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411 Comics Fact or Fiction: Is The Dark Knight Returns The Greatest Comic Story Ever?

December 11, 2023 | Posted by Jake Chambers
The Dark Knight Returns

Welcome back to the 411mania COMICS Fact or Fiction. I’m your host Jake Chambers.

This week we’re diving into the longboxes with two of 411’s most storied comic book pundits in my first ever 411 Comics FoF!

Long time readers of the 411 Comics vertical will be familiar with these two legends. First up, let’s welcome the Professor X of our beloved Comics 411, a man of near-telepathic knowledge of comic history, who teaches by leading when he could just as easy control all our brains: Steve Gustafson!

And he’ll be locking horns with his very own Wolverine, and that’s not just because he appears in as many 411 articles a month as Wolverine did in the ’90s, but he’s just as ruthless, fearless and the best as what he does (and what he does is kind of pretty): Rob Stewart!

Are these two comic book titans going to disagree more than they agree? Let’s fold open that cover and find out!

Statement #1: Marvel and DC would sell more comics if they used more big name creators on the marquee titles.

Steve Gustafson: FICTION – Answering this one is all about the wording. While big name creators on marquee titles draws attention, nothing beats great stories paired with great art. Yes, gimmicks figure into the equation like first issue reboots/relaunches, variant covers, and epic “nothing will be the same” event crossovers but at the end of the day, quality wins out in the long run. Or as Mr. Savage was known to say, “The cream rises to the top.” Along that line, sustained quality keeps fans. Big names seem to come and go like the wind on comic book titles these days but give me a book that can keep an artist/writer team for a while and then you’ll get my money. Nothing is worse than getting into a title and the art goes downhill or the characters start acting like strangers.

I tend to go for the Independent titles these days and I enjoy discovering new talent. They bring new ideas and fresh artwork that I appreciate. Truth be told, I’ve seen just about every comic book trope out there so I’m into the story and, even if I know how it will end, a good journey.

These days we hear all sorts of rumors of why or why not comics sell. We could debate that till our dying breath but you can’t beat the fundamentals of story and art over big names on the cover of big titles.

Rob Stewart: FICTION – Would they sell MORE comics? Probably. But not substantially more, so I have to go FICTION here. The problem with comics is that anything and everything the Big Two do to increase sales only works as a short-term boon. So you would see relative increases for an issue or two, but after that, things would level back off. There is a pool of people who read comic books, and the entire industry to trying to go after that same pool. The layperson doesn’t care if Mark Waid is writing Amazing Spider-Man or Robert Kirkman is writing Wolverine. There are no new readers these days; not the way the industry is currently set up. 

But as of now, no. Getting “big name” creators (being a big name comic creator is like being the sharpest spoon) on the biggest titles would only cannibalize the business as the existing readers move their money around from other books or, at absolute best, shell out another $5 per issue for a book for a bit. But it’s not bringing in enough new readers or selling enough books to really make a dent in the industry’s problems. Or else Hickman’s X-Men would have saved us all. 

Statement #2: The Dark Knight Returns is not only the best Batman book of all time but also the best comic book story ever.

Steve Gustafson: FICTION – The Dark Knight Returns is an absolute game changer when it comes to Batman and comic books. It opened the doors for new stories and injected new life and scope to the Batman character. At this point, Batman can work in any type of setting you put him in. Horror? Easy. Space adventure? Not a problem. Western? Get his Bat-lasso. The Dark Knight Returns really opened the gate for how Batman stories can be told. That being said, I’ll split the difference. While I can get behind The Dark Knight Returns being the best Batman book of all time, I can’t give it the nod for best comic book story ever. In fact, depending on what day you ask, I can make an argument for Year One getting the title of best Batman book but those top two spots are pretty close together.

Best comic book story though? Definitely Top 5. From Watchmen and Sandman to Kingdom Come and Marvels, I’d have to sit down and think long and hard on who would wear the crown for best comic book story ever. But it’s a fun list to debate!

Rob Stewart: FICTION – I can only answer this subjectively, but even OBJECTIVELY, I can’t imagine putting DKR over Watchmen or Maus on the Best Comic Story Ever front.

So for me, I absolutely don’t see it as the best story across the genre based on what I just said about those other two books. But if we limited it to JUST Batman? I personally prefer The Long Halloween and Year One. Long Halloween has a more fun, mystery-based story and better art. I’m not knocking Klaus Janson’s art; I just LOVE Tim Sale’s. Year One is a more grounded and relatable story that I think gets less bogged down in a weird Superman grudge match and mud-wrestling mutants. Again, those are both my own takes. 

