It's possible that there's never been a mainstream American comic book that's come out with more baggage than Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1.
Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is a universally-accepted classic and a nearly impossible act to follow -- as proven, in no small part, by the disappointment of The Dark Knight Strikes Again from a critical standpoint.
Even with Lord knows how many words spent on trying to take the sequel down a peg, the franchise remains strong. The Dark Knight Returns is such a solid presence in the bookstore and trade paperback market that angry comic book nerds haven't seemed to stop Strikes Again from becoming a big hit in its own right...and then came All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder.
The series, which supposedly exists in the same kind of "pocket universe" as Batman: Year One and the Dark Knight books, was uneven at best, and between All-Star and his creator-owned Legendary Comics series Holy Terror, Miller lost the faith of even some of his fans.
And so it was not without some reservation that the market braced itself for Dark Knight III -- even before the politically dicey title of "The Master Race" was revealed -- something particularly problematic for Miller, since Holy Terror had been accused of carrying racist and fascist themes.
Still, Miller is an unqualified master, bringing not only Year One and The Dark Knight Returns but works like Ronin, 300, Daredevil and Sin City to life on the page. For every detractor he has, there's a half-dozen people lining up to sing his praises -- and that ratio is even more dramatic among comics-industry professionals.
DC is rolling out the red carpet for Dark Knight III. The first time Miller hasn't written and drawn the series by himself, the comic was originally intended as a swan song. Billed as the final installment in an epic trilogy, The Master Race has already been downgraded to the next chapter in what Miller says could be an essentially ongoing series of miniseries set in the world of The Dark Knight Returns.
“After the first one, I said ‘Never again,’” Miller told ComicBook.com in a recent interview. “After the second one, I said ‘Never again.’ Brian looks like he’s doing a terrific job; I can’t wait to jump in myself again. There’s no reason not to keep going with these. The character is immortal and more ideas spring to mind all the time.”
Brian, in this case, is Brian Azzarello. He's co-writing with Miller, although to hear Miller tell it, The Master Race is all Azzarello, and he's just giving a little insight and a lot of support. Azzarello sees it differently, telling me about trips to Miller's studio where the pair would act out scenes together.
If this seems like an overwhelming amount of information going into a comic book review, it is -- and it echoes the white noise of expectations and history that come with Dark Knight III. Compound that with DC's editorial roll-out, which includes hardcover special editions of the single issues and tipped-in minicomics by Miller himself, and you have somehing that feels more like an event than arguably anything the publisher has done since the New 52 relaunch.
So -- the book itself. How does it fare?
We'll talk first about the packaging, since that will be variable from edition to edition so it's likely that this first printing is the only time fans will ever see the comic loooking quite this way. The cover by Kubert and Janson is a stark black and white that serves the iconography of the franchise well, evoking a few specific Miller images so well that my first response to the poster release was to wonder whether it really was old art for a minute. While minimalistic, it's visually striking, leaving the cover as something I think will age really well and probably become one of the defining images of the series.
...That's the primary cover, of course. There is a patently absurd number of variant covers (some of which can be seen in a gallery below), which we won't talk about here but which, on balance, are pretty good. Just...plentiful. Unnecessary? Well, it depends on your perspective. I rarely have a problem with variants, since it isn't like anybody's forcing me to buy them.
The credits themelves are interesting; they're done on title pages, like a novel or a prestige format graphic novel, and the back cover, where the masthead is, includes "Based on The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller" alongside the credits for Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
With a project that -- again -- has so much attached to it, I actually quite like the idea of treating a slim, monthly comic like it's an event book. It also avoids the issue of deciding how to integrate the text of the credits into pages that are already busy and stylized.
Story-wise, the issue is all setup, so it's difficult to judge on its own merits. It will likely read better as part of a collected edition, which sounds like backhanded praise, but it really isn't. There's nothing wrong with the way Dark Knight III kicks off, except that it's difficult to appraise. Is this a really slow opening, or will the pacing work well as part of the whole? I'm frankly not sure.
That said, the visuals are spectacular -- and I have to assume at least some of that is a credit to Miller and Azzarello's writing. The panel structure -- particularly early in the comic -- feels like something out of The Dark Knight Returns. Gone are the indulgent splash pages of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, replaced by an approach to visual storytelling that feels at home in the world of the original story.
That's anchored most in the non-Gotham sequences: Paradise Island and the Fortress of Solitude, along with the characters who populate those locales, are rendered in a style that feels more Miller-inspired than the urban settings. Kubert dips his style into the world of The Dark Knight and it's extremely effective, evoking Miller's style without adopting any of his latter-day eccentricities, many of which don't work well within the context of a mainstream superhero book.
If there's something that doesn't really work for me as a reader, it's the light effects and other very modern coloring techniques that feel radically different from the previous installments. That one such effect is the coloring of sunrise in Gotham on the double-page splash on 4-5 sets the tone for the issue early. Then again, there were plenty of incredibly dated digital coloring effects used in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, so perhaps the idea here is to create a narrative through-line and capture moments in time, regardless of whether those moments will age particularly well.
A theme of this first issue -- one that Miller built much of The Dark Knight Returns on and which has since become an intrinsic part of Batman's character for nearly every creative team to follow -- is the Dark Knight's status as a cultural icon and urban legend even within the world of The Master Race. When we first see Batman, the character is depicted almost exclusively in silhouette, and discussed in hushed tones (or as hushed as the tones can be via text message). That's a theme that pays off in a big final-page reveal...even if, frankly, some of the art throughout the issue doesn't seem to back up what's revealed there.
There's another element, too: Batman's relationship with Commissioner Yindel here is a complex and potentially very interesting one, and the exposition she provides late in the first issue indicates that, as much as this story will revolve around the threat of the liberated Kandorians, there's at least a piece of the narrative that will be driven by a very familiar plot: the world has descended to where it needs Batman, and so the Dark Knight emerges from retirement.
It gives the proceedings the same feel of a kind of legacy reboot that we're seeing with things like Creed -- out in theaters today -- and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, bringing old characters and storylines into the next installment and allowing the franchise to essentially reboot, telling a similar story in a different way without losing the past.
The last ten pages -- in which The Dark Knight is first chased by and then does battle with the police -- gives a sense of everything that works and everything that doesn't, creating a micrcocosm of the issue itself. The fight is beautifully-executed, but the pacing is somehow off; it doesn't seem like we really need ten pages of this fight, just to get to that aforementioned (and widely-spoiled, but we won't do that here) reveal.
For a book that goes to press with just an unbelievable amount of history and baggage, Dark Knight III: The Master Race acquits itself very well. It's visually spectacular, with a sense of scale and design that's admirable, and the story has a lot of potential, even if this first issue feels a little unsatisfying because it's so focused on setting up an epic that it occasionally forgets it's also delivering a story.
Frank Miller's tipped-in minicomic will be the subject of a review later today. We haven't forgotten it.