In 1989, I quit my job driving a bob-tail truck around the Dallas/Fort Worth area, delivering photo copier machines (someone had to do it), and got my lifelong dream gig of working at a comic book store, Lone Star Comics in particular. Ironically, they hired me because I had experience in delivery, not because of my prodigious comic book knowledge. They needed someone to drive the company van, pick up comics at the local Diamond distributor, and take the comics to the various locations of the eight-store chain.
The new job was a cut in pay, but I loved it. I sorted and bagged comic books, cleaned and swept the “Batcave” (which is what they called the backroom), and, of course, delivered boxes and boxes of the new releases each week. After a short time, I began working out front in the store area, waiting on customers and ringing up sales, and within a few months I worked my way up to store manager. (A year or so later, I partnered up with my brother-in-law, and we opened up two stores of our own—Fantastic Comics & Cards—in the Fort Worth area, but I digress…)
One day, while I was manning the register at the main Lone Star location in Arlington (home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers), a customer came in who I knew from working at Luther’s Barbeque when I was in high school (I graduated in 1985). He was eight years older than me, but we had been good friends as we shared a lot of common interests, including rock music and old horror and science fiction movies. I had absolutely no idea he cared anything about comic books, as I rarely discussed my interest in them with “civilians” (admitting you liked comics during the 1980s was basically like saying you were a child or hopelessly brain damaged), but there he was, checking out the new issues—it was great catching up with him, and we had a lot of laughs over the old days at Luther’s. Better yet, we struck up a (now lifelong) friendship and discovered we had something else in common: “funny books.”
Glenn had grown up reading The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Iron Man, and other Marvel staples, but, like many fans who reached adulthood and became distracted by cars, girls, bills, and the like, he abandoned them. However, in 1986 he read a review of DC Comics’ mature-themed The Dark Knight Returns in Rolling Stone magazine, and it drew him back in. Not only did Glenn purchase each issue of the groundbreaking, four-part series, he began collecting again in earnest, purchasing Marvels he had grown up reading and even buying new issues of such DC titles as Justice League and Superman.
Glenn’s story is hardly unique. Not only did The Dark Knight Returns, a grim, gritty alternate future story of a grizzled, almost fascistic Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to be Batman again and battle a gang called the Mutants, attract many people to comics books who had never read them before, it also brought many lapsed readers back into the fold.
Written and drawn by Frank Miller, with pencils by Miller, inks by Klaus Jason, and colors by Lynn Varley, The Dark Knight Returns took an aging Caped Crusader back to his 1939 roots (more or less) as a grim avenger of the night, as opposed to the sci-fi stuff published in the ’50s or the campy Batman inspired by the Adam West TV show of the late 1960s. Miller was clearly influenced by manga (Japanese comic books), especially in terms of panel flow and dynamic page layouts. Other creators, such as writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, had treated Batman seriously, but The Dark Knight Returns garnered much more mainstream attention. Plus, it was published in a prestige format, with each issue costing $2.95, which was about four times as much as a standard comic book.
DC Comics printed 125,000 copies of that first issue. According to then-DC Comics Executive Vice President Paul Levitz (writing for 13thdimension.com), this was a huge gamble as Ronin, Frank Miller’s prestige format project from three years before, had a first-issue print run of around 87,000.
“If we were wrong, we could actually lose money on the project,” he relates.
It turns out that DC was indeed wrong, but in the other direction. They had printed far too few copies as the issue quickly sold out and stores were putting in heavy re-orders.
“It was good news,” Levitz writes, “EXCEPT we hadn’t done a second printing of a comic for decades. I think the last may have been the Batman 3-D comic magazine in the ’60s fad, or it may even have been one of the earliest Superman titles in the Golden Age. All long before comic shops and serious collectors. So, there was a real debate around the room about whether we should print more. Were we going to be unfair to collectors who had bought second, or multiple, copies in hope of appreciation? They were an appreciable portion of our audience at the time, we thought. If we didn’t, were we going to lose out on the biggest opportunity DC had since the comic shop market began? Sounds silly now, but then it was a serious conversation.”
Of course, DC printed more. In fact, they did four printings of that first issue for a total of approximately 400,000 copies. To appease collectors, they labeled subsequent printings as such in the indicia, making first printings more desirable and ultimately worth more in the collector’s market.
Levitz recalls, “[This was] a massive number for an expensive book (our regular titles were 75 cents), an emerging market (that was around the time comic shops would pass the newsstand in sales), and a publisher that was a distant No. 2.”
Calling the phenomenon “unforgettable,” Levitz further explains that strong sales were just one aspect of the wide-ranging influence of The Dark Knight Returns: “It was just the beginning. The trade editions would really change the field, establishing the graphic novel format in America (along with Watchmen and Maus).”
The series influenced future Batman (and other superhero) comics and movies as well.
The trade edition of all four issues of The Dark Knight Returns collected into one book that Levitz refers to has gone through numerous reprintings itself and has also sold a ton of copies. To read the story today, this is the easiest and cheapest way to go as you can hop on Amazon or eBay and grab a dog-eared copy for just a few bucks, or you can get a new edition for about $20. If you want a complete set of the four individual issues, all first printings, and all in nice condition, it will set you back around $200 to $250.