“It ends tonight, Joker.” These are grim words that herald the beginning of the last battle between Batman and his greatest nemesis. This week, we’re taking a look at a classic, an issue of the legendary series, “The Dark Knight Returns” — specifically, issue 3, “Hunt The Dark Knight,” written and drawn by Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley.
This book isn’t exactly hidden, per se, as it consistently ranks as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, but I find that “Hunt The Dark Knight” contains some of the greatest moments in the history of the Batman mythos and really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The spotlight is usually on the fourth issue’s legendary fight between Batman and Superman, or on the portrayal of Batman himself. Many even review the series as a whole, which is not without merit, but I find it easier to analyze a work when I can get a bit more detailed.
The issue is a masterpiece of suspense, a seemingly endless back-and-forth as Batman and the Joker play a cat-and-mouse game where countless lives hang in the balance. The Joker’s rampage includes an attack on a David Letterman-esque talk show with his trademark “joker gas” to the assassination of a congressman, all while Batman rushes to track his prey down.
The experience pushes Batman to the ultimate extreme, as it becomes clear that Batman may just break his sacred “no kill” rule, if only to end the Joker’s madness once and for all. Batman’s internal monologue begins to lose its stability of the “world’s greatest detective” as the reader begins to realize that this spree may have been the Joker’s final error.
“Tonight, you’re taking no hostages. Tonight, I’m taking no prisoners,” Batman growls, as he hurls three throwing knives into the Joker’s shoulders and left eye. The disturbing implication here is that the Joker isn’t the only one who would die in the fight should Batman decide to break his rule. Miller is well aware of this, and by extension, so is the Joker.
The fight takes the combatants to a “Tunnel of Love” at a fair, where Batman finally breaks down, attempting to snap the Joker’s neck. Despite this, the Joker survives, paralyzed but alive. “Just an ounce or two more of pressure,” he whispers, “They’ll kill you for this.” Then, in a final cruel joke, he twists, breaking his own neck, knowing the police will label Batman a killer.
The issue ends with Batman standing over the Joker’s corpse, waiting for the arrival of the police. The poignant implication here is that no matter what the Joker did, no matter how much he wanted to finish him once and for all, Batman couldn’t break his one rule. He couldn’t become a killer. Though he stands half-dead, Batman ends issue three of “The Dark Knight Returns” standing in a sort of grim triumph, bloodied perhaps, but unbroken.