Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Dark Knight III: The Master Race 1, originally released November 25th, 2015.
Drew: Under the subject of “staying on topic,” the Retcon Punch style guide reminds writers that any piece we write is a discussion of a specific issue of a comic, not a discourse on a creative team, series, or character. That’s a guideline that I stand by as something that keeps our discussions focused and open-minded — my opinions on any prior issues take a backseat to my reactions to this one. Indeed, DKIII might just provide a perfect example of why that focus is so important: we’d all love an opportunity to write about the legacy of The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller, or the enduring symbolic potency of Batman, but that would hardly make for a satisfying commentary on this particular comic. Then again, DKR, while formally remarkable in many ways, is most interesting as a response to the Batman stories that came before it — it’s very much a reaction to that legacy and context. Moreover, it was such a watershed moment for superheroes that virtually every superhero comic since then has needed to reconcile with it. That legacy proves inescapable for DKIII, which might actually work to this issue’s benefit.
To say that this issue is about legacy is putting it mildly. Everyone here is concerned with legacy, whether that’s arguing about the value of vigilantism, searching for answers from a maybe-dead Superman, or just taking up the cause of an also-maybe-dead Batman. Those concerns mostly manifest as questions: who does Batman fight for? What is the meaning of Batman’s sacrifice? What do we value as a society? That last question is as prescient today as it was in 1986, so DKR‘s television personality talking heads work just as effectively, arguing over the very questions that make up the thesis of this issue.
As with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the personalities here so closely resemble actual pundits and tv hosts to be a bit distracting, but that may actually work in favor of the larger point, which suggests that Batman is so effective as an idea, it almost doesn’t matter if he actually exists. He’s used to further the agendas of all of these figures, without any regard for the context of his actions, or even who it is behind the cowl. They’re reacting to a legacy, using the present example only as a springboard to spout their opinions about that legacy.
Which I suppose brings me back to my initial point. I may generally prefer to ignore the greater context of an individual issue of a comic, but that context is what this issue is all about. It anticipates our preoccupation with The Dark Knight Returns and turns them against us. Any would-be naysayers arguing that this issue is a shell of the original end up agreeing with the issue — the hollowness is a success, not a failure.
I’ll spare attempting to diagnose where that success comes from, but it’s impossible to ignore the contributions of the fresh blood on this project. Where the previous Dark Knight stories were almost auteurist projects, written and drawn by Miller and colored by Lynn Varley, this one finds new collaborators at virtually every step of production. Notably, co-writer Brian Azzarello’s ear for street slang gives the dialogue a snappiness that was lacking in DKSA, and Andy Kubert’s pencils recapture the vitality of Miller’s work on DKR (though Klaus Janson’s return on inks might have something to do with that). Miller’s voice is clearly driving the story, but his collaborators give that voice new life.
I wasn’t sure any comic could really live up to being the consequent of DKR‘s antecedent, but this one might just have what it takes. It’s remarkably clever (even if the commentary is as ham-fisted as ever), and the creative team seems strong enough to overcome the demons that made DKSA so excessive. It’s won me over, at any rate, which is all it needed to do to eschew the baggage for next time. Patrick! I’m curious if you were as pleased with this as I was. Do you think this successfully addresses the legacy of DKR? Also, I didn’t talk about that Atom back-up, but I know you must have been excited for a little Ray Palmer action. Is fighting a lizard enough to scratch that Atom itch?
Patrick: Drew! I was pleased by this issue. Even with all the baggage that the series has, and with all the ways it addresses its own baggage, the issue is remarkably fresh and modern. I’ll loop back around to the Atom back-up in a bit, but let’s take a look at that bravura opening sequence first.
