So — here it is. The conclusion (that’s no longer a conclusion) to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns epic that, at least according to DC’s promotional blurbs, “you never saw coming.” Probably because after The Dark Knight Strikes Again! most people really didn’t want to see another installment in this saga coming, but hey — we’ve got one anyway. And now that we do, I’m honestly shocked at how little the finished product differs from the admittedly dim impression I had of it in my head back when it was first announced that they were going back to this well one more time.
Before we get to that, though, I have a few things to say about how we got here — and even where we’re going from here — so let’s take care of all that first, shall we?
The word “legendary” is, of course, a horribly overused one these days, but 1986’s Batman : The Dark Knight Returns was just that. I’m operating under the assumption that most readers of this review don’t need any sort of briefing on either what it was or the long-lasting effects it had on the superhero comic medium, but even if you do, sorry — you’re not going to get it here. All I’m going to say is that its reputation is well-deserved and that, yes, it really is at least as good as everyone’s always said it is.
Where I do part company with conventional wisdom, though, is in my absolute love for its 2001 sequel, the already-mentioned The Dark Knight Strikes Again! Yes, it’s every bit as haphazard, frenetic, tonally all-over-the-place, and gleefully sadistic as its detractors claim, but what of it? No less an authority than cartoonist extraordinaire James Kochalka has said that DK2, as its more commonly known, reads like it’s the creation of “a 12-year-old kid who knows he can make a better comic than Frank Miller,” and I can’t really think of higher praise than that. This book positively crackles with youthful recklessness and exuberance from the outset and never lets up, despite the fact that its author apparently suffered something of a guilt-related mental breakdown halfway through its creation due to the fact that in the second issue he showed Batman flying a plane into the LexCorp tower and, just a few months later, a handful of terrorists went and did much the same thing in the real world. Miller became a strident Islamophobic jackass after that, as evidenced not only by his decidedly racist and xenophobic graphic novel Holy Terror (which actually started out as a Batman comic until he decided to replace the Caped Crusader with a stand-in character of his own devising), but also by a good number of inflammatory statements he made about Muslims in various interviews at the time of the book’s release — but guess what? Those reactionary views don’t impinge on DK2‘s conclusion in any way and, if you go back and read the third and final issue of that series again, you’ll see that it’s actually one of the most bombastic critiques of the Bush administration and its then-newly-launched “War On Terrorism” to ever see print in any “entertainment” medium. The book had a “rap” for being a glorification of fascism and some of the ugly right-wing conceits at the heart of vigilantism in general, but you know what? The same is true of The Dark Knight Returns, only that takes itself waaaaaaayyyyy more fucking seriously. The entire Dark Knight series is politically and socially problematic, and actively relishes its own confrontationalism, but only the sequel seems to get accused of engaging in that sort of brusque artistic brow-beating, and this despite the fact that Miller’s worst excesses all came to light well after its release. I’m just gonna come right out and say it, and you can reserve my padded cell for me anytime, I guess : I’ll take DK2 over its more-celebrated predecessor any day of the week. To me, it’s the closest thing we’ll ever have to an “underground” Batman comic and yeah, while it’s definitely a much “uglier” and less “professional”-looking book in a visual sense, it’s absolutely bristling with righteous creative zeal that can’t be faked. Rumor has it that DC paid Miller a million dollars to do it, and he took their money, unzipped his fly, and pissed right in their face. Why do so many people have such a hard time respecting that?
Still, one thing I think we can all agree on is that a natural assumption was made at the end of DK2 that the story was over. If you liked the book, chances are that you figured Miller had said everything he had to say about the future “Batman Universe” he’d created, and if you’re among the majority who didn’t just dislike, but flat-out loathed it, you probably guessed that there was just no freaking way DC would even allow him anywhere near a Dark Knight project again.
As it turns out, everyone was wrong. Sort of.
As you can see from the two pages reproduced above, the editorially-directed (by Miller and his publisher’s own admission) Dark Knight III : The Master Race looks as different to its two forebears as Strikes Again! did to Returns, and there’s a damn good reason for this — yes, DC’s gone back to the world he initially envisioned, but our guy Frank is only on hand as a ” story consultant” of sorts/very part-time artistic helping hand, and the art on this new eight-part series is being handled by penciller Andy Kubert, original Dark Knight inker Klaus Janson, and colorist Brad Anderson, with the scripting being entrusted to Brian Azzarello. Most folks have made the reasonable inference that this is due to Miller’s obviously-failing health, but with his recent announcement that there is, in fact, going to be a Dark Knight 4 that he intends to write and draw himself, I’m of the opinion that he’s actually sort of outfoxed his own bosses here.
Consider : Miller signs off on the idea of a Dark Knight III and even agrees to draw a couple of the near-infinite number of variant covers (his is reproduced as the second image in this review, while Jim Lee’s 500-to-1 variant is shown below) adorning the comics (as well as the first of the Dark Knight Universe Presents mini-comics being glued inside each issue, this one starring The Atom) in order to appear to give the project even more of his imprimatur. Why not? He knows damn well, from observing the Before Watchmen debacle, that DC’s gonna go ahead with this with or without his blessing, and he also knows that they really don’t want him doing it. They’re just too chickenshit. How, then, to make sure that he really does get to do another Dark Knight book, and to do it his way? Piggy-back onto this project, give it his full-throated blessing, deposit DC/Warner’s check, and then announce that his involvement on it has actually been quite minimal and that he’s got his own fourth installment in the works. What’s DC gonna do at that point? Tell him “no”? They literally can’t. And so, by appearing to go along with their game, he actually got them right where he wanted them. Well played, Mr. Miller, well played.
