DARK KNIGHT III: THE MASTER RACE #5
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Adam Kubert, Klaus Janson, Brad Anderson, Frank Miller, and Alex Sinclair
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: June 29, 2016
It’s the climax we’ve all been waiting for and the payoffs come fast and furious, but is it too little too late to save the floundering series?
Batman as a character always seems like he’s at his best when he’s been counted out whether it’s his comeback fight against the mutant gang in DKR, turning the tables on the white martians, his return from amnesia in “Superheavy,” or countless other examples. It’s a spirit he lends to the entire Justice League this issue and there’s a lot to love.
Barry barely gets a chance to process his horrific injury at the hands of one of the Kandorians last issue before Bruce sets him up — suspended by his mangled legs — to run the nerve center of the Batcave. It’s a turnaround to make Barbara Gordon proud, but it’s Superman who once again gets the real centerpiece.
The Batgirl from last issue’s mini comic was Carrie Kelly in yet another bat costume (which presumably leaves her with Nightwing as the only legacy role she hasn’t filled yet). The point of her rendezvous with Aquaman was to revive Clark yet again, this time using a tiny tuning fork to break him out of the black dimension he was encased in at the climax of his bloody pummeling.
Azzarello and Miller project an almost sadistic glee in how they brutalize Clark to build him up again, which is more or less a DKR tradition at this point, but it’s towards a much worthier goal here. It’s highly unlikely that anything will ever match the raw power of his detonation of the nuclear bomb in the original, but his cycles of death and rebirth across this volume represent a compact and efficient manifestation of the messianic qualities that Miller and Azzarello have both drawn out of the character throughout their careers.
When Azzarello first took on Superman in the flagship title with Jim Lee, they made it almost embarrassingly obtuse by having him fly down into a church seen from below and wreathed in an angelic light to contrast the human view of him with the crisis of faith that played out across the arc, and Miller has been hardly more subtle.
The main issue with Superman in the first two entries of the DKR trilogy was that despite the beauty and power of his self sacrifice and stewardship for the planet as he tried to break free of the aftermath of the bomb, both prior entries were fixated on playing Clark as naive and buffoonish.
The overriding aim always seemed to be an obsession with challenging and defeating God, that the final word on Bruce’s career as Batman required him to humble Clark in some way. That impulse is well and truly out of Miller’s system in DK3, though, and we saw the rift between him and Clark literally thaw in the third issue at the Fortress of Solitude.
Somewhat against type for both writers, they seem to have come to the conclusion that the DKR saga needed a heart to balance out the overriding bleak landscape and that heart — more than even Carrie — would be Clark. In a story that has, for the most part, been about aging and entropy, Clark embodies rebirth and renewal above all else. He also gives us the first sense of genuine wonder in the saga as Carrie watches him break out of the black universe.
The biggest payoff, as goofy as it is, comes at the close of the issue as Clark joins Bruce in the rain of synthetic kryptonite in a gigantic metal suit to match Bruce’s. If there was any question of DK3 delivering a healthier and wiser Bruce than the preceding chapters, it ended with the pair of them standing together, ready to face down the Kandorian threat once and for all.
This kind of softening of the narrative into an inclusive last stand of the core Justice League is what brings the best out of Andy Kubert, which is more or less where it departs the most from the preceding chapters in the DKR saga. Outside of the craggy textures he imbues the whales that Carrie and Aquaman travel with, Kubert sheds his attempts to mirror Miller’s stylistic quirks to deliver the kind of full hearted adventure that would typically come from a Geoff Johns lead event.
Paired with the brightest and least encumbered colors Brad Anderson has delivered so far, the art seems to be staging an insurrection of its own against the stylistic and atmospheric confines of the DKR world, which may be both deliberate and fitting.
This is the stage of the story where a Miller lead entry would spiral into its most idiosyncratic and surreal, but instead Kubert is leading us towards the sun and a vision of the Justice League as close to the most comfortable version readers are familiar with as possible.
Miller has certainly drawn some fantastically virile and inspiring versions of Superman throughout the years, but this is the Superman that Azzarello promised in the early press, the one we’d love again. At the height of his powers, Miller drew a Superman who inspired awe, but he always came equipped with a hypermasculine eroticism that precluded him from ever being the comforting, non threatening figure that Kubert evokes here.
If the intent of DK3 is to close out the saga and the era that birthed it by leading it into the sun after a particularly long dark (k)night of the soul, then this is clearly Kubert’s most triumphant moment and will ultimately vindicate his inclusion. If not, it makes for a kind oppositional reading.
The one thing I’ve been able to count on since the first issue was Lara, and she takes center stage in the mini comic again, and while Eduardo Risso will always have the last word on her in this chapter and arguably the saga as a whole, Miller recaptures much of his glory days by returning to her as both penciler and inker. The cover says it all really, from her muscular shoulders and back to her 80s chic leotard costume and gold anklet. Miller’s wacky conception of girlhood has never failed to entertain, and this cover captures it at its zenith.
