The Wait, What? Roundtable! The Dark Knight III, Part 1

November 24, 2015

Hello, Whatnauts. Graeme here, introducing you to the second Wait, What? roundtable. Yes, we had so much fun with the first one that we thought we’d do it again, but this time, we’re changing our focus somewhat. Last time, we looked at four different first isues from four different publishers, but this time it’s just one first issue that we’re talking about — but it’s a big one: DC’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race. (Yes, I know that Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Klaus Janson and Andy Kubert are involved, but I feel okay attributing this one to the publisher.)

If you caught Jeff in the New York Times this weekend, you kind of know what Jeff thinks of the whole enterprise, but what about Matt or myself…? Keep reading, but be warned. There’s a minor spoiler in here, and even though it’s a spoiler that’s already been revealed by DC’s own press for the second issue, it’s still something that you might not want to know ahead of reading the book itself.

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GRAEME: The Dark Knight III! Even before you get to the actual comic itself — hell, even before you get to the purposefully provocative subtitle, “The Master Race,” which I can only assume seemed like a much better idea in the room than it does outside of it — it’s a project that invites all kind of suspicion, right? Whether intentionally or otherwise, it’s the third part of a strange nostalgic trilogy for DC, following Before Watchmen and Sandman: Overture, but somehow more high-profile than either, for some reason.

Perhaps it’s that it’s Batman, pure and simple — or, perhaps it’s that, unlike Before Watchmen, the creators of the original comic are all back for this new attempt, albeit in somewhat reduced roles (Well, aside from poor Lynn Varley, whose colors in the earlier two installments were genuine highlights of the entire endeavor; sorry, Lynn). But just the announcement of the series provoked not only the preferred “What the Hell? That’s massive!” feeling in me, but also one of “Wow, DC’s really pulling out all the big guns of its past at once, huh?” which, I’m sure, wasn’t supposed to be the case.

Before we even get to the first issue of the series, and talk about Andy Kubert trying his best to channel his best generic Frank Miller (That Wonder Woman scene in particular!), I’m wondering what the two of you think about the project in general: Is this something that’s actually exciting, or simply nostalgia unbound to the point where even someone who wasn’t massively in love with the original feels as if this is a big deal?

MATT: Both Before Watchmen and DK3 have a major Ship of Theseus problem for me, though: how many pieces do you get to replace and still have get to claim it’s the same thing it used to be?

To me, Watchmen was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and a nine-panel grid and a meticulously plotted story. Before Watchmen scrapped pretty much all of those.

The first Dark Knight was Miller and Janson and Varley and a 16-panel grid and a grimy color palette and a so-serious-it’s-funny tone. The second ditched Janson and the grid, amped the palette up to “lurid”, and adopted a so-funny-it’s-serious approach, but at least it still had Miller on story and art.

Now, we’ve got Miller co-writing, not penciling, there’s no discernible artistic structural throughline, and … I mean, I’m not sure what it is about this one that distinguishes it in any way from All-Star Batman & Robin.

So while I shared your initial enthusiasm, it dwindled quickly once I saw who was actually involved, and by the time I actually read the book I was viewing it as a sad curio more than anything else, equivalent to fat Axl Rose and Buckethead and those other guys taking the stage and claiming to be Guns N’ Roses.

(Sandman: Overture didn’t have a Ship of Theseus problem, it had a “really super boring middle and weak ending” problem.)

What about you, Jeff? Are you actually fired up for this DK3 thing?

JEFF: Before reading the first issue? No, not really.  As Graeme points out, DK3 seems more high-profile than Before Watchmen and Sandman: Overture because Miller’s original Dark Knight Returns was more immediately influential than Watchmen and more seminal than Sandman.  Whether it’s true or not, DKR, Watchmen, and Maus are seen as the outliers to our current comics industry, the three books of 1986, “The Year That Changed Comics.”  And so, while Before Watchmen could only get Dave Gibbons to hang about like a forlorn team mascot, getting Miller and Janson to return to the Dark Knight seems like it should be a big deal.

But it’s only that big a deal if you either don’t know the facts of current comics history, or you want to ignore them.  Miller has come back to Batman several times since DKR, and those results have been either covertly or overtly rejected:  I loved where The Dark Knight Strikes Again went but a lot of readers did not, and ultimately even DC backed down from the idea of Holy Terror, Batman, Miller’s Batman-versus-Al-Qaeda pitch that got reworked into 2011’s Holy Terror.