If you told me that YOU think DKR is the greatest Bat book ever, that’s great! Good for you, and I’m glad you like it! I’d never argue that you shouldn’t believe that. But for me, The Long Halloween is my go-to “You don’t think you’d like superhero comics? Read THIS” book. It’s worked on that front before!  

Statement #3: On Amazon Prime’s animated Invincible series, it was a good thing to change the main character, Mark Grayson, from a seemingly white character in the comics to Korean American on the show.

Steve Gustafson: FACT – Before some of you go racing down to the comments, let me say they handled the change excellently. It added some depth to the series and was a nice twist on the topic of immigration and having two immigrant parents. Yes, one is an alien from another planet but it humanizes Mark Grayson even more as he’s dealing with everyday issues. It was written into the story subtly and I didn’t really pick up on it until I read an article that covered the change. Invincible was always about family legacy and facing who you are and the added bonus of his Korean heritage worked just fine.

Rob Stewart: FACT – I’ll go FACT here, but honestly, it seems lateral, at best. His Korean heritage has not really played into the character in the show yet, so it’s hard to say. If they start doing more with him where his heritage/identity starts figuring into stories (and maybe they have; I have not started season 2 as of this writing because I still had to finish Loki this past weekend to duck spoilers on that), then this becomes definitive FACT, but for now… it’s more something that just IS, I guess. 

To be fair, watching season one, I never even got the sense he was Korean. I just knew Yeun was voicing him. But he still looked like a plain white dude to me. But, as I said, maybe they’ve done more with this aspect and I’m just behind. 

Either way, if I wanted stories about white Mark, I have the comics. If you are doing a different medium, you might as well give me a different interpretation. So just based on that… it’s a FACT.


Statement #4: In hindsight, Spider-Man: Brand New Day was a pretty good idea.

Rob Stewart: FICTION – There are two things about modern cape books I hate: Status Quo Is God, and the idea that the characters must be stuck in time forever and never age. So for me, this is massive FICTION. I hate that Peter has been 30 for the last 40 years; it doesn’t make any sende. He has stories about The War On Drugs, 9/11, and the Obama Presidency, and he somehow didn’t age through any of them. What sense does that make? There are multiple other “legacy” Spider heroes out there, but Peter is barely old enough to have created a legacy! It makes the book hard to wrap your head around every time they mention real-world goings-on.

And from that, we have the asinine idea that he also must be a swingin’ bachelor, or else he won’t be relatable. Hogwash! Most comic fans are middle aged; many of them are married and/or have kids of their own. The trials and tribulations of an aging, married, fatherhood Spider-Man is as relatable to the people buying comics as anything else. Also, it makes it more reasonable why there would be legacy characters out there. Let Peter get married and spend time with his family, damn it!

But let’s not ignore the biggest problem: since dissolving the marriage, the Spider-books STILL can’t stop spending time focusing on Peter and MJ. Instead of their marriage, we’ve basically just gotten fifteen-to-twenty years of “Will They / Won’t They Get Back Together” with the two of them, and it’s been beyond tedious. I’m at the point where if they just killed MJ and promised never to bring her back, I’d be 100% on board, because I just don’t have the bandwidth to care about her as a character to anymore. She’s been dragged through the mud, character assassinated, and turned into a shrew just to keep up what Brand New Day wrought. This used to be the arguably the single most powerful female character (not powers-wise, but strength-of-character wise) in all of comics. Now she sucks, and I’m tired of seeing her.

Thanks, Brand New Day!   

Steve Gustafson: FICTION – Sorry, while I’ve kept tabs on the adventures of Spider-Man over the years, I can point to the status quo-altering “One More Day” storyline as the start of my disinterest in the character. Along those lines, Brand New Day sticks out, to me, as a misfire in the Spidey legacy. It doesn’t read well as a Peter Parker/Spider-Man story and derailed the Spider-Man character a little bit. Full disclosure, I get the “why” of doing it but it was such a jarring twist, that I didn’t stick around to appreciate all the details. Now the Spidey Universe is a convoluted roller coaster that has hits and misses, completely moving away from the simple origins of the character. Seriously, how many Spider variants do we have these days? That’s what you get when you’re dealing with a character created in 1962. But sometimes more isn’t better. Back to the question, while Spider-Man has overcome One More Day, my gut says it drove a number of fans away who’ve never come back. While Brand New Day was the “fix”, I don’t think the execution matched the intent.

Statement #5: Alan Moore deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rob Stewart: FACT –  I already noted that I think Watchmen is one of the two greatest comics ever written, so if you are going to give it to any comic writer, it may as well be him. And he’s one of my favorite writers ever, so this is a definite FACT for me.