The first three pages are narrated by text messages between characters that we never really meet. One of them is a witness to the return of Batman and the other… just a friend who doesn’t believe him. That’s a pretty common trope: two dudes trading stories about The Batman, but Miller and Azzarello’s use of modern technology grants the whole thing a level of verisimilitude that ‘dudes on the street’ don’t. For instance, when you’re reading a scene about people gossiping about Batman, you’re reading text — either on a page or a screen — that represents spoken words. We don’t talk about the suspension of disbelief involved in that every-day act of reading comics: you’re seeing the characters, but you cannot hear their words, you can only read them. It’s not a big deal, and we’ve all kind of agreed that it’s a level of artifice that we can deal with. But when the dialogue is in text message form, we’re already seeing exactly what we would see in real life (especially if you’re like me and do most of your reading digitally): words on a screen. And not just any “words” either – Miller and Azzarello use as much texting short-hand as possible (and one emoji!) to remind us that what we’re reading is meant to be read and not heard.
Damned if I can figure out who exactly to credit for this next genius stroke, but the choice to put those texts in recognizably iChat colors is genius. Seriously – is that dictated in the script? Or did colorist Brad Anderson make an astoundingly effective choice? Or Letterer Clem Robbins? Whoever made that choice also made the witness’ text bubbles blue, which, on the iPhone, means that those are the texts from your phone, is a goddamn artist. Very subtly, it’s being suggested that we are the ones witnessing Batman’s return.
I also love how much information that first page gives us.
It’s not entirely clear what happens in these three panels, until you have the context from the rest of the issue. Personally, I thought it was poetic imagery, and not an actual depiction of someone shattering the case containing the Batsuit and stealing it. But that’s exactly what it is. Kubert doesn’t show the thief at all, even in that final wide-shot, and the text messages that guide the readers’ eyes to the edges of the pages confidently reassert that “the bat is back.” I found myself trusting the text more than those images — after all, drawings lie about what’s happening in comics all that time, see 90% of covers for examples of this. Plus, after a steady, three-page drip of information from the witness’ cell phone, we finally get pictures.
That’s the first time we see Batman in the issue. Living in a “pics or it didn’t happen” society, this is the kind of beat that works so fucking well for me. That wide-eyed, flat-mouthed emoji pretty much nails my reaction to this moment.
As for the Dark Knight Universe Presents: The Atom 1, I thought that story was strong too. I didn’t know that they were doing these, and it’s a little surprising that they aren’t being sold separately or something like that. The story is a scant 12 pages – not quite long enough to be an issue unto itself, but meatier than what I normally expect from a back-up. Miller himself does the artwork for this story, and it really is remarkable how much it feels likes a visual continuation of the 20 pages that came before it. That’s a weird little feedback loop, isn’t it? Kubert, aided by classic DKR inker Janson, imitates Miller, so then Miller’s work in the back-up looks right at home in the visual universe he’s responsible for.
And the dude is a gifted visual storyteller. I may not have been thrilled to see Ray fighting rando lizards, but this story does effectively sell his isolation from the rest of the world – almost incidentally. We get single panels of the outside of Ray’s house, and it’s like some kind of sci-fi Frank Lloyd Wright house built into a dire cliff-side. When he finally has a guest, it’s the most dramatic thing ever, with the cracking of the door taking up an entire page. (It’s actually one of two splashes in the back-up – the other being when Lara says hello. These are the biggest moments in Ray’s day, and all that’s happening is he’s seeing someone.) The light cast by the crack in the door bisects Ray’s face, compelling him to put on the very Atom mask he was just narrating about.
It’s a smart cue that reinforces all the themes in his narration. That’s really all I could ever hope for in a comic.
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Confession: I’ve never read The Dark Knight or any of its sequels.
Confession: I found this to be absolutely awful. I didn’t understand why I was reading it or what the big deal was. I found the art to be weirdly stylized in a truly unpleasant manner and the story was confusing and completely lacked anything I found compelling.
I think I’m not the target audience for this. I honestly am going to bring it back to the store and see if I can get a buck or something in trade value for it.
I was surprised by how much I hated it. After about 10 or 15 pages I started skimming and just wanted it to end. It’s been a long time since something I was interested in missed my taste and sensibilities as much as this did. I’m glad others got into this, it just really wasn’t to my liking at all.
