Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
"A good death? There's no such thing..."
The Dark Knight has returned — but has he brought Frank Miller back with him?
It’s a loaded question. While the credits of DKIII: The Master Race proudly tout Miller’s involvement, it’s not a matter of if Frank Miller has come back — it’s the question of which Frank Miller we’re going to get. Is this a return of the controversial, even reactionary Frank Miller, whose Holy Terror and All-Star Batman and Robin have alienated much of his fanbase? Or will we get the return of the master craftsman behind Daredevil, Sin City and the original Dark Knight Returns, the man whose singularity of vision trumped his polarizing politics?
Joining forces with co-writer Brian Azzarello and artist Andy Kubert, the behind-the-scenes back-and-forth may be hazy, but the quality of the end product is not. Whereas Miller's original masterpiece was set in the bad old days of 1986, the world of DKIII is a very different place. It's cleaner, more streamlined, connected by smartphones and text messaging and 24-7 news networks, but its evils are less obvious, more acceptable, less on our minds. No longer an auteur work, Azzarello and Kubert’s involvement results in this being a riff on the original that's been remixed, reworked, reappropriated with a hyper-rendered DC aesthetic and tone. Ultimately, the only thing standing in the way of Miller, Azzarello and Kubert is Miller’s long and storied resume - and while it's too soon to say if our heady expectations might be met, the debut of DKIII certainly packs a punch.
One of the first things that comes to mind when reading DKIII is that while it evokes Miller’s voice from the original series, the pacing of this series already feels like an entirely different animal. Whereas the original Dark Knight series began with a 52-page chapter, Miller and Azzarello have to cut that count in half, throwing readers into this newer, darker DC universe in just 28 pages. But at first glance, you can't help but feel a grin cross your face, as the glass case housing the Bat-suit is shattered, signaling a new era of crimefighting. The whys and wherefores of Batman's return aren't explained in this issue, but watching kids text each other eagerly and take smartphone pics of the Dark Knight stomping on cops feels like the natural progression from the slang-wielding kids from the original series. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and watching a rematch between Batman and the Gotham City Police Department feels as brutal as it ever did - albeit with a final-page twist that could change the tone of this entire series.
Of course, maybe that tone has already been changed. Whereas the first Dark Knight series was Miller at his most masterful, and The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a more experimental, unnuanced reaction to the shady dealings of the George Bush's post-election political machine, today Miller can't be the driving artistic force behind this book anymore. Chalk it up age, an increasingly gnarled style, or simply other priorities, but passing the artistic baton could have made this story dead on arrival. So it's no surprise that DC has used one of their biggest guns to take on this mammoth project, as Andy Kubert takes the reins on Miller's eerily modern take on the future Gotham. While Kubert does decent work at emulating Miller's ultra-packed layouts - particularly as we see pundits ranging from Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan to Bill O'Reilly commenting on the state of things in Gotham - it's ultimately the scenes of action and violence where Kubert really sells himself. Watching Batman dive on a cop car and proceed to dismantle the policemen in front of him is pure Miller, and a sequence with Wonder Woman fighting a minotaur - complete with a baby on her back - are some of the best-looking visuals of the bunch. That said, these same visuals will also polarize the readership - there will be plenty who claim Kubert's work doesn't nearly have as much depth as Miller's, and they wouldn't be wrong. In some ways, however, Kubert's promotion really does make this feel like a Dark Knight story for a new generation.
But the question you're probably wondering is this: Can Miller really come back? Or at least, the Miller you all fell in love with? It's an unrealistic question, and perhaps even an unfair one. This series is not the iconic Dark Knight Returns, which reshaped an entire industry seemingly overnight. If there's any disappointment to this issue, it's that it doesn't have - nor does it even seem to want to have - the ambition and scope of the original series. Gone is the sheer depth of Miller's insightful, poetic narration - perhaps due to the mystery at the end of the issue, or simply based on Azzarello’s scripting - and as a result, the pacing of this issue can't help but feel a little decompressed. This is compounded by Miller and Azzarello spending so much time with the other leads of this book, Superman and Wonder Woman. While the narration of Diana has actually softened from the caricature Miller wrote in All-Star Batman and Robin, the characters of Superman and Supergirl eat valuable page real estate, with Supergirl's clunky dialogue being a rare misstep for Miller and Azzarello. But reading and rereading this book, I couldn't help but wish for more time with the newly returned Batman, just seeing more about how his methods and his city have changed in the three years since The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
Yet I've read enough comics to know that exposition can oftentimes be a necessary evil, and Miller, Azzarello and Kubert have laid out all the pieces they need before the coming of the Master Race, a threat that will likely demand the combined might of DC's power trinity to contain. Yet this sort of world-shaking threat coming right out of the gate feels almost heretical to the DNA of The Dark Knight Returns, which spent issue after issue tackling street-level supervillains before escalating to a Cold War-era power struggle. But at the same time, this series is a very different beast to that '80s classic, from the scale to the characters to the very artwork itself. It may be impossible for a legend to ever truly come back - that the wine or the vows or the weight of age might be too much for either Batman or Frank Miller to overcome. While this book is far from the revolutionary effort of its predecessors, DKIII: The Master Race still proves to be a heroic first effort from three stellar sequential artists.