Last week, Polygon’s offices were sent a big pack of press materials about the 30th anniversary of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The accompanying information said that it looked forward the recipient’s editorial coverage of the occasion, and that it hoped “you have your own Frank Miller story to tell.”
This is the usual boilerplate for this kind of thing. It’s not like I get on social media or draft a big story for every email asking for coverage or every box of comics that arrives on my desk. But the irony of the situation struck me.
“The 80-page giant comic cost 25 cents, but I bought it anyway.”
The more I chewed it over, the more I did want to write something, about how I was born the month the final issue of The Dark Knight Returns hit shelves. About growing up with a Batman who’d never not been influenced by Miller’s work.
So, here’s my Frank Miller story.
I’m 11 and I’m at a Barnes & Noble. My mom says I can get one book. Lately my interests have been drifting down a thin, lazy creek — from the Richard Donner Superman films to Superman: The Animated Series to Batman: The Animated Series — and they’re about to hit a mighty, rushing river I’ll be following for the rest of my life. Standing in the graphic novel section (this is 1997, so it consists of a magazine rack on top of a single column of shelves), I pick up a book called Batman: Year One.
I’m not sure I like the art inside. Every scene sort of looks like somebody put a different color of cellophane over the lens of a camera. But the back cover says it’s about the first year of Batman’s history, and I instinctively know that I’m not allowed to call myself a fan of a comic book character unless I know literally everything about them first. I get my mom to buy it for me. It is the first American comic I have ever consciously purchased.
There are some parts of the book I won’t understand for years, like what it means when Catwoman’s pimp says “That vice I smell? That crazy vet bit — thas old, man,” after a disguised Bruce Wayne approaches one of his girls. I carry the book around in my 6th grade backpack for weeks. I practically memorize it. Every panel of David Mazzucchelli’s art still instantly inspires feelings of deep nostalgia for me. “Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on, none of you are safe,” I can still recite it from heart.
The nearest comic book shop is two towns over and there’s no such thing as a wiki yet, so I start ordering trade paperbacks and graphic novels on Amazon and devouring every superhero comic in the public library. They’re in Non-Fiction, on the same shelves with the How To Draw books.
I’m 12. I read The Dark Knight Returns and it scares me. Batman uses guns. The Joker calls him by pet names and applies his own makeup. Alfred dies. In the end Batman is raising an army of youths to fight the… government, I think?
But it’s got a girl Robin and I like that, even if there is a weird scene where she hugs Batman when he’s completely naked. Everything says that it’s the book that made people realize that superheroes can be for adults, and at the age of 12 that’s a hill I will die on. I decide that if it scares me, it’s probably supposed to be scary.
I’m 15, and just starting to look at colleges. No campus visit is complete until I check out the local comic book store. I read Miller’s sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, as it comes out. The art is weird. The colors are nuts. Superman and Wonder Woman have mid-air sex so hard that volcanoes erupt and it’s the goofiest thing I’ve ever seen. I decide it’s got a few good fight scenes in it, some good one-liners and mostly forget about it.
I’m 18 and the Sin City movie is in production, so I ask for the first volume for Christmas. I imagine how desperate Goldie must have been to go to someone as clearly violent and emotionally stunted as Marv for protection, and shudder. I go see Sin City in theaters. “Is every woman in this film a sex worker?” I wonder. I remember the exception: Marv’s lesbian parole officer — she’s forced to watch as Elijah Wood eats her severed arm and is later murdered by the police.
I realize that I have never read a Frank Miller book with an original female character who didn’t fall into two categories: sex worker — or victim of a brutal beating or murder. Even the first female Robin gets sliced up by a bad guy in the climax of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Come to think of it, Miller also seems to enjoy characterizing his extra-creepy male villains as having ambiguous sexuality or gender. You’re not threatening, it seems, until you’re sexually threatening to a straight guy.
I’m 19 and I pick up All-Star Batman and Robin #1. The first scene is one in which journalist Vicki Vale complains at length about Bruce Wayne’s ethics but drops everything to go on a date with him as soon as Alfred, not even Bruce, calls her to arrange it. It includes a double page spread of her trying on different outfits in pink lace lingerie, babbling about how she can’t believe she’s going on a date with Bruce Wayne. It might be the first time since I began buying monthly comics that I decide a Batman story isn’t worth reading.
I’m still 19 and Frank Miller announces Holy Terror, Batman, a book he wants to write where Batman “kicks Al-Qaeda’s ass.” I can’t even begin to articulate all the reasons why that sounds like a terrible idea. While speaking to NPR about his personal reaction to the September 11th attacks a few months later, Miller would say: “For the first time in my life I know how it feels to face an existential menace.” I think that I’ve never heard something so white, straight, male and sheltered. He will eventually repackage the idea as simply Holy Terror, after jettisoning any reference to the superhero.
I am 20 and I’m majoring in Creative Writing, because I want to write comic books for a living. 300 is out, but I’m waiting for it to hit the local discount theater so I won’t have to pay more than a penny per Spartan soldier to see it. My roommate is double-majoring Pre-Med/Classics and loves terrible movies, so she drags me along. We roll our eyes when the Spartans make fun of Athenian men for being “boy lovers.” Years later, I’ll read the original 300 and be shocked only by Miller’s audacity in writing an effusive comic book love letter to what he characterizes as a culture of peak masculinity — while erasing the extensive evidence that homosexuality was not merely commonplace in Grecian militaries, but occasionally embraced as tactically sound. Instead, he codes Xerxes as the Sissy Villain.
I’m 24, I’m in my first year of managing a “nerd entertainment” news site and a guy I’m dating gives me a collection of Miller’s early work on Daredevil. I read it because I know it was Miller’s first big break, and to widen my knowledge base in Marvel comics.
Elektra is introduced, glorified and murdered in a single volume. At this point I don’t even bat an eye. I know the character’s history from years of osmotically accumulating comics knowledge. Like Catwoman in Batman: Year One, she’s another iconic comic book badass-lady-until-she-wants-the-hero-as-a-boyfriend with a Frank Miller-penned origin. Like Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, she’s brought into an iconic story arc about a male character in order to take the brunt of a terrible act of violence, and other writers will work for decades to reclaim her agency and humanity in her universe.
My copy of Batman: Year One contains an introduction written by Miller in 1988, a year after the comic first hit shelves — and two years after I was born. In it, he describes being eight years old, standing in a supermarket and flipping through his very first Batman comic. He paints a picture of his young self being immediately drawn to a dark, damp and beautiful Gotham City, full of terrors … but a Gotham in which the scariest monster of them all was on our side.
“A madman laughed wildly, maliciously. The laughter echoed forever … Glistening wet, black against the blackened sky, a monster, a giant, winged gargoyle, hunched forward, pausing at a building’s ledge, and cocked its head, following the laugh’s last seconds,” he writes.
“The 80-page giant comic cost 25 cents,” he concludes, “but I bought it anyway.” The copy of Batman: Year One that I flipped through in that Barnes & Noble in 1997 was $9.95 ($13.95 Canada).
I’m 11 and I’m at a Barnes & Noble. My mom says I can get one book.
It’s hard to imagine Frank Miller anticipating that his story, with that introduction, would ever fall into the hands of an 11-year-old, mixed-race girl, much less that it would ignite in her a life-long passion not simply for Batman or superheroes but for comics as a whole.
Miller doesn’t mention who wrote, who drew, who edited the book that made him a fan, the book that gave him an obsession that he was lucky enough to turn into a successful career — a career that, for better and for worse, has made an indelible impact on the history of comics.
And a part of me wishes that I could forget, too.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.