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DKIII has arrived to an overwhelmingly positive critical response, and indeed there’s a lot to like in the miniseries’ first issue. Much like the season opener of a returning TV series, Book One mostly concerns itself with reintroducing characters and setting the stage for the conflict to come. Still, much can be extrapolated from the way the issue unfolds, some encouraging and some disappointing. But before I get into that, let’s get one thing out of the way.

The coloring is a bummer.

Coloring has always been an underappreciated aspect of sequential storytelling, often treated as little more than an afterthought by publishers and even fans. Hell, despite closely following any and all news regarding DKIII since its announcement early this year, I didn’t even know who the colorist was until I physically had the book in my hands (Brad Anderson, for the record). This would be disappointing for any project, but when it follows in the footsteps of a master artist like Lynn Varley, it’s downright heartbreaking.

DKIII is colored the same way a lot of mainstream superhero books are nowadays…that is, terribly. Let’s take a look at a particularly egregious panel that DC has nonetheless been proudly sharing as a preview of the interior art:

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Putting aside the way too small police car that is apparently emerging from a brick wall (?!) the line work here by Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson is solid. Too bad so much of it is obscured by obnoxious photoshop effects that are literally diminishing the artwork. Illustration is all about the interplay between lines and shapes, positive and negative spaces. Thus the modern desire to introduce “realistic” lighting to this fundamentally two dimensional medium is entirely wrongheaded. And I put “realistic” in quotations because the simulated lens flares and bloom lighting don’t even occur in real life, but rather when something is filmed with a camera. This scene does not take place on TV. We are meant to be observing it “live.”

Therefore, even if such computer effects were successful at convincingly replicating these lighting phenomena (they’re not), they would only serve to distance us from the scene by making us three times removed from the actual events…an illustration of a recording, presumably taking place at another time. It simply makes no sense artistically or conceptually. It’s been thoughtlessly done merely because the tools exist to do it. It sucks.

In contrast, here’s a panel from a modern comic that approaches its coloring in an intelligent way:

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This image from Paper Girls, colored by Matt Wilson, uses computer effects to enhance the line art rather than obscure it. Instead of a too smooth digital gradation, Wilson’s shading creates new, smaller shapes within the inked outlines, thus using the same visual language of the line work to create a unified image. Instead of covering the drawing with obnoxious lighting effects, Wilson simply lightens the outline of the far away trees and highlights the clouds with a bold fluorescent pink, a move that ironically results in a far more naturalistic scene than those in DKIII. It’s not attempting realism, but nevertheless manages to far more successfully capture the experience of light and color in the real world.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s take a look at the color palettes of the two images. First, Paper Girls:

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Even without any context, these colors establish a mood. Looking at them, it’s no surprise that the scene takes place during the early morning hours, or even that the story is set in 1988. More importantly, they’re simply beautiful to look at.

Now for DKIII:

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Ugh. Okay, there’s some color relationships going on here, but they’re all over the place. Warm earth tones, cool grays, and of course that obnoxious icy white. Nothing about this palette tells me about the tone of the scene or that it takes place at night in a gritty urban alleyway.

Sadly, this is par for the course for the great majority of funny books. Even on the credits page of Paper Girls, Matt Wilson’s name is inexplicably smaller than those of the writer and artist. In summary, I’m very much looking forward to the inevitable Noir version of DKIII, ’cause let’s face it, DC’s gonna rerelease this book as many times as it possibly can.

Moving on now…

We may never know exactly how Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello’s co-writing process worked, but whatever the method, the collaborative nature of DKIII means  there’s little room for a singular voice to emerge. This is important because for the better part of his career Frank Miller has been a character in his stories. When Vicky Vale is introduced in All-Star Batman as “the kind of trouble you want,” that’s Frank talking.

But even when he doesn’t literally have a voice, his presence is never far. Like a Jackson Pollock action painting, there is the finished product itself, but much of the artistry is in knowing (or at least imagining) how that painting was created. It’s a thrill to see cigarette butts and paint tube caps embedded in the paint because they serve as evidence to the intensity and physicality of Pollock’s process. Likewise, it’s no surprise that any discussion of Miller’s work for at least the last 15 years is as much about any particular plot point as it is the ongoing debate about the man himself.