Throw in the uncompleted All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder by Miller and Jim Lee, and Dark Knight III: The Master Race looks like a much shakier proposition as a sales juggernaut.  It kind of reminds me of how NBC recently trumpeted the return of Heroes, as if that show had just wandered off at the carnival and gotten lost for a few years, rather than getting cancelled after spending its final three seasons hammering all the fun out of its first.  In order for that pitch to work, the narrative of the return has to KO the dastardly truth, which is probably why DC is cranking up the marketing engine to 11.

So, yeah. We’ve had Miller return before to do his smart-ass, snowball-at-the-top-hat take on Batman and, unsurprisingly, the fan base wasn’t amused.  What promises to make DK3 different is something I personally find incredibly disquieting—the implicit promise that Miller is going to take this miniseries “seriously” because (a) he’s in ill health and badly needs the money; and (b) he’s got a number of collaborators (Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert) to keep him on track.  In terms of ethically dicey behavior on the part of the publisher, It’s no Go Set A Watchman, but I can’t say the idea really lights up my Christmas tree, either.  If we’re getting a Miller too desperate, too tired, and/or too yoked to company men to bite the hand that feeds him, what exactly are we getting?

Does that seem too histrionic a take on the contours of the behind the scenes action on this?  Or is that all beside the point anyway, and we should really just be looking at the success and/or failure of what’s on the page?

MATT: I really can’t emphasize enough how much the collaborators worry me. Part of that is that I’ve never found my way into any of Azzarello’s work–100 Bullets came the closest, but even that had an awesome high-concept but an execution that totally left me cold–but part of it is that, for better or for worse, I don’t want them to keep Miller on track.If I’m going to read a Dark Knight comic it’s gonna be because I want to see where Miller’s head is at.

In 1986 Frank Miller was a 29 year old trying to sound older, writing lines like “This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would… But I’m a man of 30 — of 20 again.”.

Pushing 45, Miller seemed to be trying to hit a younger tone in 2000-2001, writing Dark Knight Strikes Again as some kind of paean to youth culture and the internet and a whole bunch of other “get off my lawn” stuff– like, lookit this fluorescent pink, kids! lookit the nekkid newscasters! would an old guy put out a book like this?!?

So if DK3 were going to be Miller himself having become a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move — writing about a vanished legend and bygone glories … I mean, I’d read the hell out of that. Instead, we’ve known since it started that it was going to be, at best, Azzarello trying to make Miller sound more like Miller and less like the guy who wrote Holy Terror.

That baggage colored my reaction to every page of this book, and … I mean, I don’t know if we’re ready to discuss the contents yet, but … yeah. The actual execution didn’t seem any smoother than I had figured (or feared).

GRAEME: And so, here’s where my contrarian nature rears its ugly head, because — well, I liked the first issue. I almost wrote really liked, and then realized that’s not actually true; it’s just that I pretty much went in expecting to hate this series thanks to my dislike for the original Dark Knight (although the second appeals, weirdly. Again, contrarian) and almost all of Miller’s work in recent years, comics and movies alike. (Oh, Spirit…!) And it’s not like Azzarello’s work has ever really gelled for me, or Andy Kubert’s… And yet, somehow, I liked this issue.

I wouldn’t argue that it’s a great comic, but what I kept thinking about were the ways in which it was clearly trying to evoke the earlier Dark Knight books in ways big and small, subtle and less so (The text speak captions!) and failing; it was the failure that made me interested. I’m sure I’ve gone on before on the podcast about the way that the Beatles tried to sound like old R&B records and failed and created something new, or the way that the Monkees tried to sound like the Beatles and failed and created something new — I’m always, always fascinated by cover bands who can’t quite manage to hit the target and the spaces created in between their efforts and the real thing.

Which isn’t to say that DK3 is the Beatles or even the Monkees — it’s not a great comic, like I said — but damn if the combination of Kubert and Janson in the Wonder Woman sequence isn’t more interesting than almost all of Kubert’s other recent work to me. (Same with the Supergirl sequence; the panel where you see her face and Kubert is clearly trying to channel Miller’s DK2 style and not quite managing it…!) Similarly, Azzarello’s attempts to channel Miller are… less smug, perhaps, than other things I’ve read of his lately? More sparse, as well; more willing to let the art handle the storytelling. All of these things appeal to me more than I would’ve expected from an Azzarello and Kubert book otherwise. That it’s lacking any trace of the xenophobia of Holy Terror or misogyny of Sin City is also, of course, a plus.

