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*WARNING : SPOILERS openly discussed below*

Come gather ’round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale.  A tale of men and super-men, big and small.

A tale of legends reborn and made new.

A tale of gods among men, and men among gods.

A tale of warrior princesses, orphan sons, and all of the rest of us.

It’s a tale of Earth.

It’s a tale of Gotham.

Above all else, it’s a tale of a Dark Knight.

At least, that’s what it could be.  What it should be.  Up to this point, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race has been an uneven epic that nonetheless made strides toward expanding the universe of The Dark Knight Returns.  Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello have crafted a surprisingly low-key affair, taking their time to place all of the pieces on the board before reaching their endgame.  Besides the main story involving Batman, Superman, and Carrie Kelley taking on the mad Kandorian Quar and his acolytes, there are plenty of B-plots to more than justify the initially promised eight issues.  There’s Diana’s isolation on Themyscira, driven by anger toward her “weak” lover; Lara, daughter of both Amazon and Krypton, and her flirtations with the dark side; the Flash’s crippling and subsequent rehabilitation; and the Atom’s grave error in releasing the Kandorians and resulting solitude in the sub-atomic.

Sadly, most of those stories aren’t even mentioned here, let alone continued.  Lara and Baal have rejoined the fight on the streets of Gotham, and Diana is featured in the backup, but that’s it.  No word on Barry’s recovery or Ray’s plan to fix everything.  All that’s here is a battle in Gotham, with scarcely a panel taking place off of its war-torn streets.

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That in itself isn’t a problem.  The actual content is fine.  Kubert, Janson, and Anderson’s illustrations look great, the writing is fine, and there are a few small (very small) moments of greatness sprinkled throughout.  Had this come out when it was originally scheduled, I may have been more forgiving.  So no, the issue itself isn’t the whole problem.

The problem is, as a narrative, this series has lost focus.  It began as an almost shockingly subdued and inoffensive reintroduction to this universe, refusing to rush so the various story elements could breathe.  Eventually it became a little too slow, taking a tad too much time to get anywhere.  The most recent issue, released a long four months ago, was almost as narrow in its scope as this issue with the advantage of just going over-the-top crazy with its ideas.  No matter the pacing issues, though, this book at least felt like it had a direction.  It may not be clear why Wonder Woman wrestled a minotaur or why Batman made Superman some truly ridiculous amazing armor, but it felt like it belonged.

That focus is gone, along with any feeling of intentionality.  The Master Race now feels like it is just spinning its wheels without a clear direction, an excuse for Miller and Azzarello to write a whole bunch of somethings without saying much of anything.

Worse still, the whole thing feels derivative.

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There are countless panels and lines of dialogue that are callbacks to The Dark Knight Returns in this issue alone.  Granted, the series has had various references thrown in from the beginning, but to this point they have felt organic.  Bruce calling Carrie a “good soldier” felt like it had become a natural part of his vocabulary, and when he re-donned the suit of armor from his battle with Clark it made perfect sense.  Now, after such a long wait, any and all nods feel like the creative team is just trading on the goodwill of the original series.

Remember when Bruce drove the Bat-tank and had all sorts of knobs and controls around him while he looked through a viewing scope?  Well, you’ll love it when Carrie does the same thing here.

And hey The Dark Knight Strikes Again is widely regarded as terrible, but remember that kind of cool visual of the Sons of Batman swooping down on their enemies?  Guess what’s all but photocopied and pasted in here?

Worse still is the end, for multiple reasons.  I’ll freely admit that a good chunk of my dissatisfaction with this issue is how long we had to wait for what amounts to so very little, but here we are.  The spoiler warning is at the top, but if you really don’t want to know how the issue ends, turn back now.

From the beginning, Bruce has felt like a tertiary character, with great emphasis put on his absence.  The opening chapter ended with the shocking revelation that Bruce Wayne was dead.

In the second chapter, we found out that wasn’t the case.

Since then, Bruce has done some admittedly cool posturing, casually threatening the Kandorians while amassing his troops.  It’s built to this moment, where he and Superman join together as the World’s Finest to take on the alien threat.  Batman and Superman, united once more, the two greatest heroes of the medium side by side to win the day.

And then this happens.

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I’m fully expecting some sort of twist here, but right now this is incredibly frustrating.  After so much buildup, so much waiting, Batman gets very little to do in his own book only to be taken out of the action again.  Whether he dies or not really isn’t the point; it’s that the narrative is broken up so much already, and when every issue ends on a “game-changing cliffhanger” there’s very little suspense left.  If he lives, this was just here for shock value; if he dies, then it adds insult to injury that Batman’s role in the story was almost wasted.

Worse still, what should be an homage to the end of Batman and Superman’s fight in The Dark Knight Returns just feels cheap and unearned.  I get what they’re trying to evoke, and the image itself is wonderfully composed.  The light from the sun over the rooftops shining on their silhouettes, with scarcely any color but the blue and red of their capes?  Beautiful.

Like the other “homages”, though, it feels like it’s just there to remind you how cool that original scene was, trading on how shocking Bruce’s supposed death was back then.

Perhaps my tune will change when The Dark Knight returns for its next installment.  Maybe this will all pay off.  I’m more than willing to change my stance if it does, but as it stands, this book is a big disappointment.

It’s not all bad, though.  The art, as I said before, is generally good-to-great, and once again it’s Ellen Yindel who walks away with the best line.

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She’s proving to be the best written character in this series, which is no mean feat considering she doesn’t get a lot to do.  With Frank’s desire to write a fourth Dark Knight series, I wouldn’t be surprised if Yindel and Carrie are being positioned to fill the roles Gordon and Bruce have for so long.

On that front Carrie also has a nice scene, albeit an unexpected one, where she seems to lead to the inevitable downfall of Baal.  And really, as bad as Quar is, who doesn’t want to see that smug little snot get what’s coming to him?

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As far as backups go, this one is better than average.  Keep in mind that the average for these is pretty low so far, though, so that isn’t exactly high praise.

Conceptually it’s interesting: instead of the World’s Finest of Superman and Batman, we’re presented with their female protégés.

And of course they kind of hate each other.  Lara because Carrie is an inferior specimen, Carrie because Lara has allied herself with the enemy.

They trade words and blows until Diana shows up, and then she and Lara trade words and blows.

It’s interesting enough, containing more clues that Carrie will be the Dark Knight by story’s end, but we also get to see more of her costume…

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Come on, Frank.  A bat on her bum?  That’s a bit much.  I was even warming to her new look, but yeesh.

Despite that, it’s a fine shirt that at least takes some steps toward advancing the plot.  That in itself is worth a half point.

BONUS My favorite variant, this time from Greg Tocchini:

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Recommended if:

  • You just have to own every issue of this.
  • You’re willing to part with five dollars for two, maybe three good panels.
  • Like anyone, you’ve longed to see Quar have his face smashed in.

Overall: I went into this series with trepidation and was ultimately surprised by the storytelling.  While it may have yet to achieve greatness, it’s at least been fairly solid and engaging. With the interminable delays and seemingly aimless narrative, though, it’s getting harder and harder to get into this book.  The recently announced extended order of nine issues instead of the original eight isn’t helping matters either.  Things may turn around in the future, and I’m hoping that it will, but with a haphazard release schedule and an unfocused, derivative structure, I’m finding it hard to care.

SCORE: 4.5/10