If any comic needs to be discussed in the greater context of everything else, it is this. Because, quite simply, this is Frank Miller. Like kaif, I haven’t read the Dark Knight Returns or the Dark Knight Strikes Again (I tried reading the first, and while there were many bits a liked, there were also too much that, at the time I read it, didn’t work for me and I put it down. Would be interested in trying it again). But the story of Miller is well known. His work on Daredevil and Batman is legendary (I have his his Year One, and it is amazing), but he completely lost the plot. It is hard to understate how completely he lost it, leading to thing like All Star Batman and Robin and, even worse, Holy Terror. I’ve heard theories that 9/11 basically broke him, and the simple fact is, this is a guy who many actually intelligent critics call a fascist and worry about the implications of calling this comic ‘the Master Race’. Add to that a very large dollop of misogyny that has gotten worse and worse over time, and you can see how it is hard to divorce The Master Race from everything else. A fascist and a misogynist whose works have been steadily decreasing in talent over time even has the hateful aspects have gotten worse and worse is doing yet another Dark Knight during a time where the comic industry is doing great strides to fix the fascist and especially the misogynistic aspects of superhero comics.
Honestly, I had made the choice to avoid this until I heard some interesting things…
Certainly, this isn’t what you would expect given everything else. This may be the influence of Brian Azzarello (who, notably, would have been working on this at the same time as he was co-writing Batman #44, one of the best single issues I have ever read and honestly a great companion piece to this comic). Or it may not. I don’t know. But what it is is a start that shows that despite the greater context that this comic was coming into, it may actually be worth something.
This is a comic where Batman runs around beating up police who attempt to shoot and underprivileged black kid in the Narrows (see what I mean about Batman #44). This is a comic where every viewpoint character (in the main story) is a woman, as well as a good number of the supporting cast. This is the sort of Batman comic I’ve wanted.
On a storytelling level, I feel that a lot of the storytelling works in an almost ‘accept this, because it is Dark Knight III’, but I don’t mean that as an insult. It seems to embrace what it means to be a sequel to the Dark Knight Returns, and just does that. It is chaotic and weird, but expects you to just understand that this is part of the greater Dark Knight world. And even if you haven’t read them, it works. The grotesque art and the sense of history makes the story work, selling the tone and justifying the chaotic nature of the story. This weird storytelling choice combines really well to the actual events of the plot. A sort of chaotic yet meaningful look into a world that is both chaotic and meaningful, if that makes sense
But there are worries. We know that Superman is going to be unfrozen, and that Bruce Wayne is certainly going to play an important role, even if he is actually dead. And ultimately, Lara is going to mess things up by unleashing Kandor, which really suggests that we have a story where Superman and the men have to fix Lara’s mistake. And as much as I love ‘He says they’re tired of being small’ as a line, and how it connects to the events of Gotham and everything, if the people of Kandor are the Master Race, that line becomes truly horrible
Do I like it? I don’t think so. This isn’t me ranting because it was the best comic of the week (is it possible for a comic other than Omega Men to be the best in a week that Omega Men comes out?). Hell, I really didn’t care for the Atom backup until Lara came onto the scene. But it interests me in a way that I didn’t expect.
Snyder’s current Batman story is about the very faults in our systems of government, and how the underprivileged are abused, with an emphasis on the role of cops. Not only is Bloom the product of those systems, he cannot be stopped within those systems, He uses the tactics of an insurgency, and taking advantage of how the oppressive systems work to cause the problem to escalate. And every moment, Gordon is learning how important it is to work outside the confines of the Batman program, going out on his own to search for clues, and explicitly choosing not to follow Jeri Power’s disastrous plan to do exactly what Bloom wants and send an army into the Narrows. And it isn’t a surprise that the latest cliffhanger is Gordon being ‘betrayed’ by his suit.
