Batman - The Dark Knight: Master Race, HC
Batman - The Dark Knight: Master Race; The Covers, Deluxe HC
You’ll notice that neither of those titles refers to the latest Dark Knight book as ‘DK3’. That label seems destined to be something that will only ever appear on the individual issues of this book, as it’s been dropped entirely from these collections.
Whether that’s to make the book seem more accessible, or to maintain the tradition begun by Dark Knight Strikes Again of giving these sequels names rather than numbers, I don’t know. Either way, it doesn’t affect the content of these books, which both represent attempts to honour the original Dark Knight Returns and celebrate its legacy - but which go about that in quite different ways.
I’ll start with the variant-covers book, as its appeal is more straightforward. This is a collection of full-page cover-quality illustrations by some of the biggest names in comics, all of whom have come up with an original cover (or in many cases, multiple covers) for DK3 - inspired by either the original DKR, its sequel, or the new series itself.
Tellingly, the vast majority of the pieces collected here riff on moments from the original book, with some stunning pieces throughout that offer new takes on familiar scenes or images from the first DKR. It’s hard to pick out favourites, but the Jim Lee variants for all nine issues stand out as beautiful tributes (and I appreciate the coloured versions here a lot more than the pencils-only versions from the individual hardcovers, showing how much Alex Sinclair contributes to Lee’s art). The Jim Lee box art from the slipcase is even included here for completeness.
All of Miller’s various variant covers appear here too, as well as the regular versions by Andy Kubert, all the mini-comic covers, and (as far as I can tell) every one of the many other variants by other artists. With more than 100 pieces in total, the list feels endless. Frank Quitely, Bill Sienkiewicz, Sean Murphy, Greg Capullo, John Cassaday… chances are, if you have a favourite artist then they’ll be represented here. And at Deluxe HC size, the book really does them justice, making it a wonderful art book to flip through and dip into (or devour in full if you choose).
Oh, and there’s a nice foreword by Klaus Janson too.
Just like the covers book, the hardcover collection of the main series is in its own way a tribute to the solo Miller books that came before it. But in trying to craft a story that matches up to DKR (and the under-appreciated DKSA), it has a much harder task.
Does it succeed? I’m not really sure. I think to a large extent it depends what you want out of the book.
One of my favourite things about DKSA was the way it boldly deviated from the style of the original DKR, and offered something that was just as challenging and disruptive as the original book had been in the mid-eighties. In comparison, Master Race is a lot more conservative, sticking closely to the ideas and storytelling styles established in those earlier books, and relying so heavily on moments that act as homages and tributes to Miller’s earlier work that you’re often taken out of the book and start thinking about those other two series instead.
(At one point in the story, I think around issue #6, every other page is a different tribute to a page from one of the first two books. It’s fine in moderation, but it just becomes too much at that frequency.)
The story crafted by Brian Azzarello (with a certain amount of input from Miller - although exactly how much remains unclear) isn’t a bad one, although it’s hampered by being stretched out over too many issues, with the middle act of the story feeling as though it goes on forever. Also, I’m not sure that Azzarello’s clever writing and witty wordplay are the best match for the tone of the Dark Knight books, which have always felt far more visceral and hard-hitting.
That said, Azzarello does a pretty good job in bringing back most of the main players from throughout the Dark Knight saga, and incorporating them all into a story that on one hand extends Miller’s two original books and on the other seeks to apologise for them, or at least fix them in places (especially when it comes to the overly adversarial relationship between Superman and Batman).
It’s harder to find fault with Andy Kubert’s art. Altering his style in an impressive way, he retains his clear storytelling abilities while also reflecting aspects of Miller’s own art style (and Janson’s inking helps to seal the similarity). There are honestly pages that I could easily believe had been illustrated by Miller.
There are also some thrilling action sequences. An early one involving the Batmobile is perfectly paced and succeeds almost entirely due to the visuals. While I’m sure a lot of people bought this book to see the Dark Knight tribute elements (which Kubert pulls off well), some of the best moments of the book for me are the simple action scenes that give the creative team the chance to show off the very polished sequential art.
To a large extent, the book is in a bit of an impossible position: lean too heavily on the nostalgia elements, and it looks like you’re using them as a crutch; but move too far away from the original books and it doesn’t feel like Dark Knight any more. I will say that a lot of my favourite moments came in the mini-comics at the end of each issue - partly because a lot of them feature art by Miller, which gives a far more tangible sense of his involvement than the co-written scripts.
(The mini-comics are reproduced at regular size here, which is another point in the collection’s favour.)
Despite my problems with the story’s overly-familiar relationship with the previous Dark Knight books, it’s actually a pretty enjoyable read in its own right, once you leave those endless homages to one side. Reading it through in one go makes it feel far more cohesive than it did in individual issues (with long breaks between them), and there were story elements that fell into place for me a lot better here than they did when I read the story separate chapters. The mini-comics also play well off the main series, setting up subplots that come to fruition in subsequent chapters of the main book.
By the end of the series, there’s a sense that a lot of elements of the Dark Knight universe have been reset and the stage cleared for something new to take place. I don’t know whether that’s for creative reasons (the script seems to acknowledge some of the main criticisms of the previous books and seeks to do something about them, and the closing moments with Superman and his daughter are more optimistic and hopeful than I ever expected a Dark Knight book to be) or commercial ones (I’m sure DC want to exploit the ‘Dark Knight’ brand to the greatest extent possible, and I expect to hear of new books on the way soon).
But either way, the ending of this series left me both satisfied in the way that so many loose ends from the Dark Knight saga had been tied off, and interested to see what might come next.