Saturday, December 5, 2015

'Dark Knight III: Master Race' No. 1 review: Has Frank Miller regained his Batman mojo?

Having put the DARK KNIGHT III: MASTER RACE (aka DKIII) limited series on my pull list for The Pop Shop, I did so with trepidation.

After all, writer Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN was nothing short of a disaster. The 2001-2002 three-issue limited series was plagued by annoying shipping delays between issues. Not only was STRIKES AGAIN forgettable and Miller's art had taken a severe turn for the worse, even worse, Miller seemed to have lost all touch with his DARK KNIGHT RETURNS world.

And as a diehard Dick Grayson fan, I detested the way Miller characterized him. (Does he really hate Robin so much?) The entire experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

So why would I want to read another installment that might further taint the four-issue graphic novel/limited series that I still love and got me back into reading Batman comics in the late 1980s?

(Interesting trivia sidebar: Did you know Miller's legendary series actually is called just BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT and "The Dark Knight Returns" is only the title of the first issue?! … Yup, most of us — myself included — mistakenly have called Miller's opus THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS for years. That common reference was reinforced by subsequent re-releases of the series with the RETURNS added in the title of the trade paperbacks. I wrote part of a blog about it in 2011 in the original online home of Cary's Comics Craze. Just to make life confusing, in the back of issue 1 of DKIII, the publication information says it's "based on THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller." Gee thanks for clearing that up, DC Comics!) 

Anyway, back to my point about why I was wary when I heard about the new DARK KNIGHT III limited series …

Miller didn't exactly strike a home run the last time he wrote a Batman story.

ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN, THE BOY WONDER also was hit with shipping delays and a sporadic release schedule. While it features superb art by Jim Lee, "my Batman"definitely is a badass, he doesn't proclaim he's "the god*** Batman" — much less put Grayson through the equivalent of mental and emotional abuse. Also, it took me most of the limited series to understand that this was Miller's Dark Knight Batman from his early days.

Needless to say, I wasn't overly thrilled to hear about Miller returning to complete his DARK KNIGHT RETURNS universe. My first reaction was to roll my eyes and cynically think he simply needed more money.

The optimist in me thought maybe Miller was looking to redeem himself in the eyes of Batman fans like me who no longer had any confidence in his ability to "return" to the powerful storytelling he'd done earlier in the equally brilliant RETURNS and BATMAN: YEAR ONE. (Go here for first of four comparisons between the "Year One" animated movie and the original material.)

Let's be honest here: If you're DC and Miller says he wants to write another Batman story — and not just any adventure, but one that will make THE DARK KNIGHT a trilogy, you'll say yes.

But I gotta believe DC's "yes" came with a few hard-and fast rules — mainly that Miller wouldn't be the only writer, that inker extraordinaire Klaus Janson was back onboard and Miller wouldn't be the artist. All smart decisions.

Brian Azzarello is Miller's co-writer, Andy Kubert is pencilling and Janson is doing the inks. That's one heckuva creative team. Great, great job, DC!

This is the first page of DARK KNIGHT III:
No. 1.
Kubert is one of my favorite artists right now and any time you get one of the three greatest inkers of all time doing the finishing touches, that's a doozy of a one-two punch. (Who besides Janson are the top-three inkers in comic book history? That's easy: Terry Austin and the late Dick Giordano!)

Just check out the front cover of DKIII No. 1. (See the top of this op-ed/review.) Kubert and Janson are a, well, dynamic duo and have created one of the most striking comic-book images I've seen in years. That simplistic yet powerful front cover will be considered iconic years from now.

To give complete credit to Kubert, he invokes a Miller-Janson-eseque approach to his pencils every once in a while without ever deviating from his own style. (After all, the more Miller and Janson collaborated, whether it was on the original DARK KNIGHT or DAREDEVIL, it's difficult to see where Miller's art ends and Janson's begins.) But from the opening pages, Kubert's art definitely is his own.

At times it's clear Kubert  intentionally invokes Miller. The lips and body he gives Wonder Woman are straight out of Miller's work and Commissioner Ellen Yindel looks like she stepped from the pages of Miller's 1986 series.

The nine pages that end issue 1 in which Yindel and the Gotham Police Department are tracking down Batman contain powerful stuff. With little dialogue and minimal thought-captions, Miller and Azzarello step aside to let Kubert and Janson's art shine. A great writer knows when to let the artist(s) tell the story.

