This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 24, 2015.
“The only people who use the comics Internet are people who would fuck Frank Miller’s corpse. Other folk just go live in the real world.” – Shea Hennum
The Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 is not a good comic. It’s not a bad comic either. It’s a perfectly mediocre superhero offering on par with much of what DC Comics is producing currently. There are action beats, plot twists, and what resemble characters all cobbled together into what is clearly a story. Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello feature some thoughts on gender and America’s police state that, while not clearly expressed, definitely exist. Andy Kubert layouts the story so that you can understand what is occurring on the page. It is the Pizza Hut pepperoni pizza of comics.
If you order a pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut, within 30 minutes a delivery boy will provide you with something that is clearly pizza. It features crust, sauce, cheese, and an identifiable topping. This pizza will contain calories capable of providing energy and perhaps even taste decent, assuming you are very hungry or very high. Quality of ingredients and preparation will denote it as something far worse than most of what you would find in New York City, but far better than what you could pull from a frozen cardboard box. This does not make the pepperoni pizza in question good pizza, it simply makes it pizza.
Examining The Dark Knight III #1 purely on the level of craft reveals craftsmen. There is no doubt that the collaborators telling this story understand how the comics medium functions. This is not surprising considering Miller, Azzarello, Kubert, and Klaus Janson have well over a combined century of experience. But should we applaud work that is described as workmanlike? We do not walk up to a strip mall and marvel at how it does not crumble to the ground or that it’s lights are on or that the tenants have vacuumed the carpet. Many hours of labor have gone into both facades, but the result in both cases is something that meets expectations.
The Dark Knight III #1 does feature sequences that rise above this workmanlike quality though. An action sequence between Wonder Woman and Minotaur-like creature creates a very real sense of power on the page. The monsters enormity and musculature emanates raw strength while Wonder Woman’s sure actions and their results creates the sense of something greater, but less obvious. Kubert channels bold compositions in both of these characters to develop an exciting scene.
It is the one scene in which Kubert truly feels like Kubert as well. He is drawing superheroes as he understands them here, bigger than life and ready to throw down. It is a scene that looks honest, which separates it from many of his other pages. The Dark Knight III (and most reviewers) are obsessed with discussing the new series’ predecessors. So much talk is really about The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again as opposed to the work at hand. That cannot be blamed entirely on reviewers though, since Kubert is determined to infuse Miller mimicry into both his style and compositions.
The resulting pages read disingenuously. Miller’s trademark visuals are there: broad forms, drastic posing, grimaces like rain. Kubert makes sure to provide a spattering of panels that clearly reflect famous images from the preceding series as well. All of this only serves to call attention to what The Dark Knight III is not. It is not Frank Miller doing Frank Miller. It is Andy Kubert not doing Andy Kubert. The pages may contain affection for the source material, but they are a poor facsimile that can primarily be complimented for being serviceable. Workmanlike.
Azzarello and Miller’s script is a less forgivable thing. Recent comments from Miller indicating that he had very little to do with the actual writing of the The Dark Knight III are born out in the work. Familiar elements from Miller’s previous series surface, but arise like an imitation striving to look like the things it apparently cannot be. Text messages are utilized as an updated form of street speak, yet read like an old, white man imagining how the kids these days might talk. It’s a laughable version of a language that never really existed. The talking TV heads resurface as well, albeit with much more restrained appearances than those that made Miller’s function before. They lack of rat-a-tat rhythm that made the concept crackle in The Dark Knight, acting as the thing, but failing to be the thing.
That style of speech and dialogue is what makes Miller’s noir-infused stories so memorable, even when they fail in other areas. No one writes quite like the man and that writing is barely present here. Dialogue is crafted to sound tough, but it’s never as sharp or mean or ugly as it believes itself to be.
That soft boiled hard edge carries into the plotting of the comic as well. There’s no clear thesis statement behindThe Dark Knight #1 as a series. Scenes jump between characters telling readers who exists and what they are currently doing. It establishes a status quo, but gives no reason to be concerned about how things reached this point or where they might go next. Rather than trying to construct an engaging story it acts just like DC Comics’ marketing campaign, relying on nostalgia and fandom to carry it forward.
Amidst the imitation of what came before The Dark Knight #1 makes an attempt to address issues of gender and police violence. It can only be considered a feminist comic if the bar is including women in a comic. Wonder Woman, Yindel, and Carrie Kelly are all cast as men with breasts. Kelly is the resurfaced Batman, drawn as the broad shouldered Bruce until her identity is about to be revealed. Even as she stands bloodied and beaten she hunches and wheezes just like him. Wonder Woman is such a dominating and violent force that when she pulls out one of her breasts to feed her child it elicits laughter. That unintended humor is a trademark of representation, resurfacing when she responds to a friend’s outstretched hand with a sword.
Kelly’s appearance as Batman is a mix of her initial appearance as Robin, an overwhelmed kid in a suit and the aging Bruce taken over by a city that is no longer his. The resulting Batman combines the weakest aspects of both characters. The vigor and joy of the former gone and tremendous skill and resources of the latter lacking. She is presented as an inferior Batman dwarfed by the cowl.
Police violence against the black community is not addressed, but brushed past at the start of The Dark Knight III #1. Police have always been a fascistic force in this series and that part remains unchanged. The fact that they choose to attack a black man at the start of the comic seems almost incidental with a “ripped from the headlines” spin going for it. There is no real attempt to address the problem being presented, making me want to offer an apology for this review of Batman #44 where the creator’s at least appeared to be making an effort.
The singular flaw underlying almost every other flaw in The Dark Knight III #1 is that it is dishonest. The Dark Knight III #1 is a comic constructed to safely imitate greater works. It bears the names of Andy Kubert and Brian Azzarello, but never takes advantage of their substantial strengths, trying to twist them to be something they are not. The result is perhaps the most negligible comic featuring Frank Miller’s name to date. Even The Dark Knight Strikes Again, as maligned as it may be, is a comic that features what can only be described as a singular vision. It knows what it is and fulfills the artist’s desire on every page. It honest in a way The Dark Knight III never approaches, except for in a single spread after the story has ended. Miller’s depiction of Superman battling The Atom is honest, filled with power and a literal swinging dick. For only these two merged pages does it feel like a comics creator did something they cared about. It is the only true success in this masquerade.
That’s what makes looking at the reception of this issue by the legions of comics sites and blogs so absolutely stunning. Every month leading to this release was filled with dread as commenters made sport of Miller’s increasing focus on sexist and Islamophobic themes in his comics. Yet the final product features very little in the way of hate opting for inanity instead. Is this better? Perhaps, but it does not make The Dark Knight III a good comic.The Dark Knight III #1 is no better than the cardboard shells of pizza served by Pizza Hut. Yet comics reviewers are happy to praise it, applaud it, and tenderly kiss it for being workmanlike. They are Yelp reviewers eagerly posting 4 and 5 star reviews of a pepperoni pizza containing something resembling flavor. If that’s what we want to call great food, then maybe it would be better to starve.