Dark Night: A True Batman Story (June 2016)

Dark_Night_A_True_Batman_Story_2016Superheroes appeal to children because, as Paul Dini points out in this memoir, they’re a child’s power fantasy. This book is about how he got brutally injured in a mugging while working as a writer on Batman: The Animated Series and his irrational shock that Batman wasn’t there to save him. Therefore the book is also about the fragile mental state of adults who still idolize superheroes beyond childhood, but Dini skims over that. He still idolizes funny underwear men for a living to this day, and that perceptual limitation is really the only thing keeping this very good comic from being great. Still, it’s probably the best Batman story of the year by far. They should’ve gone all out on promotion, instead of making it a Vertigo Book and arbitrarily consigning it to second-tier notice, for the sin of admitting Batman isn’t real.

A young man’s interest in fictional superheroes as objects of sincere admiration, rather than entertainment, grows inversely to their maturation, including the ability to physically defend themselves. This is the true stereotype of the 98 pound weakling who’d rather read Batman comics than play sports growing up – and now it’s worse, they’d rather play the Arkham Asylum games which Paul happened to write. Batman wins every millennial’s popularity contest for being the so-called “most realistic” superhero. His lack of superpowers suggests the illusion that if his geekiest admirers were sufficiently motivated by the most primal early trauma (premature loss of parents) and had access to unlimited time and money, they too could become strong enough to scare bullies. To step back and chart one’s enjoyment of Batman over time is to graph one’s personal growth or lack thereof. For those lucky enough to land a job writing the character, reality can get even more confused if you’re not sufficiently grounded. Paul Dini was vicariously living in Batman’s world for a living before reality kicked the living shit out of him.

Dark Night is about his rehabilitation and the wisdom garnered, only he didn’t seem to learn all that much in the final analysis. So he uses Batman, who has more moral authority than Jesus to people of my generation, as one of several licensed characters serving as an imaginary chorus whose words can convince us, and himself. It’s a very well done comic, but also a bit of a therapy session that’s overly self-congratulatory. Big questions about the power of myth or the actual danger of crime are sidestepped in favor of solipsism. At the conclusion he postures towards sharing some greater knowledge from the experience, but it winds up a fatuous “shit happens, dust yourself off and don’t be bitter” kind of message, after frequent avoidances of weightier aspects touched briefly and then ignored. The only one he devotes any attention to, since it figured most prominently into the difficulty of his recovery, is the low self-esteem of the average nerd. Even one whose dream of writing Batman cartoons came true.

I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series and as many fans will tell you, Dini wrote several of the most memorable episodes. What seems obvious in hindsight is how many of his episodes were either about bullied wimps or the lovesick: Joker’s Favor, The Man Who Killed Batman, Heart of Ice, and especially Mad as a Hatter – an effective origin tale for The Mad Hatter in which Jervis Tetch plays White Knight to his own workplace Alice and becomes a Dark Knight villain. At the episode’s climax, Alice is rendered comatose by mind control and Batman enrages the lovelorn geek by pointing out that what he truly wants is “a soulless little doll,” not an actual three-dimensional woman. Dini makes a big point of establishing his unsuccessful love life as the catalyst of fateful evening, albeit indirectly – it happened after he walked home from a bad date, rather than accepting a ride from the young would-be starlet who’d just given him the kiss-off. As Dini points out, the walk was through wealthy West Hollywood so it wasn’t an irrational assumption that he’d be safe. As he imagines various Batman villains anthropomorphizing his inner demons, the face of womanly torment is Poison Ivy rather the perhaps more apt choice of Mad Hatter. When narratively taking stock of his poor life decisions, chief among them is his pursuit of dating actress/model types whom he could brag about to his friends, rather than a woman he could someday marry. Soulless little dolls. As the adage goes, Hollywood is high school with money and a writer for Tiny Toons with ties to Steven Spielberg is like a dork whose rich parents are lending him their Bentley.

