I was 13 when I first read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and in retrospect I realize that it fucked me up for years. I wasn't mentally prepared to handle Miller's deeply conservative dystopian Batman comic, and so for a long time afterward I confused violence and nihilism for "serious art."
So many years later, Returns reads like a clunky piece of satire by a man who was teetering on the uncomfortable razor's edge between artistic curiosity and self-loathing regressivism. But the one thing it has going for it is its obvious merit as a work of art: when he wanted to, Miller could really put together a brilliant sequence panels. (Although I'd argue that the first Sin City collection, and not Returns, is his true masterpiece.)
Miller has now gone back to the Dark Knight well twice, with diminishing returns each time. The latest volume, Batman: The Dark Knight: Master Race, is out in a collected edition now, and I can't really think of a single redeeming value for this book. Supposedly co-written by Miller and Brian Azzarello, and drawn mostly by Andy Kubert, I'm almost unwilling to attribute Master Race to Miller at all — Miller himself says he had little to do with the actual inspiration for the thing — but his contributions to back-up stories in the volume seem to indicate that he at least had some say as an artist.
The most generous interpretation of Master Race is that Miller is trying to revive the fun high-concept sci-fi of the comics he read as a youth. The book, which depicts a war between older versions of Batman and Superman and an army of pissed-off Kryptonians, features DC mainstays like The Flash, Aquaman, and the Atom.
But the lack of technical proficiency defuses the reader's enjoyment on every page. This book is lazy and uninspired, like Dark Knight Returns fan-fiction written by someone who thought the only problem with Returns is that it didn't co-star the whole Justice League. Way too much of the book consists of sloppily rendered figures standing in front of empty backgrounds, which are then filled in with muddy reds and browns by colorist Brad Anderson.
Even worse are the backup stories, many of which are drawn by Miller himself. These stories are entirely non-essential, usualy explaining what some minor character from the main story is doing when he or she is off-panel. And don't get me started on the art. I think this is supposed to be the Eiffel Tower:
Sure, Returns was a story about a deeply fascistic rich man having a midlife crisis, but it was at least a well-rendered story about a deeply fascistic rich man having a midlife crisis. And Miller's overt acceptance of the underlying fascist tendencies in superhero comics was at least novel at the time.
Master Race doesn't even have the werewithal to take a stand on fascism. There's nothing pleasurable about this book. It's like a boy who melts his action figures with a purloined cigarette lighter and then bashes the disfigured toys all together until he randomly determines a "winner." The thing is a mess from the bottom up.