Frank Miller Returns to Iconoclast Form and Pop Culture Infamy with 'Dark Knight III: Master Race!'

All images DC Comics

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Dark Knight III: Master Race!

Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello

DC Comics

Sep 2017

DKR's success led DC Comics (now DC Entertainment) to commission an origin prequel, Batman: Year One (comprising Batman #404-407 and released in 1989). Batman: Year One was so well received upon release that it now serves as the de facto origin tale for contemporary Batman mythology. Well, sort of -- DC, like Marvel, continuously retcons soft and hard reboots of its respective narrative universe(s). Perhaps due to Batman: Year One's in-continuity status, the official second volume follow-up to the DKR universe picks back up with Miller's 2001-2002 misfire, The Dark Knight Strikes Again (DK2)

The Dark Prologue Strikes Again

In terms of reception, DK2 received initial mixed reviews but has gone on to be universally panned for a number of (arguably justifiable) reasons. Absent was artist Klaus Janson, whose steady hand helped to rein in some of Miller's square-jawed, Dick Tracy-esque penciling. Serving as both writer and artist, Miller's artwork in DK2 takes on a bizarre gonzo visual design. Speculatively, his minimalist approach holds qualities that suggest primitive iconicity, but the end result runs closer to rushed absurdity.

As far as stylized superhero aesthetics go, the look is not a good fit. Pulling double duty, the verdict seems to be that both the narrative and artwork are stretched beyond creative recognition. For an honest attempt at close reading meaning into Miller's DK2, read Geoff Klock's excellent short essay “Frank Miller's New Batman and the Grotesque" in Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City (Bendbella, 2008).

Mixed reception led to another dry period until Nolan's clear Batman: Year One influences in Batman Begins (2005) stoked DC's desire to commission Miller to don the (narrative) cowl once more. The result is an attempt at a limited prestige format that could mirror Marvel's success with a second shared-universe of continuity, the Ultimate universe. DC announced the “All Star" line of comics with heavy hitter names and limited titles to ensure quality control. In 2005, DC launched author Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely's All Star Superman. The title started slowing in terms of narrative momentum but evolved to become one of the most celebrated narrative meditations on the iconicity and ideological potency of the Man of Steel.

Frank Miller: Post-9/11 Auteur?

While All Star Superman offered a slow burn start, it's doppelganger counterpart served as the reverse opposite. All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder (2005) pitted together two modern industry legends with Miller writing and fan-favorite Jim Lee handling covers and illustrations. The first issue sold out and went through multiple reprints. It was provocative, shocking, and ridiculous in the most calculated ways. However, Miller's own celebrity potency, what with Sin City (2005) also gaining cultural momentum in theaters and 300 (2006) on the way, proved problematic time and again in how too much artistic freedom can muddle the collaborative formula that makes the comics medium a special storytelling template. All Star Batman experienced massive delays after the first couple of issues, and after almost two years, it seemed the book would never reach proper narrative closure.

All Star Batman thus became isolated, on an island of superhero obscurity, not only not in continuity with All Star Superman, but also the resulting backlash seemed to accentuate the decision to shelf DC's All Star line for the foreseeable future. To suggest Miller's role in the comics mediums is fraught with controversy is putting it mildly, specifically when he attempted to produce a post-9/11 Batman tale in which the Dark Knight terrorizes al-Qaeda. This proved to be a politically polarizing concept from the start, and DC wisely distanced itself from the premise and Batman's involvement in particular. The project ultimately evolved into the “Frank Miller's Holy Terror" for Legendary Comics and -- in what might only be viewed in bad taste -- was scheduled for release in September 2011, the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.

In terms of a lead-in, Miller carries baggage like few writer-artists of his generation. So any time he resurfaces in popular culture, a cultural history cluttered with controversial imprints follows closely behind. Thus, the arrival to the latest collected installment in Miller's take on Batman mythology, The Dark Knight III: Master Race!. (Technically, the “Millerverse" as it is described in shorthand, is now established to be Earth 31 in DC's multiverse constellation of alternate universes that occasionally crossover.)

