Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1
Story by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Pencils by Andy Kubert (Backup pencils by Miller)
Inks by Klaus Janson
Colors by Brad Anderson (Backup colors by Alex Sinclair)
Letters by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
After legions of variant cover announcements, some scintillating black and white unlettered previews, and no small amount of Internet tongue wagging, the third chapter of Frank Miller’s legendary Dark Knight saga The Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 finally debuted. And Miller isn’t alone in bringing yet another tale about an aging Batman, a dying Gotham, and a mistrust of god-like heroes to life as he is joined by co-writer Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets), penciler Andy Kubert (“Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader”), inker extraordinaire Klaus Janson (Daredevil), and colorist Brad Anderson (Convergence ), who adds a dark or light digital sheen to the proceedings depending on the situation in the story.
After a methodical opening page reintroducing the iconography of the Miller-designed Batman costume complete with shattering glass, black on black Klaus Janson inks, and the ominous line of dialogue “A good death. There’s no such thing.”, The Dark Knight III #1 opens in a way that seems tragically ripped from the headlines. The comic cuts from the ruined Batcave to a black teenager running from a police car as two officers point their guns at him and open fire until Batman drops from above, and lets the teen go free and live to tell the tale via text message. This scene is particularly disturbing in light of this week’s footage of a Chicago police officer shooting 17-year old African American Laquan McDonald sixteen times and killing him for which he has been charged with first degree murder. (Co-writer Brian Azzarello happens to be a Chicago native.) Just like The Dark Knight Returns dealt with the crime problem in New York of the 1980s where Frank Miller himself was assaulted and mugged multiple times as well as the tension of the Cold War, The Dark Knight III focuses on police brutality, and how this can be reported and exposed via a picture or video on a smart phone.
Batman vs. the GCPD, which is revealed to be struggling with corruption under the leadership of Ellen Yindel (who replaced Jim Gordon back in The Dark Knight Returns.) is the main conflict of The Dark Knight III #1. His bloody, brutal fight for the ordinary citizens of Gotham stands in stark contrast with Wonder Woman, who spends several pages fighting a Minotaur in verdant utopian jungles while waxing poetic about (probably) Batman transformed superheroes, from something to inspire to something to be feared. Her idealism seems hollow and naive in the light of the opening scene as she peacefully cradles a baby and coos, “The world is safe again.” However, Kubert and Janson draw attention to her strength by showing her physically wrestle the Minotaur before standing triumphantly on his skull. She is truly a godlike figure, but estranged from her child Lara, who spends her short scene in the icy cold of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. This iconic full page spread of Superman covered in ice introduces the theme of legacy to The Dark Knight III, which becomes extremely important as the final pages roll in. Brad Anderson’s color are pure white with a dash of blue for Lara’s tears as she calls humans “ants” to her incapacitated (Or dead, but it’s Superman so you never know.) father. She shows disdain for the people that Batman must help and save to drive back the guilt and pain that has haunted since his parents were gunned down in front of him. (Kubert applies the visual trauma of the necklace scene in The Dark Knight Returns #1 to The Dark Knight III #1 when the teenager’s cross necklace flutters in the wind as the police are about to shoot at him.
The real world connection to police corruption and brutality, and the mainstream, corporate owned media’s sputtering attempts to report on these kind of stories and spin them in extreme ways (The “new” talking heads sequence is a solid reintroduction to Batman and also a glimpse at how partisan America news media is.) gives The Dark Knight III #1 a refreshing social relevance. It also gives a sense of purpose to an extended chase and fight sequence where the GCPD brutally beat Batman. Anderson makes the skies above the city orange red flanking the Bat-signal and gargoyles showing Gotham’s descent into hell as the police attack their former watchful protector with Kubert showing what starts as a fair, evenly matched turn into something one-sided. He takes a page out of Miller’s playbook and emphasizes the flurry of blows with an eight panel grid completely filled with night sticks that completely push Batman out of the panel with letterer Clem Robins’ bold sound effects adding to the pain. It’s safe to say that this is the worst beating Batman has taken under Miller’s pencil or script since Batman #404, or the first issue of the legendary “Year One” storyline. The world of TDK3 is one where heroes are too weak, or too oblivious, which is something covered in greater depth in The Dark Knight Universe Presents: The Atom, a backup parallel story to the main comic.
Andy Kubert’s art in The Dark Knight III #1 isn’t so much a skilled musician playing covers of a legendary one, but a good artist learning from one of the masters and upping his game in a major way. It doesn’t hurt that he’s inked by Klaus Janson, whose presence can be felt every time a silhouette of Batman’s cape and cowl drapes around a building or adding detail to the punishment he receives. Even the unnamed black teenager at the beginning of the story looks like a true portrait of fear thanks to his expressive eyes and the large sweat stain running down his face. (It’s even scarier because this is something that is happening often in the United States.)
Kubert really comes into his own down the stretch as he strives to outdo the riveting car chase in Batman Begins shot by Academy Award winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, but with pencils, ink, a bike, and a grappling hook. He succeeds by varying his panel angles using wider ones for the motorcycle sequences and more choppy, vertical ones for when Batman tries to get away via the roof. He also delineates his light sources so Janson’s inks and Anderson’s colors heighten the surprise Batman feels when half a dozen police officers are shining flashlights in his face. And once the action gets hand to hand, there is one excellent composition after another from the long shadows of the police officers over Batman’s body representing the jail he could be put in to his fist exploding off the page after his opponent think he’s a goner. There is much of the resilient, persevering spirit that Batman had in the fights with police officers and Joker goons in The Dark Knight Returns, but let’s say his luck isn’t as good in The Dark Knight III.
To go with the main Batman story in The Dark Knight III #1, there is a special minicomic featuring the Atom (Ray Palmer) that is actually drawn by Frank Miller. This short story is an extended meditation on heartbreak, heroes, and identities where Ray concludes that he likes wrestling with gods and monsters, but he likes having work/life balance as well. The metaphor might be heavy handed, but Miller’s fun visuals of Ray running from various dinosaurs shows how small and insignificant he would be compared to Wonder Woman and Lara despite his scientific know-how. The story also moves the plot a little bit further as Ray uses his science in a kind of clever, kind of cheesy way.
The Dark Knight III #1 is bombastic in its themes and scale and type of art drawn by Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, and Brad Anderson. There are ideological differences between gods and mortals, the law and citizens hinted at or show vividly on the page with blood flowing like red wine on the Gotham rooftops leading to the kind of conflict that spawns one of the biggest, final page cliffhangers in recent memory. But there is also the real world in The Dark Knight III with the natural use of technology from its characters, and the comic’s choice to tie in one of American society’s biggest problems with Batman’s comeback.
The Dark Knight III #1 is the best comic with Frank Miller’s name on it since 2000, a showcase for Andy Kubert’s growth as a sequential storyteller , and also a bloody playground to explore both social issues and burning questions about the nature of heroism.