In 1986, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a four-part story written and drawn by Frank Miller helped to usher in a new era of mature storytelling in comic books. The original cover art of the first issue of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns sold for $2.4 million Thursday, June 16, at Heritage Auctions, making it the most valuable mainstream American comic book cover art sold publicly.
The cover art was a collaboration between Miller and his then-wife Lynn Varley, featuring Batman silhouetted against a sky split open by a lightning bolt. “It is easily one of the most famous comic book covers from any era, and it defined the superhero genre from the 1980s to this very moment,” Todd Hignite, vice president at the Dallas-based Heritage, said.
The artwork’s price tag reflects The Dark Knight Returns’ reputation as the comic book that hit shelves and spinner racks like a bolt of lightning in February 1986, providing Batman (if not the entire comics industry) with what critic Elvis Mitchell calls “a savage rebirth.” It remains among the most imitated image in comic-book history. 1986 also saw the release of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, another comic book like The Dark Knight Returns, that presented a deconstruction of the superhero concept, and in doing so elevated the medium to new levels of respectability.
The cover art for The Dark Knight Returns Book One was not Miller's original vision. In fact, he didn’t arrive at the final version until the first book was written, drawn and in the hands of inker Klaus Janson. “In the case of the lightning bolt, that really was a bolt out of the blue,” Miller says. “That was a moment of inspiration.”
Batman remains a hot superhero in the collecting world. Only last year, the finest known copy of Batman No. 1 sold for $2.22 million at Heritage. The previous record for the most expensive Batman original art sold at auction belonged to Miller’s mentor, Neal Adams, and his 1973 cover for Batman No. 251. That beloved work sold for $600,000 at Heritage in November 2019.
“We’re thrilled to see Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s influential work reach a level often associated with classic American art,” Hignite said. “It deserves that, as this is easily one of the most famous comic-book covers from any era, and it defined the superhero genre from the 1980s to this very moment. I can’t think of a more important piece of comic art to have ever come to auction.