The Batman from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is legendary — the aged, hardened, wizened version of Caped Crusader. But now Miller is taking readers back to what made his Batman that way, to a story set 10 years before DKR, when Batman was fighting crime with Jason Todd at his side.
Titled Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade, the one-shot was co-written by Miller with his DKIII collaborator Brian Azzarello. The 64-page, prestige format work is illustrated by artist John Romita Jr. (with whom Miller worked previously on Daredevil: The Man Without Fear) and was colored by Peter Steigerwald.
The story of Last Crusade reveals the previously untold story of how Jason Todd died in Miller's DKR universe, and it features the first appearance of Miller's Joker since his death in Dark Knight Returns.
With the issue being released today, Newsarama talked with Miller and Romita about the project to find out more about the previously untold story and the two superstar artists' collaboration.
Newsarama: Frank, was this story something you always knew, the way this event happened in the DKR universe?
Frank Miller: Well, no. It was meant originally as a hint. And the greater story developed out from that. But I had sketched it out in rough detail.
It had to be absolutely horrible. Anything that would be enough to make Batman do what he did, it has to be pretty severe. He's a pretty tough guy.
But it hadn't been worked out in detail.
Nrama: Reading through the issue, there are a lot of call-outs to the world of DKR, yet it feels different as well. Is that because it's before the tragedy? How would you describe it in contrast to what we eventually see in Dark Knight Returns?
Miller: I think Dark Knight Returns was angrier. That's the way I'd describe it.
I think the idea is to get you to a point that Dark Knight paid off on. But it's all a process. It's all evolved.
And everything about Jason is pivotal to where it's going.
Nrama: John, when you were first given the script, what were your thoughts about how you wanted to approach it?
John Romita Jr.: I was so thrilled to work with Frank on this because the last time I worked with him was on Man Without Fear, and that was such a great experience.
While I didn't want to compare the two, but the process was similar. It made it so much fun knowing I could use the same process as Man Without Fear.
Having it attached to Dark Knight Returns, which is arguably one of the greatest if not the greatest graphic novel of all time, was also thrilling to me. I fan-geeked out on this man, and I grew up in the industry with him.
And then having Brian working on it with us made it that much more fun.
So this was more fun than work.
Nrama: What were your thoughts as you put together the visual look of this comic? There are layout cues that put it in the same world as DKR, yet it's also your own style. Did you study Frank's work on the original and come up with an idea of how to approach this?
Romita: I looked at the original work — more than twice — I think it was back in September and October. And I went on a vacation and brought the book with me. Instead of reading trashy novels, I read a quality novel.
And I was telling a few people. I sat at a pool, and I have this graphic novel in my hands, and people were looking at me with strange expressions on their face. And I wanted to tell them I had a better book than they did.
But I read it twice, and I got the feel back after having not read it for many, many years.
And it helped. It helped massively to get involved in this — between my ears, as opposed to just using my hand and drawing it.
Nrama: Frank, what was it like to work on this story around Jason. What was it like to get into his head and contrast him with the darker world to come in DKR?
Miller: I could only see Jason as a guy with an awful lot of talent, absolutely brilliant, but a massive inferiority complex, out to prove himself, up against someone who had already — I mean, he was a successor. Any successor has a problem with that. There's a defiance and even a reckless enthusiasm. It's dangerous.
And Batman's whole test there is how to educate this rather defiant young man. And Batman is a touch older. He's not doing it for the first time now.
Nrama: John, the death of Jason Todd, the way you depicted it, focuses less on the character of Jason and more on the act — and particularly on Joker's part in it, at least the way you stage it. Is that how you approached it?
Romita: A bit, but I felt because of the last comment he makes in reference to Batman is he's trying to torture Batman. And I think that's the brilliance of that line.
So I didn't want to just show what happens to the kid. It would have been gratuitous and unnecessary, because it's been done by many people before, including me — gore and violence and all that.
But I think it was more about the torture of Batman than it was about beating up or killing Jason Todd. And the sick, twisted Satanic Joker. And I think that was done without the graphic violence, although it's pretty brutal the way it was.
That's writing. That was less about the storytelling and the visuals than it was about the writing.
Nrama: Frank, the last time you and I talked, you said that you were putting together a Dark Knight IV — one that you're hoping to draw yourself. What's the status of that project?
Miller: It's just in the planning stage. I've got tons of ideas, but there's that wonderful jumble from which a story will come.
We're still very much at work on this one. It'd be crazy to talk about the next one.
Nrama: Is there anything else either one of you want to tell fans about the experience of working on this project?
Miller: Working on projects like this with these people is almost like a social event too, because I get to see people I like very much and have really energetic conversations with them. It's also like visiting old friends and enemies, because these characters are ones I've known for a long time.
Romita: Well said. I'd actually like to also point out the work that Peter Steigerwald did on this. The man's brilliant. If there aren't enough people that know it, they're going to know it after this. He's an underestimated talent.
Nrama: It's really unique work for him — the style of the colors.
Romita: He hadn't done something this way before. He even said he was feeling his way out of this. And it looks wonderful. So Peter Steigerwald is every bit as responsible for the look of this book.
And then the editors, Mark Doyle and Dave Wielgosz and Rebecca Taylor. Everybody worked on this to make it what it is. But Brian, Frank and me and Peter got the story, and then the editors just did a fantastic job.
I hate to use the cliché of team effort, but that's the truth.
And then the characters themselves, like I said, because of Dark Knight Returns, this is what it is because of that work.
So I would go to a bar and get drunk and brag about it if I was able, but I couldn't brag about it without knowing where this began before I started to brag. So it depends how much I'd drink before I start bragging.