The Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1: “Book One”

Written by Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello

Illustrated by Andy Kubert

Inked by Klaus Janson

Colored by Brad Anderson

Lettered by Clem Robins

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Those are the opening lines to The Master Race, and considering it’s printed again at the end of the issue, I think it’s safe to assume that it will be the major theme for this series.

It’s fitting for this issue at least, as the debut to Frank Miller’s return to Batman is as much about the death and rebirth of an ideal as it is a reintroduction into this world.

It would be fair to say that even if this series wasn’t exactly something people were clamoring for, anticipation is still remarkably high.  Indeed, for better or worse it may be one of the most anticipated series in recent memory, if for no other reason than to see if Frank Miller can recapture the magic that made The Dark Knight Returns such a legendary work.

Miller and, let’s be real here, Brian Azzarello even moreso don’t waste any time setting the tone.  With an opening page like this, it’s hard not to get even a little excited no matter how apprehensive you are:

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Right from the start it’s made clear that we’re getting a story that’s more in line with The Dark Knight Returns than The Dark Knight Strikes Again, even though the events of the latter are directly referenced throughout.

Put another way: while the tone and structure echo the book people actually like, this is obviously a sequel to both.

Narratively speaking, there are three main threads: Commissioner Yindel and the GCPD in pursuit of Batman, who has emerged after years of obscurity; Wonder Woman and her relationship with her people and her grown daughter; and, by extension, Lara’s journey to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Diana makes a pretty memorable entrance, as she is hunting a rampaging Mino(cen)taur through the forest.  It’s… well, I think the word “epic” is overused, but it fits pretty well here.

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How hardcore is Wonder Woman?  She soundly defeats this gigantic creature (its fist is bigger than her head by at least half) with her infant son strapped to her back.  Then she just nurses him while standing atop the corpse.

Diana’s an O.G., guys.

When she arrives back at her temple (which looks oddly Incan in design), she declares that her excursion was “wonderfully pedestrian” and is told that Lara has left Paradise.

Azzarello obviously learned how to write Wonder Woman over his 35 issue tenure, and his Diana here is the strongest part of the book: she’s confident, and the few pages she’s present are gripping and exciting.  Hopefully she features heavily in future installments, but time will tell.

Lara’s story is the briefest of the three, though it ties in heavily with the mini-comic that’s featured with the book.  She makes the trek to find her father in the Fortress, where Andy Kubert does his absolute best Frank Miller impression:

Right down to her silly "legs tucked under her body" pose while in flight.
Right down to her silly “legs tucked under her body” pose while in flight.

I was genuinely shocked when I saw that page, because even though the rest of the book definitely has the influence of Miller’s pencils on it, that looks exactly like something Frank would have sketched.

Her sojourn reveals two things: Superman’s status and the plight of Kandor.  There are hints here that the Master Race of the title may be referring to the Kandorians and the other descendants of Krypton, but they’re just that: hints.

Even more mysterious is Superman’s situation, both how it happened and what it means.

Spoiler
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For what it is, I actually kind of like Kara’s line there.  It’s unclear just how much influence Miller had on the actual script, but it’s dripping with hubris and just screams Frank.

Plus, this is only maybe the fifth most humiliating situation Clark has been in across all three books, so he’s got that going for him.

The main crux of the narrative lies in Gotham, of course, and it mercifully feels like Gotham City.  It’s huge, dark, and grimy, which is something that was missing from The Dark Knight Strikes Again.  Ignoring the narrative missteps, that book just felt empty, with plain backgrounds and no idea of setting.  It felt like the action took place in a bunch of solidly colored rooms with maybe a few buildings here and there, but Kubert renders the city as an actual metropolis with streets, alleys, skyscrapers, and citizens.

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The talking-heads and political pundits are back to give us an idea of the social and political landscape, and while they aren’t much better than in the other two books, they aren’t any worse either.  In fact, with modern connectivity from cell phones and constant internet connections, it’s funny to read how the news is almost playing catch-up from the text messages that signal the return of the Batman.  The satire in the previous books was pretty heavy-handed, but it’s used sparingly enough here that it doesn’t drag the pace to a halt.

The conflict between the police and Batman is deftly handled, with the chase being spread throughout the book.  As such, the pacing makes this feel like one long montage of introductions rather than a single strong narrative, as even the Batman scenes don’t exactly feel like there’s much to them beyond the chase.  We’re given very little information as to what’s happening and what has happened in the years since both the audience and the characters have seen Batman, and while that will most likely be answered in future installments, the issue at hand feels incomplete as it stands.

That’s not to say it doesn’t get exciting, as the inevitable fight between Batman and the GCPD is staged really well and illustrated marvelously.

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Surprising no one, Kubert and Janson are definitely the MVPs of the issue.  The look is tied in enough with Miller’s style that it doesn’t seem wildly out of place, but it’s much more polished and grandiose than the second chapter in particular.  Klaus Janson in particular had a huge hand in making The Dark Knight Returns the iconic book it is, so it’s nice to see his inks on Batman once again.

Once things get going, the issue just… ends.  It’s an interesting cliffhanger for sure, and one that has actually been spoiled on social media over the past few days, with an additional tidbit that shifts gears from what I was expecting.

Spoiler
Based on the closing line and a comment the Atom makes in his story, Bruce Wayne is dead.  Whether that’s literal or metaphorical I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that there’s more to this than the obvious.  I mean, really, do you think they would kill off Bruce off-screen?  That would be pretty gutsy, I’ll give it that.

Like everything else, time will tell.  From the opening page I was intrigued, and each piece that was introduced further piqued my interest and curiosity, and when I finally got pumped about everything, it was over.  Nothing else until next month.

Well, except the mini-comic.  Truth be told, I was looking forward to Dark Knight Universe Presents: The Atom more than the main book, because far and away Ray Palmer was my favorite thing about The Dark Knight Strikes Again.  

Sadly, I was disappointed.  It’s necessary to read, as there’s some pretty important information about the Kandorians, but Palmer’s lamentation about his ex-wife and the “matter” puns/metaphors just got to be way too much for me.  I’ve also been told that this is stuck in the middle of the print issues rather than the end like in the digital version, and even though it’s obviously a separate piece that’s a pretty weird way to put it.  Read the main story first and go back and read this when you’re done, as cumbersome as that is.  Hopefully they’ll put it at the back in the future.

Surprisingly, Frank Miller handles the pencils himself in this story, and it may go to show that he’s only as good as his inker, but it’s the best he’s been artistically in years if not decades.

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BONUS: As I’m sure you’re aware from my constant reporting, there are something like infinity variant covers for this issue alone.  A full list is here, but I think this one from Tim Sale is my favorite.

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Recommended if: 

  • You’ve read The Dark Knight Returns, which you have.
  • You like Wonder Woman.
  • You don’t like Superman.
  • Come on, you’re going to read this.

Overall: Better than expected, but it still reads like an incomplete part of a greater story rather than a solid introduction.  There’s a lot going on, several elements introduced that are all intriguing, different scattered pieces rather than one unified whole.  Regardless, Miller, Azzarello, Kubert, Janson, and Anderson have managed to surmount the almost unrealistic anticipation and expectations to give us a flawed but intriguing start to the series.  It actually feels rather small compared to how big I thought they were going to go, and for that I’m thankful.

SCORE: 7/10