Frank Miller Returns to Batman and the Dark Knight Universe

Frank Miller tells us why he keeps coming back to Batman and the Dark Knight universe, and plans for The Golden Child.

This article contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight III: The Master Race.

Frank Miller is on a roll. The celebrated comics auteur is sometimes quiet, but never forgotten. It took 15 years for Miller to revisit his most famous work, The Dark Knight Returns, with a sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. But in just the last few years, he’s returned to the offbeat future of the DC Universe depicted in the Dark Knight world with increasing frequency, whether with Dark Knight III: The Master Race or Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade. He’s also spent time building up the Man of Steel, a character who has also featured prominently in his Batman stories, on Superman: Year One.

And now Miller is going back to the batcave again, this time with Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child for DC’s Black Label mature readers imprint. A direct sequel to the events of The Master Race, this one puts the focus less on Bruce Wayne, and more on Carrie Kelley and the children of Superman. Miller told us about why he keeps coming back to Batman, as well as what’s next for his ever-expanding Dark Knight world.

Den of Geek: The Dark Knight Returns was always just this theoretical ending for Batman, but now it has turned into a little mini-franchise of its own, and he got a new beginning at the conclusion of Dark Knight III: The Master Race.

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Frank Miller: It’s even funnier than that actually, because the original ending for Dark Knight Returns was that he died in a hail of police gunfire. I had arguments with Dick Giordano, who was my editor, about that. And we went on and on and back and forth about whether that should be the ending or not, because his gut told him it was the wrong ending. But I stuck to my guns, and as I got closer and closer to writing the ending, at one point, I just called him and I said, “Dick, you were right. I just can’t pull the trigger on this. That’s not the ending.”

So you never got around to scripting that scene, or doing layouts or anything like that?

Oh, I plotted it all out, but I didn’t draw anything, no. But I still have it in my office, the document, where I wrote it out with that ending. So everything that’s followed Dark Knight Returns can be chalked up to Dick Giordano’s good instincts and my eventually coming to realize he was right, but it was a creative journey I had to go through. It’s the only time I’ve ever really gone against my original intention for an ending.

When you came up with the actual ending for Dark Knight Returns, was there ever any inkling in your mind that you would continue that story beyond that, or were just happy to leave it on that hopeful note?

I told myself … “When I’ve got a good enough idea to come back, I’ll come back to this.” Because I’ve fallen in love with so much of it, and I knew that Carrie Kelley would bring me back.

The Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child

So that brings us to Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child. This is something else that’s interesting now, because you recently finished Superman: Year One, and I know people have given you a hard time about your Superman stuff in the past, but I feel like that was rehabilitated with Master Race. And now, it feels like Golden Child is really, really focused on Clark’s children, Lara and Jonathan Kent. So how does “young” Bruce fit into this, and what’s your unifying theory of Superman these days?

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Well, young Bruce really isn’t a factor, but my unifying theory of Superman is really unchanged from the Dark Knight Returns era. He is a really good guy, but he is by nature of a more … I mean, let’s put it this way. He walks around, he’s the strongest kid in town, and he knows it. He’s been raised to be responsible with his power and his strength, and as time has gone by, he’s gotten more and more powerful. And so, his sense of responsibility has gotten greater and greater.

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Whereas in contrast to Bruce Wayne, whose personality was formed when he was a five year old boy, who could do nothing as his parents were slaughtered in front of him. And so, he’s always been the underdog. Bruce doesn’t have any special abilities. He’s just smart and disciplined, so he trained himself to be physically as close to perfect as you can get, and he used an inherited fortune, built it to be bigger, and basically turned that into a machine to fight crime.

So they’re very different in their world views. To Superman, there is a lost world that gave birth to him when he was just an infant, but the world that he really believes in, the one he was raised in, was essentially benevolent and well-ordered. Whereas Batman, any sense of logic or order to the world was ripped away from him. And so, he’s out to make it make sense. So they have profoundly different world views, and they’re born for conflict.

I spoke to John Romita Jr. in San Diego about Superman: Year One, and he went on and on about how much fun it is working Lee-Kirby style with you on this stuff.

Oh, yeah, it’s great. 

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So are you working that way with artist Rafael Grampa on The Golden Child?

