For years, it seemed like comics fans wouldn't be getting another Batman story set in Frank Miller's Dark Knight universe. Then, this summer, DC Comics announced that Frank Miller and a team of other creators were wrapping up work on Dark Knight III: The Master Race. It's bombastically goofy and absurd, like you'd think. But it's also is very different.
Thematically and narratively, DKIII picks up from The Dark Knight Strikes Again. But this new series — by the creative team of Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, Brad Anderson and Clem Robbins — is clearly trying to recapture the energy of The Dark Knight Returns. Like DKR, its opening teases the reappearance of Batman in a Gotham City that hasn't seen his silhouette in a while. The narration comes via mobile-text slang in syncopated language designed to harken back to the invented argot of the Mutants street gang of the first Dark Knight instalment.
But this time, Batman's swooping down and fighting the police, not criminals. This shift in targets fires up a media controversy, shown through the TV-screen-talking-heads rubric that was such a iconic part of The Dark Knight Returns. Like its predecessors, DKIII is very intentionally about Batman as a symbol. The kids texting at the book's beginning go back and forth about whose side the Bat is on and whether the Dark Knight is aligned with the people or the Man.
Miller has become a controversial figure due to politically charged statements and creative work, and has been something of a recluse in his later years. But he's still one of the most revered comics creators of modern times. It seems like his best solo work is long past so it's oddly fitting that DKIII is about Miller's legacy, too. The book pairs him with another comics writer whose execution draws from the same pulp reservoirs. It's set in the playground that Miller built but DKIII clearly has Azzarello's fingerprints all over it. The script unspools with his trademark elliptical style and staccato pacing, and reads as a bit wordier than what Miller's writing tends to be when he's solo.
Recent comments by Miller make the exact nature of his contribution to DKIII unclear. He's credited as a co-writer here by his quotes to comics enthusiast site Newsarama paint a different picture:
Newsarama: Frank, I know you always wanted a third part to the story. Did you always know what this third part would be about?
Frank Miller: It is in Brian Azzarello's hands right now, and I thoroughly applaud what he's doing. But now that he's doing his, it's now a four-part series. I'm doing the fourth.
The theme of legacy lays heavy on DKIII in the text as well. The older Justice League members who re-emerged in The Dark Knight Strikes Again have retreated away from the world stage. We get a look at The Atom/Ray Palmer in a back-up story drawn by Miller and Janson, but DC's pre-eminent trinity have pulled away the furthest. The Superman who seemed ready to be a omnipresent godlike father figure in the sky is doing the exact opposite. Wonder Woman — who's had a son with the Man of Steel — lives in the Amazon jungle with her mythologically descended sisters.
Lara, Diana's daughter with Superman, wants the Atom's help restoring the people trapped in the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor to normal size. And while the Batman is apparently back in action in Gotham, it's in a way that makes everyone wonder about what the Dark Knight's become.
This new Dark Knight comic is being treated as an event, with dozens of variant covers commissioned to celebrate Miller's return. His artistic contributions are among them, along with interior art for the Atom back-up.
The art there feels more in line with Janson's tendencies but some of Miller's craggy latter-day draftmanship pokes through forceful inking. Kubert's linework in the main story maintains its signature scratchy chaos but it's clear that he's rendering his figures in a more angular way to recall Miller's style. This is Frank's world and everyone knows it.
Dark Knight III: The Master Race is not solely the result of Miller's vision as its predecessors were. But it feels oddly better that way. After all, the weighty symbology that Miller loves to use to frame Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is the aggregate result of hundreds of creators working those characters for decades. Letting new blood contribute to Miller's bleak, blustery version of the DC Universe might be the Dark Knight saga.