The Dark Knight Returns (Again)

To outsiders, Frank Miller might seem like a pervert and a madman. To those with a sense of comic book history, he is an absolute legend. The work he did in the 80s as a writer and artist was revolutionary. So profound was his impact that a line can be drawn in the history of the medium separating before and after Miller. The single book with the biggest impact was of course The Dark Knight Returns, which along with the simultaneously published Watchmen created the graphic novel, brought self-consciousness and psychology to superheroes, and made the world finally consider comic books art. The continued resonance of that great work cannot be overstated. It’s arguable that every interpretation of Batman since 1986 is Frank Miller’s Batman. Not even a mildly disappointing (yet profoundly underrated) sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again could dilute the legacy. Somehow against all odds Miller has returned to his personal Batman universe this week. For comic nerds, it is the event of the year.

masterraceinsert2Sure, you might consider The Force Awakens to be the most important pop culture resurrection of 2015 and you’re probably right. But the hilariously titled DK III: The Master Race is just as monumental. Miller mentioned for years that he wasn’t yet finished with Batman. His incomplete (and kind of fun, in a bonkers way) All-Star Batman And Robin book may have suggested otherwise, yet there was always hope that he would return. After all, despite featuring some of the ugliest art that Miller ever committed to a page, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was an intriguing addition to Batman’s legacy. Expanding Miller’s apocalyptic reinvention of Batman to include the entire DC universe and filled with bizarre 9/11 allusions, the book was a noble continuation of the story. A reflection of the depressed vigilante’s complete disconnect with his other heroes and an apocalyptic vision of why such a vicious and uncompromising character needed to exist in a world of spandex leaders.

The first issue of The Master Race continues this saga years later and while many mysteries remain, an intriguing entry point is established. Once again Batman is presented as a vigilante to be feared and a forgotten icon re-emerging from the shadows. A truly surprising final twist brings into question Bruce Wayne’s involvement in the universe, while the revival of Miller’s bizarre Superman/Wonder Woman lovechild makes it clear that Clark’s no longer around to balance the scales. What Miller seems to be introducing is nothing short of a changing of the guard in the DC universe. This may well be a tale of Miller’s vision for the next generation of superheroes and it’s a clever concept to explore as the next chapter of his tale. Amusingly, Miller is continuing the story from The Dark Knight Strikes Again, so those who only know his 1986 masterwork will be lost. Oddly, The Atom once again appears to be a primary character. Though Batman remains at the centre of this story, it’s slowly transformed into an epic examination of the entire DC universe under the Dark Knight banner and it’s fascinating to see Miller fearlessly reinvent pop icons and obscure relics.

Perhaps the wiser choice that Miller made this time, was to bring in a team of collaborators. The Dark Knight Strikes Again was essentially a one-man show and limited as a result. This time he’s scripting with DC dark horse Brian Azzarello, a perfect choice as it tones down the lunatic humour of The Dark Knight Strikes Again and ramps up the darkness. They are a strong team, with Azzarello dialled into Miller’s strengths yet devoid of his most frustrating excesses (troubling politics, rampant sexism, awkward humour, etc.). Together they’ve provided a Batman tale as dark as fans would hope. The art team of Andy Kubert and DKR inker Klaus Janson is also inspired, using Frank’s iconic designs yet fleshing them out in greater detail, colour, and clarity. While Miller’s angular and exaggerated art style may have once felt prestigious for being so off model in the 80s, it now looks awkwardly sketchy. Bringing in this team allows the book to stand out as one of the most beautiful on comic shop shelves and that’s a worthy change.

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masterraceinsert1Miller’s fragmented visual storytelling remains, with dynamic framing and satiric news commentary flavouring the reader’s experience. Amusingly and surprisingly, he’s also introduced a wonderful new comic book storytelling technique by including a mini-comic within the main comic. The Atom’s subplot in this tale will clearly be vitally important, yet disconnected from the main arc. So to tell it, Miller will be writing a second mini-comic pasted in the middle of every issue. It’s also penciled by him to provide a blast of Miller artwork within the glossy main story. That’s a clever concept that works rather well, proving that the old man still has some comic book ingenuity up his sleeve. Plus let’s face it, the cost and work required to print this second mini-comic would be prohibitive in most DC publications. Because this is Dark Knight III, the publisher is willing to take wild and expensive risks. It’s exciting to see the old man pushing DC into fresh areas.

It’s impossible to judge any comic book from a single issue. Who knows where The Master Race will go or how it will turn out. However, There’s no denying that this thing is off to a fascinating start. It’s clear that Miller has a unique angle that will take his overall Dark Knight arc to new and unexpected realms. He’s already taken some big risks and delivered some big twists in only a handful of pages. It’s also wonderful to see that DC are treating the publication of each issue like an event, making beautiful and unconventional issues. Hopefully this thing will only get better from here. Certainly The Dark Knight Strikes Again improved with every issue (no matter how long the delays). It’s always nice when a massively hyped pop culture event doesn’t disappoint and this one was certainly as special and epic as advertised. Thank God Miller is back. Even with the wonderful work that Scott Snyder has provided Batman over the last few years, there really only is one Frank Miller (for better or worse). No one writes Batman like him and now that Miller himself is as old and cynical as the Batman he created in 1986, the tale should take on a deeper personal resonance. I can’t wait to read the inevitably insane journey that you’re taking me on, Frank. Welcome back.