All of which relegates the provocatively-titled Dark Knight III : The Master Race (a name, it should be said, whose significance is in no way even hinted at, much less explained, in this first issue) to something of a stop-gap measure, or the story that takes place in between “real” Dark Knight stories. And maybe that’s just as well, because this seems to be a very un-ambitious comic that exists merely to fit into some dull editorial remit to create a book that picks up after DK2 while aping the feel of DK1. As far as the art goes, it appears that Kubert was given a bit more leeway to illustrate things in his own style, but the cover (as seen at the top of this review) certainly looks like it could have come right out of Miller’s Sin City, and the interior pages show a much sleeker, more noir-influenced look than we’ve seen from him in the past. It’s probably fair to suppose that the orders from on high were something along the lines of “don’t copy Frank’s style per se, but make sure that whatever you do fits in with the look of the first Dark Knight series.” And so it does.
As does Azzarello’s story, but here things get a bit dicier, because this really does read like a pale approximation of The Dark Knight Returns done by a lesser talent. We’ve got some nods to the current social media landscape thrown in from the outset, and a few knowing glances are cast in the direction of mass movements like Black Lives Matter in that police brutality seems to be the issue that brings the once-again-retired-Dark Knight back to the streets of Gotham (a topic the same author explored in a recent fill-in issue on the main Batman title), but everything here really is piggybacking onto events in the 1986 original moreso than it’s taking its cues from the modern world. Azzarello tries to mimc some of the “Batman is back” excitement of the first issue of DK1, but it feels rushed and incomplete in terms of the buildup involved and so largely falls flat, and the same can certainly be said of the double-page spread of TV talking heads that you just knew was gonna be in here someplace. The subplots involving Wonder Woman and her infant son, and that of her teenage daughter (with Superman, don’t forget!) Lara seem marginally more interesting, but no sooner do we get some brief exposure to them than we find ourselves thrust back into the “A” narrative and see the GCPD violently bringing Batman down after he proves to be a sensation on twitter and shit. His final (for this issue, at any rate) confrontation with the cops comes the closest of anything in this opening installment to delivering that old-school DK wallop, and no doubt the presence of Janson on inks helps to authenticate some of the more blatant, but successful, stylistic thievery that Kubert finally succumbs to in this penultimate sequence, but it still isn’t quite the “real deal,” nor is it clever and/or totally shameless enough to let you forget it. The unmasking of Batman provides for a doozy of a cliffhanger, sure, but even that’s not all that terribly surprising once the initial wave of “holy shit!”-ness subsides. Come to think of it, one could argue that it succeeds largely because you do, in fact, “see it coming,” but it’s so fucking cool that you’re willing to go along with it because it steers a story you never really wanted to see anyway into a direction that you could potentially be happy to have it going. One brief heads-up, though : don’t read the mini-comic either first, or in the middle of the book as its presented, because it gives the ending of the main story away completely. DC probably should have glued the thing into the back rather than the center of the comic, just in case, but given that they’ve sort of made lousy decision-making into an art form over there in recent years, what else could you really expect?
Speaking of the mini-comics — and the physical format of the series in general — Miller’s caught a lot of heat for showing “Superman’s junk” on the cover (shown above) for Dark Knight Universe Presents The Atom, and why not? It really is a lousy piece of illustration, any way you slice it. But his art on the interior pages — which sees him paired with Janson for the first time since DK1 — is actually surprisingly good in the strictest formal sense of the term, and when you combine that with the fact that the script for this little “side-step,” revolving as it does around a mystery of sorts developing within the Bottle City of Kandor, is actually fairly interesting, you could make a pretty strong case for the notion that the mini-comic is, in actuality, the best thing about Dark Knight III : The Master Race #1. In fact, I believe I did just that. I’ve gotta be honest, though — the old “Dark Knight format,” as it used to be called, gave you a lot more bang for your buck than the 32-pages-for-$5.99 thing that they’re putting this new series out in. Yeah, you get a glossy cover and there are no ads, but it’s still a standard stapled format rather than the squarebound binding of old, and while the paper’s good and all, it’s not nearly as good as we’re used to in a Dark Knight comic.
These problems, of course, will all be corrected in two weeks, when the so-called “deluxe edition” is released that consists of a hardcover version of the comic with the mini-comic “blown up” to full size, but the $12.99 price point for a re-packaged version of a comic that just came out 14 days previously shows what a naked cash-grab this whole enterprise really is. I mentioned DC’s other notorious naked cash-grab of recent vintage, Before Watchmen, previously, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that both the writer and artist on Dark Knight III : The Master Race are “alums,” if you will, of that cynical, year-long, slow-motion disaster. I’m not ready to say that their newest project is anywhere near as artistically worthless and morally deplorable as BW was — and despite the breezy, thowaway nature of the first 3/4 of this issue, the ending gives me at least a shred of hope that we might be in for an interesting, if hopelessly derivative, time here — but who knows? It’s early days yet, and they could still surprise me with the depth of their creative bankruptcy. Their publisher, however, no longer can, and the sad truth is that the mere existence of a Dark Knight III proves that DC not only has nothing left in the tank, but has given up altogether on even trying to convince us otherwise. Having spent 20-plus years trying — and failing — to find the “next Dark Knight” and the “next Watchmen,” they appear more than happy to simply snatch up the last few dollars an ever-dwindling readership is willing to fork over to watch them kick the corpses of their once-greatest triumphs.