DARK KNIGHT III: THE MASTER RACE #3
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Andy Kubert, John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Brad Anderson, and Alex Sinclair
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: February 24, 2016
DK3 hits its most thrilling — and troubling — heights yet as both Bruce and Baal make their moves.
The broader conversation about DK3 so far, while occasionally touching on craft in thoughtful and interesting ways, has been dominated by thoughts of Frank Miller’s legacy: both what he remains capable of and what he leaves behind. Setting aside the questions of division of labor that have dogged the publicity and conversation around the comic, DK3 #3 concerns itself primarily with this exact topic, bringing Miller’s unparalleled skill in portraying aging to the forefront.
Miller has, even in his own youth, had a unique ability to present aging powerfully, and in a number of contexts — from Jim Gordon entering middle and looking back on his days as a marine in Batman: Year One to Hartigan trying to outrun the one last heart attack that will finally claim him in Sin City. And of course, Bruce testing his physical limitation in DKR and DK2.
What separates DK3, and this issue in particular, from the pack is how closely it mirrors the current stage of Miller’s life and how much of the gristle integral to his portrayal of previous aging heroes has been sawn off. It’s tempting to ponder if it was Azzarello or time and distance that applied the knife, but that strikes me as both bloodless and irrelevant.
The issue opens with Bruce watching Carrie sleep in the Batcave, internally owning up to the lies that he’s told her about his condition. It’s easier to tell her that the fire has gone out, that he’s lost his passion than it is to admit that he can barely stand on his feet and would only put her in jeopardy if he went out with her again. There’s a torch passing going on in his mind.
Bruce isn’t just allowing himself to step away physically and appoint her his successor, he’s projects a future for Carrie in which she’ll surpass him. Bruce looks back at himself at his own peak with a perspective and self awareness never before evident in Miller’s Batman work. He sees himself as a reaction, a blunt force, but more importantly he perceives Carrie being faster and possessed of more finesse in both mind and body than he had.
Beyond Miller himself, there’s a feeling of zeitgeist around the idea of a body breaking down before the mind has lost the competitive spirit. There is, by no means, a guarantee that aging plays out that way for anyone, but this issue is dropping in the wake of the retirements of major figures in football, basketball, and professional wrestling that, in their own ways, evoke the spirit of Bruce’s narration this issue.
While Marshawn Lynch and Daniel Bryan’s respective retirements mean more to me personally, it’s the dying days of Kobe Bryant’s time in the NBA that strikes the biggest chord. “This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” were the words he used to announce his retirement back in November, but since then a far darker, gothic narrative began to emerge in the media.
Following Kobe’s final All Star Weekend, Baxter Holmes of ESPN wrote the starkest evocation of Kobe’s current condition in a piece entitled “The Daily Reanimation of Kobe Bryant.” According to the article, at 37 years old, Bryant can barely stand following some games. Bryant has totalled an estimated three decades worth of basketball play including preseason and international competition compared to the 4.8 season average that most NBA careers last. The article goes on to describe the diet, technology, and team dedicated to keeping him upright and getting him through the remainder of the Lakers schedule, but there’s no redemption waiting in the final paragraphs.
There are glimpses of the old Kobe, Holmes tells us in a warm recollection of his last performance in front of his hometown crowd in Philadelphia that started strong and gave the tanking 76ers the brief fear of facing a blowout before sliding back into oblivion and handing the ailing home team a rare win. Every bit of technology and physical therapy possible may be able to get him on his feet and keep him there, but nothing can slow the diminishing results or increasingly selfish play. The sad truth of Kobe’s twilight is that it’s only being enabled to staunch hemorrhaging TV ratings and put the Lakers in prime position to draft the next once in a decade prospect, LSU player Ben Simmons.
Unlike Bryant, Bruce, faced with the fear of becoming a dangerous liability, sees in Carrie the potential for something worth far more than the vanity of staying upright and under the cowl. It’s a profound shift in his characterization in the Dark Knight Saga that has, for the most part, been in service to the myth of rugged individuality and Bruce’s own cult of personality. Whether or not it came from Miller himself, the zeitgeist has caught up to his vision and is more or less falling into line with Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder’s conception that decentres Bruce in Gotham’s mythology. It’s a profound moment for the ultimate white-knuckled Batman to acknowledge that he not only cannot do it alone, but simply cannot do it at all.