The story itself is awkward teen romance in inimitable Miller style, with Baal pursuing Lara clumsily, playing the bad boy as they zoom across a planet’s worth of phallic background imagery from the Eiffel Tower to a recently erupted volcano as she chastises him about the fragility of human life. Once she’s had enough of his bumbling overtures, Lara pulls him in for a kiss, kicks him into a mountainside, then kisses him again with his own blood on his mouth. “Did I like it?” she mocks, “I’m an amazon.”
If anything further comes out of the DKR saga, we’re owed at least a further examination of Lara, who was an unexpected delight in DK2 and the real breakout star of DK3.
If nothing else she’s the actualization of the potential that Jeph Loeb, Ian Churchill, and Michael Turner fumbled in trying to create a rebellious teenage Supergirl at the beginning of the decade. She isn’t accessible or quasi-wholesome like the Batgirl of Burnside, but her charms overlap significantly with the 90s Superboy that retains a cult following to this day.
It’s worth remembering that Supergirl was first introduced flying out of the ship she crash landed on Earth in loudly declaring to a stunned Superman that she had all his powers. Lara is more or less that classic image sung to the tune of Cherrybomb.
We also get the first solid glimpse of her true motivation in siding with the Kandorians this issue as she describes the true virtues of a hunter by capturing a dove and letting it fly away unharmed above the carnage unfolding in Gotham. The implication seems to be that she’s been biding her time waiting for the opportune moment to strike, in contrast to her mother, who re-emerges in another brief aside.
The explanation for Diana’s inaction last issue is more or less explained here as she tersely expresses her impatience with isolationism. It’s still one of the weakest points in the series that Diana debuted with a central and robust role in the opening issue only to disappear into the background, but it appears that she’ll get her due next issue as Lara lets the existence of her baby brother slip.
This issue also really hammers home the needlessness of the current of Islamophobia that has brutally undercut the narrative as the Kandorians hang back from Earth, goading the humans into destroying each other in an exercise of classic fascist rhetoric. They want the humans to battle it out in a warped idea of the survival of the fittest, to prove who is worthy of passing into servitude under them.
It’s a fantastic and classic dynamic for a Batman villain to invoke. Scott Snyder just got done using it to great effect with Mr. Bloom across the “Superheavy” arc and it’s a principle that villains like Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane have applied earnestly and others like The Joker have exploited to create anarchic violence for its own sake.
As Bruce unleashes the rain of synthetic kryptonite that sends the Kandorians plummeting to the ground (invoking Lara’s conception of the true hunter), he remarks that he’s never used a mob to his own advantage, which is a particularly astute observation relative to the Batman mythos. The intersection of class warfare and social cohesion is a motif that has risen to the foreground of Batman storytelling frequently over the last thirty years, and in every notable instance, Bruce acts to maintain social cohesion over popular uprisings whether he’s sympathetic to them or not.
It’s one of the primary reasons that has held the character back from being a revolutionary and codified his neo liberal outlook. Mob rule has always been a force to be feared in Batman narratives, typically manifesting as either the product of fascist demagogues or agitators who exploit leftist rhetoric to conceal opportunistic motives. There’s every reason to believe that if Miller had returned to the DKR saga at any point prior to 9/11, the Kandorians would have embodied a secular fascist ideology.
The original DKR is a masterpiece of anti-Reagan satire and Miller’s comics have always shown contempt for fascism and empire, which is what makes DK3 and Holy Terror such especially disappointing entries in his canon. Beyond the way that they turn avatars of fascism and institutional corruption into bloody effigies as seen not only in the mutant gang in DKR, but the corrupt police and clergy in Sin City, his work has also displayed a lifelong admiration for insurgencies.
In all the Dark Knight chapters, as well as 300, Miller’s work has always been deeply invested in resisting empire and colonization wherever it’s perceived, and we see that quite clearly in the dynamic at work in the climax of DK3 where Bruce and Clark prepare for their last stand, much like he portrayed Leonidas and his men.
What irrevocably clouded this vision, and came to the forefront in work following 9/11, was a miscommunication of where the forces of empire and resistance are arrayed. These later works either cannot or will not understand the distinction between exploitative, opportunistic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL and the western imperialism that created the conditions in which they flourish.
It’s a dynamic he’s navigated with ease throughout his career when it concerns groups predominantly coded as white, but hits a brick wall as soon as it concerns the ravages of western imperialism on other parts of the globe. The fundamental tragedy of Miller’s latter day career is that he failed ruinously where he’d triumphed before, and nowhere is that more evident in considering how triumphant and sorely needed DK3 would have proved itself if the Islamic coding of the Kandorian fanatics had been substituted for the kind of secular fascism that is currently sweeping the world from the United States to western Europe clear through to Russia.
As a single issue, DK3 #5 is a brilliant evocation of the crossroads that DC storytelling finds itself on, a struggle to reconcile the grit with the glam and the old with the new, embodied wonderfully in the pin-up that closes the issue: Bruce perched high above the city with Carrie in a multi-hued Batgirl costume. The truth of the series as a whole is far more troubling and toothsome that cannot be redeemed by a couple stand out entries, but what the creative still has it in them to do in spectacular fashion is to go down swinging.
The Verdict: 8.0/10