There's two kinds of people in the world: Batman people and Superman people.

Superman, he's the unstoppable son of Krypton. The Man of Steel. Speeding bullets, locomotives, tall buildings, you know the drill. He's the strongest man alive, impervious to just about everything save kryptonite.

Frankly, he's got a pretty easy life, all things considered. How could things be hard when you're an undying icon of truth, justice, and the American way? What possible strife could you ever face when even bullets can't pierce your impenetrable fa├žade? The worst challenge Superman has ever encountered was that awful fourth movie with the glowing nuclear dude.

Batman, though, has it pretty hard. He was pushed into his line of work by the death of his parents, murdered as he watched by a thug named Joe Cool. (At least, that was the guy's name before DC Comics began their continual revisionist history of their own heroes.) Witnessing this horror drove him to spend his developing years scouring the globe in search of training in any number of combat and investigative disciplines. Possessing no powers save his own keen intellect and finely-honed fighting skills, he takes the streets each night in a futile quest to scorch the memory of his own parents' senseless death from his brain, to avenge them by fighting crime as the World's Greatest Detective.

If you're looking for compelling drama in your comic books, graphic novels, sequential art or whatever you wanna call it, then Batman's your go-to guy. And there's never been a more compelling Batman story than Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns." Released as a four-issue miniseries in 1986 and in perpetual collected reprints ever since, the story depicts a Batman rising from the ashes of his own demise, a black phoenix taking a stand against a new breed of criminal as well as a few classic foes.

As "Dark Knight" opens, Bruce Wayne has retired from life as Batman in the wake of the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, ten years before. He's become the ineffectual playboy he always pretended to be, indulging in auto racing and sharing an annual sentimental drink with Commissioner Gordon. Yet his dreams and waking moments remain haunted by the spectre of the Batman, and he's eventually compelled to return to the streets of Gotham City.

But this is not the Gotham where Batman had his greatest victories, and he soon finds himself being hunted by any number of forces. There's Batman's arch-enemy the Joker, not the cackling petty thief you might know from the "Batman" TV series but a vicious psychopath who murders a TV studio full of innocents and then smiles contentedly as he sails over their bodies. There's the gang of street youths whose leader insists on battling the Batman mano a mano in a bloody, muddy fistfight in a garbage dump. There's the Gotham City Police Department, whose new commissioner transforms Batman into a hot-button political issue and hunts the vigilante down as though he's one of the very criminals he's sworn to battle.

Then there's the Man of Steel himself. When "Dark Knight" opens, superheroes are outlawed, and Superman has only survived the witch hunt by offering his services to a Ronald Reagan-esque doofus of a president. The once-proud hero now finds himself the errand boy of an administration constantly tripping over its own mistakes. As Batman's return begins to intimidate the President, he sends Superman to Gotham with a simple mandate: Put the Batman down.

The story drives relentlessly toward an inevitable conclusion, the knock-down drag-out geek showdown of all showdowns: Superman versus Batman. I won't spoil the ending by revealing who wins or how they win, but suffice it to say that it pays off on every page that's come before in a spectacular, poignant way.

With his art for "Dark Knight," Miller achieved new heights of complexity and power from the comic book form. Consider the passage where Bruce Wayne vividly relives the death of his parents. We see the gunman's weapon hook into his mother's pearl necklace; over a page of panels, we watch the necklace slowly snap, even as Bruce's mind is itself snapping and he is resolving to return to the streets as Batman. In terms of pacing and of the moments Miller chooses to depict in his panels, there's probably never been a more evocative piece of comic artwork than that sequence, and work like that abounds in "Dark Knight."

Storywise, "Dark Knight" is definitely a product of its time, although its worst-case-scenario view of global politics and media culture seems once again pertinent, thanks to the turmoil raging around the world and in our own nation. His mockery of Reagan is spot-on and vicious, but it could just as easily apply to George W. Bush today. In an expected mid-eighties fashion, the fear of nuclear war hangs like a veil over this Gotham City; one of the story's most affecting chapters is a sequence in which Superman destroys a nuclear bomb to prevent it from hitting its intended target. No damage is done, but an eerie fog of ash hangs over the city, causing the story's final chapters to occur under a state of perpetual darkness.

But Miller isn't just a master of the little moments, or a savvy purveyor of social satire. In fact, it's going to be the gigantic hero moments that will stick in your mind once you've turned the final page of "Dark Knight." Once you've seen Batman angling down toward the streets of Gotham, grinning with the adrenalized thrill of his return to crimefighting, you'll never forget it. Ditto the image of Superman battling tanks backed by a blood-red sky, or the shot of Batman on horseback charging into his final battle.

This is a big story, and Miller plays it as such; just as he doesn't shy away from the bite of his satire, he doesn't flinch in the face of iconic moments. He knows he's working in an epic storytelling format, the superhero comic book, and he milks every ounce of grandeur and pathos he can from it. In that sense, it's a mythic tale, featuring figures larger than life battling not just over Gotham City or good and evil, but over a philosophy of life itself. When the blood has been spilt and the battle has ceased, who can live with the choices he's made: The goody two-shoes who believes that right and wrong are black and white, or the grey crimefighter who battles evil by meeting the darkness head-on?

Not only is "Dark Knight" a mythic tale, it's the kind of tale designed to end a mythos. In his introduction to one of the "Dark Knight" reprint editions, fellow comic book genius Alan Moore speaks of the power "Dark Knight" has as a conclusion to the Batman myth. As Moore says, all great myths need an ending, even an imaginary one that may not quite happen, and "Dark Knight" concludes the saga of the Batman with crippling power and muscular beauty. Ultimately, that's what gives it such a wallop.

So you can take your Superman and stuff him up your red, white and blue. Give me Batman any day, and give me "The Dark Knight Returns" when I need a perfect dose of raw, energetic, brutal and gorgeous superhero storytelling.