DC Comics is courting some serious controversy with the return of Frank Miller’s epic Dark Knight series, Dark Knight III: The Master Race. The first of its eight issues hit this month and doesn’t disappoint. This is a tough-as-nails, untraditional portrayal of superheroes living in a world fraught with real-world problems, where costumed crusaders probably only make things worse.
For those not steeped in comic book lore, Frank Miller is the writer and artist chiefly responsible for the current trend of dark, gritty superhero comics and films. Ever since he got started in comics (as an artist, and then a writer) in the early ’80s, Miller’s obsession with classic noir and detective stories have bled into his work, which changed the direction of how these heroes are portrayed in pop culture.
If there’s one work of Miller’s that truly redefined how we collectively viewed what a comic book could be, it’s The Dark Knight Returns. Released as a four-part series in 1986, the story chronicled the return of a much older and angrier Bruce Wayne to a Gotham City imploding under the weight of its own violent excesses. Taking place in an eerily familiar alternate 1980s, this was much more than a Batman story; it was a commentary on the crass and shallow commercialism of the era.
In this bleak world, Superman was merely a shill for Ronald Reagan, who was more of an overlord than a president. The series mixed familiar wham-bam comic book action with cutting insight into our own society. It’s so influential that you’ll soon be seeing hefty elements of The Dark Knight Returns in Batman vs. Superman — an attempt by Warner Bros. to compete with Marvel’s Avengers universe.
In DK3, Batman is back again, after being thought long gone, and he’s attacking cops. Gotham City is reeling under another wave of violence, and this one includes an inordinate amount of police brutality. We learn this not through the eyes of Batman, but from the street level view of victims, citizens and shrill TV news flashes.
At one point, the comic presents a cluttered collection of sound bytes from all-too-familiar news sources spouting off opinions of Batman’s return and his attacks. There’s a clear focus on black versus white, and the panels are dead-on impersonations of news outlets like Fox that try to outshout their detractors. There’s no subtlety in the message about the state of police brutality in the US and how we as a society respond to it racially and politically. Gotham is fiction, but racial tensions and police violence are painfully familiar. This is a timely theme for a comic to delve into; if handled badly, it could end up an unmitigated disaster. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be a worry here.
Miller has teamed up with Brian Azzarello to write DK3; it’s hard to think of a more fitting team. Azzarello wrote the brilliant crime saga 100 Bullets and is fast becoming one of DC’s most versatile and consistently involving scribes. His flair for authentic-sounding dialogue, intricate plots and disillusioned characters is a perfect complement to Miller’s corrosive take on the DC universe. The way the comic presents us the dire situation in Gotham through the eyes of the street – in slang-heavy conversations, cell phone shots, and angry monologues – is Azzarello’s trademark noir style, and it works brilliantly here.
Although the timeline has been brought to the present in Dark Knight III, the tone remains identical, as do so many of the issues Miller was rallying against in the original. If anything, the evils of society he was writing about in the ’80s have only gotten worse, and this comic reflects that. This isn’t a kid’s story full of predictable spandex-laden action. We’re given a perfectly on-point platform to represent the current climate of violence from all directions in the US. If the first issue is any indication, it’s also just a damn good read.
The mini-series will play out over the course of 2016. After that, there’s sure to be an assorted variety of compilation graphic novels for those who prefer their stories complete. No matter how you consume Dark Knight III: The Master Race though, it’s set to fall into that special category of comic books that reach way beyond the standard audience. Dark Knight III is managing to seamlessly merge superheroes, crime drama and social commentary into one well-paced graphic epic – one that should be on the reading lists of people who otherwise wouldn’t touch a “normal” Batman comic.