Let’s Talk Comic – January/February/March 2023

Rob Lamberti

Sometimes you can’t get what you want, as the song goes.

In the 1980s, the comics market was inundated with small-press comics that buyers were speculating heavily on. Then, as all rising markets do, the bottom fell out and many smaller comics companies vanished. Interested in buying new comics waned because many collectors of new comics felt duped by the phoney hot market.

I remember that in the mid-1980s, my comic shop owner said something big — and potentially decent — was on its way. It was Frank Miller and he was doing a four-part series on Batman. 

Cool doesn’t even begin to describe it. I wanted to make sure I got first-print runs of the books so I subscribed to DC to get the books by mail. More on this later.

Cover to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns 1.
Cutline: The stunning cover of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns 1. The original art sold for $2.4 million at an auction in June.

Many know Miller for being an executive producer for the Zack Snyder film 300, which was based on Miller’s graphic novel of the same name.

But for comic fans, he made his mark in Marvel’s Daredevil. He rewrote the life and trajectory of the Man Without Fear. The television series has Miller’s work throughout and it’s expected his storyline will continue when the show resumes.

His rise toward Daredevil included his first published work — a three-page story called Royal Feast — in Gold Key’s Twilight Zone 84 in 1978. He also did work on DC anthology books, including the excellent series Weird War, but it was his work on the Spectacular Spider-Man 27 and 28 that his distinctive style began to emerge. The first glimpses of his trademark hard-boiled look and dark moods appeared when he took over pencilling duties in Daredevil with issue 158 released in 1979. 

Fast forward to 1986 when Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The series was written by Miller who worked with Klaus Janson on the art. The first book hit the market hard and sales revitalized the business. First prints which were sent to dealers sold out quickly.

I bought two first prints, also smug knowing that I was getting a third in the mail. Wrong. Mailed editions were second prints. Bibliophiles know that second editions are nowhere as desirable as the real thing. 

Here’s the cover of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns 2.
Cutline: An anonymous buyer purchased the original pen and ink version of the cover drawn by Frank Miller for $478,000 in 2013. It would certainly fetch much more if it ever comes up for sale

I was disturbed by that. I sent a stern email to DC. In a kind response, the company said there weren’t enough first editions to go around, so they went directly to comic shops. In other words, the company underestimated the demand. I still have second editions in the original shipping wrap. There are also third editions for numbers one and two.

The storyline is about Bruce Wayne, who’s been retired from the superhero business for a decade, and decides to come back when crime in Gotham reaches intolerable levels. A gang is terrorizing citizens so Wayne returns. 

DC’s website described the series as being “unlike anything ever seen. Not just for Batman, but for DC and the comics medium, heralding the arrival of comics as something that could be embraced by all, regardless of age and sophistication.”

All true, but DC also put a temporary break on that revival with the Death of Superman, who didn’t die. Many of the people brought back into the fold with the powerful storyline in Dark Knight Returns fled for the hills after the Superman story. Veteran comic fans know characters that make a lot of money don’t die and it was just a story. But impressionable new fans and investors felt ripped off by that story.

Miller gave Wayne emotional weakness I suspect many who are aging feel. DC’s website described the character as being “the solitary, bitter figure, alarmed at the way the world had changed so fast and without any way for him to make it slow down, much less come to a stop.”

His familiar world is gone and Wayne’s only way to fit in is to resume the past he gave up. 

The cover of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns 3
Cutline: The striking cover features a female Robin, Carrie Kelley, who first saved Batman’s life and then joined him in the battle to regain control of Gotham City. They take on the Joker and Superman

This series is a must for every collection. And because it was such an important point in comics history, there are many versions of the four-part series. The originals have a market price ranging from about US$110 for number one to US$35 for numbers three and four. There are hardcovers and softcover graphic novels, there are special editions.

And of course, there’s a second series, the three-part The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which was interesting but not as moving as Returns. 

In the fourth part of the mini-series, called The Dark Knight Falls, Batman fakes his death after his identity is revealed to the world and a confrontation with Superman in the same alley where Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot dead. Superman was brought in to take on Gotham’s hero after Batman had restored order with his Sons of Batman organization and the government wasn’t pleased. 

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