Dini puts so much weight into his lack of validation by beautiful women before getting jumped – and then, weirdly, the only follow-up is the unsurprising detail that one of these gold diggers barely cared about his situation when called up for sympathy. By this point we’ve already read the chilling page where, bloodied and beaten, he realizes upon staggering home that there will be no one inside to comfort him. Later in a flashback sequence during his hospitalization, he recalls being stood up by another pretty girl as his date to the Emmys. Despite winning and taking home one of the awards, his self-loathing apparently ran so deep he proceeded to cut himself in front of the mirror using the statuette, expressing disgust with his own chubby bespectacled nerd self. It’s a stunning and powerfully symbolic admission. He prefaces the night of his attack with all this fear of sexual inadequacy, but fails to draw any connection between the twin injuries to his masculinity: romantic rejection and getting your ass kicked. It doesn’t get any worse than that for the male ego, especially in the course of a single evening. His subsequent despair that he somehow deserved what happened, as karmic balance to his artistic success in life, is a crisis of manhood that he thinks himself too unique to grapple with. As his own narrator to this chapter in his life, he never lets on any understanding that the reader might have endured the same fears and sufferings, including his soon-to-be lowest point.

Recuperating from the horrific attack, holed up in his apartment and descending into depression, the principal question quickly becomes how Paul will find the will to continue writing Batman in a world where Batman doesn’t swoop in to save you IRL. The most striking passages of this comic aren’t Dini imagining Batman as a stern father figure, telling him to get up and stand tall after being knocked down. They are of The Joker insidiously urging him to wallow in self-pity and retreat into comforting overindulgence – fast food, video games, movies, et cetera – after the world has traumatized him. Joker even sells this retreat as a return to the “childhood bedroom” of Dini’s “invisible” youth, fleshed out in a few autobiographical pages at the start. This is particularly fascinating when taking into account how The Joker has equaled or eclipsed Batman’s popularity in mainstream culture by embodying narcissistic hedonism. (The 1989 film puts the sensitive creative person’s spin on this: The Joker as the dark power fantasy of the insensitive artist who “makes art until someone dies.”) Paul’s apartment is a den of toys, animation cells and “the trappings of geek nirvana.” Holy Target Audience, does he even realize he’s describing a large section of his readership? What’s disappointing is that he took what could have been a widely relatable true-life parable for every superhero fan about the limits of their escapism, and the soul death of arrested development, and instead portrays the restoration of his professional status quo – product output at the dream factory – as the crucial triumph.

Probably the most fascinating and telling scene is Dini’s anecdotal rebuttal to the traditional methods of manning up. As the wounds start to heal, Batman recommends that if he feels unattractive and physically vulnerable, he could lose weight, get in shape and start learning how to fight. In response to this completely reasonable proposal, Paul does a shock jump-forward to the day he almost bought a gun. Batman then mocks him for wanting to be like James Bond. In an evasive obfuscation, Paul retorts that he could never be like Batman. Now, Batman wasn’t implying that Paul become a real life Batman, just that he could regain confidence by dropping a few pounds and looking less of an easy target. Batman, who is of course Paul Dini writing a dialogue with himself, accuses Paul Dini of engaging in a power fantasy. It’s circular and manipulative; Paul is actually reassuring himself that there’s no middle ground between being totally defenseless and deluding yourself into thinking you can become James Bond by buying a gun, or Batman by taking karate lessons.

In the introspective wrap-up of the book’s conclusion, The Scarecrow taunts Paul with the potentiality of living his life in fear of future assailants, to which he retorts that he can’t live his life in fear of lightning strikes, either. He seems oblivious to the fact it is an extraordinarily privileged position to regard potentially fatal assault and battery as a statistical freak occurrence, no more predictable than natural disasters. For pity’s sake, one of the best scenes in the comic is the LAPD’s indifference to Paul’s plight after the incident, and his incredulousness that they’re not even going to dust for prints like The Dark Knight Detective™. He certainly admits to the hard-learned fact that the police aren’t always going to be there for him, let alone Batman, but he still won’t take any personal measures to feel safer in the future, still regarding violence as something unreal. Rationalizing to Batman that he’d have been murdered if he’d “tried anything physical,” he’s more or less alluding to the “one bad day” trope of The Killing Joke every Bat-fan knows by heart, telling The Joker that to “embrace anger and cruelty and try to use them to feel powerful” would be going down the path of Joker rather than Batman. Jeez, Paul, we get it, you didn’t want to start lifting weights. It’s a bit socially irresponsible to promote the idea that taking measures towards self-defense is tempting fate, just because you never thought you’d have your life threatened and don’t want to believe it could ever happen twice.