Miller, to my knowledge, is the first writer/artist aside from Neal Adams to powerfully deliver dialogue-free sequences — as seen in his must-read and character-defining DAREDEVIL run. The technique is so common now, it's hard to remember how unusual and somewhat shocking it was for Miller and writer-artist John Byrne to use it in the early 1980s.

In this issue of DKIII, aside from one word of dialogue and a handful of sound effects, Kubert delivers the goods in five of the police-pursuit pages like the master artist he is.

Another storytelling technique returning is the single panels of media personalities used to deliver commentary on the events of the story. Miller used this to perfection in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by giving the readers man-on-the-street interviews with various Gotham City residents. While it could be argued the "commentary panels" clutter the page, they allow the reader to get a broader glimpse of the impact of Batman's return on the world — specifically Gotham — without burdening the story with a ton of narrative. (Give credit to Miller for creating this technique that now has become a standard one for comic writers and artists. Another now standard technique he introduced in the same series are the thought-captions — complete with colors designated for certain characters, which led to the elimination of thought balloons from comics.)

In DKIII, Azzarello and Miller employee media personalities such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and political commentators John Stewart and Bill O'Reilly to have the media discuss the photographs of Batman in action that went viral the previous night. There's only a two-page spread with these "commentary panels," but the writers put them to good use.

As far as the story goes, I'm not sure where Miller and Azzarello are going. But it's a fascinating start.

This first issue goes from one situation to another, so I have to hope it all will be tied together. The biggest issue is Batman once again has returned to Gotham, which once more has sparked the media's conversation on vigilantism — an obvious thread from the original DARK KNIGHT story.

The biggest question might should be where is the original Batman? And what is the Robin of this time period, Carrie Kelley, doing donning the Dark Knight's costume?

After all, in the first page we see the Dark Knight's costume in a trophy case — which I assume is in the Batcave — only for the glass to break, leaving the case in ruins and the stand which held the suit empty.

Regardless, it's obvious DKIII is going to involve quite a few members of the DC Universe.

Wonder Woman protects jungle savages from a massive beast, all the while delivering an inner monologue wondering "how many times have we saved them" — and having her baby strapped to her in a primitive backpack. She says superheroes are "the light in the dark, the shield from death (and) the hope in catastrophe." The people whom they rescue consider them saviors, but Wonder Woman laments how often people "call us threats."

Wrestling with the need and place for superheroes — especially those who go unchecked and unmonitored like Batman — is at the heart of the first DARK KNIGHT story. That same issue also goes to the heart of the tension in the upcoming film "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." Does the MASTER RACE subtitle refer not to Superman and Kryptonians (as it's been speculated) or even god-like warriors such as Wonder Woman, but rather superheroes in general?

Each issue of DKIII features a supplemental story that takes place in the same continuity. These three-quarter-sized issues are bound inside each comic book.

In issue 1, the focus is on the Atom with the story by Miller and Azzarello, art by Miller and Janson once again handling the inking duties. Aside from a very rough drawing of Superman on the front cover, Miller's art is top notch — and a vast improvement over what he drew in THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN. 

After the Wonder Woman sequence in the main DKIII story, her daughter Lara, dressed in the variation of a Supergirl costume, visits the Fortress of Solitude. Everything is frozen over, including Superman himself. This is when Lara sees the bottled city of Kandor on which someone has scribbled the message "help."

In DARK KNIGHT UNIVERSE PRESENTS: THE ATOM No. 1, Ray Palmer returns from battling a dinosaur (who knows why — maybe 'cuz it's cool!) and looks back on his career as Atom.

During his inner monologue, Palmer says Batman "was always a 'if it's broke, let's pulverize it' kind of guy," but makes the more insightful comment that it's "no wonder our secret identities won out."

"For most of us, the hero thing wasn't who we were, it was who we wore," Atom says.

Shortly after that is when he encounters Lara, who tells him the people of Kandor are "tired of being small." Again, I assume this subplot, Wonder Woman's, the frozen Superman and Carrie Kelley's Batman being captured by police will come together soon. Just as in issue 1, my guess is each DARK KNIGHT UNIVERSE PRESENTS story will tie into the larger story and future ones will feature various DC characters.

Now, what is the grander story? I have no idea. But from the looks of it, Miller might just have rediscovered his Batman mojo. … thanks to the support of a killer creative team. Grade: B+

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