Key to all of this is trudging up to the Fortress of Solitude with Carrie, which is where the profundity of his change in outlook comes out in full. Whether it’s a correct reading relative to the intent or not, DKR is widely seen as being the driving force behind the cachet of seeing Superman and Batman as antagonistic forces, which is the other myth he sets out to kill this issue by breaking through the ice that Clark has allowed himself to become encased in. Gone is the bluster and hardheaded conviction that his is the only way. Instead, as he chips the ice away with a hammer, he describes the events of DK2 as pushing the world to the brink of destruction over Carrie’s protestations that they saved it.
It isn’t all sunshine and roses, however, as made plain by Carrie’s remark that shakes Clark awake. “His people are about to enslave the world. If he won’t do anything…” which results in Clark replying “Did you say my people?” It’s not entirely out of line, but taken against the context of Baal’s cult, there’s a troubling, and none too surprising, racial subtext emerging. Shaving away the complications of the fictional world the story inhabits, Baal and his cult are refugees who arrived on Earth as part of a larger diaspora and have emerged from within that diaspora to orchestrate large scale terrorist attacks around the world.
Seen from that light, the subtext of the dynamic in play starts to have about as much in common with a Charlie Hebdo cover as was feared by many observers. Whatever the intent behind it, Baal’s emergence from the bottle city of Kandor to become a threat of demagoguery on a global scale uncomfortably mirrors right wing constructions of the Syrian refugees being resettled in Western Europe and North America.
The portrayal of Baal and his followers certainly isn’t confined to being drawn from the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam practiced by the likes of Al Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS. The pills that his suicide attackers ingest, for instance, are clearly meant to evoke the Catholic Eucharist and the plural marriage that Baal practices has analogues in fundamentalist Mormonism and cults outside of the Abrahamic faiths including the Manson Family.
There’s clearly been an effort to either broaden the critique in play or obfuscate the primary target, depending on how you choose to interpret it. The problem is that there’s a common false equivalency at work that plagues the way that art coming from both the political right and left typically refuse to acknowledge, resulting in far more harm than is necessary or called for.
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that comics has an Islam problem, especially given the nearly universal acknowledgement that comics have a pretty big problem with sex, gender, race, and disability, but there’s a particular kind of aversion to dealing with the harmful effects of common portrayals of Islam that comes from otherwise sympathetic and progressive voices.
There’s an understandable desire among secular artists to want to be able to critique the harmful effects of religious dogma regardless of the source, but there’s a patently false notion that secular or atheistic voices as a rule are always on the marginalized end of a power imbalance. The supposed omnipresent threat of violence by bad actors works to cloak the reality that ordinary law abiding Muslims, and even other religious groups like Sikhs who are routinely mistaken for Muslim, are at much higher risk for violent reprisals based on the rhetoric of secular artists than western artists are at risk of reprisals from extremists.
This ignorance was in full effect in Abhay Khosla’s pseudo-satirical recap of the major controversies in the comic book industry in 2015 as he opened with a typically knives-out assessment of the response to the Charlie Hebdo murders. He lampooned observers who criticized the murdered cartoonists for being racist in the days immediately following their deaths, delighting in the fact that his rivals at the Hooded Utilitarian had been forced to issue a retraction for overlooking that one of the victims was not white. He then went on to minimize the case for Charlie Hebdo being a racist publication by claiming that only six out of over five hundred of their covers dealt directly with Islam.
This is all written around the included image of a Charlie Hebdo cover in which Jesus was being sodomized by God, who in turn was being sodomized by a depiction of the Holy Spirit, implying that Khosla supports the aforementioned presumption that secular artists are always on the same ground when criticizing religion.
Among other things, turning the assessment of claims of racism into a numbers game is absurd and cannot be seriously entertained. To the best of my knowledge, Frank Miller has only drawn one graphic novel that explicitly vilified Muslims, James Robinson and Greg Hinkle have only produced one grotesquely transmisogynist comic, and the team of Mark Waid and J.G. Jones have only made one comic that featured a black man wearing a Confederate flag as clothing. But that, thankfully, has not been used as a rationale to minimize or dismiss concerns over those works. There’s no sense in holding off until someone slides into a pit of alienating bile to address glaring issues in an artists’ work.