There’s an awkward racial component in Dark Night, injected but never acknowledged, which may help explain why Dini depicts himself as so guilty over his instinct to somehow toughen up after his bloody beating. Yes, the two guys who stomped him bore the curse of Ham and moments before their paths cross, Dini’s inner monologue chastises himself not to “be the dick who changes direction just because he sees a couple of black guys.” Later, Batman criticizes him for not thinking like Batman would upon seeing “two figures huddled close together, faces obscured, moving toward toward you in a predatory manner!” Hey, Bats, you don’t really need to profile when you live in a fictional city unstuck in time where all the criminals still wear fedoras. Batman then blames Paul for not changing direction from the two thug-lyfe looking gentlemen because he was “too worried about looking scared or judgmental.” It’s worth considering that at the time, it had only been a year since the Rodney King riots and Los Angeles was still on edge about black-on-white violence. One page later, a black colleague at the Warner Brothers Animation office bluntly asks Paul if the guys who did it were black. And he lies – he says only one of them was. “Damn it” the staffer says, and offers Paul a handshake, an implicit apology on behalf of all brothers. The matter is never brought up afterwards, and Dini doesn’t feel it incumbent on himself to explain to the reader what it says about him that he felt the need to lie. Later, there’s a suspicious glance cast at a black guy who approaches him in a music store, but whew – turns out he’s just a Tiny Toons fan. Again, as omniscient narrator, Dini never acknowledges any of this racial tension. I’d guess his reluctance to start seeing the world in a harsher light is at least somewhat tied to a fear of racially profiling which his conscience can’t allow. This fits right in to his self-absolving faith that the morally superior attitude towards violent crime is, as he literally states, to think of it as lightning which won’t strike him twice.

Dark Night promises more than it delivers in terms of thematic depth. However, the emotion is all there. The concept of a Batman writer, especially a talented one like Paul Dini, using the characters as invisible friends and enemies throughout his true story of surviving being the victim of a violent crime is such a solid, inspired basis for a graphic novel. It’s the kind of meta-story for which these characters are very well suited after 75 years of exhausting every possible straightforward comic book plot. They function best now as icons, which is why the comic is a clever and enjoyable read and The Lego Batman Movie will make more money than all the other Batman movies combined. It’s always preferable to see more poetic use of the characters than seeing them wedged into ill-fitting “realistic” stories. Dini does muddle around the big questions when he uses Batman for rhetorical stances on actual important matters like guns and criminal justice. What’s genuinely moving are the times when he sincerely exposes his vulnerability, holds his ego to account and examines how creative artistry shapes his worldview, in good times and bad.

Speaking of artistry, there’s really nothing to say about Eduardo Risso’s illustration except that it’s masterful. Dini’s career requires him to visually reference not only Batman: The Animated Series but other pop culture from Beany and Cecil to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and he’s always on-model. His own original designs for the Batman villains are simultaneously ugly and very appealing. He draws Paul past and present, in realistic and caricatured styles, sometimes changing from panel to panel depending on narrative needs, without ever misstepping. The color is also incredible, emphasizing every mood and blending human beings with Paul’s cartoon imaginings seamlessly.

This “True Batman Story” ends on a note of hope, with Harley Quinn welcoming Dini back to work. Harley Quinn is one of the worst Batman characters ever created, a supremely irritating Manic Pixie Dream Girl that could only have been invented by someone with issues around women.

Still, at least she only shows up in the last couple pages. Highly recommended!

CREDITS

Dark Night: A True Batman Story; story, Paul Dini; art, Eduardo Risso; letterer, Todd Klein; publisher, DC Comics.

The Comics Fondle Podcast | Batman: The Killing Joke Special

The very BEST Alan Moore ending in his entire body of work. – Guillermo del Toro, filmmaker

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted … Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way. – Alan Moore, the original writer, The Killing Joke

Wanna say that again, pussy? – Brian Azzarello, screenwriter, Batman: The Killing Joke

Out of nowhere–well, the questionably sincere loins of 2016 DC Animation–comes Batman: The Killing Joke, the animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal 1988 comic book one-shot, starring Tara Strong as Batgirl, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill in his much-anticipated return as The Joker. Matthew Hurwitz and I thought it might be nice to sit down and hash over the film, much like we did for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Little did we know Killing Joke wouldn’t just turn out to be terrible, it would find astoundingly terrible ways to be terrible.

