4. The Dark Knight Returns (DC Entertainment)
Writer/Artist: Frank Miller
Before Frank Miller unleashed The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, most of the mainstream public associated Batman with his campy 1960s TV show. Despite the fact that the comic previously returned to its darker roots in the early ‘70s, people couldn’t shake the horrific sight of Adam West doing the Batusi dance in a pair of cheap gray pajamas. Thankfully that all changed when this book debuted.
Miller made it a point to “give Batman his balls back,” as he so eloquently put it. In the book, Bruce Wayne, now in his 50s, retired from being the Batman years prior after superheroes were outlawed. After witnessing his city being torn apart by a new gang known as The Mutants, he dons the cape and cowl for one last crusade.
Miller strips away all of Batman’s technology and gadgets, leaving the Dark Knight a hulking mass of rage. He’s less of a noble hero and more of a jaded old man with a death wish and a serious mad-on for crime. Miller’s hard-boiled script and neo-noir art drains the camp and brings the darkness back into Batman’s world. Even the titanic brawls against foes like The Joker and an out-of-control, jingoistic version of Superman have a brutal finality about them that spit in the face of more light-hearted encounters from years past.
Like Miller has done all throughout his career in various other titles, he looked at the Caped Crusader through a lens informed by violence and political corruption. There's nothing friendly or comforting about this book, yet somehow it’s currently the blueprint for all new-age Batman stories.