Dark Knight III: The Master Race #4
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Every now and then, you just have to wonder if Frank Miller doesn’t just enjoy seeing Superman punished. The Batman of the previous Dark Knight series had little love left for the caped alien that he saw as nothing more than a puppet for the establishment, but there was a simple joy to be had in the previous issue as Batman and the Man of Steel put aside their differences to fight a common foe. In this fourth issue of the latest chapter of Miller’s decades-long saga, he and co-scripter Brian Azzarello put Superman through his paces for seemingly no other reason than to batter the icon for a few dozen pages.
This issue of Dark Knight III: The Master Race is arguably the most operatic to date, the titanic confrontation between the returned Superman and his daughter Lara, a formidable combination of Amazon and Kryptonian blood. Miller wears his politics on his sleeve, albeit a sleeve that is being held back slightly by his more moderate co-writer and perhaps voices even higher up the chain. The response to a radical group of religious extremists in the form of a Kryptonian cult seems right up Miller’s alley, although the shift is now a firm questioning of whether Bruce’s form of brutal crime-fighting is the most appropriate response to any given situation. It’s not answered in this issue, of course, but there’s an undoubtedly fatalistic strain of realism running through the veins of this Dark Knight’s adventures. After all, the titular "Master Race" offers an ultimatum of Batman’s head for the lives of millions.
In the supplemental mini-comic, Dark Knight Universe Presents: Batgirl #1, the question is pursued further by the newly-costumed partner-in-crime. In half the number of pages, and in her own brutal scrap at the docks, the newly neon-colored Batgirl comes to the same conclusions that the read has at this point: that it is best not to ask questions, and accept that there is something wrong with the world. It’s blind hope that leads her to a surprising conclusion, and an even more surprising cameo, and this glimmer of light is maybe closer to Miller’s heart than the carefully orchestrated main event would indicate. This story is illustrated my Miller as well, and has more genetic markers in common with his last two Dark Knight entries than Dark Knight III: The Master Race. Where the main comic feels like it is going through the motions to a certain extent, the mini-comic is pure and unrefined, and a little bit punk given the 'zine nature of its print edition.
From the start of the series, Andy Kubert has done a magnificent job of following Miller’s distinctive style without aping it, convincingly continuing the visual aesthetics of the 1986 original without being a simple replica or art study. The opening shots of the Atom tumbling through infinitesimal space are magnificent not just for their faithfulness, but for their pleasing layouts as well. Yet it’s the aforementioned onomatopoeic "SMAK" of Superman being socked in the jaw or thrown against a pylon that most reminds the reader of the classic fight in Miller’s classic, and the one-two punch of a bloody trail across ice followed by an army of figures in the sky is easily as iconic for Kubert as anything Miller did.
It’s the mini-comic that reminds us of something else, however, with Miller’s own art style being a tougher pill to swallow for some palettes, his almost impressionist view of anatomy and vivid color choices not just at odds with the rest of the book, but perhaps with the modern currency of comic books. It’s sharply reminiscent of The Dark Knight Strikes Again at times, although far more controlled and directed.
There’s a scene in this issue where Carrie injects a large needle into Bruce’s knee, and his mixture of pain and relief could almost capture the sentiments of the reader at this midway point in the series. Dark Knight III: The Master Race is not the messy rollercoaster that its predecessor was often seen as, but it isn’t the groundbreaker this version of Batman once was either. At an elongated running time of eight issues, it also feels like a long walk-up to something wholly familiar as well, but with the surprises it has still managed to offer so far, it’s hard to count the master out of the race just yet.