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By Jarrod Jones. The angry, violent world Frank Miller created with The Dark Knight Returns was very much a byproduct of its time. But then, to say so at this juncture is to belabor the obvious, like observing that the Cold War was a stressful time for American diplomacy, or that the Pontiac 2000 Sunbird was one hell of a shitbox. When we look back on 1986 it’s not so much with a tender heart, but with a wary gaze. The world wasn’t perfect in 1986, and you can make damn sure that nearly thirty years later, things aren’t much better now.

So if we’re going to revisit this augmented vision of our future, seen through the cracked mirror of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight universe (seeing’s though we’re calling it that nowadays), it best be able to show us something new. Because when this series finds itself set in our collective rear view, over fifty dollars will have been spent on DC Comics’ latest prestige throwback, to say nothing of its inevitable hardcover and Absolute editions. If the publisher wants us to shell out our hard-earned cash for yet another romp through Miller’s world, they’d do well to make it worth our while. Any misstep will certainly doom this project; nobody’s game to sit idle while DC basks in its faded glory.

The first book in Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race operates with the careful understanding that the base is not to be trifled with. So it maneuvers and weaves through its introductory narrative fully aware that this world has been ceaselessly tapped, criticized, and deified time and again. (No matter how you felt about The Dark Knight Strikes Again, you can’t argue that a third series set in this world, and eight issues of it no less, seems overly superfluous.) There’s plenty to ooh and ahh at here — DC’s prestige format is on fire with its price-friendly cardcardstock cover, a complete lack of advertisements (there isn’t even a stinger for the next book), and the bonus mini-comic contained within, which further elucidates the Dark Knight universe while featuring Miller’s strongest pencil work in ages. (Though I still can’t explain what’s up with its cover.)

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Visually, this is prime time Dark Knight in all its lurid glory. The newsfeed device that worked so ably in Returns and was splashed so haphazardly across Strikes Again is here, streamlined to reflect the widescreen aspect ratio of our present day television screens and smartphones. There are new flourishes too, and they serve The Master Race‘s approach to our closed-off tech culture well: as it was in Returns, people rarely acknowledge each other pleasantly in Gotham City, and aside from Miller & Azzarello’s funky text-based communication, most human interaction in Book One is patently hostile. (In keeping with our present day societal tensions, most of that has to do with an unchecked authority.)

The visual pop of Dark Knight III is due in no small part to the tireless work of Andy Kubert. If the solemn narrative approach to DK III is indicative of anything, it is definitely Kubert’s reverence for the source material. His visuals give The Master Race the proper muscular heft, while his chunky linework evokes fond memories of Returns in a potent way. (Klaus Janson’s masterly inks certainly make this opening salvo feel like old times.) As you leaf through Book One, you simply can’t help but marvel over the monstrous Gotham City Kubert has provided us (say nothing of his iconic imagery: the cover to this book may as well be put under glass). This book finds the artist pushing himself to craft the best work of his career, not that the veteran artist and Kubert School instructor has anything left to prove. With Dark Knight IIIKubert isn’t merely paying homage, he’s carving out his place in DC Comics history.

There’s no question that Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello work beautifully together. You can almost blame destiny that these men have been joined together to tell such a tale, considering their mutual strengths. (It’s only fitting that Mr. Azzarello refers to Mr. Miller as “sensei”.) If you’re looking for any weakness in this collaboration, you’re just not going to find it in the first chapter to The Master Race. Miller’s political pyrotechnics are tempered by Azzarello’s notoriously sharp-edged wit, Azzarello’s noirish sensibilities emulsify within Miller’s thundering doom, and through the whirlwind brought forth by their might, Dark Knight III finds a voice of its own. Both men have already secured their place within the legend of the Batman. But if we’re going to walk through Miller’s world once more with Azzarello’s unforgiving gaze upon us, it’s only right that we prepare ourselves for a staggering majesty.

DC Comics/$5.99

Story by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello.

Art by Andy Kubert; inks by Klaus Janson.

Colors by Brad Anderson.

Letters by Clem Robins.

9.5 out of 10

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