So join us now, as we gaze long into Batman: The Killing Joke and peel back each layer of superhero comics, animation and movie history that lead from the original book to a movie that did virtually everything wrong. Yeah, you knew we were the only ones up to the task. While everyone else is ranting about the instantly-infamous Batman / Batgirl hookup sex scene, only The Comics Fondle Podcast gives equal time to discussing the idiocy of this version having The Joker use circus freaks as a gang of deadly goons.

(We do actually get to discuss some good things, like “Batman: The Animated Series” and some comics. It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s whimsy)

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The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 5 (August 2016)

DKTMR-Cv5-ds-aa40bAs the millennials like to say, I just can’t. Go on reading The Master Race any longer, that is. Maybe Miller and Azzarrello have something amazing planned for the conclusion, but anyone following this series bimonthly instead of waiting for the trade is throwing their money away. Half the issues so far have been mediocre, but this is the first to be a total waste of time. With the exception of a nice underwater Aquaman double splash page, and some cool panels of the Kandorians finally getting some of the wind knocked out of their sails, all of the imagery is recycled – not only from previous issues of the series; Miller actually swipes from himself by putting us in the cockpit of the Bat-Tank once again, and putting him back in his power suit. The only twist is that he’s now joined, in a lame pseudo-big moment cliffhanger, by Superman in his own powersuit – Superman, whose apparent death in a previous issue has now been revealed to have only been so much pointless padding for the already anemic storyline.

The mini-comic is a real stunner of a disappointment as well. There are almost no backgrounds whatsoever; Superman’s daughter and a Kandorian are flying around trading vacuous quips atop fluorescent gradients. Nothing remotely interesting happens.

The only reason I didn’t ask for my money back is that comic book shops are dying and need all the help they can get, but crap like this is exactly why they’re dying. Monthly comics probably shouldn’t be a thing any longer, unless publishers want to make a real effort towards content that justifies the price tag. Maybe they should focus on publishing “graphic novels” and transitioning the shops into full-on bookstores, while putting more effort into promoting work like Paul Dini’s Dark Night: A True Batman Story which could appeal to both casual and longtime Batman fans. Last month’s double-issue-length Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade was surprisingly entertaining – clearly Miller and Azzarello are capable of doing decent, serviceable Batman stories, which only makes a comic like this one so insulting. If the whole trifle were published all at once in one volume, it might be an overall enjoyable read. But at present, this series is a scam.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Three; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (June 2016)

lastcrusadeIn their 2016 campaign to Make Batman Great Again, Miller and Azzarello have temporarily abandoned all pretense of progress – as indicated by the retro DC logo on the cover – and gone straight back to the source with this one-shot prequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Batman nerds know Miller predicted the death of Jason Todd in the first issue of that series, before DC made it official with the Death in the Family storyline. You know, the one where fans could dial a 1-800 number and cast their vote to not to let Jason survive The Joker’s beating. Thus does The Last Crusade have a weird circuitous purpose: retelling a story whose conclusion is foregone, as the prequel to a story which predicted the event…as a hypothetical aside. Retcon-Elseworlds-Rehashing at its most truly incestuous.

The pleasant surprise is that Miller and Azzarello actually outdo their recent efforts. The Last Crusade is a more enjoyable read than The Master Race has been so far, and a better value at $6.99 for 57 pages compared to Master Race’s $5.99 for 35. Unlike the shallow bombast of Batman and Superman saving the world from Kandorians, this story aims low and deep and hits its target. From the start, there’s a nicely quiet sense of dread on a personal, non-apocalyptic level, building suspense as The Joker orchestrates his escape from Arkham while the division between Jason and an aged Batman grows deeper. The thrust of the action is utterly perfunctory as they investigate the most routine of Poison Ivy schemes, with a little special guest muscle by Killer Croc. Joker is separate from all this to the point of practically being in another book, his portentous importance is telegraphed by the cover. Even for the Batman comics reader unfamiliar with Jason Todd’s death at Joker’s hands, their fatal crossing of paths carries the aura of grim inevitability although the final pages don’t make the actual fatality particularly apparent.

