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Review Brew: Dark Knight III: The Master Race

Writers: Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello Artists: Andy Kubert, Frank Miller, and Klaus Janson I'm just going to get this out of the way: DKIII has, as far as I can tell, the first-ever official appearance of one of Wonder Woman's nipples. Frank Miller's original Dark Knight series was historic for its deconstruction and refinement of Batman, which still influences how the character is portrayed today. His sequel DK2, published 15 years later, was historic for taking all the goodwill from the original series and causing the entirety of comic fandom to collectively ask themselves what the **** they'd just read. (Harper Lee has nothing on hype leading to disappointment in comparison to Frank Miller.) Now after nearly another 15 years...well, if nothing else, DKIII will be known for revealing Wonder Nipple to the world.

Nipples aside, it’s unclear how we’re supposed to feel about DKIII after the months of equally anticipating and dreading how this would turn out. So far, I’d say it’s neither the masterpiece that was the original series, nor the batty (no pun) mess of the sequel. Thankfully, it’s far from the weirdness of the sequel. So far, the story is just there and it’s unclear what Miller wants to accomplish just yet. There’s hints, particularly with the shock reveal of the last two pages, but we’ll have to be patient in discovering the story’s grand thesis.

The original Dark Knight Returns reduced Batman to a man fundamentally driven to not just combat evil, but terrorize it. He’s that primal urge within all of us which wants to strike back against that which strikes at us. In my opinion, I’d say that DK2 took this thesis too far by taking Batman much too far out of his element. The original series was largely grounded in the realities of our world: urban decay, disaffected youth, uncaring and corrupt politicians and pundits. Miller acknowledged the larger ills of the world–geopolitics and the threat of the nuclear war–but Batman operated against that backdrop without getting directly involved in it. The climactic fight with Superman ultimately seemed to say that while Batman and Superman exist in the same universe, they’re from two different worlds and have no place together. Unfortunately, DK2 completely went against that concept by forcefully throwing Batman back into the DCU and pitting him against the likes of Brainiac and Lex Luthor. Oh, DK2 had lots of other problems, but removing Batman from the urban warfare setting was a big one.

So DK3 is somewhere in the middle, and really, it reads like two stories shuffled together. (It’s really three, but I’ll get back to that.) Half the opening narrative reads like something of a homage to the original Dark Knight Returns series, with Batman–or a Batman–once again coming out of retirement after an unspecified absence to combat a racist and corrupt police force. Just as the original series was set against the politics of the early 1980s, DKIII pulls in recognizable elements of 2015: corrupt police and diverse yet superficial punditry from obvious parodies of Al Sharpton, Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, and others. This half of the story sets up a conflict between Batman, the apparent social justice avenger, and Ellen Yindel (Commissioner Gordon’s replacement from the original series) who’s been absorbed into the corrupt system she once tried to change.

So far, so good–DKIII gets back into the urban warfare narrative that worked so well in the original series. However, the other half of the story is the risky one–it returns to the larger issues in Miller’s DCU which he significantly expanded in DK2. Again, it’s pure setup thus far: we see that Wonder Woman and the Amazons have relocated to some unknown jungle region, and Diana walks the fine line between being a brutal warrior and an ambassador of peace. Meanwhile, her husband Superman has withdrawn from the world, and their daughter Lara (introduced in DK2) seeks answers as to why. Where this is going, we don’t know, but we get hints in the form of a message Lara receives from a classic piece of the Superman mythos.

Where these disparate stories will converge in future issues remains to be seen. For now, they’re separate, but they’re inevitably going to meet or else they wouldn’t be appearing in the same book. The downside is that for the most part, DKIII #1 is all setup. The original first issue of The Dark Knight Returns worked almost entirely by itself as a standalone story. This one reads more like a #0 issue, only giving us clues of what’s coming without showing the whole picture.

This may be a consequence of the creative team. Remember, DKIII is not a pure Frank Miller/Klaus Janson production as it was in 1986 or 2001. This is Brian Azzarello and Andy Kubert working in some degree of collaboration with Miller, with the actual extent being unclear. Current internet speculation suspects that this is mostly Azzarello and Kubert working from Miller’s rough ideas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: they both tell a competent story that effectively plays with the world Miller envisioned 30 years ago. It’s just that Azzarello and Kubert seem to be telling their version of a Frank Miller story, and readers shouldn’t expect a stylistic duplication of The Dark Knight Returns. This story is as much its own thing as DK2 was. It’s not bad so far and may prove itself to be a worthy successor to the original, but it’s definitely a different team playing with someone else’s toys.

If the reader is looking for more Miller, however, they’ll get it. I said earlier that this was effectively three stories, and that’s true. DKIII #1 includes a mini-comic insert: Dark Knight Universe Presents The Atom #1, and it’s drawn by Miller himself while still co-written by Azzarello. The comic is oddly placed in the literal middle of the book, and readers aren’t warned of where it’s chronologically set. (For pity’s sake: read the main book, then the mini.) It’s a short introspective story about the Atom’s place in Miller’s DCU. Miller’s art is fine: not the confused mess that Miller drew in DK2, though also not the detailed, multi-panel pages that he gave us in the original story. Perhaps that’s appropriate, because Miller does have some fun, presenting Ray Palmer as a true, larger-than life hero (again, no pun!). One can sense from both this story and Miller’s DK2 that he’s not opposed to superheroes–there’s a manifest likeability to purely human (but empowered) characters like the Atom and the Flash in these stories. Miller’s issues appear to be with the gods–Superman and Wonder Woman–and not so much with the humans who simply get to play at being gods. Beyond the story’s self-reflection, however, not much happens except in the final pages which continue the mystery discovered by Lara in the main story.

As of this first issue, though, the main/mini-comic format is frustrating to read, and we’ll have to see how DC decides to collect the whole package when the story is finished. Are the mini-comics intended to be an expansion of the main Azzarello/Kubert story, or are they literal in-between chapters of the overall book? Does the main story read on its own, or will we be required to read a collected story which jarringly shifts between Miller’s and Kubert’s styles? We’ll have to wain and see. Perhaps it will read just fine when the series is collected, but as a monthly periodical, this format is annoying and a strike against this overall project.

Rating: Three Wonder-Nipples out of five.

About Adam Frey (372 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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