But even with all of this, I’m not sure what is actually here. I know what it’s not — a lot of quirks and go-tos of creators that I’m not traditionally down with — but what is in the issue? It’s… ultimately a lot more generic than I was expecting, I think; certainly it’s a “slow burn” of an issue that is amazingly light on plot, but also on spectacle — there’s no real wow moment, despite the efforts of Azzarello and Kubert and Janson. (What is the big moment supposed to be? Superman on ice? The Bruce Wayne is dead reveal, which is hilariously, coincidentally blunted by what’s been happening in recent issues of the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo Batman book?) In the end, it feels like a solid, middle-of-the-road alternate future DC book, not a million miles away from something like Kingdom Come, or even Injustice: Gods Among Us. Which, surely, isn’t what I’m supposed to think.

MATT: But it’s inevitable that that’s what you’re going to think. The only thing that elevated DK2 beyond “middle-of-the-road alternate future DC book” was that it was, in fact, Miller playing around with an alternate future. It was his anarchic recklessness that gave that book whatever limited juice it had; this one replaces that with some workmanlike dudes doing overly reverent cover versions–not only in his style, but using the world that he’s already carved out. There’s literally nothing here to make this actually feel like an event to me.

Is there more to Dark Knight III than Matt thinks? (Again, those who read the NYT piece have an idea of how Jeff responds.) What is Brian Azzarello actually doing here? And can Batman say something about the human experience? All of those questions will be tackled right here tomorrow. Same Bat-site, same Bat-channel.


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7 comments on “The Wait, What? Roundtable! The Dark Knight III, Part 1

  1. In 1986 I bought a copy of every printing of every issue of DK and even had that Miller poster framed on my wall for about 10 years.

    In 2000 DK2 got me back in a comics shop for the 1st time in at least 5 years. I even bought a 2nd copy of #1 for a co-worker.

    In 2015 I don’t even think I’m going to bother to grab DK3 off a torrent site.

  2. Liking these round tables, keep ’em coming.

    One note though: might help to have a summary of the events of the comic in there somewhere. Either that or a note that we should read the issue/issues before reading the round table

    • Jeff Lester Nov 25, 2015

      That’s a good point, Dave: I know for myself personally I kept trying to work a summary into my sections and I couldn’t quite pull it off—I had too many other things I wanted to mouth off about..

      If/when I end up doing the Roundtable oversight chores, I’ll try to get a plot summary built into the intro.

  3. Matt: “Sandman: Overture didn’t have a Ship of Theseus problem, it had a “really super boring middle and weak ending” problem”

    Off topic, I know, but doesn’t that describe the original Sandman series? For that matter, pretty well everything Gaiman’s ever written for comics.

    I picked up Dark Knight III in the comic shop yesterday, flicked through it and then put it down. The thing that jumped out at me most was that, for all it was trying to reference the original two stories, it seemed to be trying to be Batman 100. Which is interesting because my problem with Dark Knight III is that instead of getting an old guy with a couple of slightly younger guys to essentially homage a comic he made from thirty years ago, DC should have done the same thing as Giordano and co. did back in ’85 (and then again with Paul Pope and Batman 100 in 2006) which is ask a young artist to do whatever they wanted with Batman.

    Could you imagine Brandon Graham’s take?

    Of course, Batman 100, despite being for me one of the best Batman stories, was seen as a failure in 2006 because it failed to light up the world in the same way as Dark Knight returns did. But in all honesty, all bar one Batman comic since 1986 has failed to light up the world in that way. And that one comic? Batman Year 1, which ignored everything from Dark Knight Returns except a couple of pages dealing with the death of Bruce Waynes parents. And also featured Miller collaborating with a hot young turk of an artist.

    Matt’s comparison to a bloated comeback from half a rock group from thirty odd years ago is very apt. Bowie should be the role model here, forever seeking out new things and (increasingly younger) collaborators not Guns and Roses. (Sits back and waits for the Tin Machine jokes to commence!)

  4. Traie Nov 27, 2015

    The main reason among many I’ll likely pass on this project is the inclusion of Andy Kubert…does anyone know if Eduardo Risso was even considered?