Just as The Batman hits big screens, The Dark Knight Returns to the auction block.
Heritage Auctions will offer in its momentous April 7-10 Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction the original cover artwork for Book Three in Frank Miller’s four-part series published in 1986. Featuring Miller’s new Robin – 13-year-old Carrie Kelly – crouched beneath the Bat-Signal, this is nothing short of a historic offering from the landmark title that finally and fully transformed the Caped Crusader into The Dark Knight and irrevocably altered the character, comic books, cinema and popular culture.
Rarely do offerings from Miller’s triumph come to auction, especially one of the four coveted, closely guarded covers. In fact, it has been two years since even a page from the miniseries was brought to market – and nearly a decade since Heritage Auctions sold the cover to Book Two (for $478,000), the only other time a cover from The Dark Knight Returns has been offered at auction.
The Dark Knight Returns’ third installment was titled “Hunt the Dark Knight,” with Superman chief among the pursuers. Book Three proved the turning point in the series, with the introduction of Clark Kent as government pawn, the Joker’s release from prison, the reveal that Selina Kyle has been transformed from Catwoman to madam. And in its final pages, the Joker goes on a murderous rampage, only to savagely injure Batman and snap his own neck (!) so his death can be pinned on The Dark Knight.
Even now – perhaps especially now – Miller’s comic book resonates like something published just yesterday or the day after tomorrow.
Foremost, of course, The Dark Knight Returns is a Batman story and easily among the best ever told – Miller’s begrudging, yet in retrospect, inevitable follow-up to his grim, gritty work on Marvel’s Daredevil. It tells of the aging vigilante who can no longer hide in the shadows of a city – of a world – that has turned even more terrifying and malevolent than when first he hung up his cape. The streets are overrun by mutant gangs; the skies, filled with Russian rockets; television sets, roaring with the inane jibber-jabber of empty talking heads. And old foes such as the Joker and Two-Face were one foot out of the asylum.
Actual comic book cover for reference
The 1980s, Miller wrote in the introduction to 2006’s Absolute Dark Knight, were “a wild time to be following the news and drawing comic books. A time of grave threats, mighty forces, and impossibly silly media events. Street crime soared. So did comedy. It was an angry, bitter, hilarious time.” Plus ça change …
Here, too, of course, is the Superman and Batman fight oft imitated, most famously in film, but never duplicated. But The Dark Knight Returns sits on a short shelf of modern comicdom’s most influential, counterfeited works, art and literature bound in superhero tropes and tights.
Conceived by Miller on a plane ride to Dallas, The Dark Knight Returns stemmed, in part, from the writer-artist’s own run-in with crime, following a series of muggings. As he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, “that made me realize that Batman was the most potent symbol DC had in its hands. Sure, Superman can fly, but Batman turns me back into that guy who is scared and at the same time the guy who can come and save him. It’s a perfect myth.”
And The Dark Knight Returns remains the perfect Batman story.
In his introduction to the 1986 hardback The Dark Knight Returns collection, Watchmen creator Alan Moore wrote that Miller “has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character’s mythology. … Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it’s all totally different.”
Moore noted, too, that in this epic, almost operatic tale, his friend Frank “has managed to create something radiant which should hopefully illuminate things for the rest of the comic book field.”
Thirty-six years later, The Dark Knight Returns remains the template for the modern comic book and the work against which all others are judged.
Here is a description of the art piece:
The artwork is all pencil and ink by Frank Miller, on a section of DC Bristol board measuring 10.25″ x 12.75″. That piece of board has been professionally stripped-in and affixed to another larger piece of Bristol to match the size of DC DK pages. The larger board measures 14.25″ x 20.5″, and a new overlay featuring part of the Lynn Varley portion of the cover (made from a scan of her hand-painted color guide) has been added. The board sections are toned and in Very Good condition.