Time and time again I am asked about comic books, often encountering skepticism and prejudice about them as a medium. Too often they are seen as the domain of children and, let’s be honest, nerds with no lives. The perception–for the most part, correct–is that they are juvenile, 4 color adventures of spandex-wearing, muscle-bound he-men and heaving-bosomed she-women filled with trite dialogue and situations. When I encounter this attitude, I issue a simple challenge. To show how far the medium has grown, I ask that the person read one or both of the following books, each written nearly twenty years ago: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Both redefined what could be done in what my grandmother called “funny books” and developed an audience far greater than the insular and fairly small pool of comic book readers.

First collected in trade paperback form in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns changed the rules of the medium forever. In four issues, Frank Miller explored the idea, the myth, of Batman and the symbolic power he (and all heroes) represent. Put simply, heroes were beacons in a dark world and never had the world been portrayed as darkly.

Audiences, especially comic book readership, had matured and grown more sophisticated. For too long, stories risked being dismissed as naive and relegated to irrelevance. Audiences were ready for stories with adult themes and situations and the complexities of anti-heroes. For better or worse, The Dark Knight Returns ushered in the age of “dark” comics. “Gritty realism” was the phrase most tossed about at the time, now taken for granted in how stories are told. The reinterpretation of traditional heroes for this new audience soon swept industry wide. Some reinterpretations worked and some didn’t. The ones that did succeeded because the writers remembered what it was that made the heroes what they were. They retained the essence of the hero, the mythology.

Frank Miller employed a lot of the story-telling style that he experimented with in his mini-series Ronin. His art owed a lot to the cinematic style of Lone Wolf and Cub artist, Goseki Kojima. The Dark Knight Returns quickly supplanted the 60s era, Adam West’s silly TV show version, in the cultural consciousness. The popularity of the book provided the heat for the 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman. It is the spirit of The Dark Knight Returns that Batman Begins was filmed with (in fact, Batman Begins takes a lot of its story from Frank Miller’s follow up to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One.)

At the heart of the story, The Dark Knight Returns is about finding one’s purpose. It is the journey of a hero realizing what he was born to do and being faithful to that calling. There are other places you can go to get a detailed rundown on the intertwining storylines of the comic. The important are of emphasis lies in the study of the journey of the hero.

Batman has always been a dangerously focused character. The death of his parents at the hands of a criminal gave him a mission in life, but how he went about his mission has led writers to depict him as either a revenge-driven psychopath (continuing to punish the man who killed his parents) or an ardent pursuer of justice (pursuing a higher calling and mission). So this hero’s journey has always been as much internal as it was external.

The world of The Dark Knight Returns is indeed a dark one: run by a fascist, when not inept, government (both federal and local); societal values turned topsy-turvy (where the release of a murderous villain, the Joker, is heralded as a good thing); and Gotham City a victim of urban sprawl and decay, overrun with crime and gangs and rotting from its center – all with a “retired” Bruce Wayne/Batman as a lion in winter.

The journey of the hero is Christ’s story, the ultimate story, and the larger the hero, the more arduous his journey must be. As the story opens, Batman has been gone for ten years. There is a sense of “Messianic expectation”, as if everyone was waiting for his return. In a sense, the people of Gotham City are waiting for his second coming because their world seems too dark and without hope; and Batman offered a symbol of hope. Though gone for only a few short years, scholars re-examine him and declare him a myth; not believing that he, in fact, ever existed despite the eye witness accounts. On Bruce Wayne’s end, he meditates on (his) death, on what would make a fitting end for him. Pondering death has a way of making one reflect on their life and assess how it was lived and ought to be lived. After all, the hero’s journey isn’t complete without the final story.

To reach his end, Batman must run an escalating gauntlet of his greatest foes, foes which reveal much of the nature of his battle and career. First up was Two-Face. In Harvey Dent, former District Attorney who had the left side of his face scarred by acid by a criminal, Batman found a reflection of himself. His disfigured face, Dent became convinced, revealed his dark side. He used a silver dollar, with one side scarred, as his trademark calling card. It represented the choice each of use has to make between good and evil. Batman often sympathized with Two-Face for battling his inner demons – though it was a battle eventuating in him being consumed by them.

Next up was the street gang known as the Mutants. The Mutants were an army of petty criminals-cum-gang. They were the ever constant threat of crime in the ordinary, the faceless hordes that was the focus of most of Batman’s campaign against crime (as opposed to the occasional “supervillain” that he fought). The other thing that Batman’s mission tended to inspire was disciples called to join with him in his mission. From the various incarnations of Robin to the Mutants converted to the “Sons of the Batman”, his life called others to the mission. The shrine he kept to the second Robin, a fallen soldier in their war, reminds us of the cost of discipleship and the mission.

The rise of the super hero triggered the rise of the super villain. Thus, with the return of Batman came the return of his greatest enemy, the Joker. The Joker–the mad clown prince and homicidal genius–was Batman’s ultimate foe, the personification of evil that people are capable of doing to one another. However, ironically, the Joker was still playing the “old game” by the “old rules”, a villain out of step with the times; almost more interested in wanting to re-live old times than anything else.

Lastly, Batman faces the system itself: the “empire” seen as social and governmental impotence and as embodied by Superman. With Batman’s message spreading, the apocalyptic imagery takes on a life of its own, as if the whole book built toward some final battle. The detonation of a magnetic pulse weapon sends society into chaos. Stalled cars, crashing planes, it was like a scene out of Left Behind. In rides Batman on horseback, with bystanders only remembering the power of his voice, like a sword piercing their hearts.

In these “end times”, superheroes were essentially outlawed, not permitted to operate without license. License that Superman has and Batman does not. The idea of Batman becomes too big, too much of a threat to the powers that be. He challenges them and defeats them with unexpected methods and is thus labeled a threat to the empire. And has to die. The image of Superman and Batman entwined in battle is an interesting one. Both are messianic figures in their own right. Together they form a more complete picture of Justice – keeping in mind the verse found in Romans 11:22 (“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God”).

The idea of Batman bears further investigation. His origins revolve around the idea of being inspired by a bat to instill fear into the hearts of criminals. He recognizes the power of symbol. The bat, during the course of the story, takes on totemic value, one that Batman draws power from. At first it seems to be just the symbol of fear, but it is actually the symbol of his calling, his destiny. On a strictly human level, Batman represents “the common man’s will to resist” crime and wrong-doing. In a lot of ways, however, this totemic bat spirit is Batman’s own messianic consciousness becoming aware of his mission.

The religious language of the book only intensifies the sense of Batman as mythic icon. Batman returns during a rainstorm, which he refers to as his baptism. His mission is often called his “holy war” against crime. An approaching storm–symbolizing Batman’s return–is described as the wrath of God. In fact, in a lot of ways, Batman embodies the wrath of God, the idea of His (punitive) Justice. Batman is comparable to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, an Old Testament vision of punishment. It’s easy to forget that wrath is love in action: Batman defends the weak, the oppressed, and the “least of these”.

The story of Batman’s second coming, death and resurrection is a powerful one – a story that draws on an older one. Though written some twenty years ago, it stands the test of time, a testament to the renewing and enduring themes within the book. The Dark Knight Returns is a landmark work for any medium, so much so that it transcends it.

Like all good myths should.