Of course there’s been no significant calling into account of Khosla’s bad faith arguments because they were presented as being allegedly humorous and satirical of something somewhere. It’s also incredibly difficult to justify any kind of depiction of terrorist violence shaded this way in an industry that has yet to significantly empower Muslim creators from Arab or North African backgrounds. Critical darlings like The Sheriff of Babylon and Ms. Marvel are significant steps forward, but as with any aspect of the diversity conversation, the people behind the page have to take priority over the ones on it.
When Khosla arrived at the controversy surrounding the admitted transmisogyny in Airboy #2, he described its creators as enjoying the smell of their own farts and wanting plaudits for it (after writing himself permission to utter transmisogynist slurs himself), without remarking on the fact that his recklessness on the topic of Charlie Hebdo was in service to the same impulse. Without the veneer of satire, Khosla’s diatribe looks remarkably like Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso’s decision to respond to criticism of the company’s hip hop variant covers by singling out Noah Berlatsky instead of engaging with more substantive and carefully worded critiques.
Khosla’s knives were out for the low hanging fruit, but he glossed over the headlong rush by other, vastly more influential voices in the industry (including Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, and Alison Bechdel) that lobbied hard further swaddling themselves in the Charlie Hebdo name as the only way of combatting violent reprisals against cartoonists, prose novelists, and journalists. Presumably it would have been too much of a buzzkill and a distraction from using world events to nurse grudges to draw attention to controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo being granted a free speech award by PEN or the letter of protest signed by the likes of Junot Diaz and Joyce Carol Oates that very rightly and succinctly stated “The magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”
The inability of creators or critics to engage in honest self reflection without pettiness or hapless nihilism masquerading as self deprecation is what perpetuates the environment in which an otherwise exemplary work like DK3 can be undercut by a virulent strain of racism. Excuses have been made time and time again for precisely the kind of subtext on display here and so it’s difficult to argue that we should expect anything less.
It’s a given that demagoguery and poisonous religious dogma ought to be examined in popular fiction, but definitely not in a context where a population of refugees are depicted with vast superhuman powers that pose an existential threat to the entire planet. The problem with presenting Baal’s cult in a way that makes them appear to be metaphorical depictions of ISIS members embedded in a population of Syrian refugees isn’t just that the threat they pose is vastly overstated relative to ISIS’ reach and destructive capability, it’s that they’re also completely divorced from the context of colonialism and self serving military intervention that birthed their real world counterparts. There’s no complicity or context for the creation of the threat in the world being threatened, which is an incredibly reckless way to portray this kind of conflict.
At the end of the day not only are Baal and his wives a transparent reworking of General Zod, Ursa, and Faora, there’s no particular reason why Azzarello and Miller couldn’t have simply used the original versions. In an election year marked by a rise in fascist rhetoric on the Right (acknowledged this issue with a brief parody of Donald Trump), it would be easy enough to call on the spectre of a Kryptonian war criminal unleashed under similar circumstances from either Kandor or the Phantom Zone. The siren song of domination would have played just as easily to Lara coming from a secular military figure as it would have a religious cult leader.
In that scenario, DK3 would have shaken off its slow, somewhat clumsy debut issues to roar into life as an emotionally satisfying thrill ride. Instead, some of the most human moments we’ve seen between Bruce and Clark, and the most powerful imagery of Clark besides, are mitigated by ugly subtext and the issue ending with Superman’s daughter calling him a race traitor in a comic written by two old white dudes.
All these kinds of shenanigans accomplish is the alienation of otherwise enthusiastic readers and the devaluing of tremendous artistic output. Andy Kubert delivers by far his strongest work on the series so far, settling into an effective synthesis of his own personal quirks and Miller’s signature style. Why it took three issues to attempt and achieve this synthesis is anyone’s guess, but Kubert slipping into the proportions and visual shorthand that Miller employed in the first two entries pays immediate dividends. His Bruce becomes invitingly, warmly human as we see details like the growing bald spot on the back of his head, but the true highlight is the twinkle in his eye and self deprecating smile he aims towards the frozen Clark as he admits, for the first time in the trilogy, that he needs his old friend and can’t do it without him.
