Third Times the Charm?
Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 - Book One Written by Brian Azzarello & Frank Miller Pencils Andy Kubert Frank Miller Inks Klaus Janson Colored by Brad Anderson Alex Sinclair
Why? That is the question that kept coming up in the aftermath of the announcement of the Dark Knight III: The Master Race. Why? Beyond the obvious commercial gains, ones that DC appears to be exploiting to their fullest potential like Marvel.
That question slowly changed to a more interesting one: how? After reading The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the idea of somehow creating a threequel after the apocalyptic sequel seems absurd. Strikes Again was one big middle finger by Frank Miller to the rabid fans who demanded more Dark Knight verse, a theme that is evident in his still unfinished All-Star Batman & Robin run. America was rendered into nothingness by the end of it. None of these characters were nuanced; they were cartoonish like Miller’s art. How are you going to create a new story out all this rubble? From a production stand point, it begins by filtering Frank Miller, his past work is phenomenal and foundational but his recent work leaves much to be desired. The filter comes in the form of co-writer Brian Azzarello. Azzarello has traded in the hard boiled and gritty aesthetics like Miller but is able spin a more coherent yarn. Consequently this had led to Miller largely giving Azzarello credit in the media and threatening a fourth Dark Knight book solely written by him. From a narrative view it involves taking another time skip of about three to four years walking back the apocalyptic implications while still keeping the useful bits of Strikes Again, characters like Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara.
‘’Book One” reads like a cleaner mix of the dystopian Gotham City centric Returns and the vast but not deep world created out of Strikes Again. Andy Kubert channels some of Frank Miller’s artistic styles, an overall flat cartooned aesthetic but a decidedly cleaner less pencil and inked one. Formally Book One sticks to Returns style close up, melodramatic, dense paneling slowly pulling out into an impactful larger one. It also has features some impactful pages of police brutality using a more panel bleeding style. All of this creates for a more stylistic inline vision of a world where Returns and Strikes Again could actually co-exist. The TV talking heads have returned updated with pastiches of Bill O’Reily, Jon Stewart, and others. The news punditry is perhaps one of the things that have aged best in Returns but their chorus banter is further supplemented by more contemporary means of communication, texting and social media.
This formal repetition also allows for Master Race to begin playing with one of the eternal DC themes, heroic legacy. The Trinity has been displaced. Wonder Woman is the only active member in “Book One”, defeating a Minotaur. Superman has been frozen in ice by something; Lara visits him and is completely cool with it so this isn’t a recent development. As for Batman, he’s dead according to protégé Carrie Kelly. The idea of all these DC heroes being old was fairly novel back in ’86, which has made the Dark Knight series continuing always a bit of odd. But this generational shift was hinted at in Strikes Again as the young people of America appropriate old heroic symbols as part of their party teen culture. If this turns into a story of generational shift, they might just have something.
“Book One” reads like a greatest hits presentation of Miller’s formally interesting qualities. It’s coherent and has created enough intrigue that I want to continue the story. The cast isn’t parody and one note; you get the idea of some depth. As a singular episode it isn’t the strongest but most comics don’t have strong episodic writing any more. It’s impossible for this to be as revolutionary as it’s originator but that doesn’t mean good stories are incapable of being told.
One of the things that made The Dark Knight Returns unique when it was originally published was the quality of paper it was printed on and a page count of 50. DC is continuing this with the addition of a mini-comic - both in terms of page count and size – published with every issue of Master Race. As a digital only reader, the craftsmanship involved in this mini-comic is something I can’t comment on. The large page count and for digital readers at least variant cover gallery helps with the sticker shock of $5.99 and issue. The use of a supplemental comic however is a sign that DC is perhaps more interested in building at the Dark Knight verse in more concrete fashion. This one involves the Atom, Ray Palmer, and is largely an echo of his awesome introduction from Strikes Again but also serves as something of a post credits stinger for “Book One”, slowly teasing out who the titular Master Race are.