The Dark Knight Returns (DK1) is such a legendary Batman story that Frank Miller himself could not replicate its success when he revisited it 15 years later with the abysmal The Dark Knight Strikes Again (DK2) in 2001.
So perhaps it is a good thing that Miller decided to get some help from some of comics’ best creators for the recently-concluded Dark Knight III: The Master Race (DK3). Helping him out with the script is Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Hellblazer, Wonder Woman), and with the artwork, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson, both of whom have previously worked on the Caped Crusader.
The result is a much more streamlined take on the Dark Knight universe, a far cry from the messy chaos of DK2, and a nine-issue story that actually expands the scale and world of Earth-31 (the Earth within the DC Multiverse that The Dark Knight Returns is set in).
The writing is tighter, the script is more coherent (compared to DK2, at least), and while the artwork still bears Miller’s signature style, it has been given a much more polished look by Kubert and Janson. The gorgeous splash pages are there but are better integrated into the story, giving a sense that they serve a more integral purpose than merely providing director Zack Snyder with pretty visual images to put into his DC live-action films.
Three years after Batman defeated Lex Luthor and Brianiac with a little help from his (super) friends, the Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne have seemingly vanished. Then, he surprisingly shows up out of nowhere and is captured by the police, led by commissioner Ellen Yindel. Upon unmasking the hero, however, she is shocked to discover that it is not Bruce, but his former sidekick, Carrie Kelly, under the cowl.
All this happens in the first issue of this compelling tale, in which the story of Batman seems but a subplot within a much bigger crisis. The “Master Race” in the title refers to the Kryptonians from the miniaturised city of Kandor. After an unsuspecting Ray Palmer (the Atom) un-miniaturises them, an army of the super-powered Kryptonians, led by the fanatical Quar, emerges, hellbent on conquering Earth.
Of course, Batman isn’t about to let this bunch of Superman wannabes take over the Earth, so he dons the cowl again and leads the charge against them.
As mentioned, Batman may be central to the plot, but he certainly doesn’t hog the spotlight. The fact that Carrie is the one who first dons the Batsuit in this story should give you a pretty good hint of what is to come.
In DK3, the relationship between Batman and his former Robin is fleshed out even more, and you really get a sense of the deep bond and understanding both mentor and apprentice share.
Equally compelling is the family dynamic of Superman, Wonder Woman, and their daughter, Lara. DK2 merely introduced them and gave them specific roles to play in the story.
DK3 adds a whole lot more to their backstory and ups the emotional stakes by having Lara question her allegiances. Should she side with her equals, the Krypt-onians, or help her father defend the puny humans, who don’t seem to deserve her help?
Given that the main protagonists are Kryptonians, it’s inevitable that Superman will feature pretty prominently. From the beating he gets at the hands of Batman in DK1 to his gutless pandering to Lex Luthor’s whims in DK2, Superman has never been particularly super in the Dark Knight books. So it is refreshing to see him finally get a chance to let loose and be the hero for once.
Oh, and if you think Wonder Woman was badass in her movie, you should see her here – almost the entire issue #8 is dedicated to her leading the Amazons against the Kryptonian army with a baby strapped to her back. And to make it even better, there are also worthy, well, much worthier cameos by the likes of Aquaman, Green Lantern, Flash, and The Atom in this one.
By the time the dust settles, you do get a sense that Miller has finally redeemed himself after the DK2 debacle, and also pushes his universe forward.
The way the series ends certainly lends itself to future stories set on Earth-31, and after this, I’m interested in reading more. They may or may not turn out to be as iconic as DK1, but hey, all we ask is that they don’t turn out to be as bad as DK2.
Dark Knight III: The Master Race
Writers: Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Artists: Frank Miller, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson
Publisher: DC Comics