Review: Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1
“Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 is not only a commentary on the nature of legacy, but of the circularity of history and how, much to our peril, humanity acts out the same violence and cruelty toward one another, even if they emerge in different forms. However, just as telling, DKIII also suggests that there will always be children of a new generation to relight the torch and combat the evil of man when the previous generation stumbles.”
Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1
Publisher: DC Comics
Writers: Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Artists: Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson
Release Date: Wed, Nov 25, 2015
Creator Frank Miller’s seminal comic book work Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is approaching its 30th anniversary next year, and it’s a testament to the work’s longevity and impact that we’re still talking about the long shadow Miller casts among the scores of tales written about the Caped Crusader. Much has been said about how TDKR and Alan Moore’s Watchmen left indelible marks of grimness and realism on the comic book medium’s storytelling aesthetic, and with good reason: Those marks are deep in the DNA of comic book stories to this day, whether overt or not. Miller built on the work that creators Neal Adams and Denny O’Neill had begun in the late 1970s and early 1980s in returning the Masked Manhunter to his dark roots and ran with it, giving readers a yarn about a retired Bruce Wayne, just past middle age, who decides to take up the cape and cowl again to counteract the decay and depravity that Gotham City has been cast into.
However, while TDKR has something of a timeless quality to it—the archetypal Batman, the apocalyptic under- and overtones, the force of nature that Bruce Wayne represents—the story is also very much a product of its day, with real-world events echoed in the tale: Both the United States and Great Britain had conservative heads of state in the 1980s, much to the dismay of many on the left of the political aisle. The world kept checking the doomsday clock to see if its minute hand was creeping up toward midnight. The Damascus sword of nuclear war with the Soviet Union threatened to fall on both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. at any given moment. Not only was Miller pulling the Batman back to his grittier roots, but he also was looking at the darkest conclusion that the world could plunge into should things go sideways. TDKR spoke to and still speaks to people of all ages due to how well it engages both of these threads.
Maybe that’s why it very much feels like Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1, the first issue of the final act of Miller’s Dark Knight saga, has hit comic shops at just the right time. As much as things change, the more they stay the same. Substitute nuclear war with overt and covert terrorism. A new brand of radical conservativism has mutated in response to terrorism and what many perceive as liberal ideals usurping Republican values across the United States. The U.S.S.R. may be no more, but relations between the United States and Russia are frosty at best. And most striking, the populace is weary and, at times, growing despondent in that weariness. As True Detective’s Rust Cohle says, “Time is a flat circle.”
While it remains to be seen if all of those parallels will make it into DKIII, it’s clear that the world that Miller, co-writer Brian Azzarello, and artists Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson have revisited is just as riddled with knee-jerk reactions based on fear, keeping the people of Gotham City and the wider world on tenterhooks, worrying which shoe will drop next. [Caution: Spoilers below.]
That unease is manifest in not just the state of the world, but how Gotham views the Batman. It’s been several years since anyone has seen the Dark Knight, when one night someone dressed as the vigilante interferes with a police pursuit of a young African American male running through the underbelly of the city. As with the Batman’s initial reappearance after years of retirement in the first Dark Knight installment, his presence has caused a stir in the community, the police force, and the news media. Political pundits scoff at the presumption they see in the Dark Knight’s actions, lurking from the shadows every few years whenever he pleases and disrupting the patina of calm that barely covers the city. Equally unhappy is police commissioner Ellen Yindel, who, at one point, had come to a grudging respect of the necessity of Bruce Wayne’s methods, but has grown weary at the Dark Knight’s presumption. Her pursuit of the resurfaced Masked Manhunter leads to a revelation about who is under the cowl, a certain former spunky sidekick who has matured as a hero in her own right, out from the shadow of her former mentor.
However, the Batman is not the only one with secrets. Superman, once a champion of his adopted planet and, later, a government puppet, has allowed the weight of the world slow him to inaction, literally allowing himself to be frozen by the elements in his Antarctic refuge of the Fortress of Solitude. Wonder Woman, Kal-El’s partner and lover, has returned to live with her Amazonian sisters, frustrated and saddened by her mate’s reluctance to act. Their daughter Lara, though, refuses to let her father descend into despair and self-pity, visiting the Fortress just as a certain miniature city becomes fraught with activity.
When the announcement hit that DKIII was in production, I was wary, as it seemed as though that everything about the Dark Knight world that Miller had built had been said in the original story and its sequel. However, what makes DKIII necessary and, in many ways, stand apart for the first two entries in the saga is how Miller and Azzarello comment on legacy and the circularity of history. As mentioned above, while DKIII revisits some of the same themes of political unrest and fear seen in TDKR, that resurgence of thematic overtones speaks more to the world we live in than it does the storytelling. Humanity is carried by the ebb and flow of history and violence and calm and violence again. As Batman intrinsically knew from the moment he donned his crimefighter costume, crime and cruelty are never truly extinguished, as ten fires of strife rage for every one put out. As we see in the beginning of the first issue of DKIII, if it’s not gang violence, it’s police brutality against minorities. If it’s not a heavy-handed government interventionist response to civil unrest, it’s an isolationist intractability, as shown in Superman literally frozen by his inability and unwillingness to act. As much as DKIII speaks to the repetitive nature of history, it also gives nods to legacy, and what the new guard—in this case, the daughters, by blood or adopted, of Batman and Superman—do in the face of their parents’ unwillingness or inability to act.
Without Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson helming the art duties, however, the themes and action shown in DKIII #1 would not be able to shine as brilliantly as they do. Neither Kubert nor Janson are new to the world of the Batman, as Kubert collaborated with writer Grant Morrison during his epic run and Janson inking Miller’s linework in the previous Dark Knight installments. Years of working with the character give the art a beautiful, kinetic effortlessness that is necessary for a book of this cultural weight and magnitude. While Kubert is obviously drawing on Miller’s style to give some sense of continuity to what has come before, particularly in the layouts, the artist can’t help but make the action and characters his own, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The effect, which could come off as a parroting of another artist’s style and form, gives the nice effect of an amalgam of sensibilities that makes Wonder Woman, Superman, and the future world of the Batman feel new and fresh.
Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 is not only a commentary on the nature of legacy, but of the circularity of history and how, much to our peril, humanity acts out the same violence and cruelty toward one another, even if they emerge in different forms. However, just as telling, DKIII also suggests that there will always be children of a new generation to relight the torch and combat the evil of man when the previous generation stumbles.
Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1, co-written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello with Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson on art, hits comic shops this Wednesday.
In the meantime, check out what creator Frank Miller has to say about his return to the Dark Knight world in his interview with DC All Access:
Related: Artist Andy Kubert Swings Into Dark Knight III: The Master Race