Dark Knight III: Master Race! plays with intrigue from the get-go. One of the great benefits of a continuity-free universe is the ability to strip characters down to their essence and re-imagine aspects that play to their origin's strengths while suggesting nuanced variations in strategic placements. This formula made the original DKR successful and innovative, and given that a problematic sequel has already gone through the ringer, the benefit now is that the artist is set free to simply imagine and create.

[Frank] Miller-Lite

Miller's worst tendencies are stunted a bit here -- which, to be clear, is a good thing -- by collaboration with co-writer Brian Azzerrello. His original cardboard square-jawed renderings provide artful inspiration for Andy Kubert's aesthetically sleek illustrations. Kubert, himself a multi-generational industry vet, helps protect against what made DK2 such a formidable visual disaster.

Early chapters do a strong job setting up key tensions, what or who audiences think Batman is vs. what actions or decisions certain characters portray. There is a bit of early misdirection that gets spun in ways that deliberately engage contemporary critical/cultural critique. Of note, this update sees one-time underage protégé Carrie Kelley (sometimes depicted as Robin) taking up the mantle of the bat. The gender swap intensifies an already topical matter wherein the Dark Knight pummels a squad of police officers as a kind of meta-anti-bullying intervention of inner-city youth.

However, it's hard to tell if this scene intensifies or desensitizes the real-world implications of police brutality against urban minorities. The set up isn't pleasant, but it isn't supposed to be. Miller never shies away from controversial narrativity, and Azzerrello's own history of ultraviolence with his 100 Bullets Vertigo series suggests Dark Knight III: Master Race may hold a meta-reflection on fascistic ideology swirling about contemporary America.

When Bruce Wayne himself finally appears -- in a flashback ripe with the possibility of an unreliable narrator -- he's collapsed, bedridden for years, and seemingly on life support. The red-head who recounts this tale may or may not be Carrie, Bruce's ultimate protégé in the final act of DKR. The reader is not given confirmation if this incarcerated Batwoman is Carrie or if her similarly rendered police chief interrogator assumes that identity. The working assumption (eventually clarified) is that this Commissioner is again Ellen Yindel, the successor to James Gordon from previous Miller lore. And yet there exists a curious doubling effect that layers one mystery over another -- a scene that portrays a mirroring relationship betwixt and between Doppelganger incumbents -- both strawberry blondes with tussled pixie cuts, neo-noir femmes molded in similar fashion to one another.

I'm not sure if these next-gen protagonists liberate the narrative or repress certain conventional archetypes. Miller's specific takes on women bring to mind another recent auteur that dabbles in doubles. David Lynch, in his film canon at large but also with the recent Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), both empowers female agents onscreen as much as he seems to delight in punishing them. At their respective ages (60 and 71), it remains unclear whether either is capable of advancing femininity beyond retro nostalgia and archetype. But perhaps the same critique can be made of their male characterizations as well.

Political Commentary so Meta It Hurts

The alleged Bruce Wayne flashback recalls Old Man Logan qualities (Mark Miller, 2008). Indeed, as an aged artist, not unlike Lynch with Twin Peaks: The Return or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) and Gran Torino (2009), Miller wrestles with lonely vulnerability in aged masculinity.

Comics' eternal fixation with power is also on full display throughout. The authors tinker with the time-tested metaphor of heroes as weapons of mass destruction. In a stereotypical cliché, the Atom's own hubris and scientific objectivism leads him to inadvertently release a Kryptonian fundamentalist from the shrunken bottle city of Kandor. Almost immediately the would-be genie wreaks havoc, including sending his own polygamous offspring into kamikaze missions across the planet. The premise straddles a very fine line between creative allegory and utter ethnocentric contempt. No doubt audiences will read into these open-coded signifiers and locate situations that reflect individual bias.