It’s also Kubert who makes good on Azzarello’s promise that DK3 would make us like Superman again, if not when he breaks free of the ice to challenge Carrie’s assertion that “his people” are on the brink of enslaving humanity, then when he falls to his knees in agony when he sees the damage that Baal’s followers have wrought. Azzarello’s statement was a curious one that rankled with the Superman faithful, but there’s no denying that we are currently in the toughest environment for publishing impactful Superman stories that live up to the character’s full potential and legacy.
Fittingly it was The Dark Knight Returns along with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow that offered the first whispers that dark times were ahead for the Last Son of Krypton in that oh-so pivotal year of 1986. Twenty years following their publication, the zeitgeist would push superhero storytelling into viewing them as soldiers as Mark Millar transitioned from The Authority to The Ultimates, the latter of which would become the backbone of the Marvel Studios films that cemented that construction for the foreseeable future. DKR projected a vision not far off from what Millar and his contemporaries codified, and Superman’s place within it was about as ugly as one could imagine: a man so beaten and brutalized by compromise that he became a human nuclear deterrent at the beck and call of the President.
Concurrent to Millar’s tenure on The Authority was Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” the story that sealed Superman’s fate at the dawn of the current era. Pitted against a winking alternate version of the Authority called the Elite, it established the fundamental incompatibility between Superman and the rising tide of murderous anti-heroes and willful extensions of the military industrial complex.
Superman walling himself away in a thick layer of ice is as much a commentary on his shrinking place in contemporary superhero fiction as it is a product of his horror at the conflict he was drawn into during DK2. His thawing in DK3 represents not just a need to return to moral clarity and strength of purpose, but also to be the person with enough of their humanity left to be able to weep openly at catastrophic loss of life. Kubert returns much of the vitality that Clark had in the original DKR to his conception, making him equal parts awe inspiring and achingly human, but it’s ultimately marred by the way that the narrative funnels him into the role of model minority, the “good” Kryptonian who has to answer for Baal and grapple with how his negligence resulted in his daughter’s radicalization.
Lara herself remains one of the high points of the story, although Eduardo Risso is unlikely to be challenged for having made the most authoritative statement on her in the mini comic that accompanied the last issue. Lara’s pivotal scene in which she’s approached by Baal and his followers is where Kubert pushes past a straight evocation of Miller to deliver something that pushes beyond what DK2 was capable of. Kubert opens the sequence with the city spreading out below Lara beautifully, but moves into engaging and challenging angles as Baal flies towards her, evoking Lara’s discombobulation by turning her world upside down, rendering her in a fully three dimensional space that Miller never attempted with her in DK2 or her father in DKR.
The Green Lantern mini-comic doesn’t offer the same significant step up from the previous issue, and it’s hardly fair to expect so given what Risso achieved, but it does offer a previously overlooked way to bring Miller more fully into the project. Far from the panoply of cutting edge technology that goes into keeping Kobe Bryant on his feet, all it took to get engaging and effective work out of Miller was for him to apply finishes over John Romita Jr’s pencils. The first mini comic was a near complete disaster because Miller’s figurative work simply was not up to the task and Klaus Jansen’s inks, which continue to work magnificently for Kubert, flattened and dulled Miller’s lines in a way that Alex Sinclair’s colors couldn’t ameliorate.
Romita’s natural style is highly complementary to Miller’s, allowing him to work with an easily understood shorthand and restore a personal touch to the work that is recognizably his own thanks to his thin, spidery inks. While it would be unworkable for the main comic, the result of Miller and Romita’s collaboration brings out the febrile nature of Hal’s story that explores him as an odd sort of analogue to Bruce, conceiving of his true self as Green Lantern and Hal little more than a vessel for his becoming. With the idiosyncratic qualities of Miller’s line work back on display, it’s remarkable just how much they resemble Nick Barber’s work on Ringside and Sandy Jarrel’s on Black Canary #8. It may not hold a candle to his work on the original DKR or 300, but it does serve as an immediate reminder of just how much of a broad impact his cartooning has had on the medium.
Love it or hate it, DK3 has emerged to become just as well crafted, thrilling, and frustrating as anything carrying Frank Miller’s name.
The Verdict: 9.0/10