a distinctive greyscale that augmented Miller’s pencils. “I see black and white artwork come in, and it’s a guy floating, a half-inch tall,” Bruning remembers. “And nothing else. Then Lynn comes in, gets to it, and there’s a whole world there, a mood, a setting, beautiful colors.” According to Bruning, DC was not in the habit of crediting colorists on the cover, a practice that changed when they saw Varley’s work.

Both Miller and Varley made frequent trips to Quebec, where DC’s printer was located, to supervise production runs on each of the four issues. Bruning would take turns accompanying them with Bob Rozakis, the company’s then-head of production. The three would watch the presses roll until the early hours of the morning. “The plant is rolling off 50,000 copies an hour and Lynn is making color corrections,” Rozakis tells mental_floss. “Frank and I would be falling asleep and Lynn would come in saying, ‘I finally got it!’ She seemed surprised when I told her we weren’t going to throw away all the issues we’d printed already.”

The year 1986 was scheduled to be a busy one for DC, which had another marquee artist in John Byrne, who was reinventing Superman—their other pillar—for contemporary audiences, and Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the genre, Watchmen, set for release. According to Greenberger, those distractions and the size of Miller’s original art, which made it hard to photocopy in DC’s offices, meant that few people had any idea of what was coming.

“The staff was largely unaware of the power of the story,” Greenberger says, “or how radical a deviation it was.”

The Dark Knight #1 was released on February 25, 1986. In comic book stores across the country, it took on an ethereal presence on shelves, there one minute and gone the next. “We were stunned when the volume orders were around 450,000 copies,” Bruning says. “Frank blew the character and the medium wide open.”

Shops reported sellouts in less than two hours; DC scrambled to go back to press over and over again. By year’s end, The Dark Knight had been collected in a softcover edition distributed to bookstores. Major media outlets profiled Miller, proclaiming that comics had “grown up.”

To fans, they had been that way for years. But it was Miller’s stamp that led a non-readership to the same conclusion. “Everyone still had that pow, bam impression from the TV show,” Rozakis says. “We knew it was good. But I didn’t think this is what Batman would become for the next 30 years.”

Miller would go on to return to Daredevil for Marvel, as well as collaborate with artist David Mazzucchelli on Batman: Year One, a 1987 serialized story that takes place early in Batman’s crime-fighting career. Though he jumped in and out of comics over the ensuing decades to work on studio films like 300, Sin City, and The Spirit, Miller’s portrayal of a grim, weary Dark Knight was the most influential since Bob Kane and Bill Finger first introduced the character. Almost every subsequent interpretation, including the armored Bruce Wayne of next month's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, owes a creative debt to Miller.

“This is something that is probably best answered in a Ph.D. thesis, but my guess is that comics were turning a corner at that point,” O’Neil says. “There’s this concept of a culture-bearer, where circumstances have created a climate for change. The world was ready for a dead-serious depiction of Batman. And Frank came along and took up the burden.”

All images courtesy of DC Comics/DC Entertainment.