Frank Miller and Klaus Janson are back on Batman, and they brought Brian Azzarello and Andy Kubert along for the ride in “Dark Knight III: The Master Race” #1, the first of eight issues in this long-awaited series. The next chapter in Miller’s “Dark Knight” trilogy kicks off with a Batman who has not only come out of hiding but has also changed his heroic mindset. The Dark Knight isn’t the only DC Comics hero to return, though, and there have clearly been some changes since the nearly apocalyptic events of “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.” “Dark Knight III: The Master Race” #1 establishes a strong but tentative middle ground between the two previous series.
Miller and Azzarello’s fingerprints are evident throughout this first issue, although some of the context appears to homage to the original “Dark Knight Returns” story as much it works towards establishing this new one. The vibe on the first page is definitely Miller’s, with the street jargon evocative of that used in the original story, albeit with a 21st century twist. The following page leads off with a panel that features a long shot of a lightning strike, which conjures up memories of Miller’s iconic cover to the very first issue; colorist Brad Anderson even employs tones similar to those used by “Dark Knight Returns” colorist Lynn Varley.
There are other Miller-esque touches, such as the talking heads on TV news channels and their often over-the-top commentary. Overall, though, the street-tough and hard-edged flavor is definitely Azzarello’s, who proves himself to be a fitting choice for filling out Miller’s ideas. The flavor is different from the dark, foreboding and moody ambiance of the first series as well as the bombastic, garish and louder feel of the second; Azzarello brings a more even-tempered atmosphere to this intro and a script that’s less dependent on the mood, instead establishing the new status quo and the current situations of the story’s main players more straightforwardly.
Kubert and Janson also evoke Miller’s rough style, although it’s more reminiscent of his work on the first series than his more recent projects. Kubert’s natural style lends itself to rendering the pages in a look similar to Miller’s, although Janson’s own technique helps considerably towards establishing this feel. Anderson takes a middle-ground approach with the coloring as well; he uses bright colors for a couple of gorgeously laid out splash pages, but his work is more subdued than the previous series — though he isn’t afraid to show that there is daytime in Gotham, too.
There’s a certain sense of tentativeness as the issue moves along, prompting an uncertainty that questions whether Azzarello should be telling Miller’s story or his own. The constant reminders and nods to Miller’s previous series serve as both acknowledgements that this is still Miller’s story and as markers indicating it isn’t completely his. Even so, Azzarello manages this dichotomy pretty well, reminding readers that yes, this is an artistic collaboration, and a strong one at that. At worst, the issue reads like Azzarello is paying tribute to Miller; in either context, the final result is a strong and worthwhile Batman comic.
“Dark Knight III: The Master Race” #1 defies what both Frank Miller supporters and detractors alike might be expecting. The addition of Azzarello and Kubert smooths out the artistic excesses of Miller’s more recent efforts, but also doesn’t quite bring the same level of moody ambiance or character depth that was seen in the first “Dark Knight” story. On its own, though, it stands out as a worthy introduction to a compelling Batman story.