Also in play is an Elseworlds imagination of what happens when two superpowers produce offspring; presented here in the form of Lara (a half-American half-Amazonian, half-Russian half-Kryptonian teenager), as pointed and powerful as she is “free-spirited" and rebellious. Lara first appears openly trading secret dossiers with the Atom in the form of bottle city Kandor. Then, she whisks into a polite composite ideological-physical confrontation with her mother Diana, in what could be read not only as a form of Ubermensch individualism but also a symbol of Amazonian exceptionalism. Again, such a dialectic combo is only heavy-handed if one is operating at the level of metaphorical communiqué like, say, superhero comics or Twitter.

Miller has definitely been paying attention to the pop culture zeitgeist and the glorification of aged antiheroes in the peak TV era. Issues are sprinkled with all the necessary “TVMA" language that always stops short of the “Hard R" threshold. At one point Yindel solemnly drinks “Ryesenberg" whiskey while confessing, “the GCPD is useless" and “have been for years". This draws back to the initial police brutality scene in a continued meditation on the social function of state institutions when brute force overtakes civil cooperation.

Unfortunately, limited series comic plots rarely allow for true rumination to take place on the page. The issue can never be explicitly addressed as a supernatural narrative device, presented here in the form of the Kandorian fundamentalist Quar. Quar mediates his messages, streamed out across the entire globe, while locally he incites Gotham citizens into forming frenzied mobs against the police state and Batman in particular. Is this culture wars meta-message resonating yet?

Violence as Impotence

Dark Knight III: Master Race! wants to provide commentary on social violence, but as a superhero fiction the results will always be blended and blurred. Quar's plans unfold way too fast, and Lara's seeming submission to his plight comes far too easily. (Is she suffering from media effects? Confirmation bias? Did Quar follow her way back when on Instagram?) Lara spends “hours" beating Superman into a bloody pulp, which is streamed live for a global audience.

Bruce and Carrie sit in the batcave watching. The situation begs a question that no one has thought to ask: Is Batman in his Batcave on the Batcomputer the originator of Binge-watching? Let that sink in for a moment. #BatBinge.

After Clark Kent is allegedly vanquished for good, Quar comically addresses Gotham City by name, if only to deliberately move the plot forward. In a second countdown in as many issues, the city has “36 hours" to turn over Batman. Anarchy ensues in the form of flashmobs numbering in the “millions". Inside the police-state fortress, Commissioner Yindel opines into a recording device that the satellites have been destroyed by Kandorians. (Wait, but what about the global streaming?).

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Incompleteness and Fragmentation Reflected in “One Shots"

Sprinkled between each chapter of Dark Knight III: Master Race! (it is a nine-issue event) is a series of “one-shots" that highlight a peripheral character. The first involves the Atom and adds necessary detail for how the Quar escapes Kandor while not necessarily explaining why Atom goes rogue beyond the old broken heart cliché. Atom's motivation is weak sauce but at least the issue reads quickly. Likewise, other tie-ins feel like exploitative padding. The Wonder Woman one-shot moves the plot almost nowhere but does provide a visual cue when Diana shatters her sword across Lara's unscathed body. The image itself is not prominent, but a visual recurrence of the broken sword handle appears subtly in the main narrative. This signals a larger critique in Dark Knight III: Master Race! that violence functions as an impotent solution to problem-solving.

The Green Lantern one-shot takes a unique approach by suggesting that Hal Jordan's imagination comes from him being a child, not an adult. There's a bit of a hybridized mythology at work here, where Miller essentially merges the Shazam! origin to familiar Green Lantern mythos. Like Carrie and Lara, Miller seems interested in concepts of legacy and relationships between Millennials and Baby Boomers (Another Lynchian parallel to Twin Peaks: The Return). In a narrative gesture that echoes both of the previous one-shots, Hal is rendered powerless by issue's end.

Frank Miller's Pure Enigma Illustrations

Readers do get a return to Miller's iconoclast pencils in the Batgirl #1 and then Lara #1 one-shots, and these pages are every bit as ragged and brutal as ever. As a trained scholar of visual rhetoric and media culture, with years of experience and many degrees running, including an M.A. thesis on the graphic literature storytelling in the post-9/11 age, I have no idea how to interpret Miller's illustrations. There's a sense of Andy Warhol meets the Garbage Pale Kids. The rebellious Boomer spirit is loud and clear at all times, and if anything, it at least it moves readers away from overly hypersexualized imagery commonplace to superhero stylistics. But into what alternate dimension, I am just not sure. MAD Magazine?