The fact that the Master Race, so far, works as a companion to Snyder’s run, considering Miller, is a goddamn moracle
I’ll admit that I haven’t read Holy Terror!, but it’s hard for me to read The Dark Knight Returns or The Dark Knight Strikes Again as even glancing endorsements of fascism — they both boil down to deep distrust of the government. To me, their ideology seems more in line with Libertarianism than anything else. I’m not saying this because I agree with Frank Miller’s politics (I definitely don’t), but I don’t think they’re quite as aggressively distasteful as they’ve often been made out to be (though again, I haven’t read Holy Terror!).
I definitely agree that Azzarello offers a great balance to Miller — he often writes in a similarly hard-boiled style, but his comics often give voice to the other end of the political spectrum.
I suspect that the Kandorians will be the titular “Master Race,” but I think that will provide plenty of space for Miller and Azzarello to examine power-structures and shake off the accusations of fascism that’s often lobbied against Miller’s Dark Knight. It’s hard to be pro-fascist if your hero is fighting evil fascists, right?
Hey yeah, what is with Azz co-writing a lot of Batman these days? That one-off, DKIII, Europa. I mean, I’m all for it, it’s just a weird pattern.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he replaces Snyder. It seems like Azzarello is the perfect guy for Batman, but understandably they don’t want to give him a lesser title. So they give him lots of high profile stuff like this.
Though to be fair, Europa was a very long delayed comic, and Snyder made the point of getting a second writer for Batman 44 with a better understanding of the issues. So maybe it was just luck that it all happened at the same time
As I said, I haven’t read either of the previous Dark Knights. From my understanding, Returns is a masterpiece and decidedly not fascist (Just like Year One isn’t). Both of those have none of the issues we are talking about. Also haven’t read Strikes Again. Just saying that especially in looking at his recent statements outside of comics (people have wondered in 9/11 had broke him), I have seen many intelligent critics describe him as fascist, even in the same breathe has they praise his art. But the overall point was less exactly diagnosing what he is, but more that many of his current actions do not paint a pretty picture of his politics today. And certainly suggest a very different political outlook to what we actually got in the Master Race.
If the people of Kandor are the Master Race, I really wonder how that will reconcile with ‘We are tired of being small’. Because that line currently seems to map very nicely with the people of the Narrows, being terrorized by the police. So let’s hope that the transition from ‘We are tired of being small’ to The Master Race is well handled.
And yeah, if we have Batman beating up fascists, as it looks like we will have, it is a clear sign that the Master Race isn’t going to fall into the traps everyone was afraid of. And so far, that is kind of what Batman is doing. Whatever the problems with Miller as a person, his comic, with Azzarello’s help, isn’t doing any of that.
As I said, despite all my accusations, this comic isn’t any of that. Despite the accusations of Miller’s character, I really enjoyed this comic and felt it didn’t do that sort of stuff. It is one interested in beating up fascists of people of similar nasty ideologies, and exploring the exact same issues that Snyder’s Batman is currently exploring. The simple fact is, whatever issues people have about Miller and his politics, and lots of people have lots of issues, this comic deftly avoids all of them, while matching the politics of the stuff everyone loves, Dark Knight Returns (apparently) and Year One.
Basically, more of this Frank Miller, please
Do we know how involved Miller was in “Master Race?”
Some of the interviews I’ve read lead me to believe Azzarello really took lead here and Miller was in more of a consultant role.
Sounds like he’s all-in on the fourth volume, though.
I’m reminded of John Green’s article after the infamous Cara Delevingne interview about Paper Towns, about these sort of interviews (https://medium.com/@johngreen/but-did-you-read-the-book-2e2dad0ebab1#.j03d2emo7, if you are interested). Basically, the interviews are full of canned responses, often not true. Though from what I can piece out, it seems that Azzarello wrote the script and I guess ‘took lead’. Still, hard to tell from the interviews, because that involves trusting them
But if Dark Knight IV happens, Miller would certainly be involved, but with a creative team like the Master Race. Between his health issues and his other issues (that I mentioned in my first comment), I am sure DC will want someone like Azzarello who can both write the comic and take Miller’s ideas and turn them into something more acceptable.
That was an interesting link. Very self-aware but did a nice job of explaining the perspective. Of course, he is a professional writer, so I suppose he’s had practice…