The following day, DC Comics released the much-anticipated first issue of its latest Batman installment, “Dark Knight III: The Master Race.” Half of the comic is dedicated to scenes of police brutality, depicting a potentially fatal course of events halted by the caped superhero’s interventions.
The occasion of the issue’s release heralded not only Batman’s reemergence in Gotham City, but also the return of original “Dark Knight Returns” writer and artist Frank Miller. Nearly 30 years after he first penned the iconic comic series, the 58-year-old is breathing new life into his most influential work.
A known provocateur, Miller has been described by turns as reactionary, overly conservative and radical. In a recent Vulture interview, he described himself as a libertarian who supports Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Miller’s politics have always been complicated, making his newest Batman’s explicit stance against police brutality a noteworthy change of pace.
The opening sequence of “Dark Knight III: The Master Race” is narrated through text messages between a young black man in a hoodie and his friend, presumably rehashing recent past events. The man, named “Squid,” is shown running from a police car with a cracked windshield and blood on its dashboard.
As Comic Book Resources points out, colorist Brad Anderson uses only “police reds and blues” in this scene to illustrate the closeness of the cop car.
Two police officers emerge from the car with their guns pointed at him. Aghast, Squid responds by showing them his open palms.
“Getting arrested,” reads a text bubble from Squid.
“4?” his friend asks.
“The man dont need no reason [sic],” Squid responds in a panel showing the barrel of a gun.
“I was waitin for the shot,” he continues in his recollection, “BANG last sound id ever hear. Instead i heard a snap and i turned to it.”
Enter the superhero of the hour, a dark caped figure who swoops in and immediately shatters one of the police car’s front windows. He starts beating the officers who had their guns aimed at Squid.
At first, it seems like this is game over. The artwork pans to TV pundits — comic doppelgangers of Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan, Jon Stewart, Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly — debating the morality of Batman’s actions. There’s talk about how the video footage of the confrontation went viral.
Then Miller moves to a different setting in the jungle with Wonder Woman, and the police encounter is briefly forgotten, only to be thrown back into sharp relief at the end.
The issue’s final scenes show Batman taking the place once occupied by Squid, except this time he’s far outnumbered as he runs from a parade of at least four police cars. His attempts to evade the officers seeking vengeance for their beaten colleagues are unsuccessful, as Batman runs between trucks and climbs a fire escape before committing himself to a brawl.
Completely surrounded, Batman falls to the ground after a police officer shoots the side of his head. A horizontal panel shows 10 cops approaching him with batons in the air.
The large sound effect lettering leaves little room for interpretation.
“WHACK. WHACK. WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK.” He is bludgeoned seemingly endlessly.
“Had enough?” one of the officers asks as the troupe encircles a fallen Batman lying face-down in his own blood.
This being a superhero comic, however, Batman emerges seriously injured but not defeated. With a sudden burst of energy, he punches the cop closest to him, causing them all to scatter.
(The final pane reveals a significant twist to Batman’s identity, but we’ll leave that out because it’s irrelevant to the police scene.)
What are readers to make of this refashioned Batman, who has extended his modus operandi beyond doing the tasks normally associated with official law enforcement and into combating potential criminal behavior on the part of police?
Batman “is, politically, a radical and a revolutionary out to overthrow a corrupt police state,” Miller told Vulture. “It’s a very patriotic and loyal-to-the-law kind of story, but the established authorities were doing the wrong thing, so it took an outlaw to bring justice.”
The disproportionate deaths of unarmed black men from police gunfire have been addressed by a Batman comic once before. In September’s Batman #44, “Dark Knight III” co-writer Bryan Azzarello opens with the image of a dead black boy in a hooded sweatshirt. The issue goes on to follow the story of a black 15-year-old who is shot in the stomach by a Gotham police officer.
Snyder, the issue’s lead writer, told the Guardian that news reports from Ferguson, Mo., and New York’s Staten Island, the respective sites of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, informed his vision of the narrative arc.
“If we were going to do an issue that dealt with potent problems that people face in cities that are reflected fictitiously in Gotham,” he said, “then we want to really put our money where our mouth was and explore something that’s extremely resonant right now, and, I think, tricky, murky waters.”
With their overt metaphors and symbolic characters, comics have a long history of steering their readers toward certain moral conclusions and inciting fury over perceived social injustices.
Most recently, Marvel’s Netflix series, “Jessica Jones,” has been praised for its nuanced handling of sexual assault. The comics giant also announced in September that the new Black Panther series will be written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is expected to bring his noted voice on race issues to the black superhero’s saga.
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