Despite being arguably one of the two writers who turned mainstream American comics into an intelligent and valuable art form way back in the Eighties, Frank Miller’s most recent comics output has felt half-hearted, with Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again (the sequel to the brilliant Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and the All-Star Batman & Robin series that followed arguably being career lowlights. So you’d be forgiven for embarking on this third volume of The Dark Knight with some trepidation, hoping for a return to the form of the seminal original, but worrying that it’s going to be more like the The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
Thankfully, writing in partnership with Brian Azzarello appears to have brought Miller back into focus. The plot has a reasonable story behind it, in which a preserved but miniaturised Kryptonian city that Superman has kept in a bell jar is finally restored, unleashing a new race of annoyed super-beings on an unsuspecting Earth. Naturally, they feel they should rule the world and ask humanity to roll over and accept the new order, so humanity turns to its existing superheroes for help.
Each chapter is broken down into the main story and a secondary shorter story. The latter introduces a new superhero from the DC Comics roster to the cast, who then works his or her way into the main story in the following chapter. This is a vastly superior structure to the messy Dark Knight Strikes Again, but the broad cast of characters still brings its own unnecessary complications without adding much to the main plot, and seems a little over the top. Most of us are here for Batman and maybe a bit of Superman for contrast and Dark Knight nostalgia. We end up with most of DC Comics’ big-hitters, though, some of which inevitably feel shoe-horned into the plot.
The art works well, with Andy Kubert channeling Miller’s artistic mana through the main story, and Klaus Janson adding a familiar touch to the inking. It’s arguably a better job than Miller does himself, illustrating the interludes, and while the magic’s still there, it occasionally lacks finesse.
The disappointment of the book is the twist that lines up the finalé. This isn’t something I’m going to spoil by discussing in detail but it turns the Dark Knight Returns franchise on its head and left me feeling disappointed. Whether it’s Miller’s intention to to stop this particular storyline in its tracks or simply reboot it for someone else to take over, only time will tell.
So in conclusion, let’s take a reality check. If you haven’t read the first book, go back and pick it up. Sadly, you’re probably still best off stopping there. If you had the misfortune of being exposed to its sequel, reading this may well take some of the pain away, as it’s a perfectly reasonable end-of-days Batman book. However, it’s never going to step out of the shadow of the original or appear in anyone’s all-time top ten lists, and the ending is just… wrong.