I didn’t grow up in the Jason Todd years of the comics but if his gimmick was being a “Dick” instead of a “Dick Grayson”, it does read slightly weird for the Batman of Frank Miller’s sovereign Dark Knight Universe to reprimand this Robin for being too sadistic or reckless, when he’s been far and away the most inglorious bastard Batman of all time. Under questioning, Miller and Azzarello would probably argue that since this is the near-retirement stage of that Batman, he’s a little more mature and less psychotic than he was in the All-Star Batman and Robin days. Everything about superhero continuity lore has become so cyclical since the 80s, yet Miller and Azzarello still kind of justify this rehash by returning to the idea of Batman as a prize fighter whom everyone knows is past his prime – exploring his shame, the fact he knows he’s slowing down, that his friends and enemies are noticing too. This focus on aging, and on flesh not keeping up with a willing spirit, creates a thematic through-line with Dark Knight Returns and inadvertently kind of points up the absurdity of the sequels, where Bruce never seems to get tired anymore although he’s older than ever. Batman’s internal monologues and narration aren’t as memorable as those of Dark Knight Returns but they absolutely flow from the same vein. Prequel or sequel, this slim volume is so much closer to the kind of follow-up fans wanted than The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Better late than never?

John Romita Jr.’s art provides the work a needed prequel continuity as well. His draftsmanship’s sketchy grittiness is much closer to Miller’s style than Andy Kubert, as is Peter Steigerwald’s pale and muted coloring. The script doesn’t make the insulting choices seen in The Master Race, of padding a thin plotline across pointlessly large action panels. Here the terse writing is thoughtfully staged at a steady pace without filler. As a comic the action feels alive, rather than looking like conceptual art for a film or storyboards for a cartoon.

A few words about The Joker: first of all, he sells comics. That’s why he’s on the cover. But as someone who’s thoroughly tired of the character’s overexposure and hype, I’d forgotten how much I like Frank Miller’s Joker and it’s kind of nice to spend time with him again. Given Frank’s politics, I’m shocked he’s not re-teamed with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Miller’s Joker was conceived pre-Killing Joke and was arguably (unfortunately) more the basis for the modern mainstream conception of Joker, the version who’s supposed to be scary and edgy and never actually funny. This take made the most sense when envisioning an older version of the character to fight an older version of Batman – sort of what the real life Bill Murray became; not so much a sad clown as a clown grown jaded and smug. Miller just writes him so well as a wistful queen, and unlike Heath Ledger Miller’s Joker is genuinely enigmatic and creepy because Miller is kind of crazy himself.

If you haven’t bothered picking up The Master Race yet, you should definitely wait for the trade. But if you’d like a swig of Frank Miller that actually tastes like The Dark Knight Returns, The Last Crusade is a satisfying little one-shot.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, John Romita Jr; inks and colors, Peter Steigerwald; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 4 (June 2016)

STK699760Once again Miller and Azzarello punish me for getting my hopes up with this series. Once again, too, I notice myself praising Miller alone for every good chapter and the two of them for every bad one. As the series lurches onward, the finality of The Dark Knight Returns and its pitch perfect “good enough” grace note of a conclusion to Batman’s adventures are only further diluted. The Master Race is in an alternating holding pattern, as I recall issue #2 was similarly lethargic. The plot progresses predictably with zero surprises to the reader. The spoilers are two sentences long. $5.99 for two sentences worth of plot development, stretched out by endless splash panels and another mini-comic of wonky Frank Miller art, which is sadly the only memorable part of the experience. For DC, not Detective Comics but the asset of Time Warner’s media empire, to charge $5.99 for this while an indy outfit like Avatar Press charges a buck less per new installment of Providence is utterly pitiful. On the plus side Miller does retain a consistently pessimistic, contemporary point of view – Obama and Trump are again invoked and this time disparaged as equally cowardly appeasers to the eponymous Master Race. He and Azzarello do know how to plot out their simple, cynical story. The insult to the reader, which ruins these positives, is how blatantly he’s elongating a four issue story across eight issues for what can only be a contractual obligation. Per Miller’s worst habits, they haven’t even been published in a timely manner.

