Review: DARK KNIGHT III: THE MASTER RACE (Part 1)

DKIII coverLet’s start with the most important question this week: was it any good?

If you didn’t already know – and really, we all already knew – Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 was released yesterday, the first issue of an eight-part series from DC Comics starring their most marketable character, Batman. It was, of course, our pick of the week yesterday.

For good or for bad, acclaimed comic book creator Frank Miller was commissioned to return to The Dark Knight Returns character and the story line that helped define a whole generation (or two) of comic book publishing nearly thirty years ago: grim, gritty, realism, that was an abject departure from the majority of 1960’s and 1970’s comic book storytelling that featured heroic science fiction and flights of fantasy by colourful costumed characters.

There is much riding on the new series including the reputation of the creators involved, the glowing legacy of the original series, and the under-scrutiny leadership of the publishing company that green-lit the project.

So, was it worthwhile? Was the first issue any good?

The answer to that question is yes. Yes, it was. And in many ways, it was very good. Here’s why:

Admittedly, most were skeptical. And why not? DC Comics, the second largest comic book publisher, seems somewhat wayward these days in both their pop-culture direction and the comic book titles they are publishing.

In an attempt to make ground on market share, they’ve revamped their entire line of comic books dubbing their shared universe as “The New 52” in recent years and even re-mined the award-winning and industry changing series, Watchmen, which, like The Dark Knight Returns, was also published in 1986. The latter contained a series of spin-off comic books starring secondary characters and affectionately titled After Watchmen. Written and illustrated by a bevy of leading comic book creators, that cynical business decision went against the judgment of the original Watchmen creator, Alan Moore, a leading figure in the industry and a man who has refused to work for the company due to rights and compensation issues, amongst other issues, for over two decades. The After Watchmen series of comic books, which contained some interesting and worthy work, was released with more of a soft whimper than a bang, and seems mostly forgotten only a few years after publication.

And now, DC Comics mines their other crown jewel series.

No one is too sure how involved Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns writer and illustrator, is with the latest installment of that original storyline. Although his name has top billing, the series is being co-written by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Wonder Woman), himself a well-regarded comic book writer, and illustrated by Andy Kubert, another star in the industry. Klaus Janson, the inker over Kubert’s pencils brings a sense of artistic continuity to the visuals on the page as he was Miller’s inker on the original series. Through various interviews, it seems that the genesis of Dark Knight III: The Master Race came from Azzarello and DC Comics, who pulled Miller in to consult on storyline and dialogue. It’s been speculated how collaborative the collaboration really is, but Miller’s fingerprints are, indeed, all over the first issue.

To set the stage, it’s best to know that Dark Knight III: The Master Race (in shorthand, DKIII) is being billed as the third and final part of a trilogy of stories that showcases an older and more grizzled Batman in a return to crime fighting after an extended “retirement” . The second installment by Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, published in 2001, aimed to get away from the dark and realistic tone the first installment established in favour of a return to the more fun silver ago of comic book publishing. That three-issue series was not well-regarded.

If you have yet to read the comic, be warned that spoilers ensue:

DKIII 1 imageIn DKIII #1, we discover that Batman has once again disappeared from the public realm, this time for nearly half a decade – but the opening scene showcases the characters abrupt return. This time, our nimble and never aged hero is beating up police officers instead of crooks and, by the final cliffhanger scene, we discover that this Batman, finally captured by the police, is in fact, Carrie Kelly, the Robin from the previous two chapters. More shocking than that, she admits that Bruce Wayne is dead. It’s a fantastic way to end a first issue – and a terrific lead for audiences to want to pick up the second.

Throughout DKIII #1, Miller and Azzarello give us glimpses into the larger plot: the earth’s greatest and strongest hero, Superman, has retreated into his Fortress of Solitude, embedded within a thick layer of ice, seemingly deliberately. His only visitor is his teenage daughter, Kara, whose mother also happens to be Wonder Woman. She has the same powers as her parents and is the only one who still takes an active interest in her father. While at the Fortress, Kara notices the famous bottled city of Kandor – an entire Kryptonian city and all of its inhabitants, shrunk down to the size of a table-top diorama. Its inhabitants send out a mysterious message for help.

We also know that Diana, Wonder Woman, is back at home with her Amazonian people, passively raising a second child while battling a giant Minotaur and leading as Queen. She has little interest in the outside world, except a curiosity over her eldest daughter, who does seem to have interest in mankind and society.

The title of the series has been widely speculated by fans and critics alike. Who, exactly, is the “Master Race”? From the plot points, it seems that the answer is two-fold. Writers Azzarello and Miller point to the trinity of DC’s superheroes: Superman, Wonder Woman, and the seemingly deceased original Batman as the world’s true “Masters”. They are (or were) shining examples of strength, hope, justice and love – the best qualities found in all of mankind. It’s a theme that has run throughout the various The Dark Knight Returns stories – from part one to part two. But the “Master Race” could also point to the bottled city of Kandor, thousands of microscopic Kryptonians that, if returned to regular size, would have the exact same powers as the currently frozen and removed from human society, Superman.

In an interesting twist to the publishing of DKIII, each of the eight issues of the series will contain a short mini comic, with the first one written and penciled by Frank Miller. Not only is this more evidence of his involvement with the project, but these mini comics provide added story elements to the main series. In issue one, it’s an extended scene where Kara takes Kandor to the old Justice League scientist-hero known as the Atom, stating that the bottled city’s inhabitants wish to return to regular size. The request could very well be the set-up to the story’s conflict-to-come.

Although the scene is endearing, and although it appears to be an important one, having it placed as a mini-comic within the comic itself, comes across as a promotional stunt. It could easily have been included within issue #1 proper. Still, that seems to be DC’s modus operandi with this particular title: each issue will include a “mini comic” illustrated by a different, top, artist. Getting Frank Miller to draw the first one lends a sense of credibility to his overall contribution to the project. (Plus, every fan wants to see more of Miller’s art.)

Azzarello’s writing, dialogue and scene structure, (dismissing the inherent speculation of the level of Frank Miller’s involvement in it) seem very Miller-esque. Azzarello, like Miller, has always had a preponderance for tight, terse, dialogue, so there’s really no identifiable way to discern each creators level of involvement except through interviews with the them. Miller has admitted that much of the writing work is, in fact, the product of his co-author.

DKIII 1 image WW and MinotaurOf course, there are panels that infer television show broadcasts as well as celebrities, which harkens the visual storytelling of the original series, all those years ago. These are merged with layouts of cell phone text conversations that remind readers that the book is new, is its own entity, and is being published in the here and now. Splash panels further echo the artistic sensibilities of 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, especially as Batman battles Gotham City’s police force (where the character gets brutally beat up!), as well as in Wonder Woman’s fight with a Minotaur – after which  she calmly breast feeds her baby. The shock of those two disparate visuals is exacting to Miller’s own visual sensibilities. It’s a testament to Andy Kubert’s pencils and Klaus Janson’s inks that DKIII #1 feels so tightly interwoven with the other two parts of the trilogy.

DKIII #1 was a great first chapter into this particular series. Any well-earned skepticism was quickly allayed by the quality of the storytelling and the desire to want to read the next issue.

Where does the story go from here? We’ll be following the series closely, reviewing each issue as it’s released. Be back next month for an assessment of DKIII #2.

In the meantime, what did you think?

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