Kirby and Lee really hit on something with what they did. With Raf, I write more of a script. It’s much more structured. But I’ll work either way, and some people prefer one way some people prefer another. For instance, David Mazzucchelli preferred to have a structured script to work off, where Romita is very much into the Kirby style, where his stuff has a rhythm, and there’s something … he’s extremely physical. And with Raf…he wants to have something to respond to that’s got more detail to it. Every time out, it’s a different game, that’s one of the things I love about comics.

What are you allowed to say about the “terrifying evil that returns to Gotham” in The Golden Child?

I’m not going to say any more than what you’ve got. But when he shows up, you’re going to have a big reaction.

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Every one of these chapters in the Dark Knight saga reflects our times in one way or another. Sometimes it’s more satirical than other ways, or more amplified in other ways. What, if at all, does The Golden Child have to say about the weird moment we’re in right now?

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Oh, plenty, but that’s all I can say, because you’re touching on story points that I don’t want to blow. We’re playing it a little cagey, because this is not an 18-part mega-series here, and we can’t say too much.

This is the second of these one-shots set in this world that you’ve done. The other one was the Joker story in Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade. So do you think that this is the way you can keep returning to the Dark Knight universe, rather than larger mini-series?

I’d like to leave open all kinds of different ways. I’m hoping we can enter an era, where projects like this we can say … you can come up with a story that wants to be this long, or wants to be this long, and then plan it to be that, rather than taking an idea that’s worth 50 pages and turning it into 200 pages, simply because that’s the format Dark Knight Returns had. That’s why I loved the addition of the mini-comic, because it just said we could go in any direction we want to here. 

Speaking of format, Golden Child is going to be Black Label like Superman: Year One?

Yeah, I believe so.

I don’t even know what to call that format, because it’s not like a treasury. It’s almost like a record album. 

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What it’s like, is like a European album. When Marvel came out with its graphic novel line in the 1980s, that was what the format was.

Oh, yeah, that’s right. I totally forgot about those.

Yeah, and that was a movement toward making comic books in the European format, but nobody wants to give the Europeans credit for anything, so it hasn’t been called that. And this is a format I’ve wanted to see for a long time, and I’ve been pushing for. I think it’s a handsome format.

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The comic book format we’re all used to, originally, it began as the “half-tab” format, the half tabloid. It was created with the first comic books ever. I believe they were called More Fun Comics, and they were created just because they found out the comics were really the favorite part of a lot of people’s newspapers. And so, they just took comic book sections and folded them over and sold them on the newsstand. And they sold like hotcakes, so they started developing original material for those. In that format, and the comic book was born. And they were much bigger than comic books are now. 

Over time, the reason comic books got stuck at the small size was because of the little spinners in dime-stores. And then just when we’re getting out of that, those little polybags started showing up that collectors kept them in, so they got kept in this rather awkward shape. And I’ve just been pushing like crazy to get us to get bigger. Our audience has gotten older, so why not have the comics bigger? When you’re a little kid, the smaller size fills your entire periphery. It’s like a movie screen. As grownups, it doesn’t fill … it’s not that big. I’d like comics to be big again.

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Does knowing that you’re writing for something that’s going to be in that format effect how you plot, or script, or collaborate with an artist at all?

No. A story is a story is a story. It just means if you have more room, you can do a better job.

You are somebody who has always tried to move the medium the way you feel that your heroes did, right? What do you think is next? Black Label seems to be doing well, but obviously, digital still seems to be the final frontier for people. How do you think comics can continue to evolve and survive as we continue to compete with everything else that’s out there?

Well, the most important way is in terms of content. I love to push on format, but we have to do stories that are enjoyable by not just one aging group of people. So, when I see things like some of the stuff that is being sold for children that’s being done now in comic book format, some of that’s quite delightful and very well done. And that, to me, it’s the most important avenue to go, because we certainly have a huge number of adolescents reading comics, and where we’re really lacking is on the other edges. 

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I’d say we’ve got adolescents to middle aged readers, but I want to diversify in terms of content. I’m glad we’re back into the crime business. I’d like to see things done with all kinds of stuff like history, historical fiction, that sort of thing. I’d love to see a new romance kind of comic that would not be what it used to be. There’s possibilities there that could be remarkable, and I’m not the guy who would know what they are.

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Basically, I’d just like to see us take our place as a story form rather than as a genre. We’re not a genre, we’re media. I mean, we’re a form of telling stories. That’s like saying TV is a genre, or cinema is a genre. No, comics are not a genre.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.