The Dark Knight Keeps on Ticking in ‘Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1’

The Dark Knight Is back for round three of Frank Miller's saga. Or is he?

With the anticipation building for DC comics’ next blockbuster film, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s been an ideal time for DC to release the latest chapter of the monumental Dark Knight saga that partially inspired the movie’s plot. With the universal acclaim of the first volume, The Dark Knight Returns, and the all-around panning of the second volume, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, there’s been a great amount of pressure for Dark Knight III: The Master Race to be the series’ return to form.

With the help of a team of acclaimed creators such as artist Andy Kubert and writer Brian Azzarello, Frank Miller has returned to his alternate Batman universe that has proven to be one of the most influential stories in comics history. While this new volume doesn’t reach the heights of The Dark Knight Returns with its first issue, it’s a marked improvement over The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and is a welcome, nostalgic renewal of the Dark Knight world.

The issue begins, characteristically, with news of a sighting of Batman, three years after his last appearance. A black teenager is texting his friend about the return of “the Bat”. He tells his friend of an encounter he had with the Gotham police. The teen is shown running from the police, who seem intent on hunting him down. Before they can fire on him, however, Batman jumps in and takes them out.

Pretty soon, the local news stations have gotten ahold of the story, and the media is flooding with reports of the supposed return of the Batman. All of the news anchors, despite having changed names, are meant to resemble actual television personalities, including Al Sharpton, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa, and Jon Stewart. The art layout serves as a homage to the famous page spreads of the past two works, in which media reports and television personalities served as a sort of Greek Chorus establishing the story’s background and setting.

Interestingly, what isn’t entirely clear from the media chorus this time, or throughout the issue, is what has prompted the Dark Knight’s return. Despite a mention of “protests”, there isn’t an outstanding reason, such as a spike in crime or newly arrived villain, to demand Batman’s service. In The Dark Knight Returns, it was the presence of the Mutants gang. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it was an impending, tyrannical government led by Lex Luthor. Here, Batman seems to return out of the blue.

This could also be related to what kind of world Dark Knight III: The Master Race is trying to reflect. The comic’s opening, of a young black man chased by the police, as well as the mention of “protests”, would seem to suggest a world very much like our present one. In which case, are we to assume Batman is returning in reaction to very contemporary problems, such as rampant police violence against black men? The young man’s words, “the man don’t need a reason”, would seem to evoke the modern sentiments of a post-Black Lives Matter America. It’s also notable that the only people Batman ends up fighting in this issue are the police themselves.

Even Batman’s other chief opponent, the big blue himself, Superman, is out of the picture. One scene reveals Lara, Superman’s daughter by Wonder Woman, flying to the Fortress of Solitude, only to find her father frozen solid.

“Why did you let the ants knock you of the sky?” Lara asks him tearfully.

Looking around at the artifacts and relics of the fortress, she says:

“I was told they were the parts that meant something that defined the whole. What I don’t understand is, am I a piece of the part or the whole?”

Turning around at a sudden sound, Lara then sees a message burned into the glass of the bottled city of Kandor: “Help Us”.

Another interlude shows Wonder Woman rescuing a tribe from a large Minotaur-like creature in the jungle. All the while, she remembers what Superman used to tell her about their duties to mankind.

We are the light in the dark. The hope in catastrophe. Until they call us threats. A hundred, hundred times. We know that, and we are still there for them. You taught us to be that way. What was it about the last time that wounded you so, my love?

All of this ties into the return of Batman himself. After being pursued and cornered in an alleyway, Batman confronts and, after a harsh beating himself, takes out all of the police officers. When Commissioner Yindel arrives, she subdues the seemingly exhausted Batman.

“Where is Bruce Wayne?” asks Yindel, unmasking the perpetrator to reveal none other than a bloodied Carrie Kelly in the garb.

“Bruce Wayne is dead,” Carrie says, as Yindel arrests her.

Between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, the new series’ opening chapter takes on a much more despondent tone than the triumphant entrances of the prior two series. The atmosphere invokes a dire need for belonging and perseverance of superheroism, whether it be Carrie’s desperate “return” for Batman, or Superman’s resignation in the wake of humanity’s rejection, or Lara’s dissociation from her heroic legacy. Unlike the last two volumes, demonstrating a world needing of heroes, the one portrayed in this issue appears to be one struggling to fit them in. They can “return”, but finding a place for them is another matter.

The parallels between Lara and Carrie are also noteworthy. As both of them are legacies to unparalleled legends, they struggle to define themselves as aspects of said legacies or the direct recipients of the torch. Can either of them ever supplant their “fathers” in their roles, or will they always be a product of those lifetimes, like an artifact in the cave or fortress: a representation of what was, instead of a prominent symbol of what is and can be? A reminder of the longevity of Superman and Batman, instead of a signal of the end of their era? In other words, are they simply artifacts?

These ideas are further explored in the mini-comic that accompanies the issue, detailing the present status quo of Ray Palmer, The Atom. Considering the olden days of superheroics, Ray thinks to himself,

When we weren’t in tights, we had actual lives. People and passions. Being a hero was just an extension of what we really wanted to be. So is it any wonder that in the end, it was our identities that won out? For most of us, the hero thing wasn’t who were were. It was who we wore.

The monologue is an interesting reversal of the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “man is least himself in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Here, the mask, and superhero identity, seem to serve as more of a veil to the wearer than the viewer. The true self is beneath the mask while wearing it, but the mask is needed to feel it. It further contributes to the comic’s underlying tone of a desperate need for meaning and place, with the masks serving less as an extension of personal strength as a lessening of insecurity in a changing world.

Palmer’s reflections on days of old are interrupted by Kara’s intrusion into his lab. With her, she has the bottle city of Kandor. “They’re tired of being small,” she says. It would seem the stationary “relics” have less time to wait than they thought.

The inclusion of these new themes and plotlines, as well as the familiar elements of the past series, that make this first issue of Dark Knight III an engaging introduction. The comic reflects the better (instead of the worse) aspects of Miller’s imagination, and permits a steady return to the Dark Knight world. While not revolutionary or groundbreaking, it’s still a smart, gripping read, and the worthy, if lesser, successor to The Dark Knight Returns that The Dark Knight Strikes Again should have been.

RATING 8 / 10