Being a member of that tiny hipster elite who can find some value in The Dark Knight Strikes Back, it saddens me to realize every time I reach Miller’s mini-comic midway through a new Master Race that his late-period derangement, which Big Two fanboys consider his weakness, isn’t even present here. His art is still big and crazy, he just didn’t care about this project enough to contribute more than a few pages every couple months, leaving Andy Kubert to carry that load with competence that feels reliably adequate to the point of blandness. The new series has been dishearteningly lacking in any big or crazy ideas; the storyline is neither as jarringly off-kilter as Dark Knight 2 nor as fresh and original as Dark Knight 1. This is a book that goes out of its way not to take chances. Dark Knight 3 simply exists, as Dark Knight 4 could someday exist and make all thast came before just a little less special. Something like All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder was at least a beautiful disaster; a joyously irreverent prank. Master Race reads as though Azzarello came up with the uninspired story purely as a mechanical continuation of what is now a franchise (there’s a prequel coming) and Miller peppered in his stylized dialogue afterward.

Has anything really innovative actually been done with Bats or Supes since 1986 when Miller and Moore wrote their imaginary final adventures? Every other week DC relaunches their “universe” hoping someone will figure out how to make them relevant again, and it seems increasingly apparent that The Dark Knight Returns and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow really were the ultimate showstoppers. If Batman is doomed like all superheroes of the current era to be merely an amorphous multimedia IP rather than a comics character, the best entertainment anyone can hope for are occasionally some good cartoons. Maybe when The Lego Batman Movie is the highest profiting Batman movie of all time DC will finally give up on self-serious, pointless cash grab comics for nostalgic manboy fanboys and grow a new comics readership where the real money is: actual children.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Four; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 3 (February 2016)

dk3After Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race suddenly seems a lot better. The film wasn’t as bad as everyone histrionically made it out to be – Zach Snyder at least understands how to use these characters to compose compelling imagery, unlike Christopher Nolan. What the film reconfirmed to me is how irrevocably superheroes are tied to the comics page. This is their medium, and ironically only the relentless march of superhero movies can make me appreciate the value of a superhero comic. Frank Miller and Zach Snyder do have several things in common: an unpopular public image, a uncomfortable fixation on rape as a dramatic device, and an ambivalence bordering on contempt for Superman. As many reviews have pointed out, Ben Affleck’s Batman is essentially Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought to life; an older and surlier abstraction of grimly righteous vigilantism who, yes, will pull the trigger of a gun if it means saving a life because that’s a decision a so-called “realistic” superhero would have to make, you liberal fanboy wimps. It’s really too bad Snyder didn’t do The Dark Knight Returns instead of Watchmen or BvS, not that BvS didn’t just swipe DKR sequences left and right throughout. Miller is a simpleton but Snyder does a simpleton’s adaptation of a simpleton. All the hammering on about gods and man and superman feels like it has a bit more of a point in Miller’s hands.

Issue 3 finally brings Bruce Wayne and Batman out of the shadows and as I’d hoped, Frank Miller still writes those cranky internal monologues better than anyone. If anything he’s writing them better than ever, now that he’s aged within five years of his old-man-Batman. He also incorporates topical problems better than any Marvel superhero screenwriters, who tend to namecheck “the issues” while studiously avoiding alienating any potential section of their audience, or David S. Goyer’s various Batman scripts from the past decade which use a ponderous tone to mask their dull lack of imagination. Miller’s deftly sardonic usage of text message balloons and Tweets are as relevant and witty as his usage of cable news in the previous two volumes of the Dark Knight saga, and even pay off in a funny scene when various Gotham-ites are too busy with their phones to pay attention to the super-apocalypse. Miller actually puts some pretty harsh anti-consumerist stuff in the mouths of his characters, reminding that though the medium has been generally dumbed down by the death of print, it’s still beneath the mainstream radar enough to function as a gutter platform against sacred technophilia.

