In December 2001, a follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns was a momentous occasion. Batman fandom was in hibernation. The character had been in the mainstream spotlight for a solid ten year epoch, starting with The Dark Knight Returns, continuing through the Burton movies, the animated series and finally flaming out with Batman & Robin. In hindsight it was a time of limbo between disinterest from the general public and the oncoming renewal of interest from an unholy collusion of bros and manboys in the form of sadistic video games and Christopher Nolan movies: Batman reinvented for the torture porn set.
At the time, it had been two years since Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and three months since September 11th. We not only needed the reassurance of our pop cultural icons, we needed reassurance that our pop cultural icons would not let us down again. Into this maelstrom returned Frank Miller, who’d made Batman grimdarknight forevermore in the pseudo-cyber, pseudo-punk decade of the 80s, that time which in 2001 hadn’t even yet been consummated (along with the 90s) as consumer pop culture’s halcyon era. Surely Frank would not, could not let us down. He would make – or rather, re-make (again) Bats and deliver the gut punch to the brain that The Dark Knight Returns had been to any young reader in 1986, or 1996, or even 2001.
Instead, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a colorful, hyperkinetic pinball ride around the DCU. It’s “about” post-9/11 stuff, sure. The police state, terrorism, media schizophrenia – but in the abstract and without the specific real world references Miller used to address similar topics in 1986. Reagan, for example, was in The Dark Knight Returns, but Bush 2 was not in Dark Knight 2. The story was barely even about Batman: he and Carrie Kelly go around gathering up an all-star team-up of every retired superhero from The Atom to Plastic Man in a crusade against Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson pretends to be the Joker to take revenge on Batman, a twist DC and Judd Winick obviously liked enough to rip off a few years later in Under the Red Hood. Caught up in the middle somewhere are Superman, Wonder Woman and their daughter Lara.
The story was a mess, but the art was pretty cool in a completely loose and crazy way, so jarringly different from The Dark Knight Returns that it was extremely difficult to appreciate at the time. Miller going wild with DC iconography, instead of telling a focused Batman story, was frustrating.
Another 15 years later we now have Dark Knight III. The phrase that became a franchise unto itself. The Dark Knight. The first Batman movie about something, for smart people. “‘The Dark Knight Returns’?” she asked me. “Don’t you mean ‘The Dark Knight Rises’?”. No, I began to explain, it’s a new animated movie based on a graphic novel from 1986…
Dark Knight III is still, at least, an event. An event for whomever so loves characters-appearing-in-publications-by-DC Comics enough to buy some of those publications, and perhaps be persuaded to shell out a little extra for some many dozens of variant covers. Really, it’s all a promotional expense to drum up enthusiasm for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Per that unspoken edict, the comic already feels like Dark Knight 2 redesigned by committee. Gone is the unhinged Frank Miller art and Lynne Varley colors, replaced with the clean modern pencils of Andy Kubert, and colors by Brad Anderson which resemble Dark Knight ’86. Gotham City’s skyline resembles the 80s near-future of Anton Furst, and on the very next page is the return of Commissioner Ellen Yindel. Ellen Yindel!! She wasn’t even in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara is back from Strikes Again, the otherwise total lack of continuity from The Master Race’s predecessor strongly suggests that Miller and co-writer Brian Azzarello were instructed by DC to work from the supposition that Strikes Again never happened. I’m shocked they even titled it numerically.
While Wonder Woman and Superman (who, not coincidentally, are both in Batman v. Superman) show up along with their daughter and even The Atom, Miller & Azzarello are already making it clear that this is a Batman story. The opening, narrated with text messages, shows him save a black kid from murderous cops (ooh, topical!) and by the end of the issue he is revealed as a she (ditto) – Carrie Kelly taking over as Batman for an apparently dead Bruce Wayne is the paint-by-numbers sequel people wanted in 2001.
The provocative subtitle was seemingly chosen to troll liberal-progressive fanboys still sore about Miller’s “Islamaphobic” Holy Terror graphic novel (which originally starred Batman) and anti-Occupy Wall Street comments of recent years. The Black Lives Matter theme is something of a curveball for everyone, but considering Lara wants The Atom’s help to big-ify the bottled city of Kandor it’s not hard to predict that “The Master Race” probably refers to how the Kandor-ites will regard themselves upon attaining human size, in yet another humdrum routine of the essential Batman vs. Superman conflict about human/superhuman power/responsibility. But we’ll see.
The only really intriguing and positive aspect of The Dark Knight III’s debut is that 15 pages of it are a mini-comic-within-a-comic, drawn by Miller himself, covering the scene wherein Lara brings Kandor to The Atom. Playing with the medium’s format is always good. Miller reigns in his art style to a conventional look compatible with Kubert’s, and he must really love The Atom because Strikes Again opened with a near-identical sequence of Carrie Kelly rescuing him from prison. It’s his own little nod to his own private Dark Knight Universe, and anyone who’s kept up with it.
Which isn’t easy. And only intermittently rewarding. Topical or not, “Book One” doesn’t immediately grab you the way The Dark Knight Returns does to this day, or even the way The Dark Knight Strikes Again did with its expectation-defying audaciousness. But he’s still got seven more issues to do something with old Bats even as inadvertently iconic as “I’m the Goddamn Batman.”
The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book One; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert and Frank Miller; inks, Klaus Janson; colorists, Brad Anderson and Alex Sinclair; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.