Released the same year, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen transformed comic books into graphic novels.
In 1952, comic book circulation in the United States peaked with around one billion copies of more than 3,000 different issues being distributed. But in terms of literary value, not one of those comics was considered worth a damn until 1986.
The reason? Comics hadn’t had an Ernest Hemingway or an F. Scott Fitzgerald. There wasn’t an illustrated equivalent of The Scarlet Letter or Moby-Dick. None of that arrived until 1986 with the publication of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The two taunted literary critics, challenging everything they thought they knew about comics. In 1986, literati started paying attention to comic books. In 1986, they realized that comics could be more than just throwaway newspaper print for children. In 1986, comic books became literature.
The Dark Knight Returns
Written and drawn by Frank Miller, with illustration help from Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, The Dark Knight Returns completely reinvents Batman, freeing the character from being trapped in ambiguously gay panels alongside Robin. Using noir-ish tactics to illustrate the differences between Bruce Wayne and Batman, Miller establishes Wayne as an aging, peaceful, mentally acute man who struggles with his alter ego, a Batman who needs to be powerful and, sometimes, ruthlessly violent. The story arc plumbs mortality and morality as we follow the 55-year-old Wayne return to crime-fighting from a self-imposed retirement following Robin’s death. The middle-aged billionaire struggles with the physical and psychological challenges of once more becoming Batman — a kind of human crises hardly ever before explored in mainstream comics.
Rather than standard comic book newsprint, the four-issue Dark Knight Returns series was printed on heavy-stock paper with glossy cardstock covers, creating a more sophisticated look which publisher DC Comics coined as the “prestige format.” The change in substance and form encouraged The Dark Knight Returns to be read as a novella with pictures — essentially the first graphic novel. It was a huge commercial and critical success, proving that comic books could express mature sentiments while exploring important themes.
Arguably the most important comic book series ever, Watchmen was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. The pair set out to create the ultimate superhero comic book by inventing a complex story arc that revolves around costumed crusaders residing in a believable world. Moore has stated that he was "consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy," which he in part accomplished by placing his characters in an alternate version of Reagan-era America. From there, Watchmen deconstructs the idea of a superhero, imaging the gritty reality and harsh truths of being a mere mortal who dresses up in a costume to fight crime.
Like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen was one of the very first comics to demonstrate that the medium could take on major literary themes. It’s told through a nonlinear narrative, skipping around in time and intertwining itself with fictional documents and backstories to create an immense depth. Using both carefully paced panel illustrations and strong, thoughtful dialogue to form dense storytelling, Watchmen explores major issues in politics, sexuality, philosophy and more. The paneling and illustrations are heavily symmetrical and rely on symbolism. The reader is encouraged to pay attention to details behind secondary characters and in panel backgrounds — the comic equivalent of close reading. The entire concept of the series blatantly challenges the stuff of simple superheroes and raises the bar for thought-provoking storytelling in comics.
1986, the year both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were first published, can be seen as a turning point for the comic book in America. Both titles defended the concept of comics as something more than low-brow entertainment. They promoted the notion that carefully paced illustration, strong dialogue and, most importantly, intricate storytelling can be something greater than the stuff of children’s books.
These two titles paved the way into a new era of comic books and graphic novels. Publishers in their wake began changing superheroes into grime anti-heroes. Directly inspired by the atmosphere of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, the early ‘90s saw a darker era of superheroes, with The Punisher and Wolverine becoming Marvel fan favorites, and Hellboy and Spawn coming to life. Post Miller, DC gave Batman even more cynical themes, as seen in the A Death in the Family series, in which The Joker brutally murders Robin. By the mid ‘90s, comics felt more realistic and darker than ever before.
Today, graphic novels and comic books have ventured far beyond superhero titles. Taking inspiration from both the mainstream and underground scenes, recent titles like Saga are refreshing new spins with genre-bending concepts. It's now common to see indie titles dealing with more realistic emotions and relatable characters prosper over classic superheroes. The entire medium is also thriving thanks to the film industry and its adaptations of titles like The Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim. Trade paperbacks now collect a whole series into a single hefty book, which is stocked at bookstores and libraries across the country. They also more and more often make the best-sellers lists.
And even if nearly 30 years has passed since their publication, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen still dominate the comic book market week after week, whether incarnate or through influence. The year 1986 still reigns over the comic universe, like the ripples of the medium’s Big Bang.