There’s a small update in DC Comics’ marketing language for The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, but it’s a change I wish I’d have caught before my phone call with Dark Knight Returns scribe Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson. Earlier this summer a poster was mailed to comic vendors and press that features a stark, black-and-white rendition of Batman. The poster’s sole text—aside from the book’s artist credits and release date—screams that this series is “THE EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS TRILOGY.” That very poster hangs in my local comic shop—also, my home office—but today I’m hard-pressed to find that same language in Dark Knight promos—that is, at least after the bomb Miller dropped among many recent interviews in support of DK III. When asked about the end of the Dark Knight “trilogy,” Miller said this: “Unless DC Comics has decided that I’m not entitled to do another one, there will be another one.”
Miller, of course, scripted his entry in the comics history book with provocative works like Sin City and 300, but his work in the high-profile superhero world started in the early-’80s with Daredevil, which also heavily featured Janson on inks and art. And while Daredevil molded Miller’s vision of a rougher, crime-battered world, it would be Miller, Janson and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns that rocketed the artists—as well as the comics medium as a whole—to national attention. The story, which dives behind the not-so-well-adjusted brain of an aging Bruce Wayne, landed on nearly every best-of superhero comic list that’s ever been, initially pissed off The New York Times, and has served as inspiration behind more Batman films and storylines than it’s possible to mention here. Its sequel, 2001’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, wasn’t as critically adored, but it has gained its own fans over time.
After speaking with Miller, here’s what we do know: He doesn’t have a whole lot to say about DK III; that he admires Azzarello’s vision of Batman, which is not a compliment he grants to many contemporary writers; that Calvin and Hobbes is a piece of comic perfection; and also, he can’t wait to get started on a fourth installment—but the details behind the new series are, according to a laughing Miller, none of our damn business.
Read our full interview with Janson and Miller below. The opening issue of Dark Knight III: The Master Race hits comic shops this Wednesday.
Can you tell me a little bit about the beginning stages of DK III?
Klaus Janson: For me, it was something that I had heard about a few years ago, just rumors to that effect. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the comic book grapevine, but rumors fly fast and furious. When I heard about it, I checked it out and it turned out to be true. To put it politely, I let DC know I was available and eager to participate.
Frank Miller: I heard about it from Brian [Azzarello]. He dropped by and told me what he was up to, and it sounded good to me.
What was Brian’s pitch?
Miller: The story was one that Brian and I worked out together. It wasn’t exactly something that needed to be pitched. DC Comics is not exactly allergic to the idea of repeating The Dark Knight.
But when you two first got together, what material was concrete? And what enticed you the most about approaching this again?
Janson: I’ve got to say, it was the opportunity to do work within the Dark Knight world and the opportunity to work with Frank and Brian and Andy. These people are enormously talented and I always want to be able to do my best work. And when you work with somebody as talented as these people are, you wind up stepping up your game and doing better work. That’s always a goal of mine: the ability to do good work, the ability to produce an entertaining product, that’s a primary focus of mine.
Miller: That’s our job.
Before looking toward a new installment, what stuck out to you most vividly about working on DK 1?
Miller: One of the funniest moments for me might’ve been [looking at] pages of mine that I’d actually cut apart with scissors and taped back together because I’d changed them so often. They actually collapsed in your hand.
Janson: I think what Frank’s referring to is in DK 1, where things were really flying by the seat of their pants. Frank would cut panels apart and pages apart and repaste them because he was so constantly working on editing and improving the work itself. The first time I got together with Frank in regards to this project, it was so much fun because all of us have such great memories working on Daredevil and The Dark Knight, we actually sat down and reminisced a bit. It’s nothing but good feelings, good memories about that time.
The original is essentially held to a comics gold standard now. Does that make it more difficult for both of you, the further you plot out?
Miller: Oh hell no. It makes it more fun. You always want obstacles. When Brian’s done with the third one, I’m going to top him.
Frank, I heard you and Brian did some play-acting while scripting dialogue for this. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Miller: Sure, I dressed up as Robin.
Janson: [Laughs]. He wasn’t supposed to say that.
But what was that like, pinging ideas between the two for this project in the DK world?
Miller: Oh, Brian’s a wonderful guy to bounce ideas with. He’s a terrific writer and he’s as much of a fan as I am. I loved it, it was fun.
Janson: I think all of us have had a lot of face-to-face time. That’s not the usual assembly line kind of approach that comics take. People live in different parts of the world, and you don’t get to spend time with anyone. There’s been a lot of personal investment in this project…Brian spent an enormous amount of time with Frank, and Frank can talk about that.
Miller: There’s nothing there that we can’t talk about all night. Brian had as much fun as I did. That experience was a blast.
I imagine there has to be a lot of trust there, in having another writer [on a DK title]. What qualities did you see in Brian that really impressed you?
Miller: He’s really an excellent writer in every way I can think of. He’s an excellent plotter, he writes very good dialogue. I think I assisted in helping Carrie Kelley’s dialogue and advising him on Batman’s character that are peculiar to my version of him, because he plays as a bit rougher.
With this being dubbed the conclusion of the trilogy, do you see this as your last piece with the character?
Miller: The conclusion? I’ll be the judge of that.
So you’re telling me—
Janson: There are some rumors that indicate that this may not be the conclusion.
Miller: Let me put it this way: unless DC comics has decided that I’m not entitled to do another one, there will be another one.
Wow. Can you share any ideas you have for that?
Miller: I’ll answer that fully. [Laughs]. It’s none of your damn business.
I only ask because I’m staring at a poster right now that says, “The epic conclusion to The Dark Knight Returns Trilogy.” There seemed to be some finality in announcing the project.
Miller: Would you please put a call into Paul at DC Comics? Tell him if he doesn’t want me to do another one, I won’t. And then will you please call [DC Comics co-publisher] Dan DiDio. Ask him if he really doesn’t want me to do another one, and [if he doesn’t] I won’t.
Janson: The odds of him saying that are…zero.
[Laughs]. I’ll make that call right after this. Above anything else, what quality makes your version of Batman a real character in your eyes?
Miller: There are three things: He has to be extremely intelligent. He has to be very, very, very angry, and he has to believe absolutely in justice.
Have you seen any recent storylines that capture that accurately?
Miller: I am so in love with the character that I can’t stand anyone else’s version other than my own or Brian’s.
With the original book inspiring so many plot points of Batman movies, receiving its own animated version, what qualities still belong exclusively to the comics form for both of you?
Miller: And nothing else?
Paste: Yes, what can you get only in comics?
Miller: Calvin and Hobbes. [Laughs]. I only pick that because Bill Watterson’s drawings are so beautiful and magical, it’s hard to imagine it being animated successfully. I retain that as a physical still, if Batman and Superman and Sin City can be adapted through animation or film—I still just want anything physical.
Janson: I think one of the things I really like about this medium is the interaction and the participation that’s required of the reader. You’re not even really a participant when you’re watching a film, but in comics there’s that space between panels that’s referred to as the gutter. The reader fills in that gap between panels at the very least. In terms of comics there’s much more interaction and participation of the reader.
Miller: A filmmaker controls how long you focus on something. Stanley Kubrick makes you stare at a couple of monkeys for 20 minutes, but the cartoonist has the job of essentially seducing the reader. Bill Watterson was perfect with this. His drawings are so beautiful, you want to linger on them, and it’s essential to look at his work. There are a number of ways a cartoonist can achieve this: the simplest way is drawing it so damn complicated and it takes you forever to figure it out. Another is to charm the reader’s eye. If you look at Jeff Smith’s Bone, your eye wants to stay on each picture because there’s so much delight in looking at it.