The story is dumb as can be, but the writing has a lot of wicked satirical flourishes besides making fun of these kids today and their social media addiction. There’s a Trump cameo that probably wasn’t originally planned when the series started back in November 2015, so it’s nice to know the series is alive and malleable. Thematically Miller seems to be developing a redemption of Superman – something Snyder insincerely made overtures towards. Having been a government stooge until now, Supes is at last poised to fight in the right alongside Carrie Kelly and Bats. All it took was betrayal of the titular Master Race to which he belongs, and to which the Earth’s governments have collectively surrendered. Unbound by Hollywood squeamishness, Miller is allowed the full effects of his cynicism towards both the genre and modern society: his superheroes obliterate millions of people and millions more respond with media-saturated apathy. The unfairly maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again felt like a true reflection of recent post-9/11 discord compared to the moment-of-silence-now-back-to-tights-and-fights business acumen from the rest of DC and Marvel. Dark Knight III‘s story reads like Frank Miller screaming in your ear that things have only gotten worse, as the slicker Andy Kubert art suggests a world painted over with a shinier gloss of distraction in the interim.

Kubert’s art is growing on me though, aping Miller’s staging and character designs at the right moments, and well complimented by Klaus Janson’s inks. Brad Anderson’s coloring continues to impress, especially his use of muted colors in the Antarctic and underground locales. Miller indulges in a splash page or reveal practically every two pages, but Kubert’s art justifies them and his command of visual language is solid. Unfortunately it’s used as a crutch throughout the otherwise forgettable Miller-drawn mini-comic of this issue starring Green Lantern. Apparently DC has been printing some of these issues with the mini-comic scaled to full size at the issue’s end, which is a mistake because having a comic-within-a-comic is an artistic choice unique only to comics, and comics need the boosterism.

Against better taste, Miller’s misanthropic idiosyncrasies continue to intrigue as to what he’ll do in the DC toybox. The serial installments may not be worth the cover price but as a whole, the whole experience is improbably shaping into something worthwhile.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Three; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 2 (December 2016)

4960053-dktmr_cv2_ds-1The only unpredictable turn of this comic is that DC actually does allow Miller & Azzarello to acknowledge the existence of The Dark Knight Strikes Again – which is looking better every day compared to The Master Race’s cowardly underwhelmingness. Issue two rehashes virtually everything from the previous one. The only addition is the introduction of a villain behind the bottled city of Kandor’s titular Übermenschen, in a twist everyone should have seen coming. What’s more disappointing is how Miller’s greatest hits are still being dusted off for what’s shaping up to be more of a soft reboot of the “Dark Knight” brand than anything singular. Ellen Yindel interrogates Carrie Kelly in a jail cell copied straight out of Sin City, and then the Bat-tank returns for an action scene. Bruce Wayne is revealed to still be alive, spoiler alert, though this revelation might be the only hope the series has for entertainment value as nobody writes Batman as batshit as Frank. But to tease Batman as being truly dead and then back away from the idea is fake boldness, as seeing Kelly carry on without Bruce would be intriguing. Alas.

Time is weirdly out of joint in the DKU. Bruce Wayne and Ellen Yindel look exactly the same as we saw them in ’86, which wouldn’t necessarily be distracting except for dialogue when she actually points to her face and calls herself old, despite Andy Kubert obviously not having aged her a day. His art is still nothing if not professional; the 1989-style Gotham City looks terrific and the double-page reveal of Kandor’s formerly teensy, newly enlarged inhabitants is worth a pause. Where he falters is character work. There’s not an iota of humanity in anyone’s closeups. In particular, an extreme closeup of The Atom’s face (how ironic) is unpleasantly mannequin-like. Again, one wishes for the raw muscle of Miller’s pencils over Kubert’s cold slickness. Maybe the worst thing about the second chapter of The Master Race is how Miller didn’t even pencil the inset comic, the conceptual highlight of issue one. Artist Eduardo Risso’s action scene between Wonder Woman and daughter Lara is adequately staged but stiffly posed, with flat detailing worsened by Trish Mulvihill’s flat colors.