I would kill to be a fly on the wall when DC editors receive his work. What does that conference call sound like? I'm reminded of Mr. Brainwash in Exit Through the Giftshop (Banksy, 2010). Except I don't think his aesthetic is performed to maximize irony anymore, if it ever was. While most of the issue is throwaway, Alex Sinclair's color costuming on Carrie's new wardrobe pulls the eye through the Batgirl one shot. The batgirl costume Bruce gifts Carrie is hilarious and insulting and twisted. The color pallet callback suggests Cesar Romero's 66' Joker with her hot pink cape and cowl and lime neon green leotards. It's Schumacher reborn with high camp traded in for ultraviolence.

Sinclair returns again for Lara #1, and his skyline sunset renderings salvage an otherwise extinguishable footnote. I dig it as “art" but I highly question the narrative intent suggested. Then I have to remind myself, Miller's batman is a maniac that poses as a broken down wounded man. The only thing he is good at repressing is just how psychotic he is. These books, to be clear, come to represent fascist-on-fascist fanfic.

Updating a Gender Double Bind

In Lara and Carrie, Miller and co. modernize (an awkward) gender response to the World's Finest pairing of Batman and Superman (or if you think about it, a duality of DC's Trinity). Such a “contemporary" move to diversify gender and mixed-race representation is awkwardly problematized by numerous allusions to a May-December mentorship between Bruce and Carrie. In one early scene, Carrie references herself as Bruce's “Prick" ( Holy Oedipus, Batman?!) while in another Bruce strokes her cheek as she sleeps, battered and bruised from police brutality, on a steel cot in a solemn room.

In one early chapter, Carrie kneels between Bruce's legs as he sits in the dark in his underwear. She injects a syringe full of ? (that's up to the reader's imagination) into his knee; the syringe itself longer than Carrie's arm. Biff! and might I add Ack! In an attempt to surpass the shades of gray pairing of the Hound with Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, this duo leans closer to the European ethos of Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994).

Media Politics Behind the Times

It's ironic that in his attempt at capturing the “current" this Millerverse suggests a number of media personalities that have transitioned out of the public over the last few years. Talking heads comprised a signature aspect of the original Dark Knight Returns, and indeed this feature helped translate a media culture that came into being amid the Regan era '80s. Here the collective renderings of cable news personas includes Bill O'Reilly, John Stewart, Glenn Beck, and Megan Kelly -- all personalities that have left television or networks by force, retirement, scandal, or in the case of an additional unmistakable recurring voice, the Presidency. Yes, not unlike the ideological critique of Regan in DKR, Miller finds panel space to include a “HUGE" public figure in what surely was scripted prior over a year before the November 2016 election cycle.

The ability to perceive and interpret the world is simply uncanny for some artists. Miller and Lynch follow a long line of prognosticating provocateurs, but audiences never seem capable of catching up and “getting it" until it's too late. There is tragedy in beauty.

It would be unfair to give too many plot details away. This is a provocative read to be sure, and the longer one meditates on it, the more resonant it's ill-conceived ideas give way to true introspection and a desire to produce thoughtful post-reaction and dialogue with others. But needless to say, the collective Miller team ratchets up the antagonistic ideas, with a word-of-mouth press teasing that Miller is not yet done playing god with these fascist figures. In the Millerverse world, Batman might just be a reflection of America in twilight. And like his Batman, this auteur refuses to age gracefully or fully disappear into the bleak dark night.

Dark Knight III: Master Race! serves homage to WWII-ish symbology including the titular title name that evokes retro wartime nostalgia as much as it reminds readers, uneasily, of the neo-fascist fetishism embraced by contemporary Alt Right enthusiasts. Once again, the reader is left to wonder if all of this fascistic fanfic is cathartic or propagandistic. While it's evident what DC's politically correct answer would be, we all know the masses prefer to interpret media through as individualistic a lens as possible. How Millerverse of us.

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