Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: Book One (1986)
Cover by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
In 1986, DC began its line of Prestige Format comics, with a page count of 48 or 64 pages, and featuring higher quality paper and printing than regular comics. To debut this new line of graphic novels, DC chose young Frank Miller’s tale of a middle-aged Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to once again fight crime, whether Gotham and the U.S. Government wants him to or not.
The fact that The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR) took place outside of established DC continuity allowed Miller to craft a much more adult-oriented drama, more violent and graphic than any Batman story to date. Mainstream Batman comics had been struggling for a decade, and even the book that DC was named after, Detective Comics, had been in danger of cancellation because of poor sales.
TDKR was an immediate success, both with critics and fans. Miller’s very dark, grim, and gritty approach to Batman caught on, and was an influence on every version of Batman that followed, in print and on screen. Thanks to TDKR, Batman was once again an enormously popular character with comics fans and in mainstream pop culture.
The cover for Book One was unlike any Batman comic book cover to date, a stark visual announcement that this new Prestige Format series would be very different from regular comics.
An ultimate example of the power of simplicity, the cover design has only two illustrated elements, set against an edge-to-edge view of a featureless night sky: the figure of Batman, leaping from an unseen building, silhouetted by a vicious bolt of lightning that splits the cover down the center from top to bottom. The metaphor is crystal clear: the Batman is back, and will strike with a vengeance!
The story title and trade dress are minimal, intruding as little as possible, and adding to the power of this simple, iconic design.
The design is so iconic, it has been imitated and satirized countless times.