By far, the most-hyped comics release of the week is DK III: The Master Race, the third volume in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. Ostensibly co-written by Brian Azzarello, the actual authorship of DK III is in question — Frank Miller has basically admitted that he’s not been involved in the writing of the series. Whoever actually wrote the story, Miller certainly didn’t draw the book; the art is by Andy Kubert, with inking by Dark Knight veteran Klaus Janson. So we have a sequel to a much-maligned sequel to one of the all-time classic Batman stories, written-but-probably not-at-all-written by the original writer and drawn by a different artist. How is it?
Well, it feels like fan fiction. But it doesn’t even feel like Dark Knight fan fiction; it feels like DK II fan fiction. For those of you who have better things to do, the sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, DK II, is pretty roundly regarded as a failure. Marred by atrocious computer coloring and written in a completely different tone than the original Dark Knight series, DK II was a more cartoonish take on the future of the DC Comics canon, including a Batman who was actually — gasp! — having fun. Some contrarians still defend DK II for being a cheeky dissection of the idea of superhero comics. I can understand that defense, but I disagree: the problem with DK II was that it was bad comics. Miller’s satire, never very subtle, took on the form and grace of a cement block. The jokes felt private and insular, the worldview felt increasingly mean-spirited as the book went on, and the entertainment value was erratic. (At times, the book did express a sort of madcap thrill; I might be remembering this wrong, but I’m pretty sure Miller processed 9/11, which happened between issues two and three of the series, in the comics as a giant cartoon frog demolishing a city.)
So in DK III, we have a writer trying on the affect of Miller’s DKR-era writing style and an artist trying on the affect of Miller’s art. Neither is really successful. Azzarello tries to mimic Miller’s style of mocking the media, but really he’s just using the stand-ins for Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart as exposition delivery systems. The book’s plot is delivered in a straight-faced manner, and a last-page twist is so obvious in execution that it ought to be accompanied with a sad trombone sound effect. Perhaps Azzarello is building to something momentous — he’s done good stuff in the past — but right now it feels like too-serious superhero comics at a too-high price point. ($5.99? Come on!)
I’ve never been a fan of Andy Kubert’s artwork. He’s a second-generation comics artist (his father is the legendary Joe Kubert), and his illustration style has the soulless ache of someone who never bothered to learn how to draw anything other than comics. His composition is boring, his figures are thick, and the Milleresque tiny panels on every page only serve to make his art look even sillier by comparison. He has never drawn an interesting page in his life; they’re all awkward grimaces and poses, with not one bit of a recognizable reality on the page.
The only fun part of the first issue of DK III is the enclosed mini-comic starring The Atom, illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson. It’s tipped into a cardboard leaflet in the center of the book, and it begins with The Atom fighting a dinosaur and reflecting on his divorce, and how aging has mellowed him as a man. This is the kind of fun, weird stuff that people who praise DK II are looking for in their books, and the format feels novel and interesting. Unfortunately, the comic stops short when a plot thread from the main book intrudes on the story, making it a glorified post-credits scene in a Marvel movie: something entertaining, followed by a teaser that pushes the story forward into the next installment. Who cares?
A few years ago, DC Comics tried to mine the Alan Moore/David Gibbons comic Watchmen in a series of prequels. Before Watchmen was presented as a prestige project, and it included a number of big-name comics creators including Azzarello and Kubert. The comics were, for the most part, technically excellent. But they simply didn’t matter. The books were released and collected and rereleased in book form, and nobody gave a shit and they were immediately forgotten. Unless something transformative happens in the next few issues, DK III will suffer the same fate.