I’m neither a fanboy of, nor a hater on Frank Miller. His contributions to Batman’s history are invaluable. But he and Azzarello need to justify this series, quick, because if someone as open-minded to the venture as me is already frustrated, I can only imagine how unimpressed the average young reader must be so far. Miller’s sentimentally terse flavor of writing barely registers, and with the broken promise of at least getting new art from him once per issue in a mini-comic, there may be no compelling reasons to ride this cash-in all the way through.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Two; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert and Eduardo Risso; inks, Klaus Janson; colorists, Brad Anderson and Trish Mulvihill; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman Arkham: The Riddler (May 2015)

rid.pngMost Bat-fans glorify and self-identify with The Joker, but in actuality the average DC Comics fanboy is closer to The Riddler: needy, nerdy, narcissistic and way too smug about the lifetime of meaningless trivia they’ve accumulated.

That said, I love the guy. His gimmick is basically self-sabotage disguised as grandiosity. He’s every overweight dork in jean shorts and a fedora who just spent six months in the gym and studying how to be a Pickup Artist, whose core of vicious insecurity is barely inches below his flamboyantly confident new exterior. There’s a neurotic underdog aspect to his criminal insanity, as opposed to the anarchist self-indulgence or melodramatic tragedy of so many other Batman villains.

Chuck Dixon’s 1995 origin story Questions Multiply the Mystery formally introduced this angle on Edward Nygma, and it’s a real pity it wasn’t included in this first official Riddler “greatest hits” trade paperback. Why not? Where also is the other key Riddler appearance of the modern era, Neil Gaiman’s deft little post-modern 1989 tale When is a Door? Essentially a monologue by an aged, wistful Riddler, he reflects on how everything in Gotham’s gotten so grim and gritty of late and there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore for super-criminals like him who just want to have some goofy fun – rather than rack up a body count. A simple observation, but the entire key to Riddler’s role in a post-Dark Knight Returns world: compared to the rest of Batman’s increasingly depraved Rogue’s Gallery, Eddie is relatively something of a gentleman.

Batman Arkham: The Riddler doesn’t include either of those gems, or even a single story from 1984 to 2006. As if there wasn’t a decent Riddler comic for 22 years! Absent any apparent legal reprinting issues, this yawning historical gap seems to have been caused simply by editorial ambivalence. The laziness is there at first glance, from the recycled New 52 cover art to the title – who’s “Batman Arkham”? I gather the idea that the collection is akin to a trip to the E. Nygma cell at Arkham Asylum, but there’s not even an introduction describing the character’s legacy, let alone some “Heh, heh, heh! Welcome to Arkham, kiddies!” kind of Cryptkeeper curtain-opener. Of the 14 compiled issues, the first 9 are from the Golden, Silver and Bronze ages of DC and that alone probably makes the book worthwhile overall, especially for Riddler’s 1948 debut by Bill Finger & Dick Sprang, and 1960s revival by Gardner Fox.

The Riddle-Less Robberies of the Riddler from 1966 is a particularly memorable bit of introspective villain psychoanalysis: Riddler decides to stop leaving riddles and just be a normal thief, only to discover his addictive obsession won’t let him quit. A definitive story, but its inclusion is probably chance. Why, for instance, if you’re only going to reprint two Riddler stories from the whole decade of the 1970s, wouldn’t you want to include the one that Neal Adams drew? It’s like they were picked at random. Even the modern age choices feel arbitrary – like an abysmal 2007 Paul Dini issue of Detective Comics which is primarily a Harley Quinn timewaster using Edward Nygma as mere supporting player. No respect. How appropriate.

The contemporary stuff isn’t all bad, however. Scott Snyder & Ray Fawkes’ 2013 Riddler one-shot Solitaire is the only Batman comic I’ve read since the Animated Series spinoffs to build thoughtfully on the conception of Edward Nygma as a conceited intellectual who doesn’t realize he’s also a lunatic.

Batman Arkham: The Riddler is far from the ideal compendium for one of Batman’s oldest, most unique and iconic adversaries, but asks a fair enough price for all his earliest classic battles of wits in one volume.

CREDITS

Writers, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, David Vern Reed, Len Wein, Don Kraar, Doug Moench, Paul Dini, Peter Calloway, Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Charles Soule; artists, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Frank Springer, John Calnan, Irv Novick, Carmine Infantino, Don Newton, Don Kramer, Andres Guinaldo, Jeremy Haun, Dennis Calero; editor, Rachel Pinnelas; publisher, DC Comics.

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