Also, don’t we all want to see crotchety, angry-at-everything Alan Moore either decline the honor or accept it and be a curmudgeonly asshole about it? Of course we do. 

Steve Gustafson: FACT – In the words of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel the Nobel Prize of Literature recognizes an author, “in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” How could you deny the vision and stories of Alan Moore? Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Swamp Thing, Batman: The Killing Joke, From Hell…I mean, do I need to go on? I’d be curious if anyone could make an argument that Mr. Moore DOESN’T deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Statement #6: Tradition aside, digital comics are better than paper comics.

Rob Stewart: FACT – I will preface this by saying that comics are the only physical media I still collect. I have NO SPACE for DVDs or Blu-Rays or video games, so I keep all my enjoyment in regards to those items to the digital world. But I still buy physical comics, mostly because I like variant covers, and they are so much easier to read in-hand than on a screen.

But this is the strongest FACT I have to offer.

I could go on for an entire article’s length on this, so I’ll try to keep this as brief as I possibly can. But comics are dying, and nothing the industry has done has been better than a short-term salve on the gushing wound. The average age of readers is likely not getting any younger, and new readers just aren’t coming along. When I was a kid, I got into comics because they were in the grocery store. That’s where I was, and that’s where they were. But it’s a different era now. Not only are comics not in stores, but a lot of folks get shopping done by proxy now.

I think Marvel and DC in particular need to kill their physical books department. Maybe all except their absolute tippy-top sellers that they know they’ll get a profit on. Bat books and Amazing Spider-Man, you know? Stop physically publishing everything else. We know it’s costing a ton of money; we see what you are charging for a 22-page magazine these days for gods’ sake. If comics weren’t being physically printed and published, costs would go way down, presumably.

This is where being owned by giant conglomerates should pay off. Why is there an online Marvel comics service AND Disney Plus? Fold those together! Disney Plus should come with Marvel Comics. Max should come with everything the previous DC Universe service had. Put the books in more hands! Make comics a bonus to those other services; they are already irrationally raising the prices (Disney Plus nearly DOUBLED in cost from last year), so you know they can afford it. Keep costs per book down by not wasting money on publishing and shipping, and put them where the kids already are. You watched the new Ant-Man movie? Great! Now DisneyPlus recommends Ant-Man books you can move straight into! 

In my head, this is an entire 3000+ word article, so here I’m just babbling on with bullet points. But it’s FACT. Fact fact fact fact fact. And I say that as someone who hates reading comics on a screen. But you know what I hate more? Paying $5 per issue and having to go to a specialized shop with inconvenient hours once a week or so just to get them. 

Steve Gustafson: FICTION – I’ll go on record and say that digital comics will never, EVER be better than paper comics. Ever. Think about all the classic works of art over time that people still talk about and will continue to discuss long after we pass. Think about the classic books over time that people read and will continue to discuss for generations to come. Think about the classic blogs that people talk about…wait. Oh, that’s right. There are none. Same with digital comics. It’s a poor substitute for having a comic book in your hand. Yes, I get that we take in our entertainment differently these days but some things, some experiences are enhanced by the physical experience.

I believe comic books are one of them.

I can tell you about the first time I walked into a comic shop in the early 80s. Laurel , MD. It was the cliche “hole in the wall” that was packed with old issues in the back with a new release shelf in the front. The guy running it barely looked up when I walked in but the smell of print and newspaper drew me in like a moth to a flame. You can’t recreate that digitally. As my fandom grew over the years I’ve picked up issues everywhere from 7-11 to just about every comic shop in Maryland, DC, and VA. Nothing will beat having that issue in your hand that you can flip through, read, examine, put down, and pick up later.

This isn’t part of the question but I feel comics lost something when Wizard magazine went out of business. Sure it fueled speculation buying and had its moments of cheese but it was something that brought the comic book community together, good or bad. The other day I was at Barnes and Noble and it made me sad that there was not one comic book magazine available to buy. There’s a lesson there and I’ll leave it to you to figure out.

Big thanks to Rob and Steve for joining me this week! Do you want to see more Comics FoF in the future? I’m sure they’d be down? Let us know in the comments below!

Be sure to check out all of Rob Stewart’s amazing reviews and columns in the Movies and Wrestling zones. In particular, follow along with his fantastic retrospectives of two of my favorite shows Buffy and Young Justice!

And let’s give the great Steve Gustafson some love for his years of great work on the Comics 411, that always asks engaging, big brain questions about the medium that motivates everyone to join in on the discussion.

That’s all the time “I” have. See you next week!