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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