So Frank Miller is (sort of) writing Batman again. This calls for cheer and jeers for myriad reasons. Thus far, DC Comics has only published 3 (out of 8) issues of the third installment of the Dark Knight Returns series, The Dark Knight 3: The Master Race (yes, I shuddered when I ready the bit after the colon, too).
Before we dive into my thoughts on TDK3 (which are not fully developed since the series hasn’t even reached its halfway point), there are a few things I want to bring to light regarding my love/tainted-love/hatred of Mr. Frank Miller and his body of work. Here goes:
I know at this point anyone who sites The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR) as being one of those books that changed the way they looked a superhero stories and comics in general, like, forever, sounds like a broken record, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less true. Especially in my case.
For some people the moment of realization that masked vigilantes would actually be stark-raving lunatics if they were integrated into the real world was presented to them by Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s brilliant Watchmen; for me, I caught that sucker punch from TDKR.
*source unknown, but from somewhere probably awesome*
The library across the street from my house actually had a paperback copy of the trade. I recall walking there at the age of 15 and checking out the dogeared trade and tearing through it one summer afternoon. I also remember returning it and then going home to chastise my other comics for not being as good.
Get your shit together, Chris!
A couple years later, it was announced that there was going to be a sequel. I was elated by the news.
The day of its release, I picked up the first issue of The Dark Knight Strikes Again (TDK2). I read it with the same fervor I had when I first devoured its predecessor. But did TDK2 have the same shattering impact on my comic psyche? Not so much.
But how could it? I wasn’t expecting it to be. I was, however, expecting something slightly better than this:
Gentlemen, indeed. Hopefully one of them is a chiropractor.
What made TDKR so great was its dark underworld and dystopian society; its self-referential satirical tone that never traveled to cuckoo land territory, but instead embraced the lunacy without making if feel like a cartoon. All of that was gone in its little-loved follow up.
The work Miller churned out in those three grueling issues (especially the post-9/11 ones) made me wonder if he lost a bet or maybe lost his mind. The latter appeared to be more likely after the releases of the jingoistic Holy Terror graphic novel and that god-awful-what-the-fuck-am-I-watching? Spirit movie. It was then that I wondered if Frank Miller was just a shitty artist (and shitty dude), and what I was reading was the first time he was blatant enough to drag his unmasked shittiness into his art…
…I’m gonna go with yes.
Now I don’t think everything Miller has created since Strikes Again has been awful. I’m a fan of some of the Sin City stories (That Yellow Bastard in particular) despite some of the blatant sexism that rides a dangerous line between social commentary and perhaps Miller’s own vision that all women as either damsels in distress or whores. Oh, wait…it just occurred to me That Yellow Bastard came out five years before TDK2. Soooo…Never mind. Everything he has created since then has been garbage (maybe even since Sin City: Hell & Back, which was a huge let down for me, too).
But I digress.
It really does feel like The Dark Knight Strikes Again was the turning point in Miller’s career: before SA and after SA. Before we had great works like Ronin and his run on Daredevil (although it fell victim to some of the same trappings as Sin City) and after SA…well, we covered that. Oh, wait, did I mention this happened too?
*source: DC comics (they might deny it, though)*
That’s right. Soak it in.
But now we have a new goddamn Batman. Or the return of an old goddamn Batman or some goddamn thing…I don’t goddamn know. Let’s just say the Internet shit its collective pants when DC officially announced that Miller was returning to his Dark Knight Universe with The Master Race. The title alone raised a ton of red flags. This is completely understandable since the words “Master Race” have a certain connotation that’s pretty hard to escape. And given Miller’s 21st Century work, one can only strike up an image like…
*source: history we wished never fucking happened*
Now, I know Miller is no stranger to evocative subject matter (even when he was killing it in the 70s and 80s) so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and decided to buy The Master Race as it is released month-to-month (something I DO NOT like doing). So how is the comic? Is it super racist and insulting? Is it just plain boring? Does it suck? Does Wonder Woman still need a spinal realignment?
Well, no… the book so far is actually good. It’s no Dark Knight Returns, but it doesn’t make me want to set every Batman comic I own on fire either. It’s somewhere in the middle. The dialogue is good, not great. The story seems to be ramping up to something big. The art it tight and easy to follow. There isn’t a lot wrong with the book other than it isn’t super engaging or challenging.
I’ll say it: this comic seems safe. But I don’t know if it will stay that way. Like I mentioned before, we’re not even halfway through this thing.
I think the reason for this sterile version The Dark Knight is because of Miller’s involvement, or lack thereof really. The book appears to be spearheaded by writer Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Wonder Woman) and artist Andy Kubert (all the X-Men comics I loved in the 90s), leaving Miller as the backseat driver of the project. Azzarello, whose work I absolutely love, seems to be trying to imitate Miller’s voice to a certain degree and Kubert’s art is much cleaner than I’m used to.
It’s as if Frank Miller jotted down some story points and just handed everything over to the new team, but the new team was too scared to make it their own. Instead, it seems like they want to relive the glory days of The Dark Knight Returns and slap Miller’s name on it so jaded comic nerds like me can maybe admire the guy’s work one last time.
Now I don’t know if that’s true or not (I try to shy away from behind the scenes stuff about media development until I’ve consumed it). But damn if what I’ve read so far doesn’t make me believe that’s the case.
Look, I wish TDK3 all the best. I want it to be good. Hell, I want it to be great. I can forgive that shitty Superman cover Miller drew for the mini comic in the first issue since his pencils for the interior pages were fine. I can (almost) forgive the $6 cover price DC is charging per issue and the $12 per issue hardback version. I can forgive the stupid layout and awkward mini-comic being glued to a piece of card stock making the whole book a pain in the ass to read.
I let THIS slide, Miller! Do me a solid, man!
But I don’t think I can forgive Miller for all his previous artistic transgressions. At least not yet, anyway. But hell, he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need forgiveness from any of us. He’s given us some great work, some of comics’ finest. And as much as I want nothing more than to love Frank Miller once again, I don’t. And maybe, just maybe everything he gave us before The Dark Knight Strikes Again should be enough to outweigh any negative views we have of the man and his late career work.
This isn’t the Frank Miller was want, but maybe it’s the Frank Miller we deserve.