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The final twist at the end of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in which Batman cruelly taunts and then murders a psychopathic Dick Grayson, serves little purpose and makes even less sense in the context of the story, but is a crucial scene in the concurrently running narrative of Frank Miller, the mad auteur, gleefully toppling sacred monuments and generally having a ball fucking with readers’ expectations. “I’m not a pyromaniac,” Miller recently said. “But I try to be one in print.”

None of this is in DKIII, at least not yet. What is there is a meticulously crafted story moving at an excitingly brisk pace. The shortened length of each book, compared to the previous two volumes, naturally lends itself to a quicker, punchier rhythm. Book One embraces this to the fullest, each and every scene ending in a cliffhanger or stunning image, the cumulative effect being a rising sense of tension and anticipation. This is Book One’s greatest success, delivering reveal after intriguing reveal from start to finish. It will be interesting to see just how long Millerello can build up this suspense and whether they’ll be able to deliver an equally satisfying payoff.

And yet, for all the care and thought that has obviously gone into this largely successful first issue, I can’t help but temper my enthusiasm. To call a project as ambitious as DKIII “safe” would be nonsensical. But if it’s not safe, it also doesn’t seem particularly daring either. The world of DKIII seems to be just about as rich and interesting as its predecessors, but is it as challenging? The answer, at least so far, is no. With only 1/8 of the story told, this is perhaps premature, but I fear that an unfortunate side effect of all the thoughtful calculations and polished precision is a sacrifice of the often shocking rawness that punctuated the first two books. The painting may be pleasing, but there are no cigarette butts to be found.

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Could DKIII be crafted with too much care and precision? The setting and tone are perfectly pitched between the first two volumes, capturing the street level grit of DKR and the awe inspiring scale of DK2.

The self-involved talking heads and mixed media messages are present, updated to include texting and camera phones. Topical social issues are invoked as a young unarmed black man is chased down by the police. But even as these Dark Knight hallmarks are dutifully checked off and accounted for, they appear more compulsory than vital. Where is the vigor? Where is the audacity?

Where is the danger?

I find it hard to imagine anything as subversive as Ronald Reagan’s role in DKR, or as brutal and mean-spirited as the aforementioned final scene in DK2 popping up. Sure, the media is lampooned, but in a way that’s far more generalized and subdued than Miller’s grotesque caricatures. Yeah, Batman roughs up some cops, but in a context that ensures the reader will be cheering him on. Miller wasn’t afraid to make you cringe at Batman’s methods in the past, even when he was taking on someone as cartoonishly villainous as Lex Luthor. Such elements are not necessary for a book to be successful or even sophisticated,  but they are certainly missed.

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In conclusion…

Describing someone’s work as solid, well-crafted, and professional would be high praise for a carpenter. For art, not as much. It is my belief that any art worth a damn should be able to be described as “spectacular,” even if the next word is “failure.” Book One of DKIII works, and even does some things very well, but still has a long way to go to live up to its predecessors. Luckily, one issue in, there still is a long way to go, and the groundwork laid here is interesting enough to have me looking forward to where the creative team takes us next. Book Two comes out at the end of the year. ‘Til then, I’m hoping this issue causes new and old readers alike to reread DK2 or pick it up for the first time. See ya next year!

 

 

 

 

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Mini-Review of Mini-Comic #1
Frank Miller has been predictably unpredictable for his entire career, so it comes as an unsurprising surprise that the interior art of the Atom mini-comic look so damn normal. This no doubt has much to do with Klaus Janson’s inks, and while the two have collaborated successfully in the past (Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns), the pairing here does not yield the best results. Note to the multiple reviewers who wrote this is the best Miller’s drawn in years: stop what you’re doing and look at art, any art, that’s not in a superhero comic. Miller’s experimentally sloppy style just doesn’t lend itself to Janson’s reliably tight inking anymore , resulting in a comic that looks less quirky and more like it’s simply badly drawn. Perhaps the intention was to create a clean and straightforward presentation to mirror Ray Palmer’s scientific mind and humble stature (both physically and in relation to his place in DC’s pantheon). In that case, I would argue Miller was simply the wrong artist for this particular story. Further, I fail to see the point of this scene taking place outside the main book, other than the simple novelty of the format. But I won’t dismiss the experiment outright at such an early stage, and look forward to ways this unique mini-comic presentation can enhance future